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HRDG 4030 - Category Rating - Introduction

Subchapter 4030
Category Rating


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Purpose of this Subchapter

This Human Resources Desk Guide (HRDG) Subchapter:

  • Provides Marketing and Regulatory Programs (MRP) operating guidelines and instructions for supervisors, managers, and HR practitioners to follow in implementing the MRP policy on category rating,
  • Provides examples of the primary category rating methods, and
  • Establishes the responsibilities of the MRP Human Resources Policy Branch and the MRP Servicing Personnel Office (SPO).

Ability - Competence to perform an observable behavior or a behavior that results in an observable product.

Applicant - A person who applies for a vacant position.

Assessment Tool - A device or method used to measure the degree to which an applicant possesses the competencies or knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) necessary for successful job performance. Examples of assessment tools include rating schedules, written tests, work samples, and structured interviews.

Candidate - An applicant who meets the minimum qualification requirements for a position.

Career Transition Assistance Plan (CTAP) - A program designed to assist surplus and displaced employees by providing selection priority for competitive service vacancies.

Category Rating - A ranking and selection procedure used to assess applicants for positions filled through the competitive examining process. Under category rating, applicants are evaluated based on job-related criteria and placed into predefined quality categories with individuals who possess similar levels of job related competencies (KSAs). Category rating is synonymous with alternative rating as described in 5 U.S.C. §3319.

Competency - A measurable pattern of KSAs, behaviors, and other characteristics that an individual needs to perform work roles or occupational functions successfully.

Competitive Examining - A process used to fill civil service positions with candidates who apply from outside the Federal workforce. It is also used to enable current Federal employees without civil service status to compete for a permanent appointment and to enable employees with civil service status to compete for other Federal positions.

Crediting Plan - A method by which a candidate's job-related competencies/KSAs are evaluated by reviewing the factual background of a candidate, to include positions held, levels of responsibility, accomplishments, and job-related education he/she has receive - d. Also called a “rating schedule.”

Education - Education is an indicator of proficiency that relates to course work completed by the candidate that is related to the competencies/KSAs needed to perform the job.

Erroneous Certification - An inadvertent misranking, noncertification, or failure to give bona fide consideration to an eligible in connection with a competitive certificate.

Excepted Service - A term used to describe all civil service positions that are not in either the competitive service or the Senior Executive Service. (See 5 CFR Part 213)

Experience - An indicator of proficiency that relates to the school, home, community, voluntary, or work experiences of the candidate that is related to the competencies/KSAs needed to perform the job.

Hiring Manager - The individual responsible for making a particular hiring decision, often the future employee's supervisor. May be the same as the “selecting official.”

Hiring Management - An online application system used to create vacancy announcements and to review, rank, and rate applicants. Formerly known as “QuickHire.”

HR Practitioner - An individual who provides employment consultation and advisory services in the areas of recruitment, assessment, and hiring. Also known as a “Human Resources Specialist.”

Interagency Career Transition Assistance Program (ICTAP) - The ICTAP refers to regulations which provide selection priority to displaced Federal employees when applying for jobs in other Federal agencies.

Job Analysis - A systematic method for gathering, documenting, and analyzing information about the content, context, and requirements of the job. It demonstrates that there is a clear relationship between the tasks performed on the job and the competencies/KSAs required to perform the tasks. Job analysis information is used to develop employee selection procedures, identify training needs, define performance standards, and other uses.

Job Announcement - A document that informs the public regarding a job vacancy. A job announcement describes the requirements of the job, and instructs applicants regarding how to apply for the vacancy. Job announcements must be posted on USAJOBS as a means of satisfying the public notice requirement.

Job-Relatedness - A standard met when the competencies/KSAs in the rating procedure are shown through an analysis of the job to be necessary for successful job performance.

Knowledge - A body of information applied directly to the performance of a function.

KSAs - An acronym for “Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities.” An applicant's qualifications for a position are often determined with reference to the KSAs that are relevant to successful performance in that position.

Luevano Consent Decree - A court decree entered on November 19, 1981 by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in the civil action known as Luevano v. OPM. The purpose of the decree is to eliminate adverse impact, if any, in the appointment of African Americans and Hispanics to a variety of positions at GS-05 and GS-07 formerly covered by the Professional and Administrative Career Examination (PACE).

Merit Promotion Procedures - A placement made under the authority of 5 CFR Part 335, “Promotion and Internal Placement.” With certain exceptions (e.g., VEOA), only career status employees may apply for positions that are to be filled under merit promotion procedures.

Minimum Qualifications - Qualifications that an applicant must possess, at a minimum, to be eligible for hire or promotion under the competitive system. Minimum qualifications are typically expressed in terms of job-related years of experience or education, i.e., course credit hours or a combination of the two. Applicants who do not meet the minimum qualification requirements for the position receive no further consideration.

Objection - A request to remove an eligible from consideration on a particular certificate.

Pass over Request - An objection filed against a preference eligible that if sustained, would result in the selection of a non-preference eligible.

Preference Eligible - A veteran, spouse, widow, or mother, who meets the definition of “preference eligible” in 5 U.S.C. § 2108.

Quality Categories - Groupings of candidates with similar levels of job-related competencies/KSAs. Quality levels are defined in terms of increasing levels of difficulty or complexity. Qualified candidates are assigned to quality categories based on the degree to which their competencies/KSAs meet the quality category descriptions.

Rule of Three - A traditional ranking and selection process that restricts hiring managers to the three most highly-ranked and available individuals from the list of qualified candidates when determining who to interview and hire. (Note: the rule of three does not apply to category rating.)

Selectee - A person selected for appointment to a position.

Selecting Official - A person with the authority to appoint, employ, or promote individuals to positions in an agency.

Selective Factor - A KSA, competency, or special qualification without which a candidate could not perform the duties of a position in a satisfactory manner. Selective factors are applied in addition to minimum qualifications. Applicants who do not meet a selective factor are ineligible for further consideration.

Skill - An observable competence to perform a learned psychomotor act.

Structured Interview - An assessment method in which a candidate's job-related competencies/KSAs are evaluated using standard questions that are scored systematically using predetermined criteria or benchmarks for all interviews for a particular job. The benchmarks provide behaviorally-specific examples of what constitutes high, medium, and low levels of proficiency. In each structured interview, the applicant is asked the same questions in the same sequence, and his/her responses are scored according to the predetermined criteria or benchmarks.

Subject Matter Expert (SME) - An individual within a department or agency who is thoroughly familiar with a given topic and can provide expert input as to the appealing aspects of a job and the skills and other qualities required of a job applicant.


On June 15, 2004, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) published final regulations implementing certain human resources flexibilities contained in the Homeland Security Act of 2002. One of the flexibilities allows Federal agencies to use a category rating method as an optional alternative ranking and selection procedure. Section 1312 of the Homeland Security Act states that “OPM in exercising its authority under Section 3304, or an agency with delegated examining authority under Section 1104(a) (2), may establish a category rating system for evaluating candidates for positions in the competitive service based on merit and consistent with regulations prescribed by OPM, rather than assigning individual numerical ratings.”

On May 11, 2010, The White House issued a Presidential Memorandum entitled Improving the Federal Recruitment and Hiring Process. The Presidential Memorandum directs Federal agencies to use the category rating approach rather than the “rule of three” approach no later than November 1, 2010.

Related Regulations/

This Subchapter supplements the following regulations and guidelines:

  • Public Law 107-296 (Homeland Security Act of 2002);
  • Title 5, United States Code, Part 3317;
  • Title 5, United States Code, Part 3319;
  • Title 5, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 337, Subpart C;
  • Federal Register (FR), Vol. 69, No. 114, pages 33271 to 33277, dated June 15, 2004;
  • FR, Vol. 68, No. 114, pages 35265 to 35270, dated June 13, 2003;
  • Delegated Examining Operations Handbook, Chapter 5;
  • Delegated Examining Operations Handbook, Chapter 6;
  • Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures;
  • USDA Departmental Regulation 4030-337-2, Category Rating;
  • MRP Directive 4030.1, Category Rating and Selection Policy; and
  • Presidential Memorandum, Improving the Federal Recruitment and Hiring Process, dated May 11, 2010.

What is the scope of this Subchapter?

  • This Subchapter applies to MRP recruitment actions processed under delegated examining procedures.
  • This Subchapter does not apply to MRP recruitment actions processed under merit promotion procedures or excepted service procedures.
Quality Categories

What quality categories will be used in MRP?

MRP will use three quality categories to assess applicants under the category rating method:

  • Best Qualified,
  • Well Qualified, and
  • Qualified.

Each category will be defined through a job analysis process that uses the level of job competencies/KSAs required for the job as a basis for each definition. The job analysis must be consistent with the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures.

Quality categories will be predetermined and defined by the hiring manager, in consultation with the HR practitioner, before preparing the job announcement.

Note: You may not establish a "not qualified" category in category rating. Only qualified candidates will be placed in a category.

Exception: When using OPM's Standing Registers, MRP must follow OPM's established quality categories for each register.

Summary of Category Rating

What's the difference between category rating and the “rule of three?”*

  • Unlike traditional “rule of three” ranking and selection procedures, candidates assessed through category rating procedures are not ranked by individual numeric score. Rather, candidates are evaluated based on job-related criteria and placed into predefined quality categories with individuals who possess similar levels of job related competencies/KSAs.
  • Under category rating procedures, hiring managers are no longer required to select from the top three available candidates. Instead, hiring managers may select any of the candidates in the highest quality category as long as a veterans' preference eligible in that category is not passed over for a non-preference eligible.

* For additional comparisons between category rating and the “rule of three,” see Appendix A - Summary Chart: Category Rating Compared to Traditional “Rule of Three” Method.

What are the benefits of category rating to the hiring manager?

  • Provides additional hiring flexibility and efficiency.
  • Gives hiring managers the potential to select from a wider pool of candidates than previously allowed under the “rule of three.”
  • Does not limit hiring managers to considering candidates in any particular order (i.e., they are not bound by the “rule of three”).
  • Substantially equal candidates are treated as such. This means that candidates with similar competencies/KSAs are more likely to get referred to the hiring manager for employment consideration, regardless of minor differences in examination ratings or numeric scores.

Example: Traditional “Rule of Three” Method vs. Category Rating

The following example illustrates the increased flexibility of the category rating method over the traditional “rule of three” method.

Traditional “Rule of Three” Method
In this example, the hiring manager and HR practitioner have decided to advertise for a Wildlife Biologist, GS-0486-09 position using the occupation specific question libraries through the Hiring Manager system. The chart below shows what the Certificate of Eligibles looks like under the traditional “rule of three” method:

“Rule of Three” Method

Wildlife Biologist, GS-0486-09

Certificate of Eligibles




Karl Meadows (NV) 98.61
Steve Truman (NV) 97.52
Melvin Cooper (NV) 96.43
Alicia Summers (NV) 96.33

NV = Non-Veteran

Consistent with the “rule of three” procedures, all of the qualified candidates are referred in score order (augmented by veterans' preference, where applicable). After conducting structured interviews and reference checks, it is determined that Alicia Summers is the best qualified candidate for the job. Unfortunately, Alicia is not among the top three candidates. Therefore, even though Alicia trails the third candidate by just one tenth of a point, she is effectively “out of reach.” The hiring manager cannot select her unless another candidate declines or an objection is pursued and sustained. (Note: The objection process is described within Chapter 6 of OPM's Delegated Examining Operations Handbook.

Category Rating Method

Now let's see what the certificate of eligibles would look like if the same position was filled under category rating procedures:

Category Rating Method

Wildlife Biologist, GS-0486-09

Certificate of Eligibles

Best Qualified Category:


Melvin Cooper (NV)
Karl Meadows (NV)
Alicia Summers (NV)
Steve Truman (NV)

NV = Non-Veteran

Consistent with category rating procedures, all of the qualified candidates are listed in alphabetical order. The Best Qualified category consists of qualified candidates who received scores between 95 and 100. Since Alicia is in the Best Qualified category and there are not any veterans' preference eligibles in this category, the hiring manager can immediately extend a job offer to Alicia.

As you can see, in this example it was in the hiring manager's best interest to fill this position under category rating procedures. Because category rating does not limit job consideration to the top three candidates, the hiring manager was able to select the best qualified candidate, even though she was “out of reach” under the “rule of three” method.

How does category rating work?

As in traditional rating and ranking, criteria for evaluating candidates are identified through the job analysis process. Critical tasks or major duties are identified for the position. Subject matter experts and/or hiring managers, in consultation with the SPO, establish job-related task examples for use in evaluating applicants. Task examples include questions regarding applicants' experience, education, and/or other job-related criteria that demonstrate the competencies/KSAs for the critical tasks of the job. (For additional information on OPM's Job Analysis Methodology, see Appendix G of the OPM Delegated Examining Operations Handbook. The task examples are then translated into questions and responses that are: 1) used by an automated system to evaluate applicants; or 2) used to define category level definitions through manual rating procedures.


The Human Resources Policy Branch will:

  • Establish category rating policy that identifies MRP requirements for implementing category rating,
  • Provide interpretation of policies and regulations pertaining to category rating,
  • Advise and guide the SPO on statutory and regulatory requirements,
  • Serve as liaison with USDA, Office of Human Resources Management (OHRM), and
  • Submit the Agency report (prepared by the SPO) to OHRM on the use of MRP category rating and selection procedures when required.

The Servicing Personnel Office (SPO) will:

  • Provide technical advice, guidance and training to hiring managers who use category rating,
  • Collaborate with the hiring manager to define each quality category through job analysis conducted in accordance with the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures,
  • Consult with the hiring manager to decide if and when to merge quality categories, and
  • Submit an Agency report to the Human Resources Policy Branch on the use of MRP category rating and selection procedures when required.

Managers and Supervisors will:

  • Work with the SPO to complete a job analysis, and
  • Consult with the SPO to decide if and when to merge quality categories.

Training options include, but are not limited to:

  • HR practitioners will provide specific procedural information and training to managers/supervisors,
  • The Fundamentals of APHIS Human Resources Management (FAHRM) blended learning course will include information on category rating for hiring managers.

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