By Frieda Wiley
When I applied for my first government job more than 20 years ago, I didn’t just sprinkle my resume with keywords. I littered my resume with them, thinking I’d score an interview. As I snail-mailed my FBI internship application, I felt confident and naively optimistic. Not only did I hear crickets, but I didn’t receive even as much as a rejection letter. I was crushed.
Fast forward to 2020, I applied to some federal jobs for the first time in several years, with help from Alex Harrington, a certified career coach and lead director for Federal Career Connection. Even with his help, I realized that there is an art to applying for a federal job, especially when it comes to preparation.
First, what I mean by art, you have to realize that when applying for a federal job, it’s a completely different animal than submitting job applications in the private sector. For this reason alone, completing a federal job application requires a different strategy. This may sound like a no-brainer, but the first step to getting an interview for a government job is understanding that the application process is not the same.
Second, applying to federal jobs can be a painful process. As a serial applicant for more than two decades now, I have had my firsthand experience here. Having done it for so long, I have seen the system evolve. Today’s federal job search process is much less complicated and time-consuming than it was when I was in high school. However, there are still a few techniques to consider:
- Read the application announcement in its entirety and modify your resume to align with the core competencies. Understanding the job requirements, known as core competencies, will help you figure out whether it’s worth your time to apply. The job announcement also has very important information that will help you tailor your resume and application.
- Tell your STAR stories. If you are seeking to land your first government job after having worked in private industry, one way to grab the hiring manager’s attention is to give them the Cliff’s Notes of your career highlights. What were some stellar moments in your career that made you stand out? Try to quantify your achievements with numbers if you can.
- Use a cover letter. After tailoring your STAR stories to your respective job series, use them to craft your cover letter. For example, as a scientific and technical communicator, I was applying for jobs in the 1001 series (Arts and Information Support). Since most applicants do not use a cover letter, this trick will help you stand out.
- Not all resumes are created equal. When done correctly, resumes for federal government jobs will look drastically different from those designed for private sector roles—as they should. Federal resumes should contain the job control number in the file name and document header, as well as the number of hours worked each and the final salary for each position held. The document should also include the names and contact information of supervisors for each role. The private sector process typically requires this information only after you complete a promising interview or receive a job offer.
- Successful federal job applications follow a formula. Look for resources that break down the system of applying for federal jobs. The books listed at the end of this blog can help you get started. Some successful applicants have posted YouTube videos where they share their secrets, too.
- Consider working with a career coach who specializes in government jobs. Applying for government jobs is NOT easy, straightforward, or intuitive. There are so many nuances that are virtually impossible to figure out by simply reading the job posting. Arming myself with a good federal career coach helped me to make major headway. Mr. Harrington was a great coach and mentor, but his style may not suit everyone. As a Marine vet, his approach is a “don’t give me excuses” type of style. He is tough and demanding. He works hard to help you, and he expects you to reciprocate—no tears or self-pity allowed. Regardless of the coach you choose, you have to be willing to do the work, follow instructions, and accept constructive criticism with grace.
I’m still waiting for that fateful call back. Yet, the lessons I’ve learned by working with Mr. Harrington will undoubtedly help me with future federal applications whether or not my phone rings.
For additional resources on applying for federal jobs, Harrington recommends the following books:
- What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles (2020 Edition)
- How to Manage Your Government Career by Stuart Liff
- How to Land a Top-Paying Government Job by Lily Whiteman
- The Idiots Guide to How to Land a Government Job by John Lauderdale, III (Disclaimer: explicitly geared towards new graduates)
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To get updates on upcoming workshops and career coaching sessions, visit https://federalcareerconnection.com.
About the Author: Frieda Wiley, PharmD is a licensed pharmacist with a combined total of 10 years of experience in patient education and medical and scientific communications. Learn more about Frieda at https://friedawiley.com/.