BUILDING A COMPETITIVE GOVERNMENT RÉSUMÉ

By Alex Harrington, Executive Director

When it comes to the federal job search, the #1 top concern for all applicants is–you guessed it–the résumé!

And why shouldn’t it be? 

A job seeker’s résumé means the world to them. It highlights their top accomplishments and awards; containing their most precious job titles, degrees, and certificates. For some, the résumé is a canvas for their entire life’s anthology. Once finished, they hold it close to their chest, like a mama bird wrapping her wings around her chicks, or just as precious as Gollum’s ring. Alas, they wonder in despair why they’ve not received a quick response with regard to their most valuable/esteemed job search instrument.

I know, a bit melodramatic, but true for some—if not many. 

A job seeker’s résumé is everything to them, but it is also nothing if it doesn’t serve its primary purpose—LANDING A JOB INTERVIEW.

My Unwritten Treatise On The Federal Resume

During my time as a government employee (civilian and military), I’ve managed talent recruitment from time to time, reviewing hundreds of résumés and interviewing many candidates. The one thing I often notice when assessing a job candidate is that, during the interview, their responses don’t align with what’s on their resume. It’s almost like they either had someone write it for them or they just copied from other examples. They seem to have forgotten the basic purpose of a résumé: 

A simplistic approach, but it works. However, it only works if you have an introspective understanding of what you bring to the table in terms of your soft skills (i.e., critical thinking) and technical skills (i.e., teaching).

Before you continue reading this blog, just know that I do not often write about federal résumés. Why? There’s already tons of information out there on the digital information highway on federal résumés, so I don’t want to add another straw on the hay bale, so to speak. Nonetheless, I’ll give some advice from a hiring manager/career coach perspective for those of you who are looking for any new bits of advice to enhance your individual marketability. And I will provide plenty of links below for further reading. Just  like our name says, “Federal Career Connection, Inc.” we are here to connect you to as much helpful information as possible so that you can raise your federal career search up a few notches.

Advice From A Hiring Manager & Career Coach

On May 11, 2010, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum to overhaul the way Agencies recruited and hired the civilian workforce. As a result, Agencies were directed to not only eliminate the essay-style questions requirement in a job seeker’s initial application, but also allow them to submit résumés and cover letters, instead of the old Optional Application for Federal Employment (OF 612). This was a game changer for those job seekers applying for federal jobs. 

Format Of A Federal Résumé

person holding black ipad with black case
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Today, the new Hiring Reform allows you to use any type of résumé during the application process, such as chronological, functional or combination. Having stated that, I’d still recommend using the chronological résumé if you plan to transition into the same or similar career from the private sector. The advantages of using a chronological résumé are:

  • Contains a logical flow of text;
  • Easy to read;
  • Highlights a steady work record; and
  • Showcases growth in responsibilities.

Also keep in mind the chronological résumé is easy to prepare and familiar to most federal hiring officials. On the other hand, the disadvantages of a chronological résumé are: a) emphasizes gaps in employment, and b) doesn’t quite work well for job seekers with little or no previous work experience.

Two Types of Federal Résumé Formats

Once you selected and composed your preferred résumé format, then create the following two formats of the document:

Formatted Federal Résumé. The formatted résumé allows you to be creative by incorporating different fonts, bold type, bullets, etc. And most hiring officials, if not all, prefer the formatted résumé because it allows them to quickly scan it. As for me, I am a BIG fan of a formatted résumé. Also, the formatted résumé allows you to highlight your summary of qualifications and significant accomplishments. In short, a formatted résumé is more pleasing to the human eye! You can check out formatted résumé examples in “The Federal Resume Guide” by the National Archives and Records Administration and at U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Scannable Federal Résumé. An electronic résumé (also referred to as a scannable résumé) is still the same résumé as your formatted one, but it’s converted to plain text so that it is easy for you to copy and paste into a website or email. The scannable federal résumé is more restrictive than a formatted résumé. In fact, on some federal government websites they allow only 8,000 characters, thus reducing the number of pages. Just remember: an electronic résumé is written in only 11 or 12 point, Times New Roman or Courier font, and the text is flushed to the left. Basically, this type of résumé is very plain to the human eye. However, it is perfect for optical character readers (OCR). A good example of a scannable résumé can be found at Cal Poly Pomona Career Center.

Proper Length Of A Federal Résumé

Unlike private sector résumés that are 1-2 pages, a federal résumé can be 2-5 pages, and even longer for Senior Executive Service applicants (at least six pages). The reason why the federal résumé is longer than the private sector one is because you have to prove that you’re qualified for a job on paper. This entails providing detailed information describing your knowledge, skills, and abilities. You cannot just imply that you supervise. You have to provide details such as: “lead a team of 10 staff members; monitor their work; assign workload, etc.”

How Far To Go Back In Your Work History

I would recommend that you highlight 10 to 15 years of work experience in your federal résumé. Most federal hiring officials want to know your most recent experiences and accomplishments—basically, “What have you done today?”

When I review résumés, I tend to look for 80% of the position’s critical competencies within the first three recent years of a candidate’s résumé.

Now, some of you may push back a bit and say, “I have more than 20 years of great experience!” 

Again, it’s not advisable to include more than 15 years of experience in your federal government résumé. Instead, you may want to highlight some of your stellar experiences in either a cover letter or translate them into core competencies and then incorporate them into your summary of qualifications at the beginning of the résumé. In short, bring the “Top Stuff” up to the front of your résumé, instead of burying it below.

Be Mindful Of Government Industry Terms

The federal government has their own industry language and acronyms. In fact, each Department, such as Homeland Security and Defense, have their own unique lexicon. Therefore, it is important to adapt your résumé to fit the position’s language and key terms.

What you must also remember when writing your federal résumé is that the government is about budgets and spending money wisely, while the private sector is focused on making profits. So, be sure to use terms that are associated with budgets, accounting, and performance management.

The Spiciest Part Of The Federal Résumé: Summary Of Qualifications

When I’m about to review more than 100 résumés for one position, I am definitely not thinking of curling up with each one in front of a fireplace, sipping  a glass of Chianti, and reading it like a Tom Clancy novel. That would be a very big “NOT!”

I’m going to be honest here: I only take ‘5-10 seconds reviewing the résumé’s front page. And if it doesn’t convey any semblance of the position’s core functions, well …you’ve lost me. 

The lesson here: If your résumé doesn’t catch the hiring official’s attention in ten seconds or less, they may go on to the next one. So, the best way to catch their eyes is to spice up your résumé with a well-crafted ‘Summary of Qualifications’, or a similar heading like ‘Career Highlights’ or ‘Professional Achievements’. You can also use the job title that you’re targeting. Apart from the title, this is the area where you really define and highlight your professional brand and who you are as an employee. If you catch them here, they will most likely continue to read your entire federal government résumé–maybe even like a Tom Clancy novel.

As a matter of fact, Nicholas Lore, author of The Pathfinder writes that the summary of qualifications takes the “reader’s attention on the most important qualities, achievements and abilities you have to offer. Those qualities should be the most compelling demonstrations of why they should hire you instead of the other candidates. It gives you a brief opportunity to telegraph a few of your most sterling qualities. It is your one and only chance to attract and hold their attention, to  communicate what is most important, and to entice the employer to keep reading.” 

What To Include In The Summary Of Qualifications?

Before you start crafting out a summary, go back to the vacancy announcement and review the position duties section again and ask yourself:

  • “What type of job candidate are they looking for?”
  • “If I was the hiring manager, what would they like to see in me?”

Also, look for the qualities that the selection official will care about most. Then, after you have identified the core competencies of the position, assemble your best experiences and skills highlighting those qualities they seek.

The Golden Nuggets Of Your Federal Résumé: Significant Accomplishments

photo of man holding tassel
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

Significant accomplishments are definitely the golden nuggets in your résumé. When a hiring official is reading your résumé, your significant accomplishments should stand out and grab them, because they are results-related activities that go beyond your general job description. They can be quantified with dollar figures, percentages, or time periods. Other examples are upward progression in your chosen career, work-related awards, academic scholarships, and industry-specific certifications or licensure (e.g., CPA, APR, etc.).

Lore suggests that after writing the most special highlights in your summary, you then “tell the rest of the best of your story. Let them know what results you produced, what happened as a result of your efforts, what you are especially gifted or experienced at doing. Flesh out the most important highlights in your summary.”

The lesson here: Your accomplishments give evidence to your Summary of Qualifications. They stand apart from your regular job duties. So don’t get them confused with your regular duties outlined in your résumé.

What Is Not An Accomplishment?

As I indicated above, a significant accomplishment is not a regular job duty. If you’re using your standard job duties and responsibilities as significant accomplishments, then this is a grave mistake that consequently equates to a résumé killer. Significant accomplishments are not completing work you are expected to do (i.e., daily tasks, attending meetings, etc.), and being prompt and congenial. In short, if any activity that cannot be quantified by dollar figures, percentages, awards, etc., then it’s not a significant accomplishment.

Mining Those Marketing Gems

You may or may not have any trouble mining your significant accomplishments from the past. If you are having trouble, just think:

  • “What have you done to improve the efficiency of a business process in your last or current job?”

In today’s work environment we are expected to do more in less time, with fewer resources, and with less help. This challenge alone demands that we be more creative and innovative—thinking outside the box about a solution that not only helps you, but also benefits the organization.

Other Things To Consider When Writing Your Federal Government Résumé

Spell “résumé” correctly. Make sure that you use the diacritical mark, the acute accent on both of the letters “é”, because that little guy can be the deciding factor for the selection official. So, make sure that the word résumé is spelled correctly: résumé.

Use Wikipedia to identify key industry terms. Wikipedia is a very good source to learn about key words of various job descriptions. There are a lot of people who use Wikipedia to scour layman terms that a government document does not provide.

Never begin each bullet with “…ing”. Do not begin your sentences in your experience section with verbs ending with “…ing” (i.e., planning, writing, analyzing, etc.). Hit them hard with either the present tense or past—e.g., plans or planned, respectively.

Active verbs and key phrases that contain keywords from the federal job announcement. Make sure that you incorporate key terms from the vacancy’s job duties section into your résumé. You need to make sure that the reviewer can easily identify that your résumé is targeted to the position’s requirements.

Government is all about following laws, rules, and procedures. The hiring reform has streamlined much of the hiring process, but it will always be about laws, rules, and procedures. With this in mind, make sure you explicitly follow the directions under “How to apply.”

What sets you apart is a tailored résumé to the job. It is imperative that you tailor your résumé to the federal job that you’re targeting. If you’re applying for one job series (e.g., 1035: public affairs specialist), then you will need to write one résumé. If, however, you’re targeting two job series (e.g., 1035: public affairs specialist and 1082: writer), then you will need to write two résumés. And each résumé should address each job series’ core competencies.

man in white suit jacket sitting having an interview
Photo by Edmond Dantès on Pexels.com

Purpose of the résumé is to get you the interview, not the job. Your résumé is just a marketing tool that is intended to get you the interview. Don’t fall into the mindset that your résumé is going to get you the job. It is the interview that will get you the job, and the résumé is just a tool to help you achieve your final outcome.

Indicate in your résumé what you can do for the employer; do not give an account of your anthology. Many job seekers fall into the habit of putting everything on their résumé that has no relevance toward the targeted job. When writing your résumé, make sure that you are writing for the hiring official, not for you. Yes, I know you have done some great stuff in the past, but only include relevant information that equates to the core competencies that the hiring official is looking for.

Describe your achievements and skills in a way that indicates they are readily applicable to other types of jobs and other fields. A good friend of mine recommends the 80% rule. What this means is that if you can safely say that you can do just about 80% or more of the position’s requirements, then apply for it. Hiring officials are looking for job candidates who have the right skills, experiences and knowledge for the job.

There is no “I” in “Team.” Do not overstate your achievements by claiming to have accomplished certain things single-handedly, when it’s clear that your achievement had to be part of a team effort.

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Online Federal résumé resources.

Here’s a couple resources from two not-for-profit groups.

The following are good resources from Indeed.com and FEDweek.

One of my favorite federal career coaches, Lily Whiteman, penned the following blogs on Career Matters, Federal Times.

The above online resources pack a lot of great information to help demystify the federal résumé writing process. You can also check out some of our blogs that contain helpful resources on Federal résumés:


Please follow us on Twitter @FedCareer and join our Federal Career Connection page on LinkedIn or find us on Meetup at meetup.com/mbc-cnm.To get updates on upcoming workshops and career coaching sessions, visit https://federalcareerconnection.org/events/

Alex Harrington, GCDF, CCSP
Alex Harrington, GCDF, CCSP

Is a Nonprofit Entrepreneur ● Community Leader ● Author & Blogger ● Certified Career Services Provider and Global Career Development Facilitator. Alex also served in the U.S. Marine Corps and is a Persian Gulf War veteran.

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Federal Career Connection

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A free resource for Americans who want to serve in the federal government, while helping the government recruit individuals who possess high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest.

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