Navigating the Federal Job Application

Posted by Cara Scharf on May 3, 2011
Navigating the Federal Job Application
Applying to most jobs requires you to shoot out a resume and cover letter to a specified address, with some prep time added to tailor the materials to the position. But to join the hundreds of thousands of people vying for a job with the federal government, the process gets a bit more complicated.

The government application process typically begins on the federal government’s aggregate job site, For those interested in government employment, this informative yet often overwhelming site is unavoidable. Along with a huge cache of job postings, it features a notoriously lengthy online application, a guide to searching the postings, and application resources that include a glossary of terms that, yes, you will need to reference.

To help cut down the time spent applying—and your frustration—we’ve scoured, reviewed some applications, talked to government insiders, and used what we learned to compile the following tips. 

1. Know What You Want Before Visiting

With thousands of jobs available (31,867 were posted the day we visited), honing in on the one you want to apply for is a job in itself. You can search by keyword, agency, location, and occupation, but if you have a specific goal in mind your visit will be more focused and efficient. Start at the site’s Info Center section, where you’ll find a career exploration tool with a survey to help match your interests with occupations. Visiting individual agency websites is also wise. You’ll get a sense of each agency’s openings and internship/entry-level programs, see typical job titles, and learn if the agency actually uses USAjobs. (Some, such as the CIA, don’t.) 

2. Study (and Understand) the Job Requirements

You’ll be screened by how well you fit the job requirements, but it’s often difficult to tell whether you do. Most listings say you need specialized experience, a certain education level, or both, and many will refer to a GS, or grade and series. The grade indicates the salary and level of competency required, while the series denotes the job function (e.g., GS-5 positions generally require a bachelor’s degree). If it’s still unclear, use the Info Center or get in touch with the contact provided for the job. Listings also include KSAs—knowledge, skills, and abilities—required for the job, which are rather straightforward, and it can be helpful to repeat these keywords in your application. Print the job application for reference, and pay attention to the “How to Apply” section because some jobs require you send in transcripts or other materials.

3. Go Beyond the One-page Resume and Cover Letter

Resumes and cover letters are often pared down to one page. But most federal applications don’t ask for a standard resume or cover letter; instead, they pose specific questions to make sure you’ve got the right KSAs for a position. You can and should answer with as much detail as possible, and draw on every relevant experience. “Many entry-level job seekers feel they don’t have enough work experience to speak about,” says Tim McManus, VP of Education and Outreach for the Partnership for Public Service. “But it’s not just how your employment relates, it’s also how your life experiences relate.” So when an application says, “Please provide specific examples of your experience in supporting telephone service requests,” you could describe that summer you spent answering phones for your father’s medical office. 

4. Work With the Form

There’s no way around the online form, so alleviate headaches by being prepared. Have a plain-text version of your resume that you can easily copy from and paste into the online fields. Do the same thing with open-ended questions: Answer in Microsoft Word and then copy and paste. Working in Word makes the process more familiar and can help your ideas flow. Also, never leave questions blank. When you’re competing with a huge pool of candidates, missing information can put you at a disadvantage. Plus, the online form does let you save and go back, so don’t feel pressured to do everything in one sitting. 

5. Be Patient and Persistent

Like many other job searches, the reality of a federal job search is that it may feel like you’re shooting your application into a black hole. Government hiring is notorious for taking a long time, so make sure you’re not relying on the one or two positions to which you applied. If you don’t hear back after a while, move on. “We sometimes receive 10,000 to 15,000 resumes a month,” says John Guyant, Deputy Chief of Retention and Recruitment at the CIA. “We can’t respond personally to each one, and we advise that if you don’t hear from us within a reasonable time period, there isn’t interest.” Still, if you’re really gunning to work for Uncle Sam, keep at it and make valuable connections for a leg up.

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