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15 Tips for Acing Federal Job Applications

Published: 15 July 2010
created by Lily Whitman, senior science writer at the National Science Foundation

1. THINK LIKE A HIRING MANAGER: Most job applications (in the private sector as well as in the public sector) are skimmed fast by harried hiring managers—not read word-for-word, as if they were suspenseful John Grisham novels. So instead of aiming for a specific application length, craft your application for a fast, easy read by describing your most impressive, relevant credentials as concisely as possible, and by positioning your most relevant credentials as close to the beginning of your application as possible.

In your resume, format the names of your employers, your job titles, and degrees to stand out even to skimmers. Confine your description of each of your previous jobs to quick-read, achievement-oriented bullets. And break up your answers to essay questions by writing in short paragraphs and by using bullets and headings.

2. CONVEY ZEST: Most applicants believe that applications for federal jobs should read as dryly and bureaucratically as the tax code. Wrong!  A job application that exudes life will wake up hiring managers, stand out from the pack, and help prove that you are an energetic go-getter who requires minimal supervision. (Look ma, no cattle prodder!) So mention in your application and interview why you are passionate about your field and/or target job.

3. PROVE THAT YOU’RE A PROBLEM-SOLVER: Brandish your problem-solving mettle by citing specific examples of your academic and work achievements in your job applications and interviews: your projects, papers, presentations, contributions to campus organizations, and leadership positions.  In particular, emphasize the academic and professional activities that demonstrate your ability to solve the substantive issues addressed by your target job.

Crown your achievements with descriptions of the positive feedback you received, such as high grades, grade point average, honors, individual and team awards, promotions, assignments to special teams, and special requests made by professors or employers for your services.  Also cite written and oral praise from professors, trainees, supervisors, managers, colleagues, clients, and customers.

4. ANSWER EVERY QUESTION:  In most cases, an application for a federal job that fails to answer all questions will be rejected. So be sure to answer every question on each application—including every essay question (commonly known as KSAs).

5. ACE ESSAY QUESTIONS:  Answer essay questions with a bulleted list of your relevant academic and professional credentials and/or descriptions of your success stories that parallel the demands of your target job.  An effective success story:

  • identifies your goal,
  • the actions you took to achieve your goal,
  • your results and why they were important, and
  • the positive feedback you earned by achieving your results.

6. USE QUALITY CONTROLS: Most job applications are tarnished by typos, grammatical errors, and other careless errors. Error-free applications stand out from the pack.  So don’t keyboard your application directly into an online application system that probably doesn’t  have a spell-checker. Instead, create save, spell-check, and print your application in a word processing file. Then, review and edit it several times. Finally, solicit feedback on your application from friends or colleagues. Once your application is error-free, cut and paste it into the online application.

7. PASS THE 30-SECOND TEST:  Show your application to a friend or colleague and ask him/her to identify your best credentials in 30 seconds or less. If he or she can’t do so, reformat and phrase your best credentials to stand out more.

8. MAKE DEADLINES: The window of opportunity for submitting most online applications slams shut at midnight Eastern Standard Time of the job’s closing date. This means that to be considered, each of your applications must be received—not just started—by midnight of its closing date.

9. SAVE COPIES:  Save a copy of each of your job applications so that you will be able to recycle appropriate sections into applications for similar jobs. Also, note that announcements for openings are usually pulled from the Internet on their closing dates.  So save all job announcements that you answer so that you will: 1) have the contact information of the agency contact person for the opening; and 2) be able to review the descriptions of your target jobs before your interviews.

10. FIX PROBLEM APPLICATIONS:  What should you do if, after you click the “submit” button on an online application, you realize that your application contains a mistake or omits important information? (Oh, that sinking feeling!)  Here’s the fix: Submit another application for the job before it closes. In most cases, your latest submission will override a previously submitted application as long as your target job is still open.

11. DO THE READING:  Hiring managers look for applicants who show “fire in the belly” and are knowledgeable about their agencies--not applicants who act like “if it’s Tuesday, it must be the Transportation Department.” So before each interview, learn about your target agency by reviewing its web site (particularly its latest press releases), and by reading news articles about it.  Incorporate your knowledge of your target agency into your answers to interview questions.

12. PREDICT LIKELY QUESTIONS:  Federal hiring managers rely heavily on common interview questions. Therefore, you can identify likely interview questions by “Googling” for lists of common interview questions.  Also, ask your trusted advisers to help you anticipate likely questions.  Build your answers to these likely questions around specific examples of your successes.

13. PRACTICE FOR INTERVIEWS:  Just like politicians prepare and practice their answers to likely debate questions before their day of reckoning, you should prepare and practice your answers to likely interview questions before your day of reckoning.  (Remember: if you wing your interviews without preparing for them, you will set yourself up to crash and burn.)  Then, role-play your interview with as many of your trusted advisers as possible, and encourage them to give you honest feedback. 

14. SAY THANKS: Immediately after you get home from your interview—before you change out of your uncomfortable interview outfit—write a thank-you letter to your interviewer. Your letter should confirm your interest in the position, cite several ways that you would contribute to the organization, and mention several impressive characteristics of the position/organization that were covered in the interview. Repeatedly proofread your letter, and then send it overnight delivery. (Yes, a thank-you letter that arrives right away will score higher than one that arrives even one day later.)

15. NEGOTIATE SALARIES: Don’t buy into the myth that federal salaries are non-negotiable. One of the best kept federal jobs secrets is that salaries and other benefits—such as access to student loan repayment programs that are worth up to $60,000—are frequently negotiable. So whenever you receive an offer, ask: “Is this offer negotiable?” And justify why your stellar credentials warrant a salary that is higher than was originally offered by your target organization.

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Last Updated: Sunday, August 25, 2013