The following is a guest post by Lily Whiteman, federal career coach and author of How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job: Your Complete Guide to Opportunities, Internships, Resumes and Cover Letters, Networking, Interviews, Salaries, Promotions and More!, which has recently been updated with a second edition.
Here is the best advice I can offer to help people get the federal job they want. This advice is based on interviews I’ve done with hundreds of federal hiring managers about their hiring decisions, the experiences of thousands of professionals at all career levels who have followed my job-hunting advice and my own experience climbing the federal career ladder for more than 15 years:
- NEGOTIATE YOUR SALARY OFFER: The four most valuable words in the English language just may be: Is this offer 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. Many of my clients have raised their salary offers by many thousands of dollars simply by strategically and politely asking for higher offers. Remember: By negotiating your federal salary, you may increase your total earnings over the course of your career by many tens of thousands of dollars, or even by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- KNOCK ON THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’S FRONT DOOR AND BACK DOOR: Most job seekers look for federal openings only on USAJobs, the federal government’s jobs website. But there are plenty of other ways to find federal openings. For example, temp agencies frequently place employees on contract jobs in federal agencies that may segue into permanent jobs. Such agencies include Adecco PRofessional Solutions, AmeriTemps, Snelling Personnel Services, Hire Standard Staffing, Answer Staffing Services, and Legal Personnel, Inc.
- THINK LIKE A HIRING MANAGER: Most federal openings draw dozens or even hundreds of applications. These applications get skimmed FAST by harried hiring managers — not read word for word, as if they were suspenseful John Grisham novels. So craft your resume for a fast read by formatting names of your employers, your job titles and degrees to stand out. Confine each job summary to a few quick-read, achievement-oriented bullets.
- VALIDATE YOUR SUCCESS: Crown explanations of your achievements with descriptions of relevant positive feedback you received, including your high grades, academic honors, awards, promotions, and assignments to special teams. Quote written and oral praise from professors, supervisors, managers, colleagues, clients and customers. Cite flattering e-mails, comments on performance evaluations, bonuses, awards and positive evaluations from attendees of your training or presentations.
- CONVEY ZEST: Most applicants think 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 show that you are an energetic go-getter who requires minimal supervision. (Look ma, no cattle prodder!) So mention in your cover letters and interviews why your work is important or inspiring and, if appropriate, why you want to switch from the public to the private sector.
- PURGE MISTAKES: Most applications for federal jobs are tarnished by typos, grammatical errors and other careless errors; error-free applications stand out from the pack. So use quality controls: spell-check your applications and proofread them multiple times. Also solicit feedback on your applications from trusted advisors.
- MAKE DEADLINES: The window of opportunity for most online applications slams shut at midnight Eastern Standard Time of the opening’s closing date. Applications that miss this deadline are automatically rejected. So make sure that you submit each application by midnight of its closing date.
- RESUBMIT PROBLEM APPLICATIONS: What should you do if, after you click the “submit” button on an online application, you realize that it contains a mistake or omits important information? (Oh, that sinking feeling!) Here’s the fix: Submit another application for the job before it closes. Your latest submission will usually override a previously submitted application for a job that is still open.
- PREPARE FOR INTERVIEWS: Hiring managers look for applicants who are knowledgeable about their agencies — not applicants who act like “if it’s Tuesday, it must be the Transportation Department.” So before each interview, educate yourself about your target agency by reviewing its website, Facebook page and tweets. Feel free to mention your research of your target agency in interviews.
- SAY “THANK YOU”: Immediately after you get home from your interview — even before you take off your uncomfortable interview outfit — write a thank you letter to your interviewer. Your letter should confirm your interest in the position, cite several of your most relevant assets and mention several impressive characteristics of the position/organization that were covered in the interview. Proofread your letter several times, and then send it overnight delivery. (Yes, a thank you letter will draw more attention than a thank you email. And a letter that arrives right away will score higher than one that arrives even one day later.)
Lily Whiteman is a popular contributor to the “Jobs” section of The Washington Post, the career columnist for Federal Times, and a senior writer at the National Science Foundation. As a federal career coach, she has helped hundreds of professionals of all levels—from recent grads to executives—land jobs and earn promotions.