The Write Stuff

October 9, 2012

If you’re seeking a federal job, your applications will likely compete against dozens of others -- but that is both bad news and good news. Bad because it means lots of competition, but good because most applicants will quickly wipe out.

Why? Because too many job seekers carelessly churn out applications without regard for what federal hiring managers are looking for. This means you can vault ahead of many of your rivals by tailoring your applications to their wants and needs.

Having served as a federal hiring manager myself and having interviewed scores of other federal hiring managers about their practices, I’ve collected quite a bit of information that can help your application -- resume, cover letter and other forms -- stand out from the crowd.

Low Risk, High Reward

Federal hiring managers are looking for low-risk applicants who look like they’ll solve, not create, problems for them. To make the cut, you’ve got to present yourself as just such an individual -- and you can do that through your application by:

Taking careful aim

Craft applications tailored for “direct hits” rather than applying to jobs indiscriminately, says Heidi McAllister, who worked as a federal environmental specialist for five years.

You do this, she explains, by reading each job description as a series of questions asking “Have you already done this job and done it well?” You can answer these questions with an emphatic “yes” by using each component of your application to showcase achievements that parallel the demands of your target job.

Suppose, for example, that an opening involves producing Web content. Your application should discuss the Web content you’ve produced and your training in Web production while citing related positive feedback such as promotions, awards, evaluations, verbal praise and good grades.

If you haven’t produced Web content, you can still have success by describing other documents you have produced and explaining how working on them has prepared you to work online.

Preparing for the “30-Second Test.”

How long do hiring managers take to decide the fate of your application? About 30 seconds, says Andrew McDonald, a federal engineer and hiring manager.

You can pass the “30-Second Test” if you’ve crafted an application that broadcasts your most relevant experience early and prominently. To do this, use bullets, short sentences and short paragraphs, omitting any information -- such as irrelevant and outdated credentials and personal information -- that doesn’t advance your case and taking care to define or eliminate acronyms and jargon that can cause readers to get hung up or confused.

Sticking to paper

If your target organization gives you a choice between submitting a hard-copy or online application, opt for hard-copy. Why? Online application systems don¿t accommodate cover letters, which -- with prominence, brevity and punch -- can be deal-clinchers. (Don’t bother submitting both; one will likely be discarded.)

Further, common federal online systems such as USAJOBS, QuickHire and Avue Central have trouble with text formatting such as bold, bullets and various font sizes. As a result, online applications can become dense, featureless, forgettable tomes when printed. This can turn off the folks who have to read them, hiring managers say.

Even worse, some online systems convert invalid characters into gibberish before delivering applications to hiring managers. “I’ve seen online applications that were peppered with upside-down question marks or chunks of misplaced text because the applicant had inadvertently used invalid characters,” says McDonald. “It’s a shame, because those applications might have been from qualified applicants.”

If your target organization only accepts online applications, avoid invalid characters by using only numbers and letters, creating bullets with asterisks and spaces instead of tabs. (To find out if your target organization accepts hard-copy, check the “How to Apply” section of the job announcement. It will identify the documents required for your application and explain how to submit them.)

Simple Steps to Success

The federal government used to require all applicants to take the Civil Service Test; it’s history now, though some agencies do require specialized exams. Now federal applications more closely resemble private sector applications.

“For me, the application process was deceptively easy,” says federal program analyst Julie Hyman, a recent college graduate. Her first federal application earned her an interview that lead to her current job as a program analyst analyzing budgets for environmental programs.

Here are some tips that can help you ace the common components of federal applications and, perhaps, duplicate Hyman’s quick success:

Cover letters

Hit hiring managers with your best shot right away with a concise, lively summary of your best credentials and how they match the skills and tasks demanded by your target job.

In a few paragraphs, emphasize what you offer the employer and why you want to help advance its agenda rather than why “this job would be the perfect next step for me,” advises McAllister.

In other words, your letter should ask not what the employer can do for you but what you can do for the employer.

Resumes

Each federal job announcement inventories the information required from applicants. Because applicants for federal jobs are usually required to provide very specific details, such as the exact starting and ending dates of each job they have held, functional resumes -- which generally speaking, highlights skills rather than achievements -- aren’t a good idea.

Instead, sequence your jobs and degrees in reverse chronological order. Present each job description as a list of relevant, terse bullets that starts with an action verb and describe concrete achievements. An example: “Managed invitations for a conference attended by 500 professionals.”

Include information on how to access related information, such as a list of your publications, the addresses of relevant Web sites you created, relevant volunteer work you have done, and other credentials related to your target job.

Short-answer questions

If you’re asked to rate your level of experience via multiple choice or true-false questions, remember that only applicants who receive the highest ratings in almost all short-answer questions qualify for most jobs. As a result, give yourself the highest rating you can without lying.

To do so, carefully consider your experience and interpret it liberally. For example, suppose you¿re asked whether you have supervisory experience. If you’re a team leader who assigns work, you can legitimately claim to possess supervisory experience even if you never served as a first-line supervisor.

Essay questions

Known as KSAs (short for Knowledge, Skills and Abilities), these questions are part of the application for most white-collar federal jobs and address communication, management and technical skills.

Answer each KSA with a bulleted, annotated inventory of relevant successes or with fewer, more comprehensive, success stories. Carlos Rodriguez, a federal international affairs specialist and forestry policy professional whose KSAs have recently helped him land several interviews for executive jobs, recommends “structuring each success story to identify the problem you addressed, your actions, results and any positive feedback you earned.”

Limit each KSA answer to one written page. Don’t feel obligated to fill the space provided; if you can make a case for yourself clearly and quickly, do so.

Other documents

Hiring managers recommend attaching additional documents, such as professional or student publications or a strong reference, to your hard-copy applications when possible (and even if not solicited). Some online systems allow you to reference publications or provide Web links to support your application.

Don’t Give Up

If you’re rejected from one or more of your target jobs, remember that persistence is just as important to federal job searches as private sector hunts. Why? Because each federal job is filled by different hiring managers using different criteria, the person who passes on one of your applications may not see your next one.

What’s more, every job search is, to some degree, a numbers game: The more suitable openings you find and target, the better your chances will be of success. Your next application could hit the bull’s eye.

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