How to Stand Out in Your Next Federal Job Interview

When you finally manage to secure an interview for a federal position, you want to do everything you can to make the most of the opportunity. In a recent article for [email protected], UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA program, Mary Ryan, associate director of Career & Leadership Services for Working Professionals, says that one key to interview success is to provide a contrast between what you are and aren’t good at, or “Why I would rock out this job, but not that job.” Here, we’ll take a look at her approach, as well as what other experts recommend to help you stand out in your next federal job interview.

Types of Federal Interviews

Whether you’re a seasoned public sector employee, or someone making a move from the private sector, there are generally two types of federal job interviews: The informational interview—which is initiated by the job seeker—and the employment interview, which the prospective employer uses to assess whether you’re a good fit for the position.

The informational interview is a valuable networking tool and is used to find out what jobs might be available across many diverse agencies, whether you have the qualifications to fill them, and more about the job itself—including what’s involved, where it’s located, and who you’ll be working for and with.

The employment interview is initiated by the employer after screening applications to further assess your qualifications and ability to respond well to a line of interview questions. There are several types of employment interviews, and the structured interview is one of the most common. In a structured interview, questions are written in advance, and are asked of all candidates to promote consistency and support better comparative evaluations.

Defining Where You Rock

As part of the structured interview, you’ll undoubtedly be asked to identify any areas of weakness you may have—since it’s a common interview question. According to Ryan, one of the best ways to show what you’re good at is to show what you’re not good at as well: “Explain why you would rock out this job, but not that job based on your strengths and weaknesses.” She says there are three steps to this approach:

  1. Brainstorm why you’re excited about the specific job you’re applying for, describe why you’re well-suited for it and compare that to jobs that wouldn’t be a good fit for you.
  2. Take the contrast between the two and frame them as strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Give your response in a story format to illustrate your point.

As an example, Ryan described an interview with a candidate for a crisis hotline analytics role, and said she loved the answer to the question, “What is your greatest weakness?” Here is what the applicant said:

“I am not a gregarious person. I’m kind of awkward, actually, and I know I’d do terribly at leading and motivating a team of volunteers, or fundraising. But, that’s why I didn’t apply for the program director or PR roles. In the logistics role I can use my background as a statistician to dive into the data to make sure all of the volunteers are in an optimal shift based on their needs and preferences, and we’ll be serving the community even more by having more people in the shifts with the highest call volume. I believe deeply in the mission of this crisis hotline, and I am passionate about helping serve our community in the best way I can.”

Ryan notes that what impressed her about the answer was how genuine and well thought out it was—and says that responding this way makes it impossible to give an answer that the interviewer will view as cliche: “When you are competing against many people for the same job, presenting yourself as original and thoughtful can make all the difference.”

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