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How to land a top paying federal job

“Is the Government Still Hiring?”

Most job seekers are worried that, with budget cuts and sequestration, the federal government isn’t even hiring. But that isn’t true.

Lily Whiteman is the author of the book, “How to Land a Top Paying Federal Job.” She told Chris Dorobek that, “the federal government is the country’s largest employer and is constantly doing succession planning. So despite sequestration and belt-tightening this massive employer is still going to be pulling people in.”

Government Application Process – The USA Jobs Black hole

“It’s not a black hole anymore. Since President Obama streamlined the federal application process it has become more similar to other sectors. The dreaded KSA’s (essays) aren’t required anymore. Sure, the language on USA Jobs is still a bit bureaucratic, so you have to take a machete to hack through it. But overall it is much better,” said Whiteman.

  • Response time for USA Jobs postings has decreased dramatically.
  • Every application submitted to USA Jobs will be reviewed by a person or machine. (Not true in the private sector.)
  • Much less nepotism in the public sector.
  • Can call the contact person listed for the job posting at USA Jobs to check status. You won’t be labeled a nag if you call. It is part of their job to answer all your questions.

Pathways or PMF (Check out our Path to PMF guide here.)

“The advantage to an internship or the PMF program is that you will get more taken care of then if you just land a job on your own. There are many more opportunities for networking and mentoring but the salary may be lower,” said Whiteman.

Preparing for your government job interview

“Practice, practice, practice. I’ve seen a lot of people who think they can just wing it. They can’t. You should research your targeted agency. Check out the interviewer on Linkdln or other resources. You should also ask people around you what they think will be the likely questions you will have to answer. And then you should work out answers to those questions. When you have an inventory of success stories you will do much better.

Cover Letter Wins

“I’ve seen great success with applicants that put a table in their cover letters. On one side you have the agency’s needs. On the other side you put your experience. That way they can visually see why you would be a good fit,” said Whiteman.

Biggest Mistake?

“The number one mistake that I see almost 100% of applicants make is that people don’t describe their achievements in impressive enough terms. You need to show your gold medals. Use descriptive terms. Don’t assume people know what you did,” said Whiteman.

For more tips on landing a federal job, check out GovLoop’s High Achievers Guide. The Guide looks at the best ways to get into the federal government and success stories from people who have risen up the federal ladder. Download the free guide here.

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EH Rice

I will start out with I am not selling anything, wanting to do your resume for a fee, or anything else. I have reviewed thousands of applications that applicants have submitted. The number 1 big mistake is applicants do not read the entire announcement and submit all required documents (I lose half the applicants on every announcement because of this, and I have recruited everything from GS 5’s to GS 15s). If a document is required, it will be listed as required. So, even if you have the best government resumes around, and even if you are a perfect fit, and you have networked yourself to death and know everyone that is anyone, if you don’t submit all the required documents, you will never make the certificate to be interviewed. The number 2 big mistake is using a civilian style resume with bullets. The government resume is constructed to give both the HR people what they need to count you as eligible, and then an inkling to the interview panel to determine who to interview. What HR needs is a good narrative of the jobs you have held and in quite some detail to determine if they can count the experience to qualify you for the position. Use the USAJOBS resume builder, and if it doesn’t give enough space, copy it into a word document and expand it and upload it into the USA Staffing application. If I get a bunch of bullets, and no real description of the duties performed, it doesn’t provide sufficient information to qualify the applicants. Per OPM regulations an HR person must list the experience that qualifies the applicant, and the format is from date-to date, title, and what they did to qualify. If an HR person can’t determine that, your resume is worthless. And the Civil Service system is in fact an experience based system, not an education based system. You may have a Masters with a 4.0, but without the experience the highest you could be looking at is a GS9 (and then that doesn’t apply to all fields). Now let’s get into the Pathways program and looking at Education. This is a limited program and each Agency is allocated a quota from OPM that they can recruit for (only way they could keep it from being outlawed in court like the Federal Career Intern Program and SCEP/STEP was). Gone are the days of the FCIP with no limitations on numbers. First, absolute Veterans Preference applies to pathways (once again the only way to keep it from being outlawed like FCIP). Disabled Vets will automatically go to the top of the list and you can NOT bypass them to hire a non-Veteran. Doing this (by passing Veteran Preference) is what brought the Pathways Program into effect in the first place. And, understand that a large number of the Vets from GWOT got out and in fact did go (and are going) to college and are getting or have got Masters Degrees. Further, there are a lot of Military Officers that have completed their obligations and are getting out and applying for positions. Many of them completed Masters also (and they have quite a bit of experience also). It is a fact that Veteran applications are increasing exponentially in numbers, it’s just a sign of the economy. So understand the competition will be fierce. And, there is the Category ranking and rating system. Some agencies apply this to all grades (not just up to GS11). Under this system, the 30% or more disabled Vets automatically go to the top of the list and you cannot bypass them to hire a non-veteran, and all they have to do is meet minimum qualifications. In short, this pretty much blocks the list. And, it is a fact there is a slowdown in hiring. I could look at my career field today, and there is less than a third the number of vacancies in the top 3 grades than there were 3 years ago. So I have to say, something has happened and there are not as many positions being recruited for. And, what’s next after furloughs? Is there a RIF coming? I could look an applicants in the eye and say no. And, once again, I am not selling anything, wanting to do your resume for a fee, or anything else for profit.


Thanks for this article this is the type of information one really needs.

Your comment Mr. Rice has great and useful information just like the article and I will take both advises.

Much obliged

EH Rice

I do want to make a correction on this. I “couldn’t” look an applicant in the eye and say there won’t be any Reduction in Force (aka RIF’s). And yes, in a RIF the last hired will be the first to go. I also must add that I am the person that saw sequestration coming well over a year ago and postured to an Agency that is not affected by it. I also must caution to be careful about where you apply, and use the interview to determine if the place would be good for you, and were you would fit in. Nothing worse than taking a job at a place you questioned if it would be a good fit, and then find out it wasn’t and put yourself though pure agony for 3 or 4 years, or worse, ruin your career before it even starts.

subroto mukerji

Getting a job in the federal government is a mission fraught with twists and turns but it can be done. You have to work at it harder and longer than the private sector.

You have to first scope out your friends and neighbors that have a job at a particular agency. Friends and neighbors are the best methodology to get information and actually be selected for a job. You have to make yourself a known quantity and if Neighbor Bob or Bobbette knows you so much the better.

Then there is the actual job application itself. Follow the directions completely and thoroughly. If they need a form, they need a form without question or pause. Yours is not to reason why. It is long and confusing but it is the only way HR managers can make a choice. They don’t know you from a hole in the wall.

Hopefully by this time, you will know whether you have been chosen for an interview or not. Again research the agency and get recommendations from neighbors and friends as what to discuss. This part is fairly standard. Make your case succinctly as to why you are the best. Remember that there are others just as qualified as you.

Having said that there are problems with the process but the end result is certainly worth it if you are committed.

EH Rice

From the HR perspective, the Federal Merit Based Systems (for the competitive service) have been moving more and more to defeat the “networking” philosophy. It might work at the State, and probably does at the County and City level, but at the Federal Level it is becoming less of a tool than it was. There have been huge road blocks to “pre-selection” of applicants (which is what networking is designed to develop) put in place. Some of the road blocks have been by legislation, some by decisions of the Merit System Protection Board, others by Inspector Generals, and many by the Office of Personnel Management. Interviews are conducted by panels of at least 3, and sometimes as many as 7 interviewers that are subject matter experts in the field. And, if an interviewer knows the applicant being interviewed, they must immediately recuse themselves. If it is found out later that they knew one of the applicants and didn’t do that, it will invalidate the entire process and they will have to do it all over again with different interviewers. And, it always leaks out when this occurs. They will each score the applicants in the interview on each question and the scores averaged. The applicant with the highest score is selected. I have never seen a Division Chief go against the recommendations of the interview panels. It’s OK to ask someone that works where you want to work what it is like, but temper it knowing that each section is different. One employee may be working for a great supervisor and think the place is great to work, and the next could be working for what I will call a not so great supervisor and think the place is horrible. I would say that a good resume, good qualifications, and a good interview will take you 100 times farther than networking. The interview question will ask to the effects “Tell me about a time when………”. This makes it difficult at best to prepare for since you will not know the questions ahead of time. Hard to pregame the answers if you don’t know what the questions are. Even if you have gained a huge amount of knowledge of the place you want to work, it probably won’t help you since the questions will be asked about your past experiences, rather than what you will do in the future. It’s just the way the system is set up. Here’s the way I looked at getting a Federal job. I can have a 100 or 200 hundred no’s. But if I keep at it, all I needed was one yes. I played the odds, the more no’s I got, the closer I was to getting a yes. It’s just the odds.

subroto mukerji

I would like to believe that “networking” has been minimized but it just ain’t so. You can’t tell me that a Congressman’s child, a Senator’s child, or a heavy donation from a “concerned individual’ has the same impact as any other application. The Federal Merit System like any government system has just enough loopholes to accommodate special cases.

I have seen it 3 times. Once in the Reagan Admin, GHW Bush Admin. and the Obama Admin. 3 heavy donors got their children into the Federal Gov’t merit system without any trouble whatsoever. The process was just a formality. For peons like me, its the hard way.

Talent Team Recruiter

This is a great discussion for those seeking federal employment. Despite the impending fiscal cliff, sequester and possible furloughs, the job benefits, security and opportunities are great. My first job was with the Federal Bureau of Prisons starting in 1985 – and I’m working on my 28th year with this nationally recognized law enforcement agency. In my opinion, it’s worth the effort to apply for federal positions! There are 259 federal law enforcement positions listed today. Check it out.


EH Rice

There are jobs out there. Competition will be tight, but there are jobs out there. First, think of what your degree or degrees is/are in. Then go to this OPM site and look through the career fields that you would be best suited for or have an interest: http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/classification-qualifications/general-schedule-qualification-standards/

Not with standing, if you have an English degree, applying for a Mechanical Engineer position would be a waste of time. So check the qualification standards to see what you will qualify for. And, there will be multiple. Likewise, if you have a degree in a field but no experience you must temper the grades you are applying for. Basically, if you have a BS/BA with no experience in a career field, the odds of getting a GS 11 or above position are slim to none (there are some exceptions, but they are rare). Also, in general, check for positions that end in either “01” or “99”. “01” is a designation for a generalist in the field, and “99” is for a student or trainee position.

Once you determine the career field(s) that would match your qualifications, start with the Agencies that are in your area (if you are in a large metropolitan area there could be many). If you do not have a special hiring authority (such as Veteran, Schedule A, former Peace Corps), you will have to search with non-status (which means you can only apply for positions open to “all US Citizens”). What I would recommend is select a career field (the numbers) and plug it into the search, select the grade you would qualify for, and also the Agency (don’t worry about location yet), eliminate the announcements open for more than 30 days. Now do a search and see how many positions are pulled up. If it is quite a few, then the agency is probably hiring (and then you can start looking at the geographic areas). If there aren’t any, or only a couple, then the Agency may be in a hiring freeze of some sort and only able to hire for the most critical vacancies. As an example, I did a search for my career field in Department of the Army. I didn’t even specify a grade, and it came up with no matches, even with status. That told me that they weren’t hiring in my career field. [I figured this would be the case with sequestration, budget cuts, and all.]

What about the announcements open for more than 30 days? I have always been leery of such. Some agencies will keep a standing list of applicants, so to speak an applicant pool, for when they have openings. It can be used as a tool to speed up hiring. But that doesn’t mean they are hiring. The Department of the Navy used to be notorious about using this, and with the list, they may hire 1 or 2 in a year, or none. I always looked at it that I need a job now, not 6 or 8 months from now. From my perspective (inside the government), I want that “alpha type” that has initiative and knowhow, a top 10 percenter in the field. With a standing list, anyone that is top notch has already been hired by someone else (be it private or public sector). Thus, I have always recommended against a standing list. Besides, they are very high maintenance also, because each time you get a certain number of applicants or at a certain time frame, the new applicants have to be ranked and rated, which invariably leads to the list being blocked by 30% disabled Veterans if it is open to all US citizens. (And though I am a 30% or more disabled Vet, I always went I need a job now, not 6 months from now, sorry I can’t wait that long).

If you see an announcement that is open for 5 days to as much as 3 weeks, then that means they are trying to hire someone, maybe at least. There was one agency I interviewed with that announced their positions, did the interviews, and then when they had selected someone, the hiring manager would go and try and get the money/authorization to hire them. I had very bad luck with this Agency, where their Director said no 3 times to the money. I always looked at this as bad business (and besides, they were located in one of the absolute worst neighborhoods in DC anyway, so it didn’t turn out to bad with this in the long run). But, for the most part, if the announcement is open for 30 days or less, then it usually means they are trying to fill it.

Now, about the Pathways program…. First I will leave out the Presidential Intern/Fellow programs because that is way beyond the scope of this information. Some background: There had been the Federal Career Intern Program, SCEP and STEP programs. These program existed by executive order. The Code of Federal Regulations, or CFR’s, were confusing in the way they were written, and the OPM web page for HR professionals mixed and matched the programs and basically jumbled them all up. They were not a part of any legislation in law, and as stated were created by executive order of the President. And, in short, Agencies abused the programs (cronyism, nepotism, you name it) as a means to get around Veterans Preference and hire at will as Mr. Mukerju mentioned below. Further, it had become a primary means to hire employees, without competition and without observing Veterans preference or any other Merit Principles. The programs were shut down by the Merit System Protection Board as blatant violations of Veterans Preference [Side note: You should have seen the look on the GS15’s faces when I briefed them that the Pathways Program required full announcements on USAJOBS and absolute Veterans Preference would apply.] With the Pathways (excluding Presidential Fellows), absolute Veteran’s preference does apply. Further, the Office of Personnel Management has restricted the number of positions that each Agency can hire into the program (it’s a single digit percentage of the total hire). They MUST announce the positions on USAJOBS (they didn’t before). And, the press is also watching this like a hawk, with several instances already hitting national releases asking why such and such an Agency is hiring a new GS11 under Pathways into a non-critical positions, when they are furloughing people for 2 days per pay period, could be facing a Reduction in Force, etc.. So, there is quite some oversight on the Pathways Program to keep it “honest” so to speak.

Upward mobility positions are another interesting area. When an Agency has difficulties filling a position at the full performance level, they can recruit at a lower grade and train the person up to the full performance level. Seldom are the announcements for these positions open to “all US Citizens”. These are usually announced to Status Candidates. If you have status (and those that have it know it), you can apply to announcement to Status candidates. Those without status will have to look a bit harder for the ones open to “all US Citizens”. But this offers a way into the Civil Service.

The mechanics of applying for a position and the importance of reading the announcement carefully, providing all supporting documents required, and having a good government resume have already been touched on.

Happy hunting.

David Dean

Mr. Rice has summed up the hiring situation very well. From 1981 until November 2010 the so called The Outstanding Scholar Program and the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP) were used to bypass hiring veterans since 1981. The Federal Statutes have been in effect since 1944 (Title 38) and Title 5 (1978). The Recent Graduate and Presidential Management Fellows program are in the process of being vetted in the Merit Systems Board process. The cases will almost certainly go to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This procedure will clarify a number of issues. I speculate it will take another year. Non-veterans dislike me (and others) for the litigation we have conducted. Of interest is the fact no any of us had a lawyer. The cases Isabella, Dean, Gingery (that fellow has a story), Kirkendall, Augstine, and several others were pro se. I some of the comments made about me highly amusing. The point is the MSPB and the Court of Appeals have agreed with us. The two years period to apply for a “Recent Graduate” cannot be explained, does not have a basis in reality. John Berry and his (for like of a better description ) crew picked the number out of thin air. I am currently a semi-finalist in the Presidential Management Fellows. Next week will determine if I am a finalist.

The Pathways is (I have stated before) the FCIP on steroids. We are not there yet. Another issue I see raised is “discrimination and fairness.” The Supreme Court in several cases has held that veterans preference cannot be used to support a charge of discrimination, See Feeney v. Mass 1979. The Civil Rights Statute expressly states that the application of veterans preference is not grounds for a discrimination. The Equal Employment Commission (EEOC) has stated the same. Veterans are a protected class for federal jobs. The general public is not.

Fairness is in the eye of the beholder, transitory, and means different things to different people. For me fairness is following veterans preference laws.

David Dean

I have made some spelling errors. I have spent 12 hours to day putting on a Concealed Weapons Permit class (CWP) pro bono.