Artwork by: Antonina Kasyanikova
As the private sector struggles with closures and staggered re-openings during the pandemic, many Americans are focusing their career transition into government and public service - particularly jobs at the federal level.
The federal government is one of the largest employers in the country - filling 90,000 jobs each year (and that’s not counting the U.S. military or Postal Service). Federal jobs have their advantages - great healthcare, vacation and sick time packages, as well as life insurance, pensions, training, and other benefits.
However, due to the high level of scrutiny in these offices, the application process is more stringent and slower than you might be used to. A federal job search process can last between six and eighteen months, and the applications themselves have many detailed steps and additional documentation requirements. Making a mistake on any one of these elements can automatically disqualify you.
This guide is designed to help you understand the federal application process and help you enter into a rewarding career in federal service.
In federal jargon, a job posting is called a "job opportunity announcement (JOA)” or "vacancy.” Almost all federal JOAs are posted on USAJOBS.gov and when you fill out an application, you’ll immediately notice the differences. For example, federal applications may be much lengthier and require more information than what you’re used to.
There are some similarities, though. Just like a private sector job, you should be using keywords, highlighting your accomplishments and value with STAR stories, and quantifying your achievements as much as possible.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that - unlike private sector job descriptions which have wiggle room - the federal government means it when they list something as a requirement. Do not apply to federal jobs unless you are 100% prepared to prove you meet the requirements.
You can demonstrate your compliance with the requirements on your federal resume.
Federal government jobs are divided into 3 categories*:
The Competitive Service: This is the largest and most common branch of federal service jobs, and most likely what you’ll be applying for. This guide is written for applicants in the Competitive Service. Competitive Service JOAs must be listed on USAJOBS.gov, and this is also the only place you can apply.
The Excepted Service: This service is for positions outside the "traditional" government jobs, including positions in intelligence agencies. These jobs may be listed on USAJOBS.gov, but also may be listed on the website of the individual agencies. (cia.gov, etc.)
The Senior Executive Service (a.k.a. "SES"): This is the executive level of government, right below Presidential appointees. You will likely not be applying for these.
*The United States Postal Service (USPS) is a major employer that offers special consideration for veterans. The USPS fills its positions outside of the normal federal process. Those jobs can be found at USPS Careers.
Like we said above, USAJOBS is where you will find the majority of federal job announcements. It’s also the only place you can apply for them. So the journey starts with creating your USAJOBS account and filling out your profile as accurately and thoroughly as you can.
In addition to applying, you can also use your account to:
Save interesting jobs to review or apply later.
Set up automated job searches.
Upload and save required documents and resume files. You can store up to five resumes in the system.
Apply to job announcements.
Review and track your application status.
USAJOBS allows you to search available jobs by keyword, title, or location. Advanced options let you search by pay grade, salary, job series, agency, and more.
Once you find a job you’re interested in, it’s important to make sure you understand all of the JOA - especially the parts that may disqualify you.
First, check the Who May Apply and Qualifications section to determine whether you are even eligible to apply for the job. Most of the time non-veterans or people who have never worked for the government before should only apply for positions open to U.S. Citizens or "all sources."
Make sure you understand the difference between the Responsibilities and Qualifications sections. Responsibilities are things you can be trained on, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never done them before. Qualifications are just that - you MUST meet 100% of these criteria before even being considered.
It can be difficult to understand how much a job pays if you are unfamiliar with the federal pay system. Most federal agencies use the General Schedule (GS) pay system, which can vary by location. You can find a table of GS salaries here.
Most JOAs will have a listed pay level like GS-09 or GS-12. Sometimes there will be a range, like GS 07-09. This means the position could either be a grade 7 or grade 9. Your application can be processed for both levels or only one. The application will ask for the lowest grade you’re willing to accept.
In general, you should focus on the announcements’ required experience and let the agency Human Resources (HR) office determine your grade.
All USAJOBS postings will have an opening and closing date listed - but HR may stop accepting applications once they hit a certain number. If HR decides to only accept 100 applications and you’re number 101, your application will be discarded - even if the “closing date” is still three days away.
Because of this, it’s a good idea to apply as soon as you can. But be extremely careful! Make sure you meet all the requirements and have all the necessary documentation before you start. You can find this information in the How to Apply section of the job announcement.
The time an application takes varies depending on agency and job. You may be asked to complete a questionnaire*, answer eligibility questions, or provide additional information/documents. Give yourself at least an hour to complete the application.
*Note on Questionnaires: You may be asked to fill out a self-evaluation rating yourself on various competencies. Do NOT overrate yourself. If you do, HR will change your rating based on the content of your resume. (So make sure your ratings are backed up by your resume.)
There’s not much to do after you click “Submit” - but the agency may change the status of your application from “received” to “reviewed” or “referred.” You can see this information in the Applications section of your USAJOBS profile.
A “reviewed” status means that your application has been looked over by the hiring agency, and divided into one of three categories: Qualified, Highly Qualified, and Best Qualified. If your application is in the Best Qualified category, you will be moved to the next stages and your status will be updated to “referred.”
Interview procedures vary by agency and job and may include:
In most cases, there will only be one round of interviews (although more are allowed).
Federal interviews are strictly structured: Every candidate is asked the same questions in the same order. All interview questions are job-related - don’t expect brain teasers.
Before the interview, review the How You Will Be Evaluated section of the job announcement and be sure to come up with relevant stories and examples that demonstrate your experience with that criteria.
If you are selected, HR will make an official job offer with a salary and pay grade. These are technically negotiable, but agencies have no requirement to do so.
The position may also require a background check or security clearance - which can take an additional 3-6 months, depending upon the type of clearance required.
Once the background investigation and additional security checks are completed, the job offer is considered finalized, and you’ll be ready to start!
Federal applications are much different than private sector jobs - in terms of process, time frame, and paperwork.
Only apply for jobs where you truly match the qualifications.
Use the Federal Resume guide to create a targeted Federal resume.
Be patient, it can take a while.
Raymond Lee has over 25 years of human resource, outplacement, and career coaching experience. He is also an industrial/organizational psychologist and a certified retirement coach. Raymond has contributed to SHRM, ATD, and other publications on the topics of the future of work, employee experience and offboarding, ageism and bias in the workplace, and career fulfillment.