If you were asked to name people who work for the federal government, you might start by listing off high-ranking elected officials (like POTUS). However, the federal government hires employees of all skill, education, and experience levels—no televised debates required. No matter what your professional interests are, you can find a job that fits your strengths.
Once you’ve found a federal job that interests you, you’ll start to notice some key differences in the hiring process. To begin with, did you know that a winning federal resume follows different rules than one for the private or nonprofit sectors? (For example, it’s not uncommon for a federal resume to be four or five pages! But more on that later.) The usual tips are important, but there are some specifics about federal resumes that you should keep in mind.
1. Qualifications: Check, Re-check, and Check Again
As you can probably guess, federal job announcements can attract hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of applicants. To narrow down the pool, HR professionals give hiring managers a list of applicants who are “best qualified.” Then, the hiring manager reviews the list, chooses who to interview, and often never sees the rest of the applications in the pile.
Here’s the catch: HR can only put candidates on the “best qualified” list if they meet all minimum qualifications in the job announcement. This means HR will be looking very carefully at everything you list on your resume, so this is one time when you want to clearly spell out your qualifications.
For example, if one listed qualification is a minimum of three to five years web management experience, make sure that you explicitly state any web projects that you’ve managed and the number of years you spent doing so. Or if it’s a role that requires management experience, instead of saying that you’ve “managed interns,” you’d want to list out that you were responsible for training, assigning projects, and providing feedback, as well as how many interns you managed and for how many months or years.
2. Keywords Are Key
Reviewing hundreds of resumes to find the most qualified applicants is no small task. That’s why federal hiring managers (or sometimes computer programs) scan your resume for keywords from the job posting. If you’re missing major keywords, chances are your resume won’t make the cut.
To help you figure out what keywords to use, carefully read the job announcement for skills and responsibilities—then, be sure to include any recurring words on your resume. For example, if the word “contracting” appears over and over again in the job posting, it’s a good guess that HR is looking for someone with contracting expertise.
You should also be on the lookout for specific technical terms or phrases in the job announcement. Before hitting “submit,” make sure you’ve compared your resume with the keywords in the job announcement one last time. The descriptions and language you’ve used in your application should clearly match those used in the job announcement.
3. Tailor Your Resume Every Time
Many applicants use the same resume to apply to multiple jobs. It may seem like the easiest route, but it significantly lowers your chances of getting an interview. Why? Because it’s unlikely that the same resume will be a match for various “best qualified” lists and positions highlighting different keywords.
To simplify the process of applying to several jobs, try creating a single “master” resume that includes everything—all of your education, experience, skills, awards, and so on. Don’t worry about how long it is. (Hint: You’ll never send out this master resume.) Each time you need to create a resume, you can use this master resume as your starting point, revising it for the particular job announcement to include what’s relevant to that specific position.
A great tool to use is My Federal Resume Builder. It lets you create and save up to five versions of your federal resume, making it easy to make changes and apply to jobs quickly.
4. Go All Out With Your Relevant Experience
For non-federal resumes, you may strive to minimize redundancy so you can keep your submission to one page. However, on a federal resume, you’ll want to include all relevant experience that you would bring to a role.
HR isn’t allowed to fill in the blanks or assume anything about your experience, so you have to paint a (crystal) clear picture. What does including relevant experience look like on a federal resume? Well, if you’re applying for your first job, flesh out your education section to cover more than internships—discuss relevant college coursework, and note any recognition you’ve received. If you’re a more seasoned applicant, don’t limit your resume to previous work experience. Also talk about volunteer work, technical training, or anything else that may have given you skills you’d need for the job.
Finally, don’t forget to emphasize your past accomplishments and results along with listing responsibilties. For example, don’t use a general description like “led a team of 10 for a project.” Show the impact you had by saying “led a team of 10 to finish a project ahead of schedule and under budget, resulting in an early launch that helped us meet a key goal for recruitment.” It’s not about including a lengthy description—it’s about clearly outlining the outcome and impact of your work. (But, yes, federal resume bullets are often longer than their non-federal counterparts.)
5. You Can Break the One-Page Rule
Now that you’ve clearly spelled out your qualifications, highlighted important keywords, and included detailed information about your relevant experience and accomplishments, you’re probably wondering how in the world you’ll fit everything onto one page. Well, thankfully, you can take a deep breath.
With a federal resume, it’s not uncommon for experienced candidates to submit a document that is four or five pages long.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can throw bullets on your resume haphazardly. The best applicants clearly demonstrate their strengths, qualifications, and experience, but do so in a way that makes a succinct, thoughtful impression. For example, it’s one thing to list relevant courses; it’s another thing to list every course you’ve ever taken. There’s no perfect formula for the length of a federal resume, but if you reasonably quantify and qualify your accomplishments to show your impact, the hiring manager will be able to see how your experience fits with the job.
Once you’ve written a draft of your federal resume, use this checklist to evaluate and make improvements.
Writing a federal resume is like drafting a cover letter or interviewing. Sure, it takes practice to get it right. But if you invest the time and follow the best practices above, odds are you’ll make a shining impression.