The US federal government employs over 2 million people, not even counting military service branches. Federal jobs are highly contested thanks to great benefits, role longevity, and social importance. While USAJobs, the prime job board for federal jobs, is a great place to find opportunities, applying for federal jobs and writing a federal resume can be confusing, overwhelming, and counter-intuitive to those job seekers who have only applied in the private sector.
We spoke with federal resume experts for their insights to help first-time federal applicants learn to understand a job vacancy announcement, how to write a federal resume, how to apply through USAJobs, and what to expect from the lengthy federal job application process:
- Lex Levin of Lex Levin LLC
- Nancy Segal of Solutions for the Workplace
- Karol Taylor, co-author of Find Your Federal Job Fit
- What the government wants
- Federal job descriptions vs private sector JDs
- The Occupational Questionnaire
- Federal resumes vs private sector resumes
- Writing your federal resume
- Federal resume tips
The Government wants demonstrated experience
For federal jobs, experience trumps almost everything. Hiring agencies aren’t interested in potential, or as Segal says, “It’s not about your journey. You should have already arrived.” Federal HR wants to see proven success, role mastery, and expertise.
The entire federal job application process is about demonstrating that you are the ideal candidate by showing your experience and success. Experience even outweighs education for most jobs unless an applicant’s education is part of the value proposition, such as scientist or mathematician jobs.
Federal HR will not make any assumptions about your resume. Even things that seem very straightforward need to be explicitly spelled out. Federal hiring practices are highly regulated, so federal HR personnel can’t make those assumptions. Every assumption could risk an EEO complaint or even a call from Congress.
As Segal puts it, “From a federal perspective, if it’s not on the resume, you didn’t do it.”
How is a federal job description different?
When a job is posted on USAJobs, it’s called a ‘job vacancy announcement’ (JVA). This job description contains far more than the basic list of responsibilities and requirements of a private sector job description.
Segal recommends spending at least an hour thoroughly reading through the JVA. Understanding the JVA is key to structuring your resume to not just fit the job but to also demonstrate how you’re perfectly qualified.
You should use the same language that appears on the JVA on your resume to draw those lines even more clearly. Jobscan helps automate this process to make it go faster, letting you identify the most important keywords and skills.
Important sections of the JVA
Who May Apply
Not all JVAs will have this section, but make sure you fit the specifications if you see this section. These specifications usually involve citizenship, protected groups, etc.
How to Apply
Pay close attention to this section. Some jobs will require you to apply through the USAJobs resume builder.
Agency Contact Information
Segal advises that if you have further questions, pick up the phone and call the agency. Taylor explains, “The best times to call an agency are at 8:30 AM, 11:30 AM, and 4:30 PM EST. To really connect with agency employees, you have to target times when they aren’t as busy – first thing in the morning, right after lunch, and just before they head home.”
Score at least 70 on the Occupational Questionnaire
Many federal applications include a very important step called an occupational questionnaire. This questionnaire requires you rate to your knowledge, skills, and abilities that are relevant to the job you’re applying for.
While federal resumes are reviewed by humans, the questionnaire is scored by computers. If you don’t score high enough based on your questionnaire, your resume will end up in the ‘no’ pile before anyone has even seen it. A high score (70 at minimum) on the occupational questionnaire is the best way to ensure that a human will see your resume and review it.
However, don’t take that as a reason to lie or exaggerate your self-ranking. If you don’t feel like you can score yourself highly for each question, it’s a good indication the job isn’t a good fit for you. The occupational questionnaire is a likert scale, starting at A and going to the highest ranking of E.
Levin describes how occupational questionnaire questions are valuable to the job seeker: “If you’re looking at the questions and your stomach is sinking because you realize you’re not able to answer most of them at the E level, that should tell you that the job is not a good fit for you.”
Segal adds: “If you do not have what they are looking for, don’t bother to apply, because you’re unlikely to get any traction.”
The occupational questionnaire gives you even more understanding of what the hiring agency is specifically looking for in the role. Take the opportunity to prove your expertise not just by rating yourself E, but by demonstrating how you used the skill to succeed.
What’s the difference between a federal and a non-federal resume?
Writing a resume to apply for a job in the federal government is extremely different from applying in the private sector. Federal HR may look for some of the same things that a private sector recruiter will, but their perspective is completely different.
Taylor likes to tell her clients, “Leave everything you know about resumes at the door.”
How long should a federal resume be?
Federal resumes are much longer than a standard private sector resume. Federal resumes usually range from 6 to 8 pages depending on the applicant’s level of experience and the seniority of the job. Even entry-level applicants should furnish resumes of 4 to 6 pages.
“Federal resumes are so much longer, dense, and complex than private sector resumes,” explains Levin. “This is because federal HR wants to see that you have the actual experience that they’re looking for.”
The length of federal resumes comes from the amount of detail each resume section needs to contain. Since federal HR personnel are precluded from making any assumptions of what your prior work entailed, you’ll need to list out each responsibility and the details associated with it. While a list of responsibilities is important, even more importantly, you’ll have to detail how your skills allowed you to succeed with each of these responsibilities by giving specific examples.
“You specifically have to use the keywords from the federal job announcement to show that you are absolutely the best fit and the right person for this job because you have already done this kind of work before,“ adds Levin.
One way you can find those keywords is by scanning the JVA and your resume with Jobscan.
You don’t need to include information that doesn’t relate to the job you’re applying for. Keep details about prior jobs that don’t relate brief or omit them entirely – the government doesn’t care about employment gaps.
Federal Resume Requirements
Federal resumes have strict requirements, and not following these requirements is a great way to get passed over. While agencies are not required to eliminate candidates who do not follow the rules, they can. As Segal explains, “If I’m sitting there as an HR person facing a thousand resumes and only a few days to go through them, I want to figure out how to winnow my pile. What’s the best way to do that? Eliminate those who didn’t follow all the rules.”
Federal HR uses hours worked to determine your amount of experience, so federal resumes require your average weekly hours for each job in your work experience section. The government often requires at least 52 weeks of experience in the skills on the JVA.
Supervisor Name and Contact Information
List your immediate supervisor and their contact information for each job you list. Make sure to denote whether your current supervisor can be contacted or not.
To avoid putting yourself in an awkward position at your current job, Taylor suggests requiring you be asked before your supervisor is contacted. If asked, find out if the hiring agency is ready to offer you the job as soon as they contact your current supervisor.
References aren’t always required – it depends on the hiring agency. However, it’s a good idea to include them if you have space.
Despite the controversy over disclosing prior pay in the private sector, salary is commonly included on federal resumes. Whether it’s required in your resume depends on the hiring agency.
‘GS’ or ‘General Schedule’ is the pay scale for most of the federal government. If you’re already working in the government, use your GS level instead of your salary.
Writing Your Federal Resume
There are three good methods for creating your federal resume:
- Write it yourself
- Build it with USAJobs’s own federal resume builder
- Hire a federal resume writer
Some JVAs may actually require you to apply through the USAJobs resume builder, but it might not be obvious in the JVA itself. For this reason, among others, both Taylor and Segal suggest applying through the USAJobs resume builder instead of creating a resume from scratch.
No matter what choice you make, do not procrastinate on applying if you find a JVA you’re interested in. The application process is much more time consuming than a private sector job application, and JVAs have a strict close time. There may also be unexpected requirements once you’re finished applying through USAJobs.
Federal Resume Format
Levin recommends building your own resume, because although federal resume formatting is very conservative, there are a few things you can do to make your resume stand out. Additionally, you control the content and don’t have to worry about the character limits of fields on the USAJobs resume builder.
The official font of the US government is Times New Roman, size 12. Some JVAs will actually require you to use this. If it’s not required, you can use different fonts, but nothing too modern. Jobscan’s guide on appropriate resume fonts can help you choose the best fonts. Levin’s favorite font to use on a federal resume is Calibri, with Arial Black used for section headings and contact information.
You can use tables and columns in your resume, but be sparing with them. Bullet points are also acceptable, but avoid other special characters. You can upload multiple documents, so be sure to upload your resume as both a PDF and a DOCX to cover all of your bases.
Using the USAJobs federal resume builder
Using the USAJobs resume builder is a great idea if you’re new to the federal job application process. The resume builder requires all of the important information that could get you disqualified if omitted, so there’s an extra level of safety in using it. There is, however, a lot of information to include in the builder, so it does require a good deal of attention to detail. Make sure you don’t accidentally skip any fields.
The biggest drawback of using the resume builder is that the fields for prior job experience have a 5,000 word character limit. While that seems like a generous limit, it’s something you might hit given the length of federal resumes.
However, Segal keyed us in a great way to deal with that character limit: “There is a section in USAJobs called ‘additional information.’ This is a free form block of 20,000 characters.”
The additional information section is where you should put further details you weren’t able to fit in throughout the rest of the process. It’s also where you should put certifications or awards.
Professional Federal Resume Writers
Your third option is to hire a federal resume writer. Since federal resumes are so complex, having an expert help you can be a great asset. Many experts don’t just write your resume, they’ll teach you how to tailor your resume for each position you’re interested in or even show you the best ways to leverage the USAJobs resume builder.
Do thorough research when selecting resume writers. Levin cautions, “There are a lot of opinions out there about federal resumes. Take them with a grain of salt. Look at that person’s experience. Do they do this professionally or is this just their opinion? Be mindful of who’s telling you what and what their background is.”
Federal Resume Tips
- Quantify your successes with numbers
- “Digitized company’s internal microfilm library of more than 5,000 files”
- “Steered company through a complicated re-organization, resulting in a 75% increase in profits with minimal employee turnover.”
- Use the same language as the JVA and occupational questionnaire
- Use Jobscan to match and optimize keywords
- Make your qualifications for the role straightforward and obvious
- Take advantage of how long federal resumes are expected to be (4-8 pages)
- Only list your responsibilities and not show measurable results
- Assume that anything about your prior experience is self-explanatory
- Include personal pictures such as a headshot
- Include personal information such as your SSN or hobbies
- Finally, we asked each expert what they thought some of the most important things federal job seekers should know:
Nancy Segal: “You have to understand the process. If you do the process right, you should consistently get to the hiring manager.”
Lex Levin: “Federal hiring is very much a marathon, not a sprint. It takes on average about a hundred and six days to go from application to onboarding, which is over three months. Many people wait longer than that. If you are getting referred [to the hiring manager], that means the resume is working for you – keep applying!”
Karol Taylor: “Don’t struggle with no results. Invest in your future, invest in yourself. This is your career, it’s your future, it’s worth the time and money.”
- Sample federal resume with helpful comments
- USAJob’s resume writing video tutorial
- Pathways – recent grad federal job program
- Free virtual events from USAJobs including resume writing workshops
- How to write executive core qualifications