Expert Interview: Applying for Federal Jobs

Kathryn Troutman

Federal jobs have long been viewed as the "crown jewel" of stable employment. Steady work, quality benefits and excellent retirement plans are just a few of the enticements associated with federal positions. To land one of these highly sought after jobs, you need to know how to effectively apply for them. Kathryn Kraemer Troutman, the "Federal Resume Guru" and author of the best-selling Federal Resume Guidebook recently shared her personal insights into changes made to the federal job application system with LoveToKnow Jobs and Careers. See how you can improve your chances at landing a federal job.

Recent Changes to Federal Job Applications

LoveToKnow (LTK): Federal agencies have undergone recent hiring reform - can you share some of the changes that have taken place that job seekers should be aware of?

Kathryn Kraemer Troutman (KKT): Federal Job Applications have become easier since November of 2010. President Obama's Hiring Reform resulted in changes to federal job application formats that are easier and require less time. Job listings and applications can be found at USAJOBS, but I've included the most obvious changes here:

  • KSA Format Change: There are no more written narrative KSAs. The federal job application used to require the federal resume plus three to six pages of written narratives about important Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSAs) that are required for each job. Now, thanks to the White House Executive Order, the long narrative KSAs are not required. This can save applicants roughly three to five hours for each federal application! This is very good news for serious federal job applicants.
  • New Category Rating System: The Category Rating System means that more resumes are sent to the supervisor for consideration. Another great change is that more resumes are sent to the hiring supervisor. The old format would send just the top three candidates. This was called the Rule of Three. Now, the supervisor receives all the resumes that rank as "Best Qualified" candidates. The supervisors receive an average of 20 to 30 resumes for each job announcement. This new system is referred to as the Category Rating System.
  • Cover Letters: Cover letters are now accepted. This is optional, but now a federal job candidate can write a good cover letter and upload the letter into the www.usajobs.gov on-line application. The letter is just like a private industry letter and should feature your most relevant skills for the position as well as an impressive accomplishment. While this is optional, it could help your application stand out.

LTK: How do these changes affect the average applicant?

KKT: The changes will save a lot of time for the average applicant. In fact, in the past some first-time private industry job seekers would not even apply for federal positions because of the time-consuming KSA narratives. So, the "No More KSA Narratives" ruling is wonderful. The KSAs are now blended into questionnaires that are incorporated into federal applications. The questionnaires involve multiple-choice "self-assessment" questions that allow you to state your skill level for each question. The questionnaires usually include 8 to 30 questions, but they only take 15 to 20 minutes to complete.

LTK: One of the main areas of reform is regarding these questionnaires. How do the questions benefit or hinder the average applicant?

KKT: First of all, it's important to know that the score on your questionnaire will make the difference as to whether you are considered Best Qualified, Qualified or Does Not Meet Minimum Qualifications on the Category Rating System. Keep the following in mind:

  • The questionnaire is a test. You will be scored on your answers. The questionnaire answers add up through an automated scoring system to determine your placement in the Category Rating System. Your score will cause your resume to be placed in one of the following categories: Best Qualified, Well Qualified, Qualified or Not Qualified. Only the Best Qualified candidates will have their resumes reviewed.
  • The questionnaire is the new KSA. The questions will demonstrate the Knowledge, Skills and Abilities required for the position.
  • The questionnaires are part of most, but not all, of the USAJOBS applications. There are many different forms for the questions. They may be multiple-choice questions ranging from: "I have no education or experience in this area"; to the highest level of skill: "I am an Expert, or I am a Supervisor, or I am the person that others consult concerning this area of work." Give yourself all the credit that you truthfully can when you are selecting your skill level.
  • Your federal resume MUST match your questionnaire answers. If you are the perfect candidate with the best answers for the questionnaire, your resume must support these answers. If you state that you are the highest level for Team Lead, then your resume should show that you are an expert team leader as well.

Additional Federal Resume Tips

LTK: What are some tips applicants can use to make their KSA responses stand out?

KKT: Now that the separate KSAs are eliminated, you should include the KSAs in your resume as accomplishments. On average, the KSA accomplishments in the resume can be summarized in 150 words or less, and should demonstrate that you have the experience for the position. The human resources specialists know that your past performance is a proven indicator of your future performance. This is a valid, reliable assessment method for federal human resources - your accomplishments will prove that you have past performance.

Many people do not realize that the KSA accomplishments can help you get a "Best Qualified" score and referral to a supervisor. I recommend roughly three to five accomplishments in each federal resume. Include one accomplishment for your current or most recent position.

LTK: Do you have any other tips regarding resumes and applications for federal positions?

KKT: Of course!

  • Federal Resumes are longer than private industry resumes. The average length of a USAJOBS Federal Resume is three to five pages. The average length of a private industry resume is 2 pages. This is very surprising to most first-time federal job applicants. The additional length of the federal resume comes from the USAJOBS builder itself. The format of the print out from USAJOBS wastes at least one page with a very large left margin. It is perfectly acceptable for the USAJOBS federal resume to be longer. The USAJOBS average work experience "block" is 3,000 characters while the average private industry work experience section is roughly 1,000 characters.
  • Detail your experience. The federal resume is a quasi-legal document because the resume itself must prove on paper that you have the experience to perform the position. So, you can never assume that the human resources specialist will know that you "supervised a team of 10 engineering technicians." You must spell out and the information that will demonstrate your experience in writing. This contributes to the longer resume format.
  • Add keywords to your resume. Read the vacancy announcement for keywords. The keywords or key phrases detail the important skills that the HR specialist and the manager will be seeking. If the announcement states that the candidate will be an advisor to a senior manager, lead a team, develop briefings, design Power Points or update data for an information management system, you should add these keywords to your resume and application to help it stand out. For instance, you could add the following keywords to your resume: TEAM LEAD, ADVISOR, POWERPOINT DESIGNER, DATABASE UPDATES. Write the federal resume with small paragraphs and feature these keywords as HEADLINES for each of your paragraphs.
  • Consider the competition. Since the average federal announcement receives 100 to 1,000 applications, the resume must be readable for the human resources specialists. The 21 sample resumes in the Federal Resume Guidebook, 5th Edition demonstrate the popular, readable format with keywords in ALL CAPS, and the accomplishments which are really mini-KSAs in the resume.
  • Focus on work experience descriptions, as well as education, training and certifications. Supervisors are most interested in the work experience section of your resume. They are looking for past experience that will prove your ability to perform the position in question. If your resume matches their announcement with keywords and includes accomplishments, your resume will stand out. The new federal resume format could get you "Best Qualified," referred and selected for an interview.

Learning More From Kathryn Kraemer Troutman

To gain more insight from Kathryn Kraemer Troutman on federal job applications and landing a federal job, visit The Resume Place or JIST Publishing. Remember, in order to land your dream federal job, you have to be able to present your requirements in a way that meets and exceeds the expectations of the hiring manager.

Expert Interview: Applying for Federal Jobs