If you’re interested in working for the federal government, you’ll need to navigate one very particular and time-consuming task—federal resume writing. You may have a perfect one-or two-page resume for career fairs or online profiles, but for your federal resume, you’ll want to consider a few tips.
1. Rules of Brevity Do Not Apply
Your federal resume should be highly readable, but unlike with your typical resume, don’t sweat the length. If it’s 20 pages, that’s a problem. A five-page word document is a good goal, but keep in mind that federal resumes generally ask for 10 years of employment history. That’s more than you should include on a typical resume (I mean, that college tutoring job really helped me in my career as an Army civilian, but I can guarantee it wasn’t the factor that got me the job). If you have more than 10 years of experience you can include that, but the closer you get to 20-plus years on the job, it’s likely your first few positions are irrelevant—they don’t need to be included on your federal resume, and they shouldn’t be.
The general principle for a federal resume is to go in chronological order—much like filling out employment history on your SF-86. But keep in mind this is still a resume, and it will ultimately be viewed by human eyes (if you do a good job of writing it and meet the qualifications). A functional resume format (where you lead off with your most applicable jobs/skills) will probably serve you better once your resume is viewed by human eyes.
2. Write for the Human (and the Computer)
For most writing you’re appealing to a human. A key takeaway is to have a resume that can be scanned in six seconds—that’s how much time the average recruiter spends on a resume. Some federal resume writers get bogged down in all the details required and forget the six-second scan principle. View your resume two ways: as a screen shot and as a printout. Some government human resources specialists print out resumes to scan, particularly once the pool has been narrowed (sorry trees). Make sure in either format that there are key skills and qualifications that directly apply to the position and will catch a human’s eye. These may be keywords that apply to the position or they may be unique skills, a cool credential or certification, or something else that will make the human scanning your resume stop and want to learn more.
This doesn’t mean you should forget the computer; you need to include the relevant keywords from the job announcement. But if those are the only words you use, you won’t make it very far. When scanning a resume, it’s clear who just copied and pasted keywords and who incorporated them in a way that fits the arc of their skills. Your federal resume needs to tell a story, just like your resume does in any other job application situation.
3. Prove Your Grade
The General Schedule classification and pay system specifies certain levels of education and experience for each grade. All applicants, including veterans or those with prior government service, need to prove they have the requisite experience and education in their federal resume. Know the level of the position you’re applying for and show you have the experience required. Many current GS employees wonder if they’ll need to wait a certain period before applying for a new position at a higher grade. For annual promotions and merit-based increases, there are generally time-in-service requirements. In applying for a new position, however, there is generally no time-in-service requirement. The rules differ within agencies, and some departments, including the National Security Agency, having much greater flexibility on salary ranges and step increases within grade.
Regardless, do your research and make sure your resume fits the criteria. You’re wasting an HR specialist’s time when you don’t meet the most basic jobs requirements.
4. Show Specialized and Similar Experience
This one is for veterans, in particular. You may not meet the minimum education requirements of the position, but if you can show equivalent experience, training or education, you’re still qualified for the job. Also, be sure to list your veteran’s preference or disability rating on your resume. Federal resumes speak the language of KSA—knowledge, skills and accomplishments. For your federal resume, don’t hesitate to include relevant volunteer experience, military awards and certificates, and other topics you might leave off of a more concise nonfederal resume. Make sure these fit under the KSA umbrella—show how the training or experience you received applies to the job description. Sprinkle the relevant keywords across your resume, and across your KSAs.
5. Use Formatting
Many people treat their federal resume as a keyword search tool. Much of the advice around federal resumes focuses on the importance of key words. And key words are vital for every online resume—not just those submitted on USAJobs. But you also must include formatting to make your resume readable to the human who will eventually scan it. It should be visually appealing. You should use headers. You should divide your resume into a readable, visually appealing format. You should include relevant social media and career networking links, if appropriate. You should include an objective statement if it will better organize your resume.
The bottom line is, make your federal resume as easy to read and visually appealing as possible. Yes, it will be significantly longer than the one- to two-page resume you print out for career fairs. But you need to put as much, if not more thought, into the visual appeal and proper formatting of your federal resume.
6. Have a Nonfederal Resume
Many people assume the only way to apply for a federal job is on USAJobs. It is the primary government hiring tool but not the only one. Some federal agencies use their own or third-party application processing systems or job listing sites. If you’re applying through one of these third-party sites, make sure you know the resume requirements. Your more concise, nonfederal resume may be a better fit for these agencies. When in doubt, reach out to the contact on the job announcement. This may be the most critical piece of advice to go along with your federal resume: Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone. Showing your desire to apply for the job—and to do it right—makes a great first impression.
Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com and a former Defense Department employee.