Resume, Cover Letter and Networking Tips for Government Jobs

by Sharon Elber

Government Jobs

Whether you are applying for federal, state, city or even county jobs in the government, you need to have a strong application package to be competitive for these in demand jobs. This guide will cover specific tips to help you write a resume and cover letter that will get noticed. In addition, we will cover how to make the most of professional networking to increase your attractiveness to employers in the civil service sector.

General Application Tips for Government Positions

Before we dive into specific tips for government resumes, cover letters, and networking, let’s take a look at some general guidelines to consider using across the board to improve how your application is received.

1) Take Your Time Reviewing the Job Ad

Before you get started customizing your resume and cover letter for a job in civil service, it is important to carefully read the job posting. In particular, pay attention to the language used in both the required and preferred qualifications as well as any specific skills listed. It is important to not only make sure these qualifications are featured prominently in your application, but that you also use the same language to describe your skills and previous roles and responsibilities wherever possible.

Imagine for a moment that the person that wrote the advertisement is also reviewing your application materials and they have a list with checkboxes that they use to evaluate the initial pool of applicants. You want to write your application materials so that this person is checking those boxes within seconds of reading your materials. Make it easy for them by using the same language they used in the ad itself.

2) Follow Application Instructions to the Letter

In many cases government jobs can be found online through the government's website or a job portal website such as USAjobs.com. Each site may have their own application process, which can include small details such as using online forms to submit your resume or requiring a pre-application assessment. They may specify certain file formats or impose word limits. It is critical to follow each of the steps required and supply any documentation that you are asked to provide.

Missing even a seemingly trivial item can invalidate your entire application. It doesn’t matter how good your resume is if it never makes it into the hands of the hiring manager!

3) Get Your Ducks in a Row Before Starting the Application Process

Make sure that you will have everything you need at your fingertips before you apply. For example, you will need details such as the start and end dates of your previous jobs, dates for degrees and certifications earned, and the names and contact information of your references. In addition, if you are a veteran, you may receive preferential consideration for federal jobs. Be sure you have an electronic copy (pdf scan or readable image) of your DD214 form to submit with your application.

Resume Writing Guide for Government Jobs

1) Resume Format for Federal, State, City and County Jobs

Although there is room for nontraditional formats in some employment sectors, in general, these don’t apply to most government positions. In almost all cases, a traditional reverse chronological resume will best meet expectations of employers and do the best job communicating your qualifications, as well as the fact that you are able to work in a bureaucratic environment where compliance with policy is a strongly held value.

2) Customize Your Work History Sections

The work history section is one of the most important ways you can communicate that you have the required experience and skillset for the job you are applying for. It is important to take the time to make sure you are making the best case you can for each job you apply for, rather than using the same work history for any job.

Take a look at each section of your work history and compare it to the job description and job ad. Are your roles and responsibilities listed in a way that mirror the priorities of the job posting? Are the most important qualifications listed first and the extraneous responsibilities near the bottom, or removed altogether? Have you used the same jargon as the ad to describe relevant policies, compliance standards, and required skills? The closer the fit along these lines, the better.

3) Resume Length

While the private sector tends to value short, concise, highly focused resumes, the same cannot be said for civil service jobs. In fact, typically the standard is to err on the side of providing too much detail, rather than not enough. 3-5 pages long is not uncommon, particularly for advanced jobs in government.

4) Resume Sections for Government Jobs

i) Contact Information

Include your full name, physical address, phone number, and email address for your contact information. If you happen to also have an up to date professional profile on a site such as LinkedIn, you can include that as well, but only if you think it adds value to your application materials.

ii) Education

Include details such as the dates of your degree, the name of the institution, your GPA as well as additional details on coursework if it is relevant to the position you are applying for.

iii) Work History

This is a place to get into more detail about your past work experience. Make sure to use strong action verbs for the types of responsibilities you have held and use the language of the job posting where possible. In addition, try to quantify your achievements to showcase your past accomplishments in these roles. This helps to provide strong evidence for your value as a future employee in your new role.

Government resumes have some additional sections that are unusual when compared to the private sector. In addition to listing your work history, education, and contact information, make sure your resume contains the following sections:

iv) Military Service

If you have served in the armed forces, it is advisable to include a section to document this including the years of your service, your occupational designation, and a short list of your responsibilities. If you earned special honors, such as military badges or medals distinguishing your service, include those in this section as well.

v) Additional Sections as Required by the Vacancy Announcement

The job posting, sometimes known as a vacancy announcement for federal jobs, may offer additional guidelines for sections to include in your resume as well as additional formatting rules. Be sure to follow these closely.

See resume samples for the government, public and non-profit sectors.

Cover Letter Tips for Government Jobs

1) Research the Agency

Regardless of whether you plan to apply for jobs at the federal, state, or local level, it is important that your cover letter communicates that you understand the agency where you are applying. This means doing a little research to gain understanding of where they fit relative to other agencies such as regulatory and oversight agencies, the kinds of issues they have administrative jurisdiction over, and a little bit about the communities of people they serve.

Your cover letter is an appropriate place to make sure the hiring manager knows that you have a clear sense for the kind of work you are doing and how it fits within the larger agency’s directives.

2) Connect the Dots

The cover letter is your place to tell the hiring manager that you meet and/or exceed the requirements for the job. One way to do this is to understand your resume as providing the data to back up an argument you will make in your cover letter that you are the best applicant for the job. In a way, it is sort of like “connecting the dots” to help your potential employer visualize you filling the job and meeting their needs.

3) Highlight Accomplishments

Saying that you have certain skills, experience, and aptitudes is one thing. Showing them by way of past honors, awards, or quantifiable achievements is another. Including your most important accomplishments in your cover letter encourages the reader to see you as competent and driven. It makes it easier for them to envision you as an asset to their agency.

4) Fill in the Gaps

If your resume is missing key components, then your cover letter should provide an explanation for that. For example, if the required qualifications include a degree, but you have 10 years of experience that you would like to be considered as equivalent to this degree, the cover letter is a place to include that. In addition, if your work history includes mostly private sector work, it can be helpful to include some information about why you are interested in transitioning to civil service, and how your work in the private sector can serve as a special asset in a government job.

See cover letter samples for the government, public and non-profit sectors.

Professional Networking for Government Employees

Here are some tips for thinking about how to make the most of professional networking using social media sites such as LinkedIn for building your list of important contacts:

1) Watch Your Politics

In many cases, employers in the federal, state, and local government are sensitive to how their agencies are represented in the public eye. Many agencies need to operate under both democratic and republican administrations, and as such, need to be able to maintain a certain level of political neutrality in order to remain effective regardless of the sways in congressional and presidential leadership. Strong and vocal politics expressed on social media can be a turn off for employers in the civil service sector.

To that end, many have policies which discourage civil servants from making political statements relative to the work they do in the government, and others may be sensitive to highly visible political engagement on social media. It makes sense to be sure the social media that you use for personal purposes is set to private, and you take special care to be professional when engaging on your public platforms where your professional life is on full display, such as on LinkedIn.

2) Be Mindful of Security Clearances and Cyber Threats

If you happen to hold a security clearance, or the position you are applying for may require one, then it is important to understand that public facing social media is probably not the place to be advertising your clearance, or even your job title. And, if you will be working in the defense or intelligence sectors, it may even be a good idea to keep your social media set to private and use your first name and last initial only.

3) Specialized Social Media Platforms for Government Workers

Consider networking on sites designed with federal, state, and local government employees in mind, for example, Security Clearance Jobs, GovLoop, or Federal Communicators Network.

4) Don’t Forget the People You Meet in Person

The most powerful professional contacts you have are those that you have met in person. Although online networking is a powerful tool, getting to know people in person builds a stronger bond. Look for opportunities to attend professional conferences, social events, and professional development opportunities. Be proactive about connecting with people you have met by following up within a few days of meeting them. Offer to connect them with people in your network and be sure they know you are in the job search.

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