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How to Beat the Bots on USAjobs.gov

If you’ve ever applied for a federal job, then you know the hiring process can be daunting, time-consuming, and less than fruitful. It doesn’t have to be, though.

In recent years, OPM (or Office of Personnel Management) has made a number of changes to the federal job website, USAJOBS.gov, that make getting hired by the federal government easier for applicants.

We’ve taken these changes into account in these five suggestions for your next federal job application.

Make Sure You’re Eligible for the Job

First thing, and it’s an often-overlooked point, are you eligible for the job?

USAJOBS.gov has lots of jobs, but many of them are internal. Luckily, unlike other gigantic organizations, the federal government will typically tell you whether it’s an internal job under the “Who may apply” section. Unless you’re eligible under a qualified veteran preference program, you’ll be immediately disqualified from job open only to “Status Candidates.”

You should only take the time to apply for jobs under the “Open to all U.S. Citizens” category.

Make Sure You’re Eligible for the Paygrade

Applying to jobs above your paygrade is probably the second most common mistake people make when applying for a federal job. The federal government’s general service (GS) payscale can be a little confusing at first. Do you have a chance for GS-12? Or should you be looking at GS-7? What does that even mean? Here’s a little clarification.

The federal GS scale is like the pay scale at any other company. It goes from GS-1 to GS-15. The higher the number, the higher up in the ranks. So, where should you start?

With a degree and the right certs, you’ll likely start your federal career somewhere between GS-5 and GS-9. You could theoretically start your federal career as GS-11 with the right experience, but those are typically hired from the GS-9 grade employees.

There are a couple quirks you should also know about the federal hiring system: locality-based grade classifications and the position titles.

The paygrade is based on how much geographic or programmatic area your position oversees. Think of it like managing a retail store versus managing a region of a retail store. At the regional or local level of a federal agency, the top supervisory spot in an office might be a GS-12 or GS-13. However, at the federal level (in D.C.), the top spot might be a GS-15 or SES (Special Elective Service) employee. You could potentially apply for a GS-9/GS-11 position straight out of college as a network admin at the agency level in Washington, D.C., but a smaller regional office in Omaha, Nebraska might have only one GS-11 spot — the boss of the entire shop. In the latter case, you might enter as a GS-5. So, the closer to the local level, the lower your entry grade.

Now that you know you’re in the running for the job, how do you write your resume so it reaches the top of the pile?

Tailor Your Resume to the Job Description Keywords

The hiring procedure for the federal government isn’t much different than many large companies. A hiring official writes a job description and forwards it to the HR professionals. The HR professionals post the job on USAJOBS.gov.

Next, the HR professionals take a look at the job description and resume and pass along the candidates who qualify (or they call it “certify”) for the job. The operative word here is “qualify.” They look at your education and years of relevant experience to determine if you even make the shortlist. That’s it. That’s the role of the HR professional. They’re looking at the same qualifications checklist that’s provided with the job posting. What does this mean for you?

That means you need to read the job description carefully and tailor your resume to the keywords in the description. You might want to consider a skills resume.

Federal HR professionals literally have checklists for relevant experience, education, and military service. You’ll need to certify not only the KSA (knowledge, skills, and abilities) but also the paygrade. It’s a two-prong system that’s described below.

Don’t Rush the KSA Questions

Believe it or not, back in the day, applying to federal jobs was much more difficult. Before 2011, you’d have to fill out a KSA questionnaire to complete your application, which meant rating yourself from expert to “no experience” in 3-12 knowledge areas for the job, and then basically write a short essay describing why you rated yourself the way you did. You’d spend two hours applying for one job, and then potentially never hear anything ever again.

It used to be that the KSA questionnaire was part of the initial application process, and they were horrible. The KSA questions are still horrible, but they’re now later in the process. Think of your KSA questionnaire as your first interview. Here’s how to beat the KSA:

  • Always pick expert. This one is a little bit controversial, but just always say you’re an expert. It’s an unspoken arms race among you and the rest of the applicants. Human eyes will never see your resume if you don’t reach a certain score. But don’t lie.
  • Don’t just use your resume bullets. Just like when you rock your first interview, the KSA questions are a way to give further context to the information the interviewer has sitting right in front of them.
  • Provide specific examples. When contextualizing the experience listed on your resume, try to describe specific work-related times that justify your expert experience.

In short, the KSA questionnaire is no time to be modest. Just make sure you can justify your experience in the essay portion. The system will almost immediately let you know whether you “certify” for the job.

Get Certified

Last, but certainly not least, the quickest way to beat the bots on USAJOBS.gov is merely to be the most qualified one for the job, which means getting certified. You can easily prove that you have the knowledge with the right cert. By earning and listing your certifications, you’re not only fulfilling the keyword quota, but actually telling the HR professional, the hiring official, and the entire industry that you’ve got the knowledge and skills to do the job.

The federal hiring process might be a little daunting, but we argue that it’s no worse than any other large, bureaucratic organization. While it’s mostly tailoring your resume to the job description, you should also strive to be the best IT pro for any job by continuously learning, training, and earning the certs that make sense for your career goals.

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