Federal Hiring 101
We worked with federal HR specialists and officers to prepare an overview of the federal hiring process that can help you develop your federal job search strategy. By understanding the basic terminology and structure of federal hiring, you’ll be able to create more effective searches and a compelling federal resume. In several ways, the federal hiring process is drastically different from hiring in the private sector, so we’ve highlighted where you might need to invest some time to translate your credentials for federal service. Also highlighted are opportunities that grant merit status under special hiring authorities, which offer an excellent career entry point for students interested in working for the federal government.
Federal Hiring Basics: The Process
There are two streams of federal hiring: competitive service and merit service. Much of federal hiring occurs under the merit system, which is closed off to the general public. However, Special Hiring Authorities allow certain non-federal employees and temporary federal employees to be considered under the merit system. The Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act, for example, allows individuals who have accumulated 24 months or more of federal experience in temporary seasonal positions to be considered under the merit system.
Competitive (Delegated Exam)
Open to all U.S. citizens, including current federal employees
Veterans’ preference applies
* For professional and scientific occupations: At GS 9 and above, veteran’s preference prioritizes qualifying veterans’ resumes within their group (i.e., qualified, well qualified, best qualified).
Current and former federal employees
Can narrowly target agency internal employees
No veterans’ preferenceSpecial Hiring Authorities
Federal Hiring Basics: The Resume
The average federal resume is 3 to 4 pages long. Although one page is common in the private sector, you should be as detailed as you can in your federal resume.
An HR specialist, not a machine, will read your resume. Make their job easier by connecting the dots between your resume and your questionnaire responses.
- Be as specific and outcome focused as possible when writing your work descriptions on your resume.
- Use the Challenge, Context, Action and Result (CCAR) storytelling format to create accomplishment narratives.
- Review a Federal Resume Guide to make sure you’ve included all necessary information.
Federal Hiring Basics: The Job Search
1. Pull together your application materials.
Create a USAJOBS.gov account.
Use the resume builder to tailor your resume to openings in your field of interest.
Upload your transcripts and any other documentation (veterans status forms, etc.) to USAJOBS.gov.
2. Understand how your qualifications fit into the General Schedule.
On a job opening announcement, the GS grade is used to communicate the position’s minimum qualifications and promotion potential.
GS 3- GS 4 – These may be internships or jobs that do not require a four year degree.
GS 5 – This is the entry level grade for professional and scientific positions in federal service. A four year degree substitutes for experience at the previous level.
GS 7 – If you have a four year degree and your transcript reflects superior academic achievement (SAA), your education may substitute for experience at the previous level. Alternatively, one year of graduate education may substitute for experience at the previous level.
GS 9 – For this grade, a relevant masters degree or a combination of education of experience may be qualifying.
3. Create saved searches on USAJOBS.gov to receive emails when new openings arise.
An effective search can find jobs where you are eligible and likely qualified.
Filter “Open to the public” as your hiring path.
For internships, limit your search to GS 3 and GS 4.
For entry level openings, limit your search to GS 5 to GS 7.
For openings in the career paths you’re most interested in, use four digit occupational series codes.
‘Secret’ Federal Internships and Opportunities
Openings under these programs are not exactly secret, but they are not posted to USAJOBS.gov like the majority of federal job opening announcements. While all Pathways opportunities for interns and recent graduates will be posted to USAJOBS.gov, these programs are instead usually co-managed by agencies and partner organizations, with partner organizations managing recruitment. Some allow for direct hiring eligibility after completion of the internship, so that successful interns may be appointed non-competitively to hard-to-fill positions after completing their degrees.
Bureau of Land Management
- An 11-week summer internship for college students and recent graduates.
- After successful completion of the program and degree, participants may be directly appointed to a full-time permanent position in mission-critical and hard-to-fill occupations.
- Because recruitment is managed by the BLM’s non-profit partners, you must apply for openings on partner sites (e.g., American Conservation Experience).
Public Lands Corps (see below)
Fish and Wildlife Service
- An 11-week summer internship for undergraduate rising seniors and graduate students.
- After successful completion of the program and degree, participants may be eligible for a permanent position in the FWS.
- Because recruitment is managed by the FWS’s non-profit partner, Student Conservation Association (SCA), you must apply for openings on the SCA’s site.
Resource Assistants Program
- The Forest Service’s paid immersive internship program.
- Because recruitment is managed by the Forest Service’s non-profit partners, you must apply for openings on partner sites.
Public Lands Corps (see below)
National Park Service
An overview of the NPS’s numerous internship and volunteer programs.
- A 12 week paid internship focused on conservation and community engagement.
- After successful completion of the program and degree, participants may be directly appointed to a full-time permanent position.
- Because recruitment is managed by the National Park Service’s non-profit partner, Conservation Legacy, you must apply for openings on CL’s site.
- A 10-11 week professional development internship based in a National Park Unit.
- Offers a living stipend, travel relocation bonus, and AmeriCorps Education award.
- Short-term paid internships that vary in duration from 10 weeks to 3 months.
- Because recruitment is managed by the NPS’s non-profit partner, The Geological Society of America, you must apply for openings on the GSA’s site.
- Science-based internships in national parks.
- A strong background in STEM is required for most positions.
- Those from historically underrepresented groups are strongly encouraged to apply.
- Because recruitment is managed by the NPS’s non-profit partners, you must apply for openings on the Mosaics in Science program site.
- A 10 to 30 week paid part-time to full-time internship focused on historic preservation and cultural resource management for current students and recent graduates.
- Travel and housing costs must be paid by interns.
Interagency Special Hiring Authorities
- Individuals hired under temporary seasonal status at federal land management agencies can qualify for merit promotion consideration by demonstrating a total of 24 months of temporary seasonal work without a break greater than 2 years.
- To qualify, individuals must be able to show SF-50 documentation of their qualifying temporary appointments.
- As a student, you can get a head start by applying to summer seasonal appointments.
- VISTA members build program capacity in non-profit organizations and public agencies to improve their communities.
- Provides an education award and living allowance for full-time one year terms.
- After two years of service, you can earn non-competitive status for two years.
- Search AmeriCorps VISTA openings.
- This work and education program is open to individuals 16-30 years old and requires 640 hours of service.
- After successful completion of the program, participants are eligible for noncompetitive hiring authority for two years.
- PLC FAQ.
Federal Hiring Resources from the Office of Personnel Management
Applicant Tools and Resources
- A great starting point to learn more about the federal hiring process that includes resume writing guidance, federal occupations by college major, and video answers to commonly asked questions like “What are special hiring authorities?” and “May I apply if I am close to completing my degree?”
Pathways: Internships, Recent Graduates, and Presidential Management Fellows
- Breaks down eligibility requirements, expectations, and opportunities for conversion for the three Pathways hiring pipelines.
- Pathways is the federal government’s primary program for internships and early career development.
- All Pathways openings are posted on USAJOBS.gov.