Applying for a Federal Job After Military Service

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By Ralph Charlip, FACHE


So you are interested in a federal job--great! Now you need to know how to land that job. The federal government offers a superb compensation package with good salaries; regular pay raises; health benefits; long term health insurance; dental and eye insurance; life insurance; alternative work schedules; options to work at home and some agencies also will help pay for student loans and offer other incentives. So, you are going to compete with many others for a federal job. Learn how to maximize your chances of being selected.


As of 1 Nov 10, applications for federal jobs include a standard resume. You will also likely be asked to answer a series of questions called an Occupational Questionnaire. There are no narrative answers – just check the appropriate box.

KSAs, ECQs and TQs

If you applied for a federal job before 1 Nov 10, you almost always had to write a narrative response to a list of KSAs; knowledge, skills and abilities. After 1 Nov 10, there are no KSAs as part of the initial application process.

ECQs are executive core qualifications and TQs are technical qualifications and are used for Senior Executive Service applications along with your resume. SES positions are the civilian equivalent of flag officers.


ECQs: There are only five ECQs and they are exactly the same for every SES position: Leading People, Leading Change, Business Acumen, Results and Building Coalitions. OPM has very specific guidance on how to write ECQs including format and length (10 pages max, two per ECQ). I urge you to read the guidance very carefully.

You can expect to spend 16-20 hours preparing your ECQs. When you are done, ask one or two SES associates to review them and give you feedback. Once you finalize your ECQs, you can use them for every SES application and almost always without any modification. When you apply for an SES position, follow the instructions in the announcement carefully. One agency limited each ECQ to one page – that takes some work to cut your two-page version in half and still get the message across.


TQs: Follow any guidance in the job announcement carefully. If there is no guidance in the announcement, try to keep your TQ response to two pages each. Use a narrative style, not bullets; and remember that you need to write your TQ in terms of executive leadership action.

Two Categories of Job Announcements and Veteran (includes active duty) Applicants

There are two types of job announcements. The first one is called Merit Promotion and the second, Delegated Examining Unit (DEU). In general, Merit Promotion announcements are used to recruit from existing or former civil servants, and DEU announcements are used to recruit from the general public.

Military personnel and veterans can apply for Merit Promotion announcements under a law called VEOA – Veterans Employment Opportunity Act. So when you see a Merit Promotion Announcement, you can apply for it, except in one case. Sometimes agencies limit applicants to their own agency. In this case, when the area of consideration is the agency-only, you may not apply. So be sure to check the area of consideration in the announcement. As a side note, VEOA is not veterans preference. VEOA only opens the door for you, it does not provide any preference in the process.

DEU announcements are open to anyone in the public; and, so you can apply. Sometimes jobs are announced both ways – Merit Promotion and DEU. If you are interested in a job advertised both ways, you should apply to both announcements because it increases your chances of making the final list that is sent to the hiring authority.

Veterans Preference (VP) (where you rise to the top of the list because of your veteran status) applies to only DEU announcements. Veterans Preference is complicated, too much so for this article; and does not apply to SES positions. In general, VP does not apply to officers in the grades 04 and above. There are three types of VP – five-point, 10-point and 30% or more disabled (service connected). Five-point veterans are basically veterans without any wartime experience. Ten-point veterans are those with war time/combat experience. A 30% or more, service connected, disabled veteran can be any veteran, wartime or not. Your personal circumstances may impact your VP status. The human resource specialist whose name appears on the job announcement can help you if you have more detailed questions; or, you can review the information at the OPM web site at A 30% disabled vet has more preference than a 10-point vet who has more preference than a five-point vet. [For more in-depth information on veterans' preference, see Veterans' Preference in Federal Hiring.]

Five and 10 point veterans have to compete for jobs. That is, the hiring authority must consider them in competition with others. A 30%+ disabled (service connected) veteran does not have to compete. That means that if I have a vacancy and I know a 30%+ veteran, I can call him or her, and hire them – even without an announcement or an application. However, human resources will want a resume because they still have to verify the individual is qualified for the job (can’t hire a logistician as a doctor!). And so it works the other way as well. If you are a 30%+ disabled vet and you are maximizing your MOAA network, you might pop up on the right person’s radar and the job could be yours!

After Nov 1, 2010, the way HR processes DEU applications changed using a system called Category Rating. In Category Rating, your application is scored against pre-established criteria and you are placed in one of three categories (there can be more or less than three categories, but three is typical). Then veteran’s preference is applied and you move to the top of your category. If you are a 10% or more disabled veteran, you move to the top category regardless of your score.

The value of category rating is that the hiring authority receives a larger pool of candidates to consider (before 1 Nov 10, the number of names referred by HR to the hiring authority was limited to three). But veteran’s preference still applies and a non-veteran cannot be hired of the DEU list over a veteran.

When a job is advertised using both Merit Promotion and DEU, the hiring authority gets several lists – called certification lists or “certs,” for short. The hiring authority decides which cert to use to select an employee. For example, as a hiring authority, I might not use the DEU cert even though it was available. That decision, to use the Merit Promotion cert does not violate the law. Likewise, I could use the DEU cert and not the Merit Promotion cert. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I get a DEU list with four names, and I get a Merit Promotion list with 8 names. And because you read this article, you applied under both Merit Promotion using VEOA and DEU. And let’s say that your name appears on both lists. After reviewing the lists and maybe doing some interviews, I decide to hire you. But you are a five-point veteran and are third on the DEU list with two 10-point veterans in the number one and number two positions. I can’t select you from the DEU cert because of veterans’ preference. But I can select you from the Merit Promotion cert and have not violated the preference of the two 10-point veterans on the DEU list. Likewise, I might hire a non-vet using the Merit Promotion cert, again, no violation of veterans’ preference because I did not make a selection off the DEU list.

What Happens After You Submit Your Application

After you submit your application (remember to read the announcement carefully and submit all required documents by the deadline!), Human Resources (HR) will review your package to be sure it is complete. If not, agencies generally will eliminate you from the process and almost no HR office will contact you to tell you your package is incomplete – that’s your responsibility.

If the application is complete, HR specialists decide if you are qualified – that is, you can do the job, but you may not be the best candidate. Qualified candidates are forwarded to the hiring authority following OPM and agency rules. If there are a lot of qualified applicants, most agencies have a panel process that screens the applications for the best qualified and those names are then sent forward to the hiring authority.

The hiring authority then goes through a process and makes a selection and notifies HR. HR makes the official job offer and notifies all the non-selects. Notification to non-selects does not go out until someone has accepted the job. Some agencies will notify you that you have been screened out when that happens. So if the HR specialist determines you are not qualified, you probably will hear from HR relatively soon after you apply.

The process for SES positions is more complicated. Once HR identifies the qualified applicants, applications are put into two categories. The first one includes individuals who are current or previously were, an SES. This category also includes successful graduates from SES candidate development programs.


The second category are applications from current non-SES civil servants and outside applicants. The second category is sent to an Executive Review Board (ERB) within the agency or at the Department level in some organizations. The ERB, all sitting SESs, review the applications and determine who the best qualified applicants are. The ERB reviews the applicant’s entire package. After the ERB completes its work, those rated best qualified and those applicants from first category are forwarded to the hiring authority. The hiring authority then follows agency and OPM rules and makes a selection and notifies HR. HR notifies the individual of their selection.

The selectee’s name is forwarded to the Secretary of the department or the equivalent in independent agencies. If the selectee is a current or former SES or graduate from an SES candidate development program, the HR specialist makes a formal offer and the selectee comes to work. If the person is not an SES, has not been one or is not a graduate of an SES candidate development program, the application is sent to OPM for review by a Qualifications Review Board (QRB).


QRBs meet weekly and are composed of three sitting SESs from different agencies. The QRB reviews only the ECQs and the Resume – not the TQs. The QRB decides whether or not the selectee meets the standards of the Senior Executive Service. If the QRB approves the selectee, the agency is notified and the selectee is offered the job. But the QRB can disapprove a selectee. If that happens, the board provides specific feedback to the agency on what the selectee needs to do to pass a QRB. Selectees only get two tries at the QRB. If they fail the second one, the agency has to wait a year to resubmit the individual – obviously they will make an alternate selection. So a good resume and well written ECQs are vital at this step of the process.

After a selectee accepts an SES position, non-selects are notified. Most agencies will make notification to individuals screened out by HR or an ERB at the time of the elimination.


Interviews in the federal government are much the same as in the private sector. Come prepared to meet people, answer questions and put your best “face” forward. Dress appropriately -- business suit (men and women), matching shoes, accessories, tie, etc. Don’t wear items from your military wardrobe – show the hiring authority you are ready to make the transition to a civilian job.

Never use military language. Don’t expect the hiring panel to understand what a commander (rank or position!) is or what a tank driver does or what a battalion or squadron is or what the significance of a colonel is vs. a general or a private. Put everything in civilian terms. I’ve been on panels where military personnel know I am a retired officer and use the Service language and I am the only one who half understands what they said. Using military language will eliminate you quickly from the competition.

Be prepared for multi-part questions and take notes if you have to. Ask for clarification. Don’t guess!

Be on time. If you are going to be late, call ahead. I recommend you find the interview location a week before and do your reconnaissance. Consider traffic at the time of day you are interviewing, where to park, etc.

You can expect individual as well as group (panel) interviewers. You can expect multiple interviews. Sometimes you will be asked to interview with several individuals separately on the first round. Be prepared and be patient.


Interview questions are almost always the same for all candidates, especially on the first round of interviews. This protects you and the agency from discrimination in the hiring process. In second-or third-round interviews, you can expect the questions to be less structured. Interviewers will be taking notes, don’t let that distract you – focus on your answer and deliver it well.

Read about Performance Based Interviewing – you will find PBI a common approach to interview questions. You can read about PBI on the internet.

After the interview, it is appropriate to send a thank you note. I don’t recommend you send an email. If you are going to make an impression, send a handwritten note.

It is not appropriate for you to try to contact the hiring authority after an interview (except for the thank you note). Your contact should be with the HR staff unless you are directed otherwise (not likely).

Upon Selection – What Happens

So you made it and the job is yours—congratulations. Here’s what you can expect.

Salary: HR will make an official job offer, initially by phone and then in writing. While civil service salaries are set, there is some room for negotiation. You should expect the offer to be at the minimum amount (step 1) of the appropriate grade. If you are making more than the Step 1 amount, you should inquire about starting at a hirer step – one that matches or slightly exceeds your current pay. Agencies have some flexibility in this regard, but generally will not start you at a Step 10! Be prepared to show your current salary via an LES (and don’t forget to explain that your military pay and benefits have the tax advantage that will go away with your civil service pay – that needs to be part of your negotiation.

SES pay is not set in the same manner as general schedule (GS) employees. SES pay is pay-banded. So salary negotiation is definitely a part of the SES process. Same basic rules as above – aim for your current or slightly more salary plus use the tax advantage to maximize your request.

Review civil service salaries at the OPM website (and don’t forget to use the correct locality pay chart for your duty station area). SESs do not receive locality pay.

Relocation: If the job announcement includes a statement that says “relocation expenses will be paid” (or something similar), then the agency will pay for your move. Your first move entitlement as a civil servant is very limited. Generally, the agency will pay for a mover to move your household goods, and pay mileage and per diem from your current location to the new duty station. Per diem is also paid for your family. The per diem is the minimum GSA specified per diem – the lowest allowed in the country.


You are expected to travel 350 miles a day and you will get paid for each mile using the current reimbursement rate specified by GSA. Your HR specialist will provide more specifics. However, you might offer to pay for your own move (use your last move entitlement from DOD) in exchange for a higher starting salary. Consider this as part of your negotiation strategy.

Oath of Office: When are arrive on your first day, you will take an oath of office. It is very similar to the oath you took while on active duty.

Truth in the application process: Be absolutely truthful in your application. If your application is falsified, you will likely be dismissed from civil service. If you have questions about the forms you are filling out or your application, check with the HR specialist.

Background Checks and Security Clearances: All federal jobs require a National Agency Check Investigation. Some positions require clearances or trust investigations. If you have an active clearance, bring documentation to in-processing so that the HR specialist can make a copy.

Special Military and Veteran Issues

I’ve already covered VEOA and veterans’ preference. But there are a few more topics that you will find useful.

VRA (Veterans Readjustment Act): VRA allows any honorably discharged veteran to be hired non-competitively into any position, GS11 and below, so long as the hiring takes place within three years of separation from the military. If you see a job that is a GS11 or below and you would like to apply, fill out the forms and write VRA across the top or include a statement about invoking VRA in the transmittal letter or email.


DD214: If you are on active duty at the time you apply for a job, you won’t be able to provide a DD214 even if the announcement indicates that veterans must provide one with the application. Simply write a statement that you are on active duty and will provide the DD214 on your first day at work. And then be sure you have your DD214 when you out process…no DD214 on your first day likely means no job!

“Double Dipping”: You can be on terminal leave drawing military pay while working as a civil servant. And there is no pay offset.

Disabled Veterans: Be sure you have available a copy of your military Service disability rating or (and I prefer AND) your VA rating. These documents are as important as your DD 214. You will have to provide a rating decision to invoke a non-competitive hiring authority (30%+ disabled, service connected veterans preference).

More Federal Job Resources

Veterans' Preference in Federal Hiring 

What You Can Do to Negotiate Your First Federal Job 

Applying for a Federal Job for Spouses and Parents of Veterans and Military Members 

Ralph Charlip is a retired Air Force Medical Service Corps Officer, member of the federal Senior Executive Service, and has more than 10 years of experience with federal civilian recruiting.