(Updated November 2021)
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 featuring good salaries, regular pay raises, health benefits, long term health insurance, dental and eye insurance, life insurance, alternative work schedules, and options to work at home. Some agencies even help pay for student loans and offer other incentives. So you can expect to compete with many others for a federal job.
MOAA can help maximize your chances of being selected. Check out our extensive resources below and at MOAA.org/FedJobs, and consider a membership upgrade to access resources available exclusively to Life and Premium members. Want to jump to a specific topic? Click the menu below.
- KSAs, ECQs and TQs
- Job Announcement Categories and Veteran Applicants (Includes Active Duty)
- What Happens After You Submit Your Application
- What Happens Upon Selection
- Special Military and Veteran Issues
You will need an up-to-date résumé focused on the contributions you made in each job. Federal résumés can be five pages long unless the job announcement establishes other requirements. MOAA Premium and Life members can watch the recording of a recent MOAA webinar, Expert Tips on Preparing a Winning Federal Resume, for more details.
KSAs, or Knowledge, Skills and Abilities, are found in the job announcement, normally in the section titled “How You Will Be Evaluated.” Be sure your résumé reflects these KSAs.
ECQs (executive core qualifications) and TQs (technical qualifications) are used for Senior Executive Service applications along with your résumé. 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
- Building Coalitions
The Office of personnel management (OPM) has very specific guidance on how to write ECQs, including format and length (10 pages max, two per ECQ) in its Guide to Senior Executive Service Qualifications (PDF). Read the guidance very carefully.
You can expect to spend 20-40 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. For example, one agency limited each ECQ to one page – it’ll take 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 responses to two pages apiece. Use a narrative style, not bullets, and remember that you need to write your TQ in terms of executive leadership action.
There are two types of job announcements: Merit Promotion and 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 – the Veterans Employment Opportunity Act. You can also apply to Merit Promotion announcements, unless the agency has limited its post to agency-only applicants. Be sure to check the area of consideration in the announcement.
(There is no Veterans’ Preference when applying to Merit Promotion announcements – you only get access, not preference.)
DEU announcements are open to anyone. If a position is advertised as a DEU and a Merit Promotion announcement, apply to both – doing so increases your chances of making the final list that is sent to the hiring official.
Veterans’ Preference (VP) – where you rise to the top of the list because of your veteran status – applies to DEU announcements. It does not apply to SES positions, and in general, it does not apply to officers in the grades O-4 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 wartime/combat experience. Veterans with a service-connected disability of 30% or more do not need wartime/combat experience to claim that designation.
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. You also can review the information at the OPM web site at http://www.fedshirevets.gov/.
Unlike five- and 10-point veterans, a 30%+ disabled (service connected) veteran can be appointed to any non-SES position noncompetitively. This means that if there is a vacancy and the hiring official knows a 30%+ veteran, the hiring official can contact and hire the veteran – even without an announcement or an application. However, human resources will want a résumé because they still have to verify the individual is qualified for the job (can’t hire a logistician as a doctor!). 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!
HR processes DEU applications 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). Once slotted, VP 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 hiring official must hire a veteran over a non-veteran.
When a job is advertised using both Merit Promotion and DEU, the hiring official gets several certification lists, or “certs.” The hiring official decides which cert to use to select an employee.
A hiring official might not use the DEU cert even though it was available. The decision to use the Merit Promotion cert and not the DEU cert does not violate the law. Likewise the official could use the DEU cert and not the Merit Promotion cert.
Here’s an example: A hiring official gets a DEU list with four names and a Merit Promotion list with eight names. Your name appears on both lists. After reviewing the lists and maybe doing some interviews, the official decides to hire you. They can select you from either the DEU or the Merit Promotion cert.
However, if the hiring official wanted to hire a non-veteran, they would use the Merit Promotion cert: Doing so does not violate VP, because the selection did not come off the DEU list.
After you submit your application – remember, 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. 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 – whether you can do the job. Candidates are then scored against job-unique criteria, and the “best qualified” candidates are forwarded to the hiring official following OPM and agency rules. If there are a lot of best qualified applicants, hiring officials may use a screening panel to narrow down the list of candidates to be interviewed.
The hiring official then goes through a process, 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. However, some agencies will notify you if you’re screened out. 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: Current or prior SES members (and those who’ve graduated SES candidate development programs), and other applicants (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 the best qualified applicants.
The ERB reviews the applicant’s entire package. After the ERB completes its work, those rated best qualified from the group are forward to the hiring official along with applicants from first category (SES-experienced).
The hiring official then follows agency and OPM rules, makes a selection, and notifies HR. HR notifies the individual of their selection. Note: Some agencies process all applications (including current and former SESs) through the ERB.
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 member (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 from that group, the application is sent to OPM for review by a Qualifications Review Board (QRB).
QRBs normally meet weekly and are composed of three sitting SESs from different agencies. The QRB reviews only the ECQs and the résumé – not the TQs. The QRB decides whether 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. If not, 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 for the current opening. A good résumé 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. Here are some tips to remember:
- Dress appropriately. Wear a 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, what a tank driver does, what a battalion or squadron is, or what the significance of a colonel is compared with a general or a private. Put everything in civilian terms. Using military language will eliminate you quickly from the competition.
- Be prepared for multipart, performance-based questions. Take notes if needed. If you need clarification during the interview, ask for it – don’t guess. If the panel tells you they cannot clarify the question but can repeat it, ask them to repeat it and use the time to frame your answer. If you are still unclear about the question, start your answer by saying, “As I understand the question …” offer your interpretation and provide an answer.
- Be on time. If you are going to be late, call ahead. 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.
- Be prepared and patient. 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.
- Stay focused. 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.
- Do your homework. Read about Performance Based Interviewing – you will find PBI a common approach to interview questions. Search online for resources from trusted sites to learn more about PBI.
- Follow up appropriately. Send a handwritten thank-you note (not an email) after the interview. Do not try to contact the hiring official after an interview, except for the note; your contact should be with the HR staff unless you are directed otherwise, which isn’t likely.
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 a Leave and Earnings Statement (LES), and don’t forget to explain your military pay and benefits have tax advantages that go away with your civil service pay – it’s a critical 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. Still, the same basic rules apply as above – aim for your current salary or slightly more, and use the tax advantage argument 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 says “relocation expenses will be paid,” or similar language, 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 specified by the General Services Administration – 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 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 you 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. 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.
In addition to veterans’ preference, there are a few more topics you may find useful.
VRA (Veterans Readjustment Act): VRA allows any honorably discharged veteran to be hired noncompetitively into any position, GS-11 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 GS-11 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.
DD 214: If you are on active duty at the time you apply for a job, you won’t be able to provide a DD 214 even if the announcement indicates that veterans must provide one with the application. Obtain a statement from your commander that you are on active duty and will provide the DD 214 on your first day at work. Be sure you have your DD 214 when you out-process … no DD 214 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. There is no pay offset.
Disabled Veterans: Be sure you have a copy of your military service disability rating or your VA rating available – ideally, a copy of both. 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).
Follow the guidance in this article and you will maximize your chances of landing your ideal federal job.
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