Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

How to make the cut

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When you apply for your next federal job, your application will likely first have to impress a computer. Before a human resources professional or selecting official decides whether to call you in for an interview, a computer scores your responses to short-answer questions to determine whether you have, in government lingo, “made the cert.”

Your answers to these questions — which will be formatted as true-false, check-the-boxes and tiered-response answers — may make or break your application.

Here’s why: Each potential response has a certain point value; the more types of experience and the more advanced experience each answer represents, the more points it is worth.

If the computer determines your total score, together with any veterans’ preferences points you have, falls below a predetermined threshold, your application will be rejected automatically, even before a human being has so much as glanced at it.

If your answers meet or exceed the threshold, your application will be forwarded to the selecting official for a possible interview.

Here is how to ace your short-answer questions: Troll through all of your educational and professional credentials, and interpret them liberally and leniently. Then give an answer — without lying — that represents your highest level of experience, biggest influence, most responsibility and most seniority. In tiered-response questions, this winning answer will not necessarily be positioned first or last in the list of possible answers. Then, in your résumé and application essays, support your short answers by further describing your credentials. Why? Because if you make the cert, a human resources official will cross-check your short answers against the rest of your application. If he determines that your answers aren’t corroborated, he will reject your application before forwarding it to the selecting official.

As you answer short-answer questions, remember that job applicants are not expected to judge themselves strictly or harshly. The heartless, soulless computer won’t give your application any points for candor; it will give your application points only for offering winning answers. Therefore, if you don’t judge yourself liberally and leniently, you may sabotage your own application.

This means that you should, for example, interpret vague terms in application questions to your advantage. So, where you are asked whether you are an expert in a certain field, answer affirmatively if you have significant educational or work expert in that field.

If you are asked if you have been a supervisor, answer affirmatively if you have allocated assignments and evaluated the work of members of a team you have led, even if you were not the first-line supervisor of team members.

If you don’t have a requested credential, give yourself full credit for any equivalent credential you do have. For example, if you are asked whether you took a course in a subject you never formally studied, answer affirmatively if you learned the subject through on-the-job experience, self-study or travel.

Your experience does not have to be earned on a federal job or your current job to count. Nor does it have to account for the majority or even a significant amount of your time to count.

If you cannot give yourself the winning answer for all or almost all short-answer questions on a particular application, your application probably won’t make the cut and will be rejected. Therefore, your time would be better spent applying for other jobs.

If you do apply and are rejected from your target job, call the contact person identified on the vacancy announcement, and ask for your application’s point score and whether you “made the cert.”

The feedback should help you determine if your application approach is on the right track or warrants an overhaul.

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is IGotTheJob.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.

Your top networking tools

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How not to respond when professional or social contacts ask you about your job:

“I am a press secretary. I write news releases and develop media strategies. I am looking for a new job because my boss is a pain in the neck.”

To be ready when asked about your career and your career goals, you need what I call an elevator speech — an energetic summary of your achievements, a description of your target job if you are job hunting and any relevant credentials. Most important, your speech needs to be concise — short enough to deliver during an elevator ride. Purge negativity about your boss or employer. Your descriptions of substantive problems that you have solved will sound more impressive than your descriptions of your office’s problems.

Your armamentarium of networking tools should also include:

*Your résumé. Before you start networking, craft a concise, reader-friendly, eye-catching version in Microsoft Word. Don’t copy versions you’ve submitted to online application systems that don’t accept modern formatting features, such as bold type and bullets, and are hard to read.

Update your résumé every time you finish a major project, earn another credential or change your contact information.

Whenever a networking contact requests your résumé, convert your résumé to a PDF document so that its formatting isn’t fouled up when you send it electronically. And e-mail it within 24 hours of the request for it.

Consider creating a Web site that serves as a portfolio of your work. Your site should include: a downloadable PDF version of your résumé; documents and photos that showcase your achievements; and links to other Web sites that feature your work products. Include the Web address on your résumé.

*Your business card. Even if your employer supplies you with business cards, consider creating your own networking cards, preferably with the help of a graphic artist who will give your card a polished design. You can print hundreds for less than $20.

Your card should include your name followed by your professional title — both of which should be formatted for prominence. Feel free to give yourself a professional title that is more impressive than your job title. For example, if you are an environmental lawyer who received a distinguished award in your field, you could call yourself an “Award-Winning Environmental Attorney.”

Include a short, bulleted list of your best credentials. Your opening bullet might summarize your experience with a statement such as, “15+ years of experience managing high-dollar federal contracts.” Remaining bullets should itemize your most important credentials, awards or degrees. Include the addresses of any professional Web sites you maintain and your contact information.

A good elevator speech

When networking, you should have ready an “elevator speech” — a concise, energetic summary of your achievements and goals. For example:

“I am the press secretary for Congressman X. Congressman X is the 10th most influential member of the House, so the office is extremely fast paced.

“In a typical week, I prepare Congressman X for several appearances on national news shows and churn out many news releases for the national media on topics from climate change to the stimulus package.

“Last week, I coordinated the staff to contact media in the districts of all members who favored a gun-rights bill that we opposed. It was thrilling to see the resulting favorable editorials appear in newspapers throughout the U.S., which effectively defeated the bill in Congress.

“My credentials also include an M.A. in journalism and a B.A. in environmental studies, both from the University of Maryland.

“My job has taught me much about Congress. But I’m currently looking for a communications position that exclusively addresses environmental issues.”

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is IGotTheJob.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.