Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Tips for a winning application

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Here’s a sample of tried-and-true job application tips that have helped many of my federal clients advance.

*Remember that employers don’t hire people; they hire applications. No matter how impressive your credentials are, they won’t help you land your next job if they are not conveyed in clear and compelling terms on your application.

*Get a second opinion. To objectively evaluate how well your application comes across to others, show it to others and ask for their opinions.

*Even if your hiring managers know you, assume they have no prior knowledge of your work. Even if you are the “inside” applicant, treat your quest for your target job as seriously as you would if you were an outsider. Managers at your organization probably remember less of your achievements than you think they do. And if you demonstrate a cavalier attitude, you will likely be upstaged by more serious, prepared applicants.

*Research your target organizations. Hiring managers are almost always more impressed by applicants who recognize and show enthusiasm for an organization’s uniqueness than to applicants who are obviously desperate to land just any job.

Show your fire-in-the-belly for your target organization when you answer common interview questions such as, “Why do you want to work here?” Prepare by reviewing your target organization’s Web site, recent press releases, and relevant news reports. If you’re applying to another federal agency, check your target agency’s ratings on the Partnership for Public Service’s

*Prepare for interviews. Politicians don’t go into debates cold, expecting to wing their answers. They prepare by anticipating likely questions, developing answers and role-playing with trusted advisers.

You should prepare similarly before job interviews: Anticipate likely interview questions with your trusted advisers and then prepare answers to them. Also, role-play the interview; the more advisers you practice with, the better. Each of your advisers will probably correctly predict different interview questions and give you different but valid feedback on your answers.

A case in point: I know someone who has excellent credentials, including a doctorate from Yale University and a well-received book on environmental issues, but who nevertheless repeatedly failed to turn her job interviews into job offers. Then, the night before her most recent interview, she called me in a panic, asking for last-minute suggestions on how to prepare for the interview. During our conversation, she assured me that she had reviewed common interview questions. But when she admitted that she had never role-played for a job interview, and therefore had never received feedback on her answers and interview style, I encouraged her to role-play for the interview with her husband that night. The result: She got the job.

*Exploit the principle, “Actions speak louder than words.” Give each of your interviewers your success portfolio, which should feature labeled selections of relevant documents that reflect your productivity. These documents should include your résumé together with some of the following, as appropriate: your academic transcripts; recent annual reviews and awards; praising e-mails; printouts of Web sites, speeches or PowerPoint presentations you helped create; published articles or newsletters or annual reports that feature your contributions; samples of your artwork; or photos of products you helped produce.

*Send post-interview thank-you letters. Immediately after you get home from your interview — even before you take off your uncomfortable interview outfit and toss back a cold one — write a thank-you letter to your interviewer. Your letter should confirm your interest in the position, cite several ways that you could contribute to the organization and mention several appealing aspects of your target position and organization. Proofread your letter, and then send it overnight delivery. A thank-you letter stands out more than an e-mail. And an overnight letter that arrives right away will score more points than one that arrives even one day later.

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 The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.

Prepare now for your future job

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As the saying goes, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” One way to create your future is to plan and prepare for your long-term career moves.

How? Search and agency Web sites for announcements for the types of jobs you would eventually like to land; identify gaps in your background that might thwart your pursuit; and work now to eliminate those gaps. If you have set your sights on the Senior Executive Service, start working now to gain experience in any SES executive core qualifications (ECQs) in which you are lacking. The Office of Personnel Management outlines these qualifications on its Web site at

Some ways to close gaps in your experience:

*Don’t wait to be assigned career-boosting projects. Instead, take the initiative and invite juicy opportunities to come your way. Discuss your goals with your boss and other managers in your office, and ask them to assign you projects that would help you qualify for your target jobs.

Also, identify projects and collateral activities — such as advancing your agency’s alternative dispute resolution program, interacting with important stakeholder groups, organizing news conferences, contributing to agency publications or leading training — that are likely to produce tangible, résumé-enhancing results, and then ask your boss for permission to lead them. Strengthen your request by explaining to your boss how they would advance his goals for the office.

*Ask your boss to send you to relevant trainings offered by your agency, the Federal Executive Institute and Management Training Centers, the USDA Graduate School, professional organizations in your field. Also, peruse the Catalogue of Federal Leadership Development Programs, and classes for feds inventoried at Also, consider asking your boss if your office will pay tuition for university classes or degrees.

*Gain supervisory experience. Offer to serve in “acting” positions when managers are on leave, offer to supervise other employees, including interns, or offer to mentor other professionals. Also, offer to fill in for employees departing because of details, retirements, maternity leave or for other reasons, if doing so would enhance your credentials.

*Contribute to professional organizations. Help manage their meetings and conferences, give presentations and lead training at these events, contribute to their publications and Web sites and offer to serve as a mentor in their mentoring programs.

Other experience

Remember that federal experience and training are not the only types of credentials that may help you climb the federal career ladder; relevant volunteer experience and nonfederal jobs should also help you move up. So if you are unable to earn critical experience through your current federal job, consider switching to an alternative work schedule on your job so you can devote your day off or other free time to gaining needed experience. You can:

*Volunteer for nonprofits or community organizations. Suppose, for example, that you are aiming for the SES but you lack experience that would help you satisfy the ECQ of “business acumen.” One way to gain business experience would be to serve on your condo board. In this position, you would manage your condo’s multimillion-dollar budget and produce savings via decision-making on maintenance contracts, member fees and energy consumption. These types of achievements would provide valuable grist for your SES application.

*Publish articles in professional journals in your field or in publications devoted to public administration, or get published in the popular press. These are great ways to establish yourself as an expert in your field and to demonstrate your communication skills. For guidance on how to publish articles in the popular press, check the Web sites of your target publications for their writer’s guidelines, review a copy of “The Writer’s Market 2009 Deluxe Edition,” or take a class on freelance writing.

*Work as a consultant. Create business cards, letterhead and a Web site for your business and market yourself. You may be able to generate higher-level experience and better contacts through your consulting activities than through your federal job.

A caveat: Confirm with your agency’s ethics officer that your publications and nonfederal work don’t violate conflict-of-interest regulations.

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 The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.