The federal job application process can be confusing. There are job announcements to read, specialized experience requirements to meet, and occupational questionnaires to answer. In addition, applicants must effectively use the government’s application website to apply.

While it is certainly possible that you will get the first position you apply to, it is more likely that you will apply for multiple positions before achieving success.


Understanding the process is critical. Getting a federal job (or a promotion from your current federal job) is doable but it takes three things, in our view:

1) applying for positions for which you are fully qualified;

2) using a targeted, federal-style resume; and

3) patience.


When applying for a federal job, the application process (a necessary evil when it comes to job hunting) is quite different from the private sector application process. Perhaps the biggest difference is the sheer volume of material you must submit.

For example:

• In the private sector, a two-page resume, and perhaps a cover letter, may be all you need when applying. In fact, some job search coaches will suggest that your private sector resume be no longer than one page.


• In the federal sector, your resume or application will be significantly longer than two pages.


In addition, you might also be required to complete a questionnaire and/or provide a narrative response as to how you possess the knowledge, skills and abilities that are required for the job; you may also be required to submit college grade transcripts (no matter how old!), copies of your DD-214 and SF-15 (if you are former military and claiming preference), as well as other documents.

As a federal job hunter, you should look at the wide range of federal agencies available, rather than just the well-known departments.

When most people think about working for the federal government, they tend to think about the major departments such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Treasury, and the like. In reality, there are hundreds of federal agencies. Each of the hundreds of agencies offers potential employment.

USAJOBS ( is the entry point for most federal positions in the competitive service. Whether you are a first-time applicant, or an experienced “fed,” it is likely that you will need to apply through USAJOBS – which includes creating a profile, setting up a search agent to find suitable positions, as well as the process of reading a vacancy announcement, understanding the occupational questionnaire that accompanies most announcements, and putting together a targeted resume.

Understanding the Hiring Process

Most federal jobs are in the Executive Branch of government and typically fall into one of three categories;

• Competitive Service



• Excepted Service

• Senior Executive Service (SES)

Positions in the Legislative and Judicial Branches of the government are not generally filled through USAJOBS.

Competitive service jobs are under the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM’s) jurisdiction. These jobs are subject to the civil service laws passed by Congress. These laws ensure that applicants and employees receive fair and equal treatment in the hiring process. They give selecting officials broad authority to review more than one applicant source before determining the best-qualified candidate based on job-related criteria.

A basic principle of federal employment is that all candidates must be U.S. citizens. They must also meet the qualification requirements for the position for which they receive an appointment. All positions in the competitive service which are open to applicants outside the specific agency must be “posted” on USAJOBS.

Excepted service agencies set their own qualification requirements. These agencies are not subject to the same appointment, pay, and classification rules as competitive service positions; however, they are subject to veterans’ preference.

Some federal agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), have only excepted service positions. Other agencies may have some divisions or even specific jobs that may be excepted from civil service procedures. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), to name two, are also excepted service agencies. These excepted service agencies have an established merit system and may have an “interchange agreement” with OPM, which allows employees of such agencies to move to the competitive service without further competition.

Many excepted service positions are posted on USAJOBS, but this is not a requirement. The Senior Executive Service is the executive level of government. Members of the SES serve in the key positions just below the top Presidential appointees. SES members are the major link between these appointees and the rest of the federal workforce.

How Does the Federal Job Application Process Work?

Agencies review applications and make lists of candidates who are qualified for the job. From there, selectees can generally be chosen from among three (3) groups of candidates:


1. A competitive list of eligible applicants.


This lists the applicants (in category order) who meet the qualification requirements for a specific vacancy announcement. The categories are typically “Best Qualified,” “Well Qualified” and “Qualified.” Generally, only applicants in the top one or two categories are referred to the hiring manager for consideration. (Note: The former “rule of three” system–under which a hiring manager had to choose from among the three most-qualified candidates–has been almost completely replaced by this category rating system. Where numeric ranking still is used, agencies may decide how many candidates to refer to the hiring manager, with a minimum of three.)

2. A list of eligibles who have civil service status.

This list consists of applicants who are eligible for movement within the competitive service. These individuals presently or previously served under career-type appointments in the competitive service. They are selected under agency merit promotion procedures and can receive an appointment by promotion, reassignment, transfer, or reinstatement. Former members of the military who have more than three years of active duty may also apply under the Veterans Employment Opportunity Act (VEOA) as if they have status.

3. A list of eligible applicants that qualify for a special noncompetitive appointing authority established by law or executive order.


Examples of special noncompetitive appointing authorities include the Veterans Recruitment Appointment (VRA), the special authority for 30% or more disabled veterans, people with disabilities (certified by their state’s department of rehabilitation), certain students, and returning Peace Corps volunteers, to name several.

Agencies in the competitive service are required by law and OPM regulation to post vacancy announcements (job postings) with OPM whenever they are seeking candidates from outside their own workforce for positions lasting more than 120 days. These vacancies are posted on OPM’s USAJOBS website (www.usajobs. gov) and in America’s Job Bank (AJB).

Excepted service agencies are not required to post their job announcements on USAJOBS, although many agencies choose to do so. To view excepted service job opportunities that may not be posted on you must go to individual agency websites.


To stay on top of opportunities posted publicly, you can sign up at to have announcements that meet your criteria (location, grade, job series, etc.) automatically sent to you. By reading a job posting’s area of consideration, an applicant can learn whether an agency is open to the public, candidates in the competitive service, the excepted service, or all.