Writing a cover letter is already tricky business. But writing a cover letter for a government job can be a whole other story. Let's get down to the nitty gritty on how we tailor a cover letter to the key words of a government job.
Don’t apply at the last minute and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to take these steps:
- Carefully read the entire announcement before applying. It seems obvious, but each announcement, even in USAJobs, is different and will have different skills needed for the job. Print a hard copy of the announcement and highlight a checklist to ensure you can address at least 3 out of 5 of the skills they’re asking for. Once you highlight their requirements, it will be easier to go back to your own cover letter to address those points.
- Research the agency to which you are applying. Your cover letter is your fist opportunity to express how your mindset and talent matches with that of the organization. Catch the hiring manager’s eye by demonstrating you’ve done your homework and are familiar with the agency’s mission and some of its current programs.
- Get specific. Explain exactly what experiences you have had that make you a great candidate for the position. Don’t just say “I did x,y,and z.” For government jobs, use numbers, dollar amounts, and specify how many years for as much as you can.
Tailor Your Cover Letter
So what does it mean to tailor your cover letter to the job? It’s not just highlighting your experiences and hoping the hiring manager will see a good fit. You have to connect the dots for them and that means making your skills match the required skills almost word-for-word.
First, compare your resume and the job announcement side by side. Highlight the requirements they’re asking for the job and highlight corresponding skills and experiences you have from your resume. Try doing this process in about 15 to 20 minutes. This will also help you practice for interviews since you will eventually be required to quickly recall your job experiences.
And of course, go over your applications materials in depth to make sure you don’t submit any formatting, grammatical, or punctuation errors.
Here is an example of a post from USAJobs with key words in bold:
The Student Trainee (Contract Specialist) – PATHWAYS Intern is a member of a team responsible for the negotiation, award, and monitoring/administration of Federal assistance agreements (grants and cooperative agreements) and contracts for a wide array of research, non-personnel support services, specialized studies and other activities necessary to support the FHWA Headquarter, FHWA Turner-Fairbanks Highway Research Center, State Division Office, and Resource Center program offices. Under close supervision of the Team Leader, the intern will perform the following functions:
- Assists in pre-award and post-award functions involving a full range of procurement actions, typically involving technical services or programs of research and development, specialized equipment or systems.
- Assists with developing requests for applications (RFA), requests for proposals (RFP), and requests for quotations (RFQ). The intern will help to analyze, evaluate, and negotiate proposals and applications for agency contracting and Federal assistance opportunities.
- Assists with acquisition planning, scheduling procurement from time of acceptance through award.
Here’s an example from my undergraduate resume to match with some of the above points:
- Nonprofit Volunteer Coordinator: Oversaw research and development as well as technical production of building Tunnel on campus and acquirement of specialized equipment systems needed for sound and visual media. Cost of production was over $20,000 and took a total of 9 months to plan.
- University Program Board Director: Developed and negotiated over 50 proposals and contracts with speakers and agencies, scheduled and planned 100 events by coordinating facilities, catering, as well as budget of over $30,000.
You’re not going to have the exact same positions as specified in the job announcement. But chances are you’ve had some academic, volunteer, and/or professional experiences that are applicable. Be sure you’re also not making up your skills just to fit the job requirements. Just adjust words in your resume and cover letter to better fit the job vacancy.
Draft the Cover Letter
Now that you have gone through your resume and highlighted matching examples to the job requirements, it’s time to start writing your cover letter. Choose the three most relevant examples from your resume that you can tailor to the position. This is because a cover letter should be no more than 3-4 paragraphs, so you want to be succinct. Use numbers, years, and any dollar amounts to be as specific as possible.
Here’s an example to start off with relevant points highlighted from the above USAJobs vacancy:
Dear Ms. Smith,
As a recent graduate of (xyx program), I am seeking to apply my 4 years of research, administrative, and event planning to a career in public service. I am interested in the Student Trainee Contract Specialist Position because I want to specialize in negotiation, award, and monitoring of Federal assistance agreements. More importantly, I believe my negotiating, evaluative, and analytical skills all would be highly suitable to the position.
The next two to three paragraphs should each draw on a bulleted example you use from your resume elaborating on how your experiences in the position applies to the job vacancy and how it would help you to grow in the role.
Remember, your cover letter is your opportunity to make a good first impression with the hiring manager. It can determine whether or not the hiring manager will even read your resume. While it is a long and tedious process for a seemingly short letter, it’s important to allot the necessary time and research to make sure that your cover letter keeps the potential employer reading.
For more resources on cover letter writing, be sure to check out these posts:
-How to Tweak Your Cover Letter and Resume for More Impact
-Are You Making These 4 Mistakes in Your Cover Letter?
For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial
How to Escape the USAJOBS.gov Resume "Black Hole"
By Camille Carboneau Roberts
You submitted your federal application package with a detailed resume through the USAJOBS resume-builder tool. You also included a cover letter and answered the questionnaire.
You submitted your package well before the application deadline, and received the standard email that confirmed submission. You’ve waited patiently for weeks, but you have still not been referred to a hiring official and are now questioning whether anyone read it -- or even knows you applied!
I have reviewed thousands of resumes and have noticed a broad range of mistakes. Even the most minor mistakes can prevent your application from reaching the hiring official!
14 Steps to Climb Out of the USAJOBS Resume Black Hole
Are you ready to learn how to ensure YOUR resume doesn’t land in the black hole? Here we go...
1. Before you consider applying to a federal job, make certain you are fully qualified.
Many people apply to jobs for which they are not qualified. If you do not meet the requirements, you simply will not be considered. This may be the reason your resume is orbiting the black hole.
When you find a position for which you would like to apply:
- Carefully read the requirements and the factors you will be evaluated against.
- Copy and paste these into a new Word document.
- Make each requirement and factor a separate bullet point.
- After each bullet, write a few sentences explaining how you meet that requirement -- specifically using experience and accomplishments.
If there are several requirements that you can’t write about to demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and abilities, continue looking for another announcement.Then, repeat this exercise with another job.
When you are satisfied that you fully qualify, continue with your application. (If you need a tool to help you do this, please contact me.)
2. Demonstrate on Page 1 that you meet the qualifications and all the requirements.
When they first see your resume, hiring managers should see immediately that you meet the job's requirements. Use the information you just developed (in #1, above) to create a marketing section on page one of your resume that demonstrates how you meet each requirement and evaluation factor included in the job announcement.
An ideal first page would include three critical sections:
- A short profile summary demonstrating your accomplishments and ability to carry out the job duties listed in the announcement.
- A Key Qualifications section that proves you meet the requirements and evaluation factors included in the job announcement.
- A Core Competencies section that lists key skills and expertise listed in the job announcement.
Page 1 is prime resume real estate. Throughout the page, incorporate key words and keyword phrases from the job announcement that match up with your expertise.
3. Avoid the mistake of writing one resume for multiple job announcements.
Treat each job announcement and application as a unique submission. Each announcement is different. Modify your application for each announcement.
You can even do this the old-fashioned way. Print a hard copy of the announcement, mark each requirement with a highlighter, and check off each item when you have incorporated it into your resume.
4. Ensure there are no typographical errors and missing or incorrect data as you create your resume in the USAJOBS builder tool.
While this may seem obvious, I frequently notice mistakes, especially in the contact information and headings. Typos and other errors are a sure way to create an immediate negative impression sending your resume immediately into the black hole.
Do not rush this process! Proceed carefully and thoughtfully to ensure accuracy. Use spell check, proofread your work, find a friend to review it as well, then hire us to review.
5. Apply as early as you can.
Developing a strong package takes time. Start early!
The process of building your resume and applying online may take several hours. You may encounter technical difficulties or other unforeseen obstacles.
Waiting until the last minute will create unnecessary stress. That could cause you to hurry your work (creating errors), or not have enough time so you miss the deadline. Deadly mistakes!
6. Include names and contact information for past supervisors.
USAJOBS allows you to provide the name and contact information for each of your supervisors. Leaving this blank may spark the hiring manager’s curiosity.
If your job search is confidential, it is appropriate to state so. You can indicate that the supervisor may be contacted after a job offer on your "uploaded" resume.
For former supervisors, list their name and contact information. It’s a reality that not everyone gets along on the job so if you left on bad terms, list their name, and choose the "May Not Contact" option.
7. List your GPA.
Many federal job seekers leave this field blank. Regardless of your age and even if your GPA is 2.0 (or below), include it.
GPA is not the only determining factor when interviewing or selecting a candidate. It’s better to put a low GPA on than to leave it off.
There are many strategies one can use to overcome lower GPAs, but do not leave this field blank. Don’t make them look for ANYTHING!
8. Complete the Relevant Coursework section.
Take advantage of this section that many federal job seekers leave blank. Spend the extra few minutes listing three to four courses you have taken that are relevant to the job. These could be the competitive edge you need to get to the interview.
9. Provide references.
The USAJOBS resume builder allows you to provide up to five references. I recommend taking full advantage of this! Offering several references creates a strong positive impression.
Be sure to include references that can validate your work ethic and character, as well as become your allies in landing your new job!
Contact your references in advance to request their permission to include their names and ensure they will speak positively on your behalf. Let them know what you are applying for and advise or remind them of projects you worked on and what you would like them to mention in the conversation.
10. Make your resume searchable.
After you build your resume into the USAJOBS builder, be sure to make it searchable by simply clicking on the link "Make Searchable." This will allow prospective employers to find your resume. It will also be the one you choose when you apply to the job announcement.
11. Upload Microsoft Word and PDF versions of your resume.
In the Saved Documents area of your USAJOBS profile, you can upload the PDF version of your resume and other documents. Doing this makes it easy for the prospective employer to retrieve and share your resume.
Uploading your resume is not a replacement for completing the Resume Builder, if the job announcement requires it. Be sure to read the “How to Apply” section carefully and follow the instructions precisely.
12. Upload and label accompanying forms.
Be sure to correctly label each required form, and upload them into the Saved Documents area. Leaving out requested forms or making them difficult for the employer to find can get your application disqualified for being incomplete.
13. Save a copy of your answers to the online questions.
Many announcements include an online questionnaire that you must submit. Write, save, and print the answers in case you run into technical issues during the application process.
If there are system problems, you can call the contact person listed on the announcement and obtain guidance. I recommend that you copy and paste the questionnaire into Microsoft Word. Then, write your answers in Word.
Copy your answers back to the online questionnaire when you are finished. Creating your answers in Word before copying them into USAJOBS should help eliminate misspellings and some other errors.
14. Include your email address and phone number.
Make sure they can contact you easily! Be sure your email address is professional. I recommend setting up a Gmail account with your first and last name.
Make it easy for them to remember you, and contact you. I have seen phone numbers with missing area codes or missing digits and incomplete emails.
The Federal hiring process is tedious, not impossible. Start off your job search by being organized and have a plan. Prepare the best possible career communications required by the job announcement which could be a cover letter, customized resume, and narratives. Make it easy for them to select you for the interview, as well as to hire you! Give them the information they require. Don’t hesitate to hire a professional. Be thorough, careful, and implement the tips above and your effort should pay off!
Wishing you much success in your job search!
For More Information:
About the author...
Job-Hunt's Federal Job Search Expert, Camille Carboneau Roberts, established CC Career Services in 1989 to provide total career management services to help clients land jobs faster. Expert services include federal resumes, private sector resumes, military-to-federal resumes, and social media resumes and profiles. Contact Camille via email at Camille@ccCareerServices.com, through LinkedIn, Twitter (@CamilleRoberts), or Facebook (CC Career Services).