Saturday, April 14, 2007

Mastering Federal Resumes

When the federal government dropped its Standard Form 171 (SF 171) -- truly the monster of all employment application forms and turned to the federal resume, it did little to lessen the burden on candidates. Mastering federal resumes is a little like basic training – it’s painful but has to be accomplished if you want a career with Uncle Sam.
To avoid a losing battle with this extensive and cumbersome CV, apply
the following tips:

Be focused and specific. Know which jobs you’re qualified for, their requirements and
availability, says Lillian Schoellhorn, chief of the central examining branch at the
Defense Mapping Agency in St. Louis. Start by visiting to review vacancy announcements. Unlike postings for civilian jobs, which can be vague and misleading, announcements for federal vacancies include a job’s
requirements and location, where to apply and whom to contact for more information.

If you’re still not sure what a position requires, call the agency and ask for more
details, Ms. Schoellhorn says. Uncle Sam is more than willing to assist you. “You have the support of the federal government in helping you apply, “ she says. Unlike the private sector, government recruiting falls under the guidelines of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. By law, they have to release any and all information about their jobs.

Follow directions . Carefully read the announcement’s instructions, questions and accompanied statements. If you don’t, you’ll likely answer incorrectly and expose your carelessness.

Match your background to the job requirement. “The most common mistake people
make is preparing one resume, and sending it in response to every job vacancy available,” says Ms. Schoellhorn. The result is a generic query without a career focus, a skills match or sincerity.

For example, applicants for a personnel training job should only emphasize
training experience in their resume for the position, not other personnel background, Ms.
Schoellhorn says. “You have got to gear your application toward the job you’re applying
for,” she explains.

Answer all questions completely and concisely. Be explicit, thorough and honest. By
the same token, however, don’t draw attention to a bad experience by expanding on it.

Don’t be wordy. Long-winded explanations aren’t needed. Applications that look like
telephone directories show that a candidate “is probably long on paper and short on actual
expertise,” says Joe Ruiz, chief of OPM’s Federal Job Information and Testing Division.
“We don’t need to know that in eighth grade you won an award for being punctual in

Make your resume easy to read. When describing “specific duties, responsibilities
and accomplishments” use simple sentences, leave white space between paragraphs
and use phrases to highlight key points.

Enhance basic experience. Use a descriptive technique recommended by the U.S.
Postal Service called STAR (Situation Task Action Result) to describe your experience.
For example, instead of saying, “Responsible for data entry.” Say, “The data entry
department was losing productivity. In response, I suggested our staff take a three-week
refresher course to improve keyboarding speed and accuracy. Following the course,
productivity improved by 50%.”

Federal resumes are demanding and bureaucratic, but so is the federal government. To
prove you can cut it as a federal employee, complete your application patiently,
meticulously and, above all, by the rules.

This article was adapted from an article previously published in the Wall Street Journal National Business Employment Weekly (now

Tom R. Arterburn is an Executive Recruiter based in St. Louis, Mo. He can be contacted at