It may be tempting, after making it through the online application process and being scheduled for an interview to think that your government job is close to being in the bag. Sure, take a moment to celebrate making it through the first round (it’s a feat worthy of celebration), but keep your eye on the ball; interviews are exceedingly important for closing the deal. Consider it the last stage of the assessment process.
While federal government interviews vary in length and format, we’ll cover all the ins and outs (and do’s and don’ts) to help you be as prepared and as confident as possible.
After you have submitted your application for consideration, you never know when a call could come from an agency. Some agencies send e-mails to kick off the interview initiation process (for example, "You have been selected to interview for position x; please call this number or respond to this e-mail to arrange a time for your first conversation with our agency"). Others will give you a congratulatory call to announce you’ve made it to the interview part of their process. If you receive a call for an interview, you still have work to do. Be sure to write down the following information before the caller hangs up:
You should also attempt to gather the following information either over the phone or via e-mail from the person arranging your interview:
If you’ve been called in for an interview, it likely means that you are on a very short list of people who are being seriously considered for that position. However, this is not a guarantee. You can be included among a dozen or so folks who are vying for one position and the final selection will be based on several rounds of interviews.
There are many ways an agency might test your skills, strengths, and general professional abilities through the interview format, but two main ways are through your standard one-on-one interview and a popular federal version of a panel interview.
As the name implies, this is an interview between one jobseeker (you) and the hiring manager or another decision maker. However, you may have one-on-one interviews with numerous people in that agency or department before a job offer is made. Whatever the case, keep this information in mind:
Some agencies take advantage of the opportunity to interview at career fairs or other public events to find employees (typically for jobs that the agencies have permission to fill outside the usual competitive process). These are generally one-on-one interviews and should be treated with as much professionalism as any other interview.
Panel interviews are a favorite approach in some agencies. Not only are multiple team members able to grill the candidate, but it also turns out to be a rather efficient approach to making an informed decision about candidates, because a number of people have the chance to provide their perspective and opinion. Of course, for the interviewee (you), it can be intimidating to sit in front of a panel of people who are there solely to judge you. (No pressure.)
Here are a few elements that make panel interviews a unique experience:
To be honest, phone interviews are a mixed bag. Many agencies use a phone call as an initial screen to save time and/or money and learn some basic information: Can this person answer our questions? Do we want to take the time to speak with this candidate in person?
Phone interview pros:
Phone interview cons:
In addition to being well prepared for your phone interview (you should be just as prepared as if it were an in-person interview), make sure you have good phone reception or are using a land line in a quiet place to reduce the risk of static, background noise, interruptions, or other distractions.
Agencies that have the technological capability may choose to conduct interviews via live video-conference instead of flying candidates in. You will typically be asked to come to a federal office building in your area to be a part of it. This is a great way for the agency to save money while widening the pool of potential employees. A popular video interview format is panel interviewing so that multiple decision makers can “see” the interviewee. Treat this as an in-person interview in both your preparation and your professional dress.
It takes diligence, persistence, and a lot of preparation time to put your best foot forward during interviews, but it is well worth the effort. Hiring managers and other interviewers want to be impressed and want to spend their time in good conversation with people whom they’d be comfortable working with and who can do the job.
You can find out nearly everything you need to know by doing an Internet search on your government agency; you may also be able to find info on the people who will interview you. Get to know the mission and the challenges of the organization. Prepare thoughtful questions to ask your interviewers.
The level of confidence you project is almost as important to your interview style as the answers you give. If you’re a nervous wreck when it comes to interviews, don’t worry. A little practice goes a long way.
In addition to being prepared by learning the background of your agency and the people who will be interviewing you, mock interviewing is a great way to build up your confidence. Try having a friend who is in HR or who normally conducts interviews (in any sector) do a mock interview with you a few days in advance. Prepare standard answers to questions like the following:
The worst thing that can happen is to get this far in the process and then have something go wrong that you could have prevented. Here are some tips to make sure you are completely prepared for your interview:
As with any job interview, you will want to plan your interview wardrobe carefully. If anything, you will want to be more conservatively dressed for a government interview than for other sectors, just to be on the safe side.
For both men and women, you will want to go easy on the perfume or cologne and leave the facial piercings and distracting jewelry at home.
Here are a few more recommendations for those of you who are lost when it comes to interview attire:
Again, these suggestions might seem conservative to you, but they still reflect the standard in government unless you are specifically instructed otherwise.
Also, there’s no reason to bring a lot of stuff to your interview. If you bring a purse, briefcase, or portfolio, travel as light as possible and leave anything that’s not essential at home. Remember, you’ll need to go through a security checkpoint.
Your government interview is not limited to the formal sit-down. You should go out of your way to be professional and courteous, whether you are greeting the receptionist or security desk professional or shaking the administrator or chief’s hand. Extend this behavior even when visiting the restroom or talking casually after the official interview with a staff member who could potentially be a peer or a boss. Assume that you are being evaluated from the time you enter the building to the time you leave.
Keep these do’s and don’ts in mind:
In the federal government, what you don’t say could be held against you. Your answers should be concise and to the point, however, be sure to answer the question completely. Federal employees are sometimes not allowed to ask follow-up questions or to clarify responses. If you do not share with them specific experiences or skills you have, they will not be able to factor those into to your application.
Interviews are the time to sell yourself and set yourself apart. It can’t be stressed enough: hiring managers want to see that you’re committed to the agency’s public service mission and will come ready to work if you’re offered the job.
You should prepare a short speech tailored to the job. The speech should include why you believe in the agency’s mission, why you would be perfect for the job based on your specific skills and experiences that relate to the position, and, of course, how grateful you are for the agency’s consideration. Some people call this the "elevator pitch" or the "30-second sound bite." Regardless of what you call it, you will likely need to summarize yourself in 30 seconds or so at some point during the interview. It’s your concise answer to the question, “Why should I hire you?”
Additional conversations regarding salary, benefits, and other HR matters should be primarily conducted between yourself and the HR professional or recruiter.
Follow up in a way that shows you respect the interviewers’ time and the overall hiring process. Thank you notes (handwritten or via e-mail) are a must. If you’ve met with multiple people during the interview, it’s particularly helpful to send a short thank you to everyone who met with you—not just the hiring manager.
If you have been asked to schedule a test or provide any additional information (such as additional references or an official transcript), make sure to do so as soon as possible after the interview unless instructed otherwise. If for some reason your transcripts or anything else is delayed, be sure to contact the persons who interviewed you and let them know.
As we’ve said, the federal hiring process can be lengthy, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear back right away after the interview. You might even ask during the interview when the hiring manager expects a decision to be made. Two or three weeks after the interview—or after the date you were told that a decision would be made—it is acceptable to call and ask someone in the HR office for an update.