Interview tips - Federal job and internship application tips - Go Government

The interviewing process

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.

Awaiting the call for your interview

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:

  • The name of the caller
  • The agency that caller represents
  • The return phone number
  • Confirmation of the job title (if you applied for multiple jobs)
  • Time and date of the interview (or at least tentative dates/availability)
  • Location (this is in case some error occurs and you don’t receive additional location information for a promised follow-up or if the follow-up information requires you to do some additional research)
  • Any other items you need to bring (such as writing samples)
  • Additional assessments you may need to go through while you’re there (for example, a writing test)

You should also attempt to gather the following information either over the phone or via e-mail from the person arranging your interview:

  • The name(s) of interviewer(s)
  • The interview format
  • Security/access requirements and the time required for getting on site (it often takes 15 to 20 minutes to get through a federal building’s security process-sometimes longer)
  • Parking or transportation instructions
  • How long the interview session is expected to last

Types of government interviews

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.

One-on-one interviews

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:

  • One-on-one interviews are to find out more about you as a person (How will you interact with your colleagues?) and as a professional (Have your prior experiences prepared you for this job? For example, how much do you really know?).
  • Although it is called a one-on-one, you may be observed by others during the interview.
  • Each one-on-one interview is a new interview, so you should treat it as such. Even though you will say the same thing multiple times, keep in mind the information is new and important to each interviewer.
  • Hiring managers are making increased use of a “structured interview” format during which they ask each applicant being interviewed the same series of questions intended to draw out relevant job-related information about each applicant. Don’t worry if the interview seems rather formal; it may simply mean this is a structured interview and the interviewer is not wasting time talking about sports or the weather.

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

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:

  • You will have questions coming at you from all angles (figuratively and literally).
  • You will have the opportunity to ask a number of people questions about the job and the organization so that if you are offered the job, you can better decide whether it’s the right job for you.
  • You will have to be good at remembering names during and after this interview. Generally all the panelists will already know each other. Thank them or address them by name—you’ll win points for holding your own.

Phone interviews

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 interviews can help you stay in the running if you aren’t able to come in to interview right when the agency is scrambling to start meeting candidates.
  • You can take notes while talking and generally control your environment so that the situation is less stressful for you.

Phone interview cons:

  • Phone interviews are generally difficult because you will need to pay special attention to people’s voices and listen carefully. You will not have the advantage of observing body language or other visual cues to guide your responses. Phone interviews are still real interviews, and hiring managers or HR professionals will make a decision about you without actually seeing you.
  • There is always a chance that your tone of voice can come across the wrong way on the phone.

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.

Video interviews

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.

Prepping for your interview

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.

Do your homework

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.

Mock interview prep

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:

  • Why do you want to work with this particular agency? Answer this by being honest and informed about the agency mission and the skills, interests, and objectives you have that can be put to good use at the agency.
  • What makes you a good candidate for this position? Answer this by reviewing the requirements for the position as listed in the job announcement or collected through informational interviews or online searching.
  • Can you walk me through your resume and employment history? Answer this by picking up on themes from your past and drawing parallels to what you know about the position for which you are interviewing. Again, review the job announcement!

Before you go

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:

  • Identity the actual place you need to be on interview day as best you can (but know that sometimes security access or timing of receipt of information can often derail this type of prep).
  • Do a dry-run commute to the interview location (as much as it’s logistically possible). Federal agencies often have offices in multiple buildings close together.
  • If you can’t get to the location in advance, at least use a reliable Internet map tool or estimate your public transit time needs so you have a realistic commuting schedule in mind in advance.
  • Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to arrive at the interview. It’s always better to be early than just in time or, even worse, late.
  • Lay everything out the night before: government-issued ID (for example, your driver’s license), directions, extra copies of the resume you used to apply to this job, attire (see the following section), a list of names of the interviewers (if provided in advance), and any other notes you’ve made.
  • Review your answers to standard questions and practice with a friend or family member.

During your interview

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:

  • Do make eye contact during the interview.
  • Don’t fidget or play with your hair.
  • Do sit up straight. Good posture conveys professionalism and confidence.
  • Don’t try to answer a question if you don’t know the answer. As always, be honest!

Be thorough

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.

Prepare to sell yourself

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.

Post-interview etiquette

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.