The Interview Process

Making it through the online application process and into the interview round is an impressive achievement—but not a guarantee. You can be included among a dozen or so applicants who are vying for one position, and the final selection will be based on several rounds of interviews. 

With this guide, we’ll cover all the ins and outs (and do’s and don’ts) of the federal jobs interview process to help you be prepared and confident.

Awaiting the Call for Your Interview

After you have submitted your application, the type of follow-up you receive will vary. Some agencies send e-mails to kick off the interview initiation process (Others will give you a congratulatory call.  

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: 

  • Name of the caller, their title and agency 
  • The return phone number 
  • Confirmation of the job title (if you applied for multiple jobs) 
  • Time and date of the interview (or tentative dates if still scheduling) 
  • Location of the interview 
  • Any other items you need to bring (such as writing samples) besides your resume 
  • Additional assessments you may need to complete during the interview (such as a writing test) 

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

  • Name(s) of interviewer(s) 
  • Interview format 
  • Security/access requirements and the time required for getting on site (it often takes 15 to 20 minutes or more to get through a federal building’s security process) 
  • Parking or transportation instructions 

Types of Government Interviews

There are many ways an agency might test your skills, strengths and general professional abilities through the interview format. The most common are through either a standard one-on-one interview or the federal version of a panel interview, although phone and video interviews happen as well.

One-on-one interviews 

As the name implies, this is an interview between one jobseeker (you) and the hiring manager or another decision-maker. Be aware that this may entail a series of one-on-one interviews with various 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 used 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?). 
  • 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 the same series of questions. This is intended to consistently 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 the opportunity to interview potential employees at career fairs or other public events (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 preferred at some agencies because multiple team members can learn about the candidate at once, making the decision-making process more efficient. Of course, for the interviewee, 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 to answer questions in a way that’s relevant for different people with different responsibilities. 
  • You will have the opportunity to ask several people questions about the job and the organization to help you decide whether it’s the right fit for you. 
  • You will be well served if you can remember names during and after this interview. Generally, all the panelists will already know each other. Thank them and address them by name—you’ll make an impression for holding your own. 

Phone interviews 

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 advantages: 

  • Phone interviews can help you stay in the running if you aren’t able to physically come in to interview when the agency is scrambling to start meeting candidates. 
  • You can take notes while talking, refer to materials on hand, and generally control your environment. 

Phone interview challenges: 

  • 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 decide if you move forward in the application process based on this interaction. 
  • Tone of voice can be misinterpreted. When you practice for your phone interview with a mentor or peer, ask what impression they have of you based on what they hear. 
  • 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 use a land line in a quiet place to reduce the risk of static, background noise, interruptions or other distractions. 

Video interviews 

Some agencies may choose to conduct interviews via live video conference, especially if you or any of the interviewers have significant travel barriers. You may be asked to come to a federal office building local to your current area to take part. This is a great way for the agency to save money while widening the pool of potential employees. Panel interviewing allows multiple decision-makers to “see” the interviewee. Treat this as an in-person interview in both your preparation and your professional dress. 

Pro Tips: Preparing 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. Interviewers want to be impressed; they want to have a good conversation with someone they’d be comfortable working with and who can do the job well.

Do your homework 

Being knowledgeable and prepared will pay dividends for your performance in the interview. In advance, make sure to: 

  • Research the agency. With an internet search, you may also be able to find information 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. Mock interviewing is a great way to build up your confidence. Try having a friend in HR or a peer with experience conducting 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 agency? Answer 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 after 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. Again, review the job announcement! 
Before you go 

You don’t want 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: 

  • Identify the actual place you need to be on interview day and do a dry-run commute to the interview location (if possible). Federal agencies often have offices in multiple buildings close together. 
  • If you can’t get to the location in advance, use a reliable Internet map tool to estimate how long it will take to get there. 
  • Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to arrive at the interview. It’s always better to be early. 
  • Lay everything out the night before: government-issued ID (e.g., 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. 
  • Get a good night’s rest. Then take a deep breath—you’ve prepared, and you’re ready. 

Pro Tips: During and After Your Interview

Be thorough 

Your interview answers should be concise and to the point. But be sure to answer the question completely. Federal employees will not always ask follow-up questions or ask you to clarify responses. If you do not share the specific experiences or skills you have, interviewers will not be able to factor those into to your application. 

Prepare to sell yourself 

Interviews are the time to sell yourself and set your qualifications apart. 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  
  • Your gratefulness 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 briefly summarize yourself 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: Whether handwritten or via e-mail, thank you messages 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. 
  • Follow-up scheduling or materials: 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.  
  • Delays: If for some reason your transcripts or other materials are 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.