broken plate

It’s Not You, It’s Me: USAJobs – A Broken System

By Michael Orange
MS in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases

Is the federal hiring system broken? In my experience, countless applicants, hiring managers, and HR specialists would shout out a resounding “yes” in response to this question. In truth, USAJobs’ hiring process is complicated, drawn-out, and acts as a barrier in terms of attracting and hiring high-quality candidates. If you’re like me, you have heard the troubling stories from other professionals. Promising candidates passionate about civil service end up turning away from careers with the federal government because they are unable to decipher the formula necessary to get their résumé past the automated USAJobs bot. In the end, they submit their information into a “black hole,” never to be seen or heard from again. In addition, they may also be unable to wait for 6 months to a year just to begin the hiring process. Although headway has been made in overhauling the federal job search engine, USAJobs as a whole remains an active work in progress. Fortunately, OPM has made the process of locating a job and understanding how to apply easier than ever. However, if you are still working on securing an interview with a federal agency, the following topics and recommendations may assist you.

Building a Foundational Federal Résumé

To start, I strongly advise federal job seekers first build a foundational federal résumé on the platform. USAJobs has developed a résumé template to help you get started. First, you should start with your name, address, and contact information at the top of your first page. Then, you should list your date available to work, followed by a summary statement, education, work experience, professional skills, certifications/achievements, training, and/or volunteer experience. You must include dates, hours, level of experience, and examples for each work experience.1 To clarify, you must demonstrate how your skills and experiences meet the qualifications and requirements listed in the job announcement by including the following: 

  1. Start and end dates of current and previous work experience (including the month and year)
  2. The number of hours your worked per week
  3. The level and amount of experience
  4. Salary (I recommend that you only include this section on your federal résumé; however, choosing to include salary on a civilian résumé has been widely debated in the job-hunting community)
  5. Examples of relevant experiences and accomplishments

All things considered, your federal résumé should illustrate how your history meets the organization’s needs, as well as allow you to align your skill set to that specific agency. Ensuring that it conforms to all USAJobs required standards of the algorithm is crucial. Additionally, the FBI has also made available a federal résumé template for candidates.

The Infamous USAJobs Algorithm: Tailoring Your Federal Résumé to Each Position

Like many companies in the private sector, most federal agencies scan résumés for keywords with an automated system. According to USAJobs, agencies may use a contextual grammar-based Artificial Intelligence (AI) software for an automated résumé review.2 Therefore, in addition to structuring your résumé to follow the foundational federal format, I also recommend taking note of keywords in the job description. Find the keywords that are applicable to your experience and then add them to your résumé. Once these keywords are detected, you will notice your application statuses transitioning from “Not Qualified” or “Eligible-Not Referred” to “Eligible Referred,” which will ultimately land your application in the hands of an HR specialist. Although different hiring systems are used, this same advice is applicable to contractor applications.

Can Your Federal Résumé Exceed Two Pages?

Again, based on my experience, as well as discussing this question in several one-on-one career advising sessions at Georgetown, I have found that a federal résumé requires more information than its civilian counterpart. Therefore, it is typically longer than two pages. For example, a civilian résumé might mention how the individual deals with an annual revenue stream of roughly $50M; however, a federal one should clarify how that individual led a multidisciplinary team of policy, operations, technical, and research analysts supporting various organizations and departments while maintaining that annual revenue. A word of caution: do not use this freedom to ramble.

The bottom line is that the federal hiring process is tedious, but not impossible. Organization, having a plan, and providing the exact information and documentation requested are critical to being selected for an interview. Be thorough, take your time, and implement the tips above as well as those in the provided hyperlinks, and your efforts and perseverance will pay off.

1 USAJobs. (2020). What should I include in my federal resume? Retrieved from USAJobs.

2 USAJobs. (2020). Resumes are scanned for keywords by an automated system. Retrieved from USAJobs.

More Career Advice

Learn from faculty, staff, postdocs, students and alumni through our Career Catalyst blog.

Career Catalyst

Application Materials
USAJobs Blog Series