Why Your Federal Resume Isn’t Working (And How To Fix It!)

Tired of applying for countless federal jobs and not hearing back about any of your applications?

Your federal resume isn’t working because you’re either not applying with a federal resume, which is vastly different from a corporate resume, or your federal resume is being held back by one or more of the top federal resume mistakes. Some of the top federal resume mistakes include:

  • Designing a federal resume for employer software rather than HR Specialists

  • Summarizing your experience and skills in 1-2 pages

  • Including details that are not relevant to the job or the agency

  • Applying with the same resume to every federal job announcement


Let’s focus on fixing the first two federal resume mistakes that may be keeping you from landing a federal job.


Why Your Federal Resume Isn’t Working (And How To Fix It!) | Federal Resume Tips from Off The Clock Resumes


Who Sees Your Federal Resume

It’s important that you first understand what happens when you apply for a job on USAJobs.gov or another federal agency website. Your Application Questionnaire is automatically reviewed and graded by software to either eliminate you or move your application forward in the process depending on how you answer these questions.

These questions will determine if you are eligible to apply and minimally qualified for the job. Some of the questions will ask you to rate how well you perform certain job requirements, so it’s important that you rate yourself as high as you honestly can to ensure that you move forward. In other words, this is not the time for modesty.

Once your application passes the Application Questionnaire assessment, your resume will be reviewed by a Human Resources Specialist at the agency you’re applying for. Unlike the private sector hiring process, your federal resume is read by a person rather than by software. These HR Specialists are looking to make sure you have the Specialized Experience mentioned in the job announcement and that you meet all of the qualifications (which are non-negotiable) in your federal resume.


Federal Resume Mistake #1

This is where you’re making your first mistake. You have heard how important it is to comply with Applicant Tracking software with both your digital formatting and your keyword-optimized content, but federal resumes are handled differently. The most common federal resume mistake is designing your resume for Applicant Tracking software.

Instead, your federal resume needs to be designed for Human Resource Specialists. What exactly do HR Specialists want to see? They want to see your Work History first (not a Career Summary or Branding Statement) followed by your Education, Computer Skills, Additional Job-related or Military Training, Affiliations, Skills, and then any Additional Information such as a Summary of Qualifications. They also want to see the required Specialized Experience and Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSAs) listed quickly and easily.

This doesn’t mean that you should summarize and list your Specialized Experience and KSAs in an easy-to-skim one or two-page resume though...


Federal Resume Mistake #2

That’s where the second most common federal resume mistake makes its entrance. Your federal resume isn’t going to get very far in the application process if you don’t include enough information. Most effective federal resumes are 3-5 pages in length (unless you’re a recent college graduate with no related experience). The aspect of federal resume writing that most job seekers neglect is supporting the answers to the Application Questionnaire and the required KSAs in their federal resume.

Your federal resume needs to showcase the required Specialized Experience, demonstrate that you possess the required KSAs for each job you have held in the last 10-15 years, and present this information so that Human Resource Specialists can find these details quickly and easily.


1 | Start With Keywords

To fix your federal resume, you first need to make sure the keywords that HR Specialists will be looking for are easy to find. These keywords will be found in the required Specialized Experience and KSAs. For each position you have held in the last 10-15 years, list all of the keywords that relate to your experiences.

The keywords are in brackets for this sample Specialized Experience section:

In addition to the Basic Requirement above, applicants must meet the specialized experience. To qualify based on your work experience, your resume must describe at least one year of experience which prepared you to do the work in this job. Specialized experience is defined as: applying a knowledge of [contracting principles and procedures] related to pre and post award contracting, [preparing pre and post award documentation], determining effective [contract strategies] to include contract type and pricing arrangements and [conducting negotiations] to include [preparing procurement action] with other offices.

Job Title

Duties, Accomplishments, and Related Skills:

Contracting Principles & Procedures -

Preparing Pre & Post Award Documentation -

Contract Strategies -

Conducting Negotiations -

Preparing Procurement Action -


Next, describe your experience in each of these skill sets in 4-6 line paragraphs. This will ensure that the experience HR Specialists are looking for is easy to find.


2 | Next, Include Your Achievements

Presenting yourself as an achiever rather than just a doer will help you stand out from other candidates who also have the required Specialized Experience and KSAs. Draw attention to your achievements by creating a bullet list beneath each related skill-based paragraph.

Here’s what that would look like for the sample we started with above:

Job Title

Duties, Accomplishments, and Related Skills:

Contracting Principles & Procedures - Describe how you applied contracting principles and procedures here to include formulating the contracting approach that will best satisfy the requirement, advertising procurements, and conducting pre-proposal conferences.

Key Accomplishments:

  • Add an achievement here…

  • Add an achievement here...

Preparing Pre & Post Award Documentation - Describe how you prepared pre and post award documentation including evaluating proposals, analyzing bids, preparing solicitations, issuing change orders, modifying contracts, and issuing notices.

Key Accomplishments:

  • Add an achievement here…

  • Add an achievement here...


Struggling to come up with so many achievements? You can also create one bullet list for all of your achievements for each job posting.


3 | Finally, Give Some Context

Achievements are great, but they can have an even greater impact with some context. Adding context means adding details that describe who is affected by the achievement, what changes needed to occur, why the changes were necessary, and which tasks were performed to achieve the change.

Here’s a sample achievement that we can improve by giving it some context:

Key Accomplishments:

  • Reduced contract processing time by creating new procedures and checklists.


Here’s that same achievement with more context:

Key Accomplishments:

  • Reduced contract processing time from weeks to hours by introducing new procedures for contract administrators that enabled quicker identification of key documents to be reviewed and creating checklists to speed up the review process.


Doesn't that sound so much better? Remember, your federal resume should never summarize your experience and skills but describe your experience and skills with achievements and context.

Add more detail to your federal resume by including the keywords found in the Application Questionnaire and the job announcement, related achievements, and adequate context.