There is an inexpressible joy about offering a job to someone, but my heart always turns toward those who instead receive the email regretfully informing them that they didn’t get this one. I am going to be sending a bunch of those emails in a moment, and wanted to say a bit more to those people.
It’s really hard, I have been there, and I genuinely feel your pain.
I write as someone who swung and missed so many times, hoping maybe something that follows will help you get that next resume look, interview, and goodness willing, the gig. I’ve made every mistake that can be made in the job application process, and learned from it.
And I write as someone who has read many, many, many resumes and cover letters, hired for different positions, and talked about hiring with hiring managers in a number of offices on Capitol Hill. [My knowledge/experience and advice are specific to the House, but much of this applies to the Senate, the Executive Branch, and political or issue advocacy organizations in D.C.]
Unsolicited advice is no one’s favorite thing, so don’t read if this is going to make it worse. I’m not trying to be an asshole, I just want to help. Maybe bookmark this and come back to it when working on future applications.
Cast a wide net. If you’re an intern who wants to be an L.A. someday, your best shot is to apply to as many Staff Assistant postings as you can. Subscribe to the House Vacancy Bulletin, Tom Manatos, and Traverse, and apply quickly to whatever is in realistic reach that you would be willing to do.
Do a google image search for “resume templates” and scroll down. Some of those look pretty good, right? You are competing against resumes that look like that! Now look at your resume. It’s worth considering a fancy template.
The average resume look, according to an article I just googled, lasts 7–8 seconds. Mine are longer, but that means someone else’s are shorter! If it looks good you’ll get a longer look, that’s just how people are.
Hit the person reading your res with your best shot right at the top. Unless you’re applying for an internship your best shot is almost certainly not the place you went to college — it’s your strongest professional achievement.
You are competing against people who grew up in the district represented by the person you are applying to work for.
You are competing against people who went to prestigious colleges.
You are competing against people who worked on presidential campaigns.
You are competing against people who are currently paid staffers.
Hit them with all you’ve got. Accomplishments are better than tasks and duties. You want to stand out! Some people left a third of the page empty on their resumes in the last bunch I read. What did that do for them? Nothing!
You need to stand out from the pack, even if you’re already a Hill intern (over half the applicants to the position I just hired were current or former interns).
I am a big fan of a single line at the end which I call the “I am a real person” line. On the res that got me my first Hill job, it read: “Experience event-planning, guitarist, writer, science fiction enthusiast, music collector, cook.” Many hiring managers won’t care, but some will have an eye drawn by something that makes you sound interesting or different. Consider it.
Proof read the whole thing once for content and once for style. Are your bullets aligned correctly? Do tenses match? It’s worth a double check.
A cover letter should communicate three things as rapidly as possible:
(1) who are you?
(2) why should I hire you?
(3) why do you want to work here?
I cannot tell you how many people write paragraphs about 1–2 and ignore #3. A big mistake! #3 is actually your best bet to connect via a cover letter.
Are you confident your skills and experience would make you a great fit for the position? 100 other people were too. But if, unlike most of them, you take a sentence to tell me why you want to work for my boss, why they inspire you, how their work connects to your personal story — that will separate you from the pack and show you cared enough to do research. You want to stand out!
Don’t go onto a second page. Just don’t. Half a page is better.
Proof read the whole thing once for content and once for style. Did you remember to make the cover letter about the person/office to which you are applying? I get one addressed to a different office *every single* time.
For the love of Pete, follow the directions. Don’t apply to a posting that says to apply to PleaseGodHireMe at gmail dot com with an email to the hiring manager’s House inbox. You do not want the first message you send as a candidate to be “I cannot follow directions.”
Don’t agonize over the email body excessively if you can avoid it. If you have a fantastic connection to the office, a mutual friend with someone there who recommended you apply, a tie to their district, or solid experience that bears directly on the gig, mention it. A little enthusiasm is enough. Less is more here, the main rule is “do no harm.”
Apply quickly. Some offices will take a month to start interviewing (I did this time, not by choice, I was just too damn busy), but some will start setting up interviews within days. Don’t leave it for weeks if you have time to do it today — I personally found as a job seeker that the best thing for both my mental health and my ability to get interviews was a rhythm, looking at postings first thing in the morning, then applying to them.
If you are asked for samples, send them in a way your parent would be able to access. Could your mother get into that zip file? Sad but true: not every hiring manager is tech savvy.
Many hiring managers in offices in the House Democratic Caucus value candidates who will increase the diversity of their staff. If this would apply to you and you are comfortable doing so (I completely understand that some people are not, that’s totally fine), there are ways to communicate this to the hiring manager. Mentioning your membership in a student or staff organization, making a particular choice of sample, working it into your cover letter or email — these things can help your application stand out.
Proof read the whole thing once for content and once for style. You took all that time to put this together, you don’t want to mess up here.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING — if you have a friend, colleague, supervisor, or person in your network with a connection to the office, get them to flag your application.
One hundred and thirteen (113) applications were submitted for the position I just filled. That’s a lot! Would you rather eat an expensive dinner at a restaurant you know nothing about based on their advertising, or one that your good friend says was absolutely amazing? The second one, every time.
You are competing against people (in this case, a couple dozen) who had their applications flagged. Those people have an edge — you want that edge. You will apply to places where you don’t have a connection (I called them “darts”) but in the professional world, and especially DC, connections are wildly important. If you don’t have helpful connections, it’s worth networking.
You scored that interview, awesome! That means you had something that made you stand out. Now you need to take some time to prep. An interview could cover any number of questions from the silly “what is your biggest failing” to traps like “where do you see yourself in ten years.” But most will feature variations of these three (sound familiar?):
(1) who are you?
(2) why should I hire you?
(3) why do you want to work here?
You could respond to number one with a regurgitation of your resume, but a superior candidate will have what I call the “story of self,” that is the narrative of your application, which they can pivot to their qualification for the position. For instance: “I graduated last year from [school] and really wanted to pursue my passion for progressive politics. I landed an internship with Rep. [name] and found that I just LOVED legislative work and wanted to pursue a career in legislative work, particularly in the area of [policy area important to Member you are interviewing with]. When I saw this posting, it just struck me as a dream job.” You’ve just communicated a connection with the office and the Member, and also shown that you took the time to do research on them.
When you do research, look at the posting again. They are communicating a lot in those few words about what they want in the position. Lean in on those as much as you can, and pivot your answers towards them. Have a strategy.
And don’t forget to talk about the Member/office where you are interviewing. The person you are talking to works for that Member and probably takes a lot of pride in that. Come in armed with research about what that Member is all about and work it into your responses.
I make this part easy: invariably I will ask a question like “why do you want to work for my boss?” It is *amazing* to me how many people do everything right up until this point and then don’t have a good answer to that question and find themselves rambling or unable to say something cogent. You WILL be asked this question at some point. Think about what you want to say in advance! And to really stand out, have a response tie in to your story of self.
Come prepared with questions, and don’t make them all for your actual knowledge — this is another opportunity to show your enthusiasm and connection to their office. I was once interviewing for a district office job and asked the District Director how the recent redistricting that added [XYZ counties] to the district had changed things for the constituent services operation. I got the next level interview (with the Member).
ONE LAST THING I recommend, advice once given to me by a Chief of Staff who interviewed me for two different positions when I asked her if I could do something better in my application or interview: “You’re really nervous. The next interview you get, do all your research in advance and go there early, but set up a call with your girlfriend, your mom, your best friend, someone who you can call just ten minutes before you walk into the office for the interview, who will tell you how great you are and how obvious it is that you’d be perfect for the job. Talk through the nerves, and it will help.” It’s some of the best professional advice I’ve ever gotten, and it really does help.
Keep At It
The competition is really tough for the profession you want to break into. Unless they have incredible advantages the person who gets the job on Capitol Hill won’t skate in here, they’ll have a bunch of things go right for them. One of my best friends and former coworkers analogized it to me at the time this way: everyone who wants to make it as an actor or screenwriter has to compete against everyone else trying to do the same thing in L.A., and D.C. is the same thing but for national politics.
You CAN do this, but it won’t be easy, and it will take determination and resourcefulness. Every hiring manager wants something different, but on balance these tips will help you get ahead.
If any of the above is unclear or it would be helpful to you if I looked at your resume or gave feedback on your cover letter or interview or whatnot, just ask me. I’m a busy fellow but not too busy to spare a few minutes for this when I get the time.