A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career In Federal Service

My name is Rudy Antoncic and I am a senior Political Science major from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  I am writing this guide with hopes that through sharing my experiences I will be able to assist fellow students who wish to enter federal service.  To date I have interned at two federal agencies and assisted operations in over six different offices, including a recent stint this fall in the Director’s Front Office at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Working in these environments in conjunction with my education at Holy Cross have enhanced my College experience more than I could have possibly imagined over the past two years and has allowed me to participate in some tremendously gratifying work.  Experiential learning is one of the single most effective ways to make yourself competitive and marketable to enter the extremely competitive atmosphere of the federal hiring process and this guide will show you how to use the programs available to you as a student at Holy Cross in order to do so. 

Understanding Yourself and The Process

Before you start the journey of pursuing an internship on the federal level here are some things that you should understand.  First, the process is extremely competitive, like any large firm or corporation it is not uncommon for thousands of people to apply for a single internship program, the federal government is no different.  In order to stand out and put your best foot forward, have a well thought out reason for wanting to gain experience within an agency’s program and be prepared to articulate that reasoning effectively in writing and in an interview.  Expressing knowledge of the agency’s mission and how your skillset may fit into and improve that mission while pursuing your own career ambitions is always a great strategy to market yourself for programs across the federal space.  Simply ask yourself, Why do you want to work for this agency? What does their mission mean to me? And finally, How will I be value-added to this mission through my skill set?  If you can answer these questions effectively and you feel that you will make positive contributions to the agency while achieving career progression you have already made yourself tremendously competitive.  In short, be aware, be knowledgeable, and be an asset to the agency.  

Second, the most valuable mental asset aside from your understanding of the agency, its mission, and how you will enhance that mission is flat out perseverance during the application process.  The simple fact of the matter is that there are hundreds of highly competitive students vying for only a certain amount of spots each year in a given agency, inevitably this means that you may not get in on your first try, but it is imperative that you learn from the process and continue to apply yourself.  Personally I have learned a tremendous amount throughout each hiring process I have been involved in and have used those experiences even if they didn’t pan out toward eventual successful applications.  Do not be discouraged, keep trying and if nothing else this experience will prepare you extremely well for any other positions you may pursue even outside of the federal space. 

Third, be aware of positions that require a security clearance process, the clearance process is only started after you are extended a conditional offer of employment by the agency.  Positions that require a security clearance process are often posted months in advance of a potential start date so be aware of application due dates if the program in question requires one.  There are many resources available online from official sources that will help you understand this process.  Please note that different agencies often have different clearance requirements and processes so be sure to be knowledgeable about your agency’s standards and be sure to be prompt with any paperwork that the process requires.  It may seem simple but quick submission of accurate paperwork will be a major asset to the entirety of the process. 

Tools of the trade

Below are some of the essential items you will need to possess to have a successful hiring process. If you don’t have these components yet, work on finding them before you enter the internship application process at any agency you are applying for.

  • An Up to Date USAjobs Account: USAjobs is the U.S Government’s primary hiring website.  Here you will find all of your internship job postings, however please note that not all agencies use USAjobs. Be sure to check agency websites for details of specific internship postings as well.  Undergraduate students will usually qualify for unpaid internships and other programs within the GS-4 and below grade code range.  Most applications for internship programs are fairly straightforward needing only a resume, cover letter, and transcripts.  However, some of the programs (mainly unpaid internships) will require an interest statement to go along with the rest of your materials.  Be sure to upload all of these materials to your USAjobs account and keep them up to date so you can quickly access them in your documents tab to apply to multiple positions of interest.  Remember, perseverance is key, if at first you don’t succeed keep applying.  
  • A Well Written Resume and Cover Letter:  A thoughtfully constructed resume and cover letter combination are absolutely essential to a successful application.  Federal hiring managers at various agencies review hundreds of resumes, well structured and well written content are the primary weapon to get you through the door to the interview stage at an agency.  Constructing ironclad documentation to support your application takes hours of proofreading, which is a great opportunity to start using the resume and proofreading resources available at the Center for Career Development at Holy Cross. Remember, these documents are the agency’s first glimpse into who you are and what you could provide as an intern, first impressions are everything, if your paperwork stands out you will too. 
  • An Up to Date List of Internship Deadlines:  This “tool” may sound simple but it is a powerful strategy for applying to federal internship programs.  As previously mentioned, federal internship applications sometimes open six months to a year in advance of a start date due to clearance processing and other requirements.  If you are applying for multiple positions (which I highly recommend) be sure to chart out when due dates are and when positions open and have your most recent resume, cover letter, and transcripts ready to go to apply.  I have seen time and again deadlines come and go for internship programs that qualified applicants have missed due to scheduling errors, be attentive with clock and calendar with regard to due dates and be prepared, do your research. 

Awareness of Internship Options

There are many types of internships throughout the federal government but listed are some of the different categories of programs to choose from and look out for.  First is the Virtual Student Federal Service or (VSFS).  VSFS allows students to participate in project opportunities all throughout the federal government in a virtual environment with many top agencies including NASA, ODNI, and the U.S State Department to name a few options.  VSFS is a great and affordable option for students to be involved with part time even while taking classes throughout their college career and is a great option to be paired with the Academic Internship Program offered through the J.D. Power Center for Liberal Arts in the World.  

The second broad option is in person unpaid internships, most agencies have a general unpaid internship program in which undergraduate students can gain experience in their agency.  These are wonderful opportunities to go to D.C. or other regions of the country and experience agency operations first hand and can easily be coupled with the Holy Cross D.C. semester program if the internship is in the D.C. area.  The great part the federal government is that there are all sorts of opportunities to get involved whether you are a physics major wanting to study operations at NASA, a biology major interested in healthcare at the CDC or the NIH, or an aspiring teacher studying education policy at the U.S. Department of Education, the federal government will undoubtedly have a functional area to enrich your interests. 

The third and final internship type are Pathways programs.  Pathways programs are often paid internships that upon completion of your education program and the Pathways program requirements carry with them the opportunity to possibly convert into the federal government upon graduation.  These programs are often the most highly sought after internship programs in the whole of the federal government for this reason are extremely competitive.  If you have an opportunity to apply for one of these programs be sure to put your best foot forward as you will likely be competing with a wide variety of individuals vying for an opportunity to directly enter the federal government.  Be sure to note that most pathways internship programs have application cut offs, for example if an application has a cut off of 100 applications the hiring officials will only consider applicants within the first 100 applicants, timing is often key for being considered.  

All of these programs above can be used in conjunction with the Academic Internship Program and the Washington Semester program if you manage to secure a position in D.C., offered through the J.D. Power Center.  These programs allow students to intern while still earning credit toward their degree.  Not all schools offer this opportunity and as a Holy Cross student you should take advantage of the opportunity while you have it as the combination of real world experience and academic progression will put you in a distinct category of qualified applicants for possible conversion into full time positions when graduating college. 

General Advice: Lessons Learned

After reading all of the information above you may have thought to yourself that I was sitting first in line my first year of college and with all of my paperwork ready to apply for my first federal job.  This could not be any further from the truth.  My journey to federal service started with me struggling tremendously my freshman year, having not a single idea of what I wanted to do with my professional career.  No resume, no cover letter, no online application accounts, and not one clue of what I wanted to accomplish, needless to say I felt completely lost and struggled considerably my first several semesters on the Hill.  However, my Montserrat professor one day noticed my situation and told me only two things, improve your writing skills and take a shot at the D.C. semester program or apply to the Academic Internship Program to see what I would want to do. 

 Three years later I completed both programs back to back my junior year amounting to over 9 full months of combined internship experience with a full class load.  These programs completely changed the direction of my college career, allowed me to find direction in my work, and have the capacity to change your college experience as well.  I fully understand how difficult finding what you’re passionate about can be and every time I mentor a student, I remember back to the way I felt when I myself was a struggling student who thought that I would never amount to much in my college career.  My advice to students in the same situation is simple: Holy Cross is a small college where professors will know your name, will know your strengths and weaknesses, and more importantly be willing to help you.  That’s one of the advantages of this institution, you have immediate access to people that will help you being it is such a small and personal environment.  If you’re stuck, reach out to your advisors and use the career center, the J.D. Power Center, and other on campus resources to start exploring what is possible. 

Experiential learning is a very powerful opportunity as it allows you to experience the real world in a controlled environment and allows you to find out how to perform successfully.  The combination of meaningful experiences in both the classroom and practical real world work environment will allow you to out compete with the most elite students in the country and will without a doubt make you a better, more well rounded individual. Take the first step and be involved in your time here, you won’t be sorry that you did.  If you follow this guide and equip yourself with the tools necessary to compete for these opportunities I have listed above as an underclassmen, you will be leagues ahead of where I was when I was in your shoes and most importantly will likely be able to have the opportunity to represent Holy Cross within the United State’s most influential institutions.  Remember, be prepared, be professional, and most importantly never give up if you have a good reason to step up and get involved in federal service. 

Rudy Antoncic '22 - J.D. Power Center Ambassador
Rudy Antoncic ’22 – J.D. Power Center Ambassador