RP Federal Resume Puzzle ®

By Kathryn Troutman, Author,
Federal Resume Guidebook, 6th Ed., and Jobseeker Guide, 8th Edition
November 7, 2017

Last month, I taught a Ten Steps to a Federal Job class at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. An officer asked me, “Why is it so complicated to apply for a federal job?”


While federal job applications seem complicated, I prefer to think of the process as similar to putting together a puzzle. So, what does putting the federal resume puzzle look like?

Here’s my technical answer: “The federal resume is like a legal document. It must prove, on the page, that you have the qualifications for the job. Resumes get reviewed to prove qualifications and to protect the government against complaints. So, the resume is crucially important and must match the announcement qualifications.” Therefore the pieces of puzzles will help you collect all the right information to MATCH A POSITION AND HOPEFULLY GET YOU BEST QUALIFIED FOR THE POSITION!

So, what does putting the puzzle together look like? From a broad perspective, you should write the resume in the Outline Format, specifically targeting the announcement. Put the resume into USAJOBS. Follow the application directions. That’s it! Simple, right?


Well, maybe. Let’s dig a bit deeper into the puzzle. Federal job applications are comprised of critical elements – or puzzle pieces – that you have to fit together to create a complete picture of your qualifications.

Here’s what each puzzle piece looks like:

  • Specialized Experience: Every USAJOBS announcement includes a specialized experience requirement. This is the one puzzle piece you MUST have; without it, you might not even be able to begin the puzzle. No specialized experience? You won’t get referred.
  • Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSAs): Announcements on USAJOBS list out KSAs for the position. They may seem, at times, like “add on” language, or “fluff,” but they are required competencies for the position. Read them carefully. Address them in the resume to round out the puzzle.
  • Core Competencies: This is a relatively recent addition to the puzzle, but whether you prove you possess core competencies can be the difference between an incomplete puzzle or a complete image that shows you at your best. Pro Tip: Use accomplishment stories to demonstrate competency areas.
  • The Self-Assessment Questionnaire: You’re scoring yourself here and basically screening yourself. Think of it as a test. The higher you rate, the more looks you’ll get during the evaluation process. Give yourself credit, score yourself as high as possible, and support your self-assessment ratings with resume content. Let Human Resources screen you out; don’t do their job for them.
  • Education: If the position requires education, make sure you include it. Read the instructions. If a specific number of credits in a particular field is required, you must list out the relevant courses, total number of relevant credits, and prove your claims with a transcript. No proof? Then you’re missing a puzzle piece.
  • Work Experience: Your work experience should be targeted to the position you’re trying to get, not merely summarize your past employment. Don’t simply copy-and-paste your position description; rather, fine-tune your experience descriptions based on what the announcement is looking for. Finally, follow the instructions and include all mandatory/required pieces of information.
  • Non-Profit & Volunteer Experience: Non-paid work is still work. It counts on a federal resume. Yes, you read that right! If you have substantial experience with a volunteer position, it can be weighted equally to a paid position. Give it a whole job block; don’t leave it as a footnote or small piece of “additional information,” especially if it demonstrates specialized experience or KSAs.
  • Guidelines, Laws, and Regulations: If you’re a federal employee, you’re interacting with these puzzle pieces every day. Include them in your resume, and be specific! These can help demonstrate your expertise and your competency areas.
  • Supervisory Experience: Do you lead teams? Do you collaborate with others? Are you in a formal supervisory position? Do you manage projects? Whether formal or not, your experience might still qualify as “supervisory.” Claim credit for yourself by casting your experiences in the light of leadership and team building. The puzzle will look better for it.
  • Accomplishments: Resumes all tend to start looking the same to a Human Resources Specialist who has to review hundreds of them. Make yours interesting. Include stories! Leverage your accomplishment stories to convey your “value added” through past performance and demonstrated excellence. We all like a good story, and telling stories about your accomplishments is the difference between a boring resume and an interesting one. Want to be referred? Want an interview? Include accomplishments in your resume and give them the space they deserve.

Yes, there are a few puzzle pieces. But put them all together and you’ll have hopefully a Best Qualified Federal Resume!

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The Federal Resume Guidebook,
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by Kathryn Troutman

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View samples of the outline format:
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