March 4, 2022


This blog is part of a series on how to effectively explore careers and opportunities in the federal government. It is also partially extracted from federal senior manager and HR expert Angela Freeman’s recent webinar, “Exploring Federal Career Paths” held on Feb. 8, 2022.


By Alex Harrington

When it comes to applying for a federal job, I can confidently assume that almost every applicant would not say, “Wow, this was easier than I thought it would be!"

I can still clearly remember back in 2003, sitting on the floor of a cold basement in Cleveland, Ohio, with articles and books on how to apply for a federal job strewn in front of me, thinking “What the hell am I spending all this time trying to learn and apply for one federal job, when I could  spend the same amount of time submitting a dozen applications for a regular private sector job?” Despite the overabundance of colorful, audible profanities and the pulling of hair (this is the reason I don’t sport a John Stamos mane atop my noggin) I do not regret one minute spent learning and applying for federal service jobs. As a matter of fact, all the time spent in learning and applying for a federal job eventually launched me into an amazing, fulfilling career as a civil servant.

So, with my past experiences in learning and applying for federal jobs, coupled with my current work record as a federal hiring manager and a credentialed career coach, I would like to help you quickly learn and proficiently navigate the mysterious nature of federal recruitment and hiring. After all, I don’t want you to express the colorful expletives and ripping of beautiful locks, too…unless you’re sporting the Bruce Willis look.

Now, allow me to assume yet again that the top barrier for many job seekers is the lack of awareness of the federal recruitment and hiring process—seeing that most of them are accustomed to the private sector’s expeditious hiring practices. Then they try their hand at applying for a federal job. And many of these job seekers—perhaps someone like you—quickly become confused with the overabundance of hiring paths and application requirements. 

I know this is frustrating, but let me give you some useful advice: if you’re set on looking and applying for federal jobs, it would behoove you to LEARN all that you can about the federal hiring process. The two books that helped me learn how to apply for federal jobs were:

How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job. The author, Lily Whiteman, climbed the federal career ladder and served as a hiring manager. She also has a blog, Career Matters, published by Federal Times, that is a treasure trove of useful information about how to navigate the federal hiring process.

Managing Your Government Career: Success Strategies That Work. This is one of my favorite books on government careers. The author, Stewart Liff, retired from federal service after 32 years as a senior executive. In my opinion, this is a must-have on your bookshelf. 

You can also check out my past blog, Take Advantage Of The Power Of Job-Seeking Resources To Boost Your Job Search Campaign (June 24, 2020), that provides an abundant list of federal job search resources and other career-related information. And be sure to review the Labor Department’s Understanding the Federal Hiring Process

I can only imagine you’re thinking, “I just don’t have time to read all this!” I get it. It takes significant time to learn how to successfully navigate the federal hiring process. But I think it’s worth the investment. Keep these words by Vince Lombardi close to mind and heart if you decide to invest the time to learn how to apply for a federal job: “The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”

Okay, let’s get to learning!

I am going to start easy and describe how the government advertises job vacancies. Then, I will describe the three types of services in the federal government. And finally, I will provide a rundown of the federal government’s hiring and appointing authorities, such as Direct-Hire, Veterans’ Hiring Authorities, Students, and Schedule A.

OPM’s Central Online Portal for Applying for Job Openings Government-Wide

The Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) centralized job portal—USAJOBS—serves as the primary digital hub for most agencies that announce vacant positions in the competitive service. In fact, nearly all federal agencies must advertise their vacancy announcements on USAJOBS.

However, there are some agencies that have excepted service positions, which are not required to be posted on USAJOBS. Instead, they publish these announcements on their websites.

When a vacancy announcement indicates “Open to the public,” all U.S. citizens, and some eligible nationals, may apply. A vacancy announcement open only to “status applicants” are typically current federal employees who are career-conditional or career appointment in the competitive service, as well as some former employees who possess reinstatement rights. And keep in mind, there are some vacancy announcements that are internal merit promotion only, which basically means that a restricted number of applicants are considered. Now, this doesn’t mean that a particular agency is falling into nepotism. It could indicate that some federal employees have found themselves having to transition to new jobs in different agencies. 

While USAJOBS provides a job seeker with a convenient single location to look for vacant positions, it also provides a resume builder and a search agent (renamed as ‘saved searches’) that automatically searches for jobs based on your job criteria, and the flexibility to upload a cover letter and other required documents. Simply put, USAJOBS is a far cry from the old way of posting vacancy announcements as paper notices in post offices throughout the U.S. To learn more about USAJOBS, you can check out their YouTube page.

Types of Service in the Federal Government

There are three main types of services in the federal government: 1) the competitive service, 2) the excepted service, and 3) the Senior Executive Service (SES).

Competitive Service

The competitive service makes up the bulk of positions in the executive branch. These positions are subject to civil service laws passed by Congress, which help ensure fair and open competition, recruitment from all segments of society, and selection based on the applicants’ competencies, knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Vacancy announcements for competitive service jobs must adhere to OPM’s application and hiring processes. 

Competitive service jobs generally fall under the “General Schedule” pay grades: GS-1 (lowest) to GS-15 (highest). Each grade level of a particular job classification is based on the level of difficulty, responsibility, and qualifications. For example, someone with only a high school diploma may only qualify for a GS-2 position, whereas a candidate with a Masters degree may qualify for a GS-11 or higher. 

Lastly, the competitive service has four types of appointments:

  1. Career-Conditional. These are permanent employees in the competitive service who have not completed their three years of continuous service.
  2. Career Appointment. Federal employees in the competitive service who have completed three years of continuous federal service.
  3. Term Appointment. Essentially, this type of appointment refers to when an agency hires an employee for a limited period of time. Sometimes, you may notice on a vacancy announcement “Term Appointment NTE 2 Years.” This means that the term of the position does not exceed two years’ duration.
  4. Temporary Appointment. This is an appointment that lasts only one year or less, with a specific end date.

*Note: the above list excludes the Excepted Service appointments.

Excepted Service

The excepted service positions are not part of the competitive service or SES positions. Additionally, the excepted service positions are not subject to competitive examination.

In layman's terms, most federal civilian positions are part of the competitive civil service. To obtain a federal job, you must compete with other applicants in open competition. However, there are some agencies that are excluded from the competitive civil service procedures. This means that these agencies have their own hiring system that establishes the evaluation criteria they use in filling their internal vacancies. These agencies are called excepted service agencies. In some cases, these agencies have their own pay system, hiring rules, and t evaluation criteria. 

Some major excepted service agencies include:

Senior Executive Service (SES)

The SES corps was established by Title IV of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978. The number of high-level government administrators that make up the SES corps is about 7,000 or so. Essentially, the SES members serve as a vital link between high-ranking political appointees of any agency and the career civil servants. 

The SES positions are classified above the GS-15 or equivalent. And to qualify for a senior executive position you must meet the executive core qualifications.

Learn more about becoming a senior executive to help protect our Constitution and “make sure federal executive management is responsive to the needs, policies, and goals of the Nation.”

Whew! I think that’s enough for now.

Let's put a pin here until the next blog in this series, where I will provide a rundown of the federal government’s common hiring and appointing authorities, such as Delegated Examining, Direct-Hire, Veterans’ Hiring Authorities, Students, Schedule A, and much, much more. 

Be sure to check out our other blogs in this series:

Please follow us on Twitter @FedCareer and join our Federal Career Connection page on LinkedIn or find us on Meetup at get updates on upcoming workshops and career coaching sessions, visit

Alex Harrington
Chair & Executive Director
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