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Decoding Federal Job Vacancy Announcements

Aerial view of Capitol Hill and the National Mall, Washington D.C. (Photo: Architect of the Capitol's Office)
Aerial view of Capitol Hill and the National Mall, Washington D.C. (Photo: Architect of the Capitol's Office)

Every Federal job opening that is available to the public has a vacancy announcement. The announcement describes the position and how to apply for it. It is filled with important clues about what agencies want in an applicant.

Announcements, piece by piece

All vacancy announcements have the same basic parts, although the order, style, and wording vary. Knowing these parts can help you to zero in on key facts.

Basic information. At the top of an announcement, you will find the announcement number, position title, agency name, and duty location. The name of a person to contact for more information might be listed here or at the end of the announcement.

Who may apply. Some jobs are reserved for people who are current or former Federal employees or who are veterans or disabled people who meet specific conditions. These vacancy announcements say that they are for “Employees only” or “Status candidates only.”

For jobs open to the public, announcements say something like, “Open to all qualified candidates” or “Open to all U.S. citizens.”

On some announcements, this section might be called “Area of consideration.”

Opening date. Agencies begin accepting applications on this day.

Closing date. Applications are due on this day. Sometimes, applications only need to be postmarked by the due date. But usually, they must arrive at the agency by this day, either by midnight or by the close of business. If you cannot meet the deadline, don’t give up immediately. First, check to see if it has been extended. In some agencies, this happens at least 10 percent of the time. Also, in rare cases, it may be possible to submit a partial application and complete it later. To find out, call the contact person listed on the announcement. A closing date that is months away or that is listed as “continuous” means the agency is gathering a pool of candidates for future job openings.

Pay range. Most, but not all, Federal workers start their jobs at the low end of the earnings range listed on the announcement and work their way up. Applicants can sometimes negotiate higher starting pay based on their qualifications and salary history.

Series and grade. Every Federal Government job has a code that consists of a two-letter combination followed by two numbers. The letters refer to the system used to classify the occupation. As discussed in this article, GS is the most common letter combination and refers to General Schedule. WG refers to Wage Grade, the classification system used for positions that are paid by the hour. Other letter combinations stand for classification systems specific to a particular agency.

After the letter combination, the first number is a 4-digit occupational series. This usually corresponds to the job’s title. The second number is a 1- or 2-digit grade level that corresponds to the job’s minimum requirements, level of responsibility, and pay range.

In many announcements, more than one grade level is listed. This means that people who qualify for either grade can apply. It also means that workers can be promoted to the highest level listed without changing jobs. Promotion potential. This is the highest grade level available for the job. If no potential is listed, that does not mean that the job is a dead end. Nearly all Federal jobs offer regular pay increases, and many positions prepare workers for higher level jobs.

Job duties. This section of the announcement lists the specific tasks of the job. Analyze them for clues about the types of skills the employer is looking for. Later, you can tailor your application to match.

Basic qualifications. These are the minimum levels of education and experience required for the job. If the job has many possible grade levels, the qualifications for each are described.

Additional qualifications. Sometimes, this section is titled “knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) required”; “desired qualifications”; “ranking factors”; “selective factors”; or “evaluation methods.” Whatever its name, the section describes further qualifications for the job. These are the criteria used to rank applicants. Your application should address them all.

How to apply. This section lists the materials that applicants must provide. It describes how and when the materials should be submitted.

Conditions for employment. If a position requires travel, background checks, drug screening, or a security clearance, those conditions are explained in the announcement.

Standard legal information. Most announcements include sections on veterans’ preference, or preferential hiring for qualified veterans; the Career Transition Program (CTP), or preferential hiring for qualified Federal employees whose jobs have been eliminated; and merit promotion procedures, or application instructions for current Federal employees. Skip these sections if they do not apply to you.

Announcements also include equal opportunity statements, information for applicants with disabilities who need assistance, and, sometimes, admonitions to tell the truth on the application. This information varies little between announcements.

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