For many undergraduate students in the Washington, D.C., area, working on Capitol Hill or the federal government is a dream job, especially at the entry-level just out of school. However, positions on Capitol Hill are highly competitive, and some job posts have hundreds of applicants competing for one single job.
I’m currently a Legislative Correspondent at the U.S. House of Representatives, and I got my start by interning on the Hill while pursuing my bachelor’s degree in public administration at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. I’m now working on a Master’s in Public Administration at the Schar School.
If you’re looking to land a job as a permanent staffer on Capitol Hill, below are some tips to help you get started:
- Start with a Capitol Hill Internship.
If you ask Capitol Hill staffers, the most common way of getting your foot in the door and working on Capitol Hill is by starting off as an intern. It’s a fast-paced environment, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a hiring manager who eagerly hires someone for an entry-level position when he or she does not know where I.D. Services is located or how to get to the Senate side of the Capitol.
By interning, you’ll have ample training and opportunity to grow. You’ll learn the basics required to hit the ground running, including how to process mail, answer and transfer calls, and greet constituents in the front office. The entry-level position on the Hill is a Staff Assistant, and it will be challenging to get an offer if you do not know the necessary skills you learn as an intern.
- Network, Network, Network.
Networking is one of the most crucial aspects of getting a job on Capitol Hill and continuing to grow professionally. Get to know different staffers, which will help you hear about jobs as they come up and increase your chances of having your resume land on top of the review stack. Network with staffers in the same state delegation or offices that serve on the same committee as the job post you’re pursuing.
One of the best ways to network is by grabbing coffee with staffers. I particularly recommend reaching out to Legislative Directors or Legislative Assistants. Legislative Directors are usually the first step in hiring, and Legislative Assistants often have more time to grab coffee and are more likely to take time out of their day to meet with you.
Keeping up with your contacts Is also important. That is how I landed the Legislative Correspondent position I am in now. Keeping your contacts up-to-date on where you are applying or what you are interested in can help them steer you towards the right position. When my contact left the Hill and he knew I was looking, he called me directly to see if I was interested. Being the first person they think of for a position is invaluable.
If you don’t know where to start, consider attending a Schar School alumni networking event, or become involved in the alumni chapter and volunteer network. The Schar School and George Mason University as a whole have an extensive alumni network on Capitol Hill. Be sure to leverage this in your job search.
- Focus on Your State Connections.
The more U.S. states you have ties to, the better your chance of getting your foot in the door with a job on the Hill. While not required, being able to say that you have family in the state or went to school in the district can significantly increase your chances of standing out as a good fit for the representative’s staff.
Being able to talk to constituents or relate to where they are from is highly desirable for congressional offices. Some offices might not consider this a top priority in their hiring process, but many offices only hire individuals who have state ties. It Is less important when you move up to more policy orientated positions, but having state-ties In the front part of the office helps constituents feel that they are being represented by people from the state or district.
- Be Patient.
Finding a job on Capitol Hill takes time. Some individuals are lucky enough to receive a job offer on the Hill before they even graduate, while others look for months to find the right job. Capitol Hill usually rewards those who have the dedication to stick it out and wait for the first job offer. It is all “right place, right time,” and being at the right place, meeting the right individuals, and being able to move into the role quickly will land you that entry-level position.
In my case, I spent the last year of my undergraduate studies at the Schar School interning on Capitol Hill. By the time I finished my public administration degree, I had the experience, knowledge, and contacts to land the entry-level position I dreamed of in a couple of weeks. Staffers are continually moving around from office to office, and patience goes a long way on the Hill.
- Develop Your Resume and Writing Samples.
Having a strong resume and writing samples are critical in getting interviews and positions. Continue to develop your skills and polish up your resume while you wait for an interview to come along. Writing abilities are essential to your success working on the Hill—so much so that some offices even have writing tests as a part of the interview process. Working on Capitol Hill is very writing-intensive and poor writers will not last long. The skill of being able to compose a memorandum or a recommendation in a clear, concise manner will let you go far in congressional offices.
Overall, landing a job on Capitol Hill can be difficult. Each office is different and has different qualities in mind for its new hires. As a Schar School student, you are gifted with close proximity to Washington, D.C., and unparalleled faculty and alumni connections. Continue to build your network, speak with your professors, and start your search with an internship in mind. Even if you cannot find a job on Capitol Hill in your desired timeframe, being able to have references in congressional offices will only help you with other job opportunities off Capitol Hill.
Nicholas Ayers is a Master’s in Public Administration candidate at the Schar School of Policy and Government and is a Legislative Correspondent at the U.S. House of Representatives.