The Capitol Hill Interview

by | March 10, 2009

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This article is excerpted from the Vault Guide to Capitol Hill Careers.
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In many ways interviewing on Capitol Hill is like interviewing for any other position. Potential employers will want to know about an applicants work history, accomplishments in previous positions, educational achievements, and ability to fit into the office. While qualifications are important, there are many overly qualified individuals applying for the most basic entry-level positions. Therefore, finding a position on the Hill often comes down to the question of "fit." Impressing the right people is often the key to landing a position.

For entry-level positions, applicants may be screened by a lower level staffer. Usually, however, a more senior staffer or the Member makes the final decision on hires.

With 535 Senator and Representative's offices making hiring decisions, it is difficult to characterize a "typical" interview. Much will depend on how the individual office screens and evaluates candidates. However, don't expect to find the human resources efficiency of a private company. Offices are small, and hiring decisions are just one of the many responsibilities pressing on senior staff at any given time.

"When I interview candidates, I'm trying to get a sense of how they will perform on the job," said a staffer with hiring responsibility. "I want to see examples of relevant work experience, strong writing samples, and find out whether or not they can handle the fast pace in our office. I'll usually ask them to describe a situation where they had to juggle several responsibilities at once. I like to see campaign experience, because that shows that they can handle the intensity of politics."

One of the most common mistakes applicants make interviewing for entry-level positions make is to over-tout their credentials while underwhelming the interviewer with their enthusiasm for the position. For example, an applicant that implies that his masters degree in international relations and internship with the English Parliament make him over qualified for writing constituent letters, but nonetheless he is willing to stoop to such a position in order to advance his career, is unlikely to land the job. Rather, it is important for a candidate to stay focused on the position being advertised and on demonstrating how his or her skills and dedication will assist in the office operations and allow him or her to be an asset to the Member's team.

"Sometimes you get people that come across as too arrogant," said a Democratic staffer. "If they act that way toward me, imagine how they will treat a constituent."

Interview Advice

  • Dress professionally. This should go without saying, but nevertheless, too many applicants arrive for the interview dressed inappropriately. In general, dress on Capitol Hill is conservative. For men, appropriate dress includes a dark suit with a shirt and tie and dress shoes. Women should wear a tastefully tailored suit of appropriate skirt length with dark dress shoes with a low heal. Both men and women should be well groomed and present themselves in a professional manner. Remember, as a staff member you will be representing your Member of Congress. Dress as you would expect to be greeted by a staff member of a Member of Congress.

  • Be prepared to answer the why. Interviewers will often want to know what drives an applicant to apply for a position on Capitol Hill, particularly at the entry level. Clearly, many of the well-educated college grads who are applying could make more money elsewhere. Be prepared to talk about your interests, passions, and goals (a common interview question is to ask where you see yourself in five years).

  • Stress geographic commonalities. Members prefer to hire candidates from their home districts or states. If you grew up in the district or the state, be sure to stress the connection. However, other connections exist and can help impress the right interviewer. Did you go to school in the district? Do you regularly visit a relative in the state? Does your family vacation there?

  • Know the Member and the District/State. There is so much public information available about Members of Congress, there is no good excuse to show up unprepared. The best place to begin is with a Member's personal web site. House Member's web pages can be accessed at and Senators websites are linked at Member's websites will include information on the district, a biography on the Member, recent news releases, and other information on issues and accomplishments. Independent media reports also provide important background information. Another good source for basic research, particularly about the district the Member represents, is the Almanac of American Politics published by the National Journal Group, which is available at many bookstores in Washington or online (or save money and borrow it from a friend or find it at the library).

This article is excerpted from the Vault Guide to Capitol Hill Careers.
Read more excerpts or purchase the guide
Discuss government careers at the Government Career Message Board
Discuss non-profit careers at the Non-profit Career Message Board

Filed Under: Interviewing

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