Monday, April 7, 2014

So, you think you want to be a Hill intern? Part II: Getting the job

In my last post, I gave you a run-down of what to expect from a Hill internship; in this one, I'll be giving you a slew of tips that will make you a stand-out applicant for a House personal office. This advice won't apply to all committee or Senate-side internships, as many of them will be particular to the duties that I outlined last month, but I'll denote tips that are useful no matter where you work in a color.

Applying, accepting, and what you should worry about before your internship begins

Writing and submitting your application

Applying for Hill internships will be daunting. Every office has its own recruitment procedure, so it'll seem as if you're applying to completely separate offices, but there are some similarities that are worth noting. First of all, let’s run down time-frame issues. Here’s a general look at when you should look at applying to Hill offices. This chart airs on the side of caution, but abide by these deadlines and you will never make the awkward follow-up call only to find out that they filled up their program two months before.

Begin applying
First follow-up
First-round decisions made
Second-round decisions made
Last-minute decisions/offices made
Late May
Early September
Late November
Early December
Early January
Late January
Early February
Late February
Late March/Early April
Early May

More on follow-up later, but for now, let’s turn to the actual application. Every office will require a cover letter and a resume, and some will ask for a writing sample:

The resume- Absolutely keep it to one page, and make sure you use your formatting techniques (read: bolding) to highlight the items of note. Having no DC or office experience won't stop you from getting a position, but certainly highlight government classes you've taken if this is the case. They want to know that you have a feel for what happens in DC, and that you understand the basics of the legislative process. Also highlight any leadership positions you've held and any direct connection that you have to their district. They want interns that have a feel for the geography and constituents in the district, so make sure they know where you're coming from if you have a connection. Aside from this, you can use the same resume for all of your applications.

The cover letter- First off, remember KISS: keep it simple, stupid. Hill staffers are extremely busy, and desirable offices can get hundreds of intern applications in peak season. Your cover letter should be short and easy on the eyes. Open with the dates you are available (be sure to note if you're available full-time!), briefly mention your particular interest in their office, and close with one or two sentences about your past experiences. If your cover letter runs more than about 400 words, including greetings and salutations, you're doing it wrong. You can use a template for all of the offices you apply to here, just make sure that you do personalize somehow to the individual member.

Also, be sure to address your cover letter to the intern coordinator by name. Call the D.C. (not district) office and ask for the name of the intern coordinator. Use their first and last name for the greeting.

The writing sample- Not all offices will require a writing sample, but it never hurts to include one. Keep the sample under 500 words or so (two pages, double spaced). They most likely aren't going to read it thoroughly; they'll skim it briefly just to make sure your writing skills are up to par. Any good writing will do, but if it's a Government paper, even better.

I've heard of some offices doing a quick writing test, in which they give you a set time (usually an hour or two) to email them a written piece on a topic of their choosing. Doing very well on these assignments can make you a standout applicant, but they are really aimed at weeding out applicants that have poor writing skills. As long as your writing is clear, concise, and grammar/spelling-error free, you've got nothing to worry about here.

Occasionally, an application will ask for a list of references, and even rarer, a letter of recommendation. The letter of recommendation can come from any professor you have a good relationship with, or from any boss you've had in the past. Most offices will take these letters into consideration, but they won't be a make-or-break for your application. Just make sure you provide one, and you're good to go.

Different offices prefer to receive your application in different ways. Most will have a form on their website, so go ahead and fill that out and attach the appropriate documents. Some will request that you send a resume and cover letter to a specific email address. Go ahead and do this, as well. While emailing the intern coordinator your application directly can seem like a good idea, and it can be in certain situations, consider this before you do it:

With so many applications coming in, the intern coordinator may have it set up that so that the information goes straight from the form into a spreadsheet, or straight to a specific inbox. It's good to be proactive, but if the office has a system, you don't want to create an unnecessary hassle for them by thinking you're too good for their spreadsheet. There are other ways to distinguish yourself that I will detail below, so focus on those.

However, if someone you know has a connection in the office, absolutely have them forward your application materials to the staffer that they know. The Hill thrives on connections, so even a quick note that accompanies a resume from someone the staffer knows can go a long way. It definitely won’t hurt to also submit your application through the standard channels, but work your connections if you have them!


A few people have asked me before: how many offices should I try to apply to? With no DC/Hill experience, I recommend that you apply to at least five offices, and here’s why: intern coordinators on the Hill are notorious for not getting back to you about your application. You can work for weeks on your applications, submit them in all of the right ways, and you will almost certainly not get a phone call (especially not immediately).

One of the issues you will face on the Hill is that it can be very hard to get a person’s attention. As I’ve mentioned before, staffers are constantly swamped with far more work than they can handle. The intern coordinator is usually a staff assistant or another junior staffer, and considering internship applications will only be at the top of their to-do list for maybe a week, tops. So, it’s important to make sure that your information is in front of them at the right time. Follow-up phone calls and emails can be an appropriate way to do this, but there is a balance you need to consider: if you call too many times, the office can write you off as either annoying or desperate for work, neither of which you want to be.

Here’s an example of a good timeline for follow-up for a Spring semester internship:

Nov. 10th- Call the office and ask who the intern coordinator is.
Nov. 15th- Submit your application
Dec. 1st- Make a follow-up call to the office. Note the name of the person you are speaking to on the phone. Let them know that you have already submitted an application, and ask to speak to the intern coordinator just to get an idea about a timeline. You will most likely be told that the staffer is unavailable/ in a meeting, and to follow up with an email. Do this.
Dec. 10th- Call the office back. Indicate that you have submitted an application and followed up via email, but have not received a response. Ask whether internship interviews will be conducted before or after the holiday recess. Try your best to schedule an interview at this point.
Jan. 4th- Follow up with another email to the intern coordinator and a call to the office. If they do not get back to you at this point, consider the office a dead end and explore your other options.

While this may seem unreasonable, it is quite common to just never hear back from the office at all. You are much more likely to be scheduled for an interview if you call the office and speak to the intern coordinator, rather than waiting to hear back. Again, there is a balance between annoying and appropriate that can vary between offices and be very difficult to read. However, if you wait 10-14 days between your calls and inquire only about the timeline that you can expect to hear back regarding an interview, you’ll probably have some luck.


If you apply to several offices and follow up appropriately, you’ll probably get a few phone interviews. They will generally be straightforward and brief. Be polite, but amiable. They’ll ask you about your background with politics, your personal interest in the office, and usually about your strengths and weaknesses as a team player. The interview is really trying to vet two things: (1) is this a smart, well-educated person? (2) Will this person do a good job on the phones, as the first (and only, usually) point of contact for constituents? To do well, you need to come across as well-educated and friendly, but also professional. There isn’t too much advice I can give here unique to Hill offices, so just follow general interview ettiquite!

After the interview, send a follow-up email thanking the staffer for their time. At this point, they’ll usually either reach out to offer you a position quickly, or they will not get back to you at all.

Accepting (or declining!)

If you receive an offer from your interview, congratulations! You should try to let the office know within a week if you are able to accept; at this point, you can call the other offices to which you’ve applied and let them know that you are currently sitting on an offer. This can also potentially speed things up in other non-responsive offices, so that can be a plus.

If you receive another offer that you prefer, that is just fine! Politely let the office know that you will be declining, but ask the office to keep your resume on file. Check in with the office every six months or so to let them know what you’re doing, even if the emails go unanswered. If you do this, you can keep them as a connection to help you get a job after you graduate in some circumstances. As long as you are civil and upfront, you aren’t burning a bridge with the office and stay in touch! Turn-over on the Hill happens quickly and frequently, and that staffer may know about a job opening at a perfect time for you that you wouldn’t have heard about otherwise.

That being said, if you accept an internship with an office and then back out, you probably won’t remain on good terms with the office, so definitely try to avoid doing this.

Alright, well, I think that’s about all the advice I can give you! To sum up, be brief, appropriately persistent, and cheerful. Those three qualities will get you a long way here. My final entry will detail how to do well once you’ve secured a Hill internship, so keep your eyes peeled!

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