How I got an entry-level role in Congress
A few months ago I was hired for an entry-level role in a Congressional office. In this post I will share my job search and application process.
I hope this will be helpful to people who are considering Congressional work as a career option. Because I am early in my career, I imagine this will be most helpful/applicable for people who are in undergrad or earlier.
Note: I’m intentionally keeping this post anonymous. If you have any questions, please comment them here and I will do my best to answer them. If you’d like to connect further, feel free to send me a private message through the EA Forum.
My Specific Experience
Context about myself as an applicant:
I earned an undergraduate social science major at a relatively prestigious university and was an unremarkable student academically. While there, I was involved with party politics + local elections, held leadership positions in student activist campaigns, spent two summers working for local politicians, and worked in ‘government affairs’ for public interest groups for two semesters. During one semester I lived in Washington DC and interned in Congress.
My application process:
I started my job search in earnest the summer after graduating college. I recommend making time to network and begin your job hunt in your last semester, but I was too busy with coursework to do so.
I spent about 20 hours a week for 3 months applying for Congressional entry level roles almost exclusively. Though it took me 3 months, it could have easily been a few months longer than that (I got lucky to land my position early but was prepared to job hunt longer).
I spent the majority of my time ‘networking.’ For me, this meant sending emails to people, requesting that we meet briefly (this was during pandemic, so it was all virtual). I contacted (nearly) everyone I knew from the time I spent in DC, asked to catch up via phone or video call, let them know I was job searching, and asked them to connect me with people who work in Congress. Especially important were the people who I’d worked with as an intern on the Hill, because they could flag my resume with other offices and could vouch for my work experience.
I also emailed strangers who I knew worked on the Hill, whose names I found by searching on LinkedIn. I tried to find people who I had one or more things in common with (graduates of the same university, from my home state, working on a policy issue that I have a demonstrated interest in, worked at the same non-profit I used to work for, etc). After I found someone who worked on the Hill, I would contact them by using the standard email format for Congressional staffers, which is Jane_Doe@lastnameofSenator.senate.gov for the Senate or Jane.Doe@mail.house.gov for the House of Representatives. Most people did not reply to these emails, but some people did! In these conversations, I asked them about their job experience in general and their tips on job searching.
Example ‘cold’ networking email:
Hope you’re having a restful recess. I graduated from [your alma mater] in [recent month] and just moved to D.C. I’m heading into my last month working with [government advocacy group] and am interested in exploring Congressional work as my next step.
I really admire that you work for [name of Congressperson], who [list 2-3 things you admire about their boss]. I’d love to hear about your journey to becoming a [position/title name], how you’re liking your work, and whether you have any advice on navigating the Hill [during this unique moment / pandemic / etc].
Do you have availability for a short call in the next two weeks?
Thank you and I hope we can talk soon,
Other than networking and asking people to send me any internal postings they came across, I checked the House and Senate employment bulletins every morning. I looked for entry level roles, which were Staff Assistant positions in both chambers or Legislative Correspondent (LC) positions in the House (in the Senate, LC positions are considered more senior and so it would be difficult to get one without prior full-time Congressional experience). I applied to all the entry level roles where I either had a connection to the office (where I grew up, where I went to school, where I lived for a period of time, or least convincingly, where the member was a leader in an issue area where I had a demonstrated passion) and/or where I thought I had a chance that someone would flag my resume with the office (because I either networked with them directly OR I thought someone I had a strong relationship with would know someone in that office). I always tried to apply within 24 hours of the job being posted, so that my application would not get buried under hundreds of others. For the most part I kept my resume and cover letter the same, though I always tailored the introduction of the cover letter to the specific Congressperson.
Ultimately the position I got hired for wasn’t advertised publicly. I emailed one of my Hill contacts, asking about a different job posting, and the contact mentioned that there was an opening in their office. I sent my resume to the hiring director, had my first interview the next day, had my second interview in 4 days, and heard back that I got the job in 2 days. It just happened that my office was hiring quickly, but this is not always the case. I have heard of situations where offices take weeks and months to get back to interviewees.
To prepare for my interviews, I read through my Congressperson’s press releases, knew their top issue areas and biggest initiatives, read their recent news mentions, recent interviews, and practiced common interview questions. I felt confident I had a very solid understanding of the member’s style, accomplishments, and priorities. I also had an edge because I grew up in my Congressperson’s state.
Throughout this process, I frequently felt discouraged and like I was not making any progress, until suddenly it worked. My advice is to keep in mind that this can be a lengthy process and requires patience and persistence, which is something I heard from many people who I met with as well. Just because you feel like you’re failing doesn’t mean you are. Luck and timing absolutely play a role and since you can’t account for that, just have compassion for yourself, do your best, and keep going!
Things working in my favor:
I spent a semester in Washington DC doing a Congressional internship and an internship with a non-profit before I graduated from undergrad, so I already had a network in the city. In my former office, I had a Legislative Director (LD) who was willing to push my resume. LDs are senior staffers and are typically the #2 in an office under the Chief of Staff, have been in Congress for a long time, and know a lot of other LDs or senior people in Congress.
My Congressional internship was with a Committee, which is considered more impressive & selective than an internship with a member.
The university I attended for my undergrad is relatively prestigious and has a relatively large and active alumni network, including many alums who are currently Congressional staffers. This made it easier to network, as I had something in common with people who were otherwise strangers.
My parents supported me financially. This was true throughout my undergraduate years, allowing me to take multiple unpaid internships that I believed best served my long-term career goals (including the Congressional internship). I was also supported after my graduation, allowing me time to apply to jobs half of the time, and giving me the financial stability to not need to accept the first (non-Congressional) jobs that came my way. I also knew I could afford to take another internship on the Hill, which I would have done if I didn’t land my full-time role. Also, in general I know that in an emergency I can survive on a Congressional salary because of my familial safety net.
All Congressional offices now have access to funding to pay their interns, but the amount offices choose to give to each intern can vary.
I had a previous internship where I did a lot of constituent-facing work, which included speaking on the phone with constituents and managing the front desk of an office. This is something offices look for when hiring for a Staff Assistant, since speaking with constituents is the bulk of the job. You can get this type of experience working as an intern in both DC and district Congressional offices (be aware: not all offices let interns answer phones!), but also state legislator offices, or with local politicians. You may be able to get relevant experience outside of a politician’s office as long as you’re working directly with demanding strangers—for example working as a union representative to help people understand their resources and hear their complaints, working as a de-escalation volunteer with the local emergency services, working as a canvasser/phone banker for an advocacy campaign.
My references were very strong. I got along well with many past supervisors, both on and off the Hill. This didn’t end up playing a role in my hiring (no references contacted), but I still see this as a potential strength in my candidacy.
I was a strong fit for Congressional work in general. I love thinking about policy and I don’t mind politics/mainstream electoral work. I don’t mind being ‘partisan’ because I largely agree with one party and its priorities. I generally like and enjoy the company of other Hill staffers.
Things working against me:
During my Congressional internship, I did not work hard enough to meet with other folks who worked in Congress. I could’ve started my job search with a much bigger network if I had worked harder to push through my discomfort at this.
I only met one-on-one with about half of the people in my Congressional office. This was a mistake, as almost everyone in my office would have been willing to meet with me! For the people I did meet with, I typically asked them about their policy portfolios, their own ‘journey’ of how they got to their current position, and anything else I was curious about. I would also always share that I was interested in coming back to the Hill once I graduated.
I had crippling imposter syndrome and was very scared of and intimidated by my co-workers. Even though I recognized this as irrational immediately, I was never able to fully work through it, and this affected my ability to be impressive in that workspace.
I did not work to meet with people from outside of my office. This felt more difficult than reaching out to people in my office, since people in other offices were under no obligation to meet with me. However, this part is very important, since the more offices you know someone in, the better your chances of having someone flag your resume when you are applying. You can always ask people in your office to help connect you.
I also did not follow up / maintain some of the connections that I did make with people outside of my office. If I had reached out every 1-3 months with a simple update, that would’ve been enough for me to reach out once I started my job search in earnest. But since I did not keep up with them, the contact was lost.
My writing samples were not very good. If I could do it again, I would have specifically sought to write ‘constituent letters’ during my Congressional internship. These are the form letters that offices send out to constituents who write to them. These form letters are directly relevant, since writing them is the bulk of your job if you’re applying to a Legislative Correspondent role.
However, since I didn’t have this, I tried to find a piece of policy writing that I was proud of, especially something clear and succinct. I used an essay from my coursework.
The networking was hard for me, and I often felt thrown off or wired up after my networking calls. It took me a long time to send each email.
I had a major that is pretty unimpressive (it has the word “studies” in it) and an unremarkable academic career (‘B’ student, no honors). I don’t think this hurt me too much, as no one I met stressed academic performance (though I was required to submit a transcript for a few internship applications).
I am neither highly extroverted nor highly charismatic. Extroversion can be helpful to make networking meetings more fun and less of a chore. Charisma can help you make a stronger impression during your networking meetings.
General Tips & Takeaways
Note: These are just my opinion, so make sure to seek a second opinion and use your best judgement
Networking is very, very important. Without someone in an office to ‘flag’ your resume for the hiring director, your chances of getting the position are slim, since each opening can receive hundreds of applications.
Meet with as many people who are working in Congress as you can. The more memorable the meeting, the better. Meeting in person and offering to buy them a coffee/pastry is best, video calls is second best. Your goal is to get them to recognize your name or face and better yet, become slightly invested in you, so that later they might want to help you if they see an open position.
Follow up with people every few weeks/months. Update people on new/concluding internships, graduation, and when you start your job search.
As a bonus, you can also get advice that is tailored to your situation and you get to find out what working in Congress is really like—helpful!
Do a Hill internship. Many offices look for this when hiring.
While there, ideally meet everyone on your team early, have a great relationship with your Legislative Director specifically, and meet staffers in as many other offices as you can (always letting them know that you hope to return to the Hill).
Try to stand out with your internship work, because the best people in your network will be those who can speak to your work. The office you intern for will be your biggest champion when you come back to look for jobs. There are already a few resources out there on how to stand out, but I recommend asking both your direct boss (usually the staff assistant) and your Legislative Director how you can be most helpful and get the most out of the experience.
Have a work/internship history where you build the skills most relevant to the entry level role of choice. For a staff assistant, you want to be able to speak specifically to 1) working with constituents (ideal) or doing any sort of customer service, especially on the phone, 2) managing a team of interns 3) administrative work 4) policy writing. In that order of importance. For a press assistant role, have a background in communications. For legislative correspondence, have experience in succinct, public-facing policy writing.
Aside from this, just generally show that you’re energetic and accomplished. Ideally you have a demonstrated interest in something that matters to your party and has a ‘social good’ component.
Don’t give up! It takes patience, luck, and persistence.