How To Get Hired On The Hill
For those who aspire to do great things, working on Capitol Hill is an appealing idea. But the first great thing you have to do is to actually get hired. Whether you're looking for an internship, an entry-level position, or something a little higher up, getting that proverbial foot in the door can be quite a challenge in such a tight-knit community. Although not every experience is the same, there are certain fundamental strategies that will give you the leg up you need to climb the Hill successfully.
Grow Your List of Contacts
Have a cousin who lives in Washington? Her best friend might just be the daughter of a House hiring manager. Know a professor who has taught at American University? He may play golf with a Senator who’s looking for new interns. You never know what roads an expanded network will lead you down. So don’t leave long shots out of the equation.
The more people you talk to, the greater your chances that someone will know someone else with an “in.” So in addition to all of the customary networking routes, such as joining organizations and attending events, broaden your search to unexpected corners. Casting your net further than what you might normally consider reasonable is actually a very sensible move. After all, the old adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” is still very much alive on Capitol Hill. This type of “extreme networking” is your chance to turn an obstacle into an opportunity.
Engage in Personal Networking
Social networking has replaced personal networking in many circles. However, Washington D.C. is not one of them. While there are certainly exceptions, the majority of those hiring on the Hill still prefer a face-to-face meeting and a non-virtual handshake. So when you’re poring over your list of D.C. connections, don’t stop at contacting them on Facebook or LinkedIn. Give them an old-fashioned phone call and try to set up a time and place to meet in person. This is not always the easiest goal to accomplish, but then again, no one is looking to hire someone who shies away from challenges.
Nothing will dampen your chances of getting a job on the Hill more than being wishy-washy. One of the biggest mistakes potential hires make is being afraid to commit too strongly to one side of an issue over the other. Many are worried they will offend their interviewer if their beliefs don’t coincide. So instead of making bold, decisive statements and answering questions directly and confidently, they hem and haw their way right out of a job.
Do not make this mistake. State what you believe, and be prepared to defend it with a strong blend of knowledge and passion. No one is suggesting that you go on a verbal rampage, spilling out all your conspiracy theories and hurling insults at those who don’t believe what you believe. However, a well-reasoned argument mixed with a moderate dose of enthusiasm will impress your potential employer far more than having nothing of substance to say.
Be Willing to Be an Unpaid Intern
Starting from the ground up is one of the most common ways to ascend the Hill. Unfortunately, that sometimes means working without pay. Unpaid internships are still all the rage in Washington. But they aren’t just a way to exploit young hopefuls for free labor. They are solid and legitimate stepping stones that can lead you right where you want to be.
Mikaela Lefrak of WAMU 88.5 at American University agrees, asserting “For those who can afford an unpaid internship, the benefits are tangible. Entry-level positions on the Hill beget other opportunities in the House and Senate.” Even if it may seem like you can’t afford an unpaid internship, make sure you’re looking at the big picture when you’re doing the math. A little bit of suffering now could pay off big in the long run.
Keep your Ego in Check
You may think that you're destined to be the next big hot shot in our nation’s capital. And maybe you are. But that does not mean you are above answering phones, entering data or fetching coffee. If your interviewer asks you if you are willing to do these things, your mind might be screaming, “No way! I'm far too educated and brilliant for these menial tasks!” But your lips better be saying, “Absolutely!”
Not only do you need to say it, but you need to be willing to back it up. If you get hired and then change your tune about work you consider to be beneath you, you won’t be around long enough to learn from your mistake. Everybody has to start somewhere, and starting at the bottom is not beneath you. If that’s where you are, then that’s exactly where you need to be. With the right attitude and ambition, you’ll be moving up the food chain before you can say, “do you take cream and sugar?”
Nothing worth having is easy. If you think a job on the Hill is worth having, then you're going to need to pay your dues. Just remember that you're investing in your future, and no matter how brilliant you expect that future to be, nobody starts at the top. Be willing to climb the Hill slowly and humbly, and before long, you might just find yourself doing the hiring instead of the applying.