Wisdom for Capitol Hill Interns: Getting the Internship

It seems like everyone wants to be an intern on Capitol Hill these days, right?  How do you do it?  What does it take to get selected?  The resume is the place to start.  Simply put, the resume has to be perfect; not just good, but “Luke Skywalker only got one shot to blow up the Death Star” perfect.  You’re going to get 20-30 seconds to make an impression, and that’s generous; if you don’t, your resume is destined for the trash compactor with no chance of escape.  One intern vacancy in an office can easily generate a hundred or more applicants, especially if it’s a paid internship.

The resume needs to project the fact that you’re qualified to be there.  If you don’t have some sort of political science, public administration, pre-law, or international relations focus in your undergraduate or graduate education it’ll be harder to make the case (but not impossible).  Additionally, where did you go to college?  Is it a college or university that the intern coordinator is familiar with?  What did you do outside of academics that lend weight to you wanting to be on Capitol Hill?  Were you involved with College Republicans or College Democrats?  Do you have campaign experience?  (Campaign experience signifies you actually adhere to a political philosophy and shows which side you’ve chosen, and if you want to be on the Hill you must choose.  The last thing you want is the voice of the Keeper of the Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade telling you “you have chosen, poorly”)  Do you have previous intern experience; if so, where?  Importantly, are you from the Member’s state or district?  A successful resume will have as many of these elements as possible and state and/or district ties go a long way.

Generally, some sort of writing sample is requested alongside the resume.  The art of writing well can get you much further in the process of becoming an intern (and even a staffer).  While it isn’t guaranteed that you’ll do any writing in an internship, it’s a good bet that you might.  If you write well, people will notice it and your talents will likely be utilized.  Additionally, social media has created more opportunities to flex your writing skills than ever before. Three years ago, Twitter and Facebook was fringe technology but now both essential parts of a Representative’s “digital footprint”.

Would you fit well into the office culture?  Personality is a big factor in getting hired for an internship on Capitol Hill.  Generally the staffer interviewing you knows the culture of the office well (and might have had a hand in crafting it); they’ll be a good judge of if you’ll fit in or not.  Your personality is what’ll be on display for those who visit the office, such as constituents.  These constituents might re-elect the Member or vote otherwise based on their interaction with you.  Additionally, personality says a lot about how you’ll conduct yourself as an extension of the office and if you’re likely to embarrass a staffer or the Member by what you might say on the phone to a constituent or what you might do at a congressional reception.  Therefore, the best thing you can do is be you, be genuine.  It’ll go better for you if you’re honest when tough questions about strengths, weaknesses, and/or policy positions arise and you don’t get the job than if you faked your way in and are discovered later; it happens and the folks who hired you are going to feel like you can’t be trusted.   If a staffer asks an odd question in an interview (“who is your favorite Superhero?”, “What do you read for fun?”, or “Which Star Wars/Lord of the Rings character are you most like?”) understand that their trying to get to know who you are beyond the resume and determine if you will fit into their world; answer honestly.

Similarly, just as much as the office is looking for someone that complements their goals, you want to find an office that fits you; you want a team that’s more Joss Whedon’s Avengers or Justice League and less Brotherhood of Mutantsfrom X-Men orThe Legion of Doom.”  The former teams work well together because their purpose requires and enables teamwork toward a laudable goal, the latter coalesce under a tyrannical leader whom they secretly desire to undermine; both environments exist on Capitol Hill.    

Do you want to actually be there?  Some folks come to Capitol Hill to intern because their parents know someone or they want to pad their resume.  Smart staffers know this isn’t the sort of person they want to work for the office.  Rather, staffers want to work with – and rely on – interns who want to be there, who want to contribute, who want to learn.  Being engaged and interested in what happens in the office and the work that goes on is a must-have if you want to be on Capitol Hill, and it also exhibits your work ethic (or lack of one).

Answering some of these questions for yourself takes time and research. Nevertheless, following the sage wisdom of Socrates to “know thyself” – so that you can walk into an interview confident of your abilities and have and inkling of what to expect – will help you to know this “alternate universe”.  If you’re hired,   you will  – to paraphrase Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame – enter a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’ll move into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You will have crossed over into the United States Congress.

Aaron Welty served as a Senior Legislative Assistant on Capitol Hill, where he recruited, trained, managed, and mentored a small army of aspiring political and policy padawans.  You can follow his adventures and musings at www.aaronwelty.com

Posted on by Aaron in Uncategorized

About Aaron

Author, Speaker, and Super Nerd. Aaron Welty speaks and writes regularly connecting the dots of life, faith, and science fiction. Originally from Michigan, he now lives and works in the Washington, D.C. Metro area.

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