I had an unexpected revelation when buying my first home some fifteen years ago: properties that advertise “fruit trees” as a selling feature are almost uniformly tear-downs.

My realtor laughed when I confronted him with my suspicion, but he conceded that “fruit trees” is often realtor code for “garbage.” After all, if you had property features worth advertising, would you really lead with something that requires a couple hundred bucks and a shovel?

The same type of thinking is required for interpreting federal job announcements, which can be maddeningly opaque and yet also somehow verbose. If you’ve ever been on USAJOBS.gov, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

A big part of the problem is that the government doesn’t necessarily plan to fill all those jobs – or the hiring manager already has a pre-selected internal candidate in mind – but the vacancies must be posted to comply with the letter of civil service laws. So, how is a job applicant to know if any given announcement is “real” or a time-waster? Is there a “fruit trees” equivalent to deciphering USAJOBS?

I’ve reviewed countless federal job announcements over the years and prodded a few hiring managers on the topic. Here’s what I’ve learned:

“May Hire,” “Public Notice,” or “Pool”

Because the federal government’s budget is a moving target with continuing resolutions, shutdown threats, and funding caps, some agencies think they’ll have personnel needs but aren’t able or willing to commit to hiring absent budget clarity. Similarly, some agencies hope to start a new office or initiative, or increase funding for an existing program, but must await guidance or approval from political leadership first.

In either case, hiring managers know the delays caused by their internal bureaucracy and seek to have a “bench” of candidates at the ready whenever funding and policy priorities align. That’s great for the agency, but not for the job applicant who might be investing significant time applying for a job that doesn’t yet exist.

In fairness, some agencies have begun demonstrating a sensitivity to this dynamic in recent years by explicitly indicating in their job announcements, when applicable, that the job does not currently exist, but rather that the agency hopes to create it pending funding and policy approval. Unfortunately, that approach is not uniform. Other agencies are still using terms akin to “fruit trees” to implicitly signal the reality of the vacancy announcement to applicants. The trick is knowing what to look for. Terms like “may hire,” “public notice,” and “pool of applicants” – often accompanied by lengthy application windows – are all strong indicators that if your application gets a look at all, it probably won’t be anytime soon.

Short Application Window

Conversely, jobs with an unusually short application window (e.g., two weeks or less) often signify that there is/are current opening(s), but that the agency anticipates being inundated with applications. This is often the case with coveted jobs in the 1811 (criminal investigator) series or the Foreign Service. Quite simply, the agency doesn’t have time to weed through thousands of applications, so they take the first couple hundred or so that come in the door and hope there are some qualified candidates in that group.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but applicants considering applying for such positions should understand what they’re up against. The more coveted the position, the stiffer the competition. Taking the time to ensure your resume is polished, your cover letter is well-written and free from errors, and your background fits the advertised needs is an imperative.

Bizarrely Specific Requirements

The last USAJOBS “code” I’ve found is the one that screams don’t even bother applying: bizarrely specific job requirements. If the job announcement looks like it was written for one person, that’s because it probably was. This can happen when the hiring manager already has a pre-selected candidate, or, incredibly, because an internal candidate was allowed to write the job announcement. Both situations are violations of federal civil service laws, but I’ve seen them happen and have yet to see someone punished. In my experience, that’s because violations are difficult to prove and the authorities charged with enforcement – Inspectors General and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel – tend to have other priorities.

If all of this is getting you down on the idea of working for Uncle Sam, that’s not my intent. A career in the federal government can be incredibly rewarding and offer attractive pay, benefits, and retirement security. However, few people would describe the hiring process as a user-friendly experience. Knowing how to avoid time-wasters can help applicants narrow their focus and increase the impact of their efforts.



This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 


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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://www.berrylegal.com/practice-areas/security-clearance/.