Almost done with finals? I bet at least of few of you have your car almost packed for DC. You’ve learned about Brad Traverse, Hill Zoo, and Potomac Flacks (and if you haven’t, you should). You’ve got your references in order. You’re examining Brazen Careerist and LinkedIn searching for any connection that can get you an introduction.
This is something you’ve studied for — and you’re full of good ideas. Perhaps you have an inexpensive and feasible idea for carbon sequestration, or you can offer a detailed status report on the stability of governments from Andorra to Tonga, or maybe you have a viable roadmap to peace in the Middle East. You might be a Nobel Prize winner in waiting, but you still have to earn your way into the inner circle that surrounds a Member of Congress. The ground next to a Congressional Member is some of the most valuable real estate in Washington.
So before you change the world, I suggest perhaps you change your thinking. My fellow job seekers: ask not what you bring to a Congressman — ask what a Congressman needs from you.
The most valuable asset a House or Senate office has is the intelligence and the skills of the Member. The name on the door is the business. Right after that is the collective knowledge and intellect of the office staff. While there are bylaws, standards and customs, many of the guiding principals of a Congressional office are born out of the staff’s groupthink.
The challenge for any potential employee is to figure out what they can contribute to that dialogue. It’s impressive that you can speak Russian, but only a few will consider that a skill needed to assist the member in his or her business.
Skills you acquired outside of the classroom might make a greater impression on a Chief of Staff that your academic qualifications. Here are a few worth thinking about:
1. Can you write a letter to a concerned citizen? Many staffers start as a Legislative Correspondent, responsible for crafting the first draft of these letters. Offices keep close tabs on the number of letters coming into an office, the issue or issues of concern, and the tenor of the letters. These staffers can turn over quickly and they can move up quickly as well.
2. Can you organize people? Perhaps you were captain of a team, you put together a band, or maybe you turned tennis tutorials into a small business? Have you turned a Friday at 5pm Facebook/twitter/foursquare post into a block party broken up by police (hope its not on your record)? Accomplishments like this have real value to any politician. Your skills can turn unfocused rallies into meaningful events.
3. Do you maneuver through traffic in a way that would impress a rock star fleeing a concert hall? A driver or personal assistant gets as much face time with a Member as anyone on staff. You’ll quickly learn what concerns the Member, what he or she likes to hear, and become indispensable to the Chief of Staff. You’ll also get into some of the parties and social events (but don’t plan on drinking).
No question – the skills and education you pick up in school will position you for a great job on the Hill, but there are other ways to get in the door. Consider all your abilities and be ready to sell them.