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One of the most common ways to work in Congress is to start as an intern there, and work one’s way up the ranks.
As a former House of Representatives intern myself, I have a lot to say on this topic. When I started my journey to apply to become an intern, I was disappointed by the fact that I could not find any information on this topic online. Instead, I conducted many, many informational interviews with Congressional staffers and tried to figure out their secrets. In this blog post, I am excited to share what I have learned. The main thing I learned from the process of applying to Congress internships is that, with a little luck and persistence, any policy wonk can land an internship in Congress.
Read on to learn about how to apply to internships in Congress, including my best advice to aspiring Congressional interns.
Most Congressional Internships are Unpaid
Sure, you love to watch C-SPAN with a pint of ice cream. But would you be willing to live C-SPAN? That is the first question you should be asking yourself in your journey to become a Congressional intern. Most internships are unpaid, which means that you will have to scrounge up enough money for three to four months’ rent, groceries, transportation, and other costs. If you are an undergraduate, some paid internships may be available through your undergraduate institution. But, for the most part, expect to pay for all aspects of your internship experience.
Think about what you are investing and what you hope to gain from an internship in Congress. A congressional internship can set you up for a more important position in Congress, and the skills you gain from being an intern are invaluable. I learned about professionalism, how to work in a dynamic environment, and even got to improve my people skills interacting with constituents. As someone who used to watch CSPAN for fun, wishing I could be there, I would not trade this experience for anything!
Does that sound like you? If you don’t mind being broke for a period of several months, investing time and energy doing incredibly rewarding and important work, then this job is for you.
Editing The Young Leader’s Guide
You may have noticed by now that I can talk a lot about this topic — in fact, I am one of the few that can say that I have edited a whole book on this topic. When Steeve Simbert approached me with his idea to write a whole book about Washington, DC internships, I jumped at the chance! As a former intern in the House of Representatives myself, and a former resident of Washington, D.C. — where I did my graduate work at Georgetown University — I was excited to share my knowledge of living, working, and playing in the nation’s capital.
Below, I am sharing some of my insights about applying to intern in Congress, but you can check out the book for more on other Congressional jobs (as well as other DC-based policy jobs, including science policy).
Applying to Congress: Basic Things You Need to Know
Congress is a fast-paced and demanding place, but that’s exactly what makes it so exciting. I have never felt as important as when I was taking calls, attending briefings, and writing memos as a Congressional Intern! The topics you will be working on are at the forefront of U.S. policy, and society in general.
As you know by now, there are two chambers of the U.S. Congress: The House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives is a much larger, bustling place than the Senate. I won’t get into much more detail about that here. Let’s get into the details of applying to internships in both the House and Senate!
U.S. House of Representatives Internships
The House of Representatives posts internship jobs every week at a site called HVAPS, which is short for the House Vacancy and Placement Service. HVAPS is nonpartisan, meaning that it is a place to apply for both Democrat and Republican jobs in the House. HVAPS is a service maintained by the House of Representatives itself as a way to conduct hiring.
Every week, HVAPS sends out an email with job postings. The HVAPS job list includes internships. You can subscribe to the HVAPS job announcements email list here.
To apply, you will need to respond to the posting by sending your cover letter and resume to the email address provided for the listing. Internships are available for Fall and Spring semesters, as well as over the summer. Remember that you will need to apply somewhat far in advance for House internships — about 2-3 months before your internship would start.
As you may know, House Internships are extremely competitive. It can be difficult to get an interview at first — the trick is to keep applying and to start making connections with people who work in the House that can provide you insider info on what it takes to work there.
My advice is to sign up for the HVAPS email list and apply every week until you begin to get interviews. You may interview several times before you get a job offer. Don’t be discouraged by the radio silence and rejection, because, as I mentioned, these internships are extremely competitive. These interviews can be great practice to help you improve your interviewing skills and do better on your next job interview!
U.S. Senate Internships
While the House of Representatives is larger and, as a result, has more staff and a relatively informal hiring process, procedures at the Senate are much more formal and complex. Typically, to apply for Senate internships, you must be a student or recent college graduate, and must provide letters of recommendation. This is not the case with most House Internship applications.
Senate internships, like House internships, are available year-round. The process for applying to internships in the U.S. Senate is different than that of the House of Representatives, though. A list of Senate internships is posted, and continually updated, on the Senate website. You can apply by submitting the required documents to the contact information specified in the Senate internship posting.
Applying to Work on Committees
For both the House and Senate, you can apply to work for a member of Congress or for a Committee. Most internships will be to work in a Member’s office, but some internships are available in House and/or Senate Committees. Click here to learn more about Congressional Committees — in both the House and Senate — and their roles and responsibilities.
Two Tips to Help You Land a Job on Capitol Hill
Tip #1: Think About Your Regional Ties
One thing that both the House and Senate take into account for hiring in the internships application process is your ties to the local region. That’s why you should consider applying to internships in places you have lived or in which you have spent significant time. This means that if you have lived many places in the United States, or have family all over the place, it actually benefits you to apply to all of the places in which you have regional ties. The reason for this is that being an intern in Congress relies heavily upon your ability to serve the constituents of the district. In other words, you must be familiar with the local area of the district, in order to be better able to help people who live there.
Tip #2: Get Involved in Professional Advocacy
Interested in policy but not a government or political science major? Many professional organizations have a government advocacy program in which members of the organization spend a day or two meeting with their Congressional members on Capitol Hill. As a graduate student, I participated in the Society for Neuroscience Early Career Fellows program which connects students with members of Congress to talk about the importance of federal science funding.
Not sure what I mean by a professional organization? Check out a list of professional organizations here.
Participating in professional advocacy will help you gain exposure to Capitol Hill, which can help you eventually get a job there. It can also help you gain insight into how the government works and intersects with your field, which can also help you with your particular field of study.
The Bottom Line
Working in Congress can be a demanding but incredibly rewarding experience — but you must be willing to put in the requisite work to get there. While the Congressional internship process is highly selective, there’s a lot you can do to make your application more competitive to improve your chance of getting interviews and, eventually, hired for one of these coveted internship spots.
Familiarizing yourself with the application process is a good first step, as is connecting with others who have interned in the hallowed halls of our legislative branch.
This article should not be considered an exhaustive list of what you need to do to apply, but I am hopeful it serves as a starting point for anyone interested in a House or Senate Internship.
How Fancy Comma, LLC Can Help You
Fancy Comma, LLC provides writing and editing services for resume and cover letter writing. In particular, our lead writer, Sheeva Azma, is a former intern in the House of Representatives and can help you develop a short, one-page resume — in the format that is required by most House and Senate offices. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you with your job search — not just in Congress, but anywhere!