What is a writing test?

A sketch of a hand writing with a feathered pen behind a white background. The picture is in a round frame that is rainbow colored. A writing test is a short on-demand writing sample that applicants complete when they interview to work on Capitol Hill. Writing tests directly reflect tasks applicants will do as full-time staff members. Some things I’ve been asked to write for writing tests include letters to agencies, hearing proposals, social media posts, newsletter drafts, press releases, memos to senators, and constituent letters. Writing tests are unique to every position and every office. No two are the same. Here, I will go through some basic information about writing tests and share some strategies I’ve used to ace them over the years.

Each full-time job on Capitol Hill gets hundreds of qualified applicants. This applicant pool includes everyone from undergraduate college students to seasoned professionals with PhDs. Writing tests are great equalizers because they give everyone the same chance to showcase their skills and subject knowledge. Most tests are reviewed blind so an applicant with lived experience could do better on the writing test than someone with a Ph.D. I would encourage people with disabilities who are applying to work on disability issues for Capitol Hill to let their unique perspectives and lived experiences shine through their writing tests. Present yourself as a professional first and a disability advocate second, but never pull your punches when it comes to your policy priorities. This will help you stand out amongst the other impressive applicants.

Interning on Capitol Hill will give you an advantage on writing tests. Being an intern gives you a deep understanding of the balance of knowledge, empathy, and professionalism you must demonstrate to write for a member of Congress. It also exposes you to the finer details of Congressional writing. Congressional staff write on behalf of their members and therefore must adopt their styles and vocabularies exactly. They copy their members’ writing style down to their use of the Oxford comma. You will be expected to exhibit this skill in every writing test. Interns often draft constituent letters, press releases, social media posts, and other text and regularly receive feedback on their work. When these interns apply to staff assistant or legislative correspondent positions, they will already be prepared to ace writing tests that include this type of writing.

If you are not familiar with an office’s writing style, explore their website to find examples to inspire your writing test. For example, if you are tasked with writing a letter to an agency, look for a press release on the legislator’s official congressional (not campaign) website for a press release about a letter to an agency. This press release will have a link to the letter itself. Study the letter’s format, style, grammar, font, and tone. Try your best to emulate that on your writing test. Writing test prompts will not provide you with examples. It is your responsibility to research and then apply the appropriate style and content on your writing test.

Remember to spend just as much time researching the office’s legislative priorities as their writing style. Your style and content should fit seamlessly into the office you want to work for. If you find yourself bending your values a lot to write about the policy priorities of the office you are applying to, consider if this particular office is a good fit for you. Staffers work long hours for little pay, and it is not worth it unless your heart is behind your work.

Legislative assistants: it takes a village to pass a bill

Hallway in congressional office building

Hallway in the Russell Senate Office Building

If you come to Capitol Hill for a policy meeting, you will most likely meet with a legislative assistant. Legislative assistants are what most people think of as typical congressional staffers. They write bills for legislators and push them through Congress. Their boss takes their opinions seriously and trusts them to make important policy decisions. Legislative assistants are senior staffers. Becoming a legislative assistant is a long-term goal for many interns. Their work is social and collaborative. It takes a village to do all their work, and as more people with disabilities become legislative assistants, I am confident that our voices will become more prominent in public policy. Here, we will discuss some of the responsibilities of legislative assistants and the impact the disability experience can have on their work. Their key responsibilities include the following:

Draft Bills

Legislative assistants write bills. Writing bills is a process. Legislative assistants ask people with lived experience, lobbyists, the Congressional Research Service, and others for feedback throughout the bill drafting process. Legislative assistants take this information and create an outline for their bill. This outline is called “bill specs”.  Legislative counsel turns these bill specs into bill text. The bill text usually goes through several drafts before a final draft is introduced.

Move Policy Through Congress

Introducing a bill is only the beginning. The goal of introducing a bill is almost always to pass the bill. Legislative assistants work with other offices to solicit support in the form of cosponsorships and commitments to vote for the bill. If a bill receives enough support, it will go through markup in Committee and then go to the floor for a vote. Moving policy is a long and precarious process. A million things could threaten a bill’s chance of becoming law. Relentless optimism is essential.

Outside groups and constituents can help move policy through Congress. Legislators want to know that their constituents support the bills they cosponsor and vote for. If you support a bill, let your Congressional Senators and Representative know about it. The most important thing anyone has is their story. Share your story with legislators. You may be surprised by how large of an impact it has on public policy.

Write Letters

Some problems do not need legislative solutions. Some problems require oversight, investigation, or a nudge in the right direction. Being a Congressional Senator or Representative ensures that a legislator’s voice will be taken seriously. If legislators see a problem with a federal agency or another actor, they can write an official letter to ask for more information and recommend action. Legislative assistants, and sometimes others in the office, draft these letters on behalf of legislators. Inspiration for these letters can come from outside groups and constituents. Like bill drafting, this can be a collaborative process, and the disability community can have an impact.

Meet with Constituents

 Legislative assistants take policy meetings with constituents. These meetings typically last thirty minutes. The legislative assistant will probably spend most of the meeting listening to group members share their stories and perspectives. The group will typically have an “ask”, something they want the legislator to do. Examples of asks include signing onto bills, joining Dear Colleague letters, and voting a certain way. After the meeting, the legislative assistant will recommend a decision to their boss about the ask. The legislative assistant’s opinion carries tremendous weight here.


As more people with disabilities work on Capitol Hill, I am confident that our voices will take a more prominent place in federal policy. When policymakers meet with constituents, draft bills, and make important policy recommendations to legislators, it is vital that disability is considered. One way to make that happen is to hire more people with disabilities to work on Capitol Hill as policymakers.

Bouncing back: some executive functioning errors from my professional life

Pink ice cream cone dropped on the pavement next to blue converse shoes

Executive functioning is not my strong suit, and as such, I have developed many strategies to compensate for this basic skill. However, the road to developing strategies that work for me was paved with mistakes. These mistakes are a part of life, and it is important not to take them too seriously. Below are some of my most cringeworthy mistakes. After I made them, the world did not stop turning. Nor was I fired. Autistic or not, we are all human and deserve grace when we fall short.  I am sharing these in the hope that autistic people will read them and know that they can bounce back from anything.

1. Learning to answer the phones:

My first intern coordinator told me that the only people who are good at answering the phones are people who have done it before. Despite this, I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to master this skill immediately. That just made it worse. I fumbled my way through constituent requests like a blubbering idiot for several weeks. People called angry and confused. It was my job to assist them, but I barely knew what I was doing. Compound that with taking these calls in front of my entire office, and it was a breeding ground for stupid mistakes.

Then, miraculously I started to understand the task. I learned quick answers to common questions and made an extreme effort to show our constituents compassion when they called at the end of their rope. Compassion is the key to answering the phones. Treat everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve as people, regardless of their political opinions. Do this, and the rest largely falls by the wayside. Just remember to ask for their name and contact information to log the call.

2. Getting my intern cohort lost in the Capitol

After completing my first internship, I thought I knew the Capitol like the back of my hand. During our intern scavenger hunt, a group assignment to help us learn to navigate the Capitol complex, I led our cohort to the wrong side of the building, and we had to start the whole exercise over.

I was never great at finding my way around the Capitol itself. The Rayburn House Office Building is a complicated maze that makes little sense to me. The Capitol Building itself is nonsensical to me because all the rooms are round. I never know which room I entered from or where I am supposed to go. This was nothing to beat myself up over. Interns are supposed to get lost on the scavenger hunt because getting lost is how we learn. Some mistakes are not worth anything more than a chuckle in the end, and this is one of them. I did not miss any important deadlines or embarrass my office. I was learning, and there is no reason to be ashamed of that.

3. Forgetting to do the writing test for a job interview

Imposter syndrome can start well before receiving a job offer. This happened when I interviewed to be assistant director of federal relations for a university I loved and respected. Throughout the entire interview process, I was in awe that they even liked my resume. This starry-eyed wonder distracted me and led to sloppy mistakes.

Upon hearing that I earned a final interview, I was overjoyed, so overjoyed that I forgot to read the second half of the invitation. It said that I needed to write a memo discussing the largest higher education government relations opportunities of the year. This assignment was bolded, underlined, and highlighted. I still missed it. Missing the assignment disrupted my entire interview. They picked somebody else for the position.

This mistake cost me a lot, but losing this position opened me up for better opportunities. I got an even better job a few months later, and during that interview process, I read every email twenty times over. Learn from your mistakes and never dwell on them. Another opportunity is always right around the corner.

4. Missing important documents when sorting mail

My brain moves fast and can sometimes get a bit manic when I am in a state of flow. One of my primary duties as an intern was sorting physical mail into categories for my legislative correspondent. I thought this could be done quickly by only reading a few lines of text. I became a sloppy mail sorter, which earned me a corrective talk with my supervisor. Even after slowing the pace, I still made silly errors. This habit took a ton of effort to correct. I put work into it every day. I may never have spectacular attention to detail, but I work every day to improve. That alone has helped me grow leaps and bounds in my career.

Schedulers: the backbone of congressional offices

2021 calendars for January through December 2021

Each member’s day is planned from beginning to end. Everything from breakfast, to meetings, to travel time is carefully worked out. Congressional schedulers make sure everything runs smoothly. They manage the member’s schedules and daily activities. Being a scheduler takes attention to detail, executive functioning, and adaptability. Things change on a dime on Capitol Hill, and it is a scheduler’s job to plan for everything.

Schedulers are the most organized people in the office. They plan their member’s days down to the last minute. Mealtime, travel time, and work time are all carefully worked out. Backup plans are also worked out in advance. Members’ days rarely go according to plan, and schedulers are always prepared to adjust times to make everything work. For example, when a member travels from Washington D.C. to their home district (and vice versa), the scheduler books multiple flights in case the member misses their flight. This troubleshooting and foresight extend to every task they do.

Schedulers must also anticipate problems before they happen. Legislators and staff are always focused on their work, and it often falls to the scheduler to make sure things in the office run the way they should. They determine who the member meets with and when, create briefing materials for the member, and make sure staff are clued into important information. They know their member’s favorite food, coffee order, music, and more. This information helps them keep their member happy and their office running smoothly. Details are important.

Senate offices have an entire scheduling team who plan the member’s activities on Capitol Hill and in their home state. Senators deal with larger constituencies, so it takes more work to manage their schedules. In the House, each member normally has one scheduler in the Washington D.C. office. Sometimes a district scheduler will plan the member’s activities when they are in the district, but this is not always the case. Most House schedulers single-handedly manage their member’s entire lives. If you are lucky enough to work closely with a scheduler, be sure to thank them for their service.

Even paid internships can be tricky

Dollar Money Icon with Bag on Black

In 2018, Congress appropriated funds to pay its interns. Each House office gets $20,000 a year to pay its interns, and each Senate office gets about $50,000 to pay its interns. Sadly, the money comes with little guidance about how to use the funds. Some offices pay one full-time intern a small stipend that eats up the entire intern budget. Others hire several interns and split the funds among so many people that nobody makes a living wage. Not All paid internships are created equal. Here are some things to look out for when considering a paid internship in a congressional office.

1. Know your salary before accepting an offer: Do not assume that just because an office advertises a paid position that the office pays a living wage. Before accepting an internship offer, ask your intern coordinator exactly how much money you will make. Some offices pay interns $100 per month and others pay close to $1,400. There is no shame in declining an offer if you do not feel comfortable with your salary.

2. Know your intern cohort’s salary: You will likely work with a few other interns in your office. Find out if the other interns are paid before accepting an offer. Paying one person and not others for doing the same job will negatively impact the office dynamic. Consider whether you want to work for an office that differentiates pay this way before accepting an offer.

3. Know your financial limits: Take an honest look at your finances. Can you afford to live in a city with a high cost of living while not making any income? Do you have time to work a part-time job to subsidize your unpaid internship? Do you have a safety net and supportive family to bail you out of financial trouble? Reconsider taking an unpaid or low-paying internship if these questions make you nervous.

4. Know your disability: Do not forget to take disability-related expenses into account. Working a part-time job to make money may not be possible for some disabled people. Disability-related expenses can also create barriers to working for little or no pay. Take these extra costs into consideration when you negotiate your salary.

5. Know your plans after the internship: Paid internships only last four months. Finding a job on Capitol Hill can take more than a year. If your time on Capitol Hill outlasts your internship, do not be afraid to apply to other paid congressional internship programs. You can internship-hop every four months and still receive a paycheck. Do what you must do to get your money!

6. Know that full-time staff may not make much money: Capitol Hill pays junior staffers an insultingly low wage. Keep this in mind if you decide to complain about your salary. You could still be making more money than your intern coordinator. Always be kind to junior staff members. Their work is vital to the mission of the office, but their paycheck rarely reflects it.

Paid internships are amazing! They give opportunities to hardworking people who otherwise could not afford to come to Capitol Hill. However, even paid internships can come with challenges.  Remember to advocate for yourself when discussing salary with your intern coordinator, and respect yourself in every part of the salary negotiation process. This is one of the first things you can do to set yourself up for success as a hilltern.

Confessions of an autistic intern: why we need a more accessible culture on Capitol Hill


Seal of the U.S. Congress

In advance of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress’s hearing about making the House more accessible to the disability community, I feel a responsibility to share some accessibility concerns on Capitol Hill that are often overlooked. Both physical and non-physical barriers effectively bar people with disabilities from the heart of our democracy.

Every two years, the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights publishes a report about accessibility barriers on Capitol Hill. The most recent report revealed that the House and Senate Office Buildings combined had 2,319 accessibility barriers, some of which could have caused serious harm to people. While the quality and helpfulness of these reports improve every two years, they still fall short of providing a comprehensive look at accessibility on Capitol Hill. This is evidenced by the 111th Congress report which said that Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) inspections were only allocated funding for ¼ full-time employee. This is insufficient for inspecting a 460-acre campus and district offices. Because of this limitation, only a small portion of the Capitol Complex is inspected every year, and district offices across the country are not inspected at all. This leaves many questions about the accessibility of our democracy unanswered.

While physical barriers are examined in the biennial ADA inspection report, barriers for people with invisible disabilities remain unchecked. Most disabilities do not fit neatly into boxes and related accessibility barriers cannot be identified in a yearly inspection. The entire workplace culture must shift to be more open-minded to different ways of working and existing. This shift would not only improve accessibility on Capitol Hill but help lessen the stigma around disability.

Although I regard my intern experience as one of the most rewarding of my entire life, I constantly fought harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about my autism. Most people assumed that because I was able to work full time that my autism did not affect me. Those people would have been surprised to learn that I scored in the moderate to severe range of the Australian Scale for Asperger’s Syndrome and worked constantly behind the scenes to be able to function in an office. Yet, because I appeared articulate and charismatic, I was not considered an expert on a condition that I myself had.

Additionally, I would read outdated and harmful information about my disability in bill text, form letters, and on official congressional websites all the time. I saw these misconceptions as opportunities to politely insert correct information where it was wrong and kindly offer advice when it was requested. I consider these minuscule changes that I was entrusted with making as some of my proudest achievements in policymaking. Imagine the progress that Congress could make if it made itself truly accessible to all citizens, not just those willing to fight the system to enact change.

I spend much of my spare time talking to other autistic people about my internship experience and trying to convince them to pursue similar opportunities on Capitol Hill. It is a hard sell. People are hesitant to work somewhere that reduces them to a stereotype or may not take the accommodations that secure their human rights seriously. I will continue advocating for the inclusion and acceptance of autistic and disabled people on Capitol Hill because as more of us work in policymaking, it will be easier to enact change that impacts us as individuals as well as our communities. I hope that as Congress works to make its facilities and services accessible to all that stronger diversity and meaningful inclusion will follow.

Resume and cover letter samples

Resume and cover letter I used to apply to my first hillternship

The application and interview processes is a little different in every Congressional office. However, you should expect to submit a resume and cover letter.

Your Resume: Offices will not pay attention to your application if your resume is sloppy. Make sure it is formatted well and is free of typos. The formatting does not need to be fancy, but it should be obvious that you put effort into it. I modeled my own resume after the example here.

Your Cover Letter: This is your chance to shine. Talk about why you want to be an intern, your passion for politics, and your admiration for the office you are applying to. Make sure your personality and passion shine through your cover letter. Cover letters all follow a standard format.

I have included the resume and cover letter I used to apply to my first hillternship below. They are not perfect, but they got me the job.

Grace Hart Cover Letter from Rep. Bustos Internship

Grace Hart Resume from Rep. Bustos Internship

Legislative correspondent: congressional ghostwriter

Every day, thousands of people contact their Senators and Representatives to voice their opinions. Every person who contacts their federal legislator should receive a response from the office. Legislative correspondents write those responses. Member offices in both the House and the Senate have legislative correspondents. The job is different in every office.

Every Senate office has a team of legislative correspondents. Each legislative correspondent only writes about a few issues.  They work closely with the legislative staff who write bills for the office. Legislative correspondents are always reading, writing, and learning. Because of this, they gain a lot of hands-on policy experience in a short amount of time.

Senate interns work closely with the legislative correspondents that handle their favorite issues. Interns who work with legislative correspondents should ask for regular feedback on their writing. Legislative correspondents write dozens of unique letters a day. They are happy to share their knowledge and experience with interns. 

House offices only have one legislative correspondent. This person responds to every single constituent who contacts the office. Many legislative correspondents in the House have a legislative portfolio and work on policy issues in addition to writing letters for the office. It is common for offices to combine the legislative correspondent position with the staff assistant position. These people complete the full duties of both positions and usually run the intern program. 

Legislative correspondents write more than anyone in the office. They represent legislators to their most engaged constituents and make sure people feel heard and taken seriously. Legislative correspondents write to constituents about complex policy issues in a way that is easy for them to understand. A person does not need in-depth knowledge about public policy to be a legislative correspondent. They need to be able to write quickly and accurately about topics they may not be familiar with. 

As an intern, you will be asked to help the legislative correspondent write letters to constituents. Do not be afraid to let your background in disability rights and accessibility affect your work. Kindly let staffers know when their writing is ableist or outdated. Take the initiative to make sure everything you write for the public is in plain language and can be easily understood by everyone. Most staffers do not consider accessibility often and are happy to hear your perspective on it. Take this chance to share your knowledge and passion for disability issues with the legislative correspondent in your office.


How to find a hillternship

A drawing of a red megaphone and text that reads

Every office in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate has an internship program. Applications for internship programs are listed on each office’s website and on job boards and newsletters. You can find internship postings in the following places:

  • Legislators’ official websites: Members post their applications for internship programs on their websites all year long. The application questions and required materials are listed here. The due date for the application should also be posted. There may be extra steps in the application for paid positions.
  • Committees’ official websites: Committees also post internship applications on their websites. They may be more difficult to find. Search “internship” in the search bar to find the application.
  • Senate job bulletin: The Senate job bulletin lists internship vacancies for Senate members and committees. This is a good place to find opportunities outside of normal application cycles. It is also a good place to learn about committee internships and fellowships.
  • The Dome Watch app: The Office of the House Majority Leader runs an app with a virtual job board. Internship vacancies are posted on the job board. The app also includes the House legislative calendar and a detailed day-to-day voting schedule for House members. It is the first place that House Democrats post job and internship vacancies. Everyone looking for an internship should download this app. The app is free.
  • House internship and job bulletin: The House of Representatives sends out a weekly newsletter with job and internship openings every Monday. The newsletter includes dozens of immediate openings. The newsletter only goes out once a week. Posts are often a few days old when the newsletter goes out.
  • Senate diversity initiative: The Office of the Senate Majority Leader runs a resume bank for diverse candidates seeking all positions. As a person with a disability, you can use this service. The resume bank will pass on your resume to offices that need interns. The website also has a list of all Senate internship programs and internships with outside organizations.

There are three internship application cycles every year. Internship cycles run from January to May, May to August, and September to December. Plan to apply to your desired intern cycle at least 2-3 months before the program starts. Give yourself enough time to look over the application requirements and prepare your materials. Congressional intern programs have competitive application processes. It is important to present your best self in your application.

It is always better to apply to internship programs on time, but if you miss the deadline you should still submit your application. Offices need interns at all times of the year. You could still be hired if you apply after the posted deadline.

Internship postings are everywhere. If you prefer to work for a certain member of congress, look on their official website for details about their internship program. If you are looking for an internship at an odd time of the year, then search virtual job boards and explore the Senate Diversity Initiative website. If you have your heart set on doing a congressional internship, then apply to as many programs as you can. There is a place for everyone on Capitol Hill.

The staff assistant: Capitol Hill’s most underappreciated employee

White boy in dress clothes with a neurodiversity pin and text that reads "proud to be a staff assistant

The staff assistant has many different roles in a congressional office. They greet visitors as they enter the office, manage tours and flag orders, teach interns, drive the congressman/woman, and complete other tasks as assigned. Staff assistants are some of the most hardworking people on Capitol Hill. Sadly, they are also some of the most underappreciated. If you ever work on Capitol Hill or even visit, be sure to thank the person at the front desk. They work very hard to serve their office and their constituents.

While the staff assistant’s job duties are different in every office, most have the following responsibilities:

  • Managing the interns: Most intern programs are run by staff assistants. They hire, train, and nurture their interns to make sure they have a great experience in the office.
  • Greeting office visitors: While most congressional staff sit in the back of the office, the staff assistant sits at the front desk. They are the first person that visitors see when they walk in and are expected to be friendly and welcoming to all guests.
  • Answering the phones: Constituents call the office every day. The staff assistant answers the phone, records their concerns, and passes them along to the legislative team. Some people who call the office are very rude. The staff assistant is expected to be kind and courteous to everyone who calls.
  • Processing physical mail: Constituents write letters to the congressman/woman every day. The staff assistant sorts through the physical mail and gives it to the appropriate legislative staff.
  • Scheduling constituent tours: Staff assistants schedule Capitol Hill tours for constituents and teach interns to give these tours. They also schedule White House tours for constituents.
  • Driving the congressman/woman: Staff assistants are often tasked with driving their boss around Washington D.C. Many staff assistant positions require the candidate to be able to drive and have a car.
  • Processing flag orders: Constituents can order official United States flags from their congressman/woman. Staff assistants receive orders for these flags, process the payments, and ship the flags to the correct addresses.
  • Writing Constituent Letters: Staff assistants help the legislative correspondents respond to letters and emails from constituents. They draft form letters and receive feedback from the legislative team. Writing letters helps prepare them for more senior roles that they will likely apply to.

Staff assistants should never be underestimated. Most are young adults just out of college who were recently interns themselves. They are also ambitious people looking to have meaningful careers as policymakers or communications staff. The staff assistant position is a stepping-stone to better things. Most staff assistants only stay in their position for one to two years before being promoted to legislative staff. They can be a valuable resource to interns who want to know more about doing an entry-level position in a congressional office as they were likely recently interns themselves.