Getting Personal

When you graduate from university there is this delicious sense of relief that you will never, ever have to write another college entrance exam again. Oh, how wrong you are dear graduate…

Welcome to the Personal Narratives!

img_2657Once you pass the FSOT exam, the next step in the process is the Qualifications Examination Panel (QEP) where you write your Personal Narratives (PNs) so the Board of Examiners (BEX) can review your “Total Candidate” package. They’ll be looking at your initial application* and your test scores alongside 6 short essays. When I say short, I mean SHORT. You have 1,300 characters for each essay. That is less than 10 Tweets!

Your PNs will cover many aspects of your life; they are your one big chance to leap off the page, past your test scores and your resume, to tell a panel of your potential peers how great you are. The BEX panel will consist of a handful of foreign service officers who are in the same career track you are applying for and typically one “civilian.” 

“When writing personal narratives, it is helpful to focus on your own experiences. You should give positive examples that demonstrate your ability and indicate how your experience will contribute to success in your chosen foreign service officer career track.

The following is a series of questions intended to help us learn more about the knowledge, skills, and abilities you could bring to the foreign service. This is your opportunity to emphasize those areas you want us to take into consideration, so please take time and care in responding.

You will note that these questions seek a great deal of information in a limited space. Use the space well by emphasizing your most salient qualifications. For example, if you are a recent graduate, you might wish to focus mainly on your academic or volunteer experience. If you have been out of school for some years, you might wish to emphasize your other experience.

Think broadly, for many aspects of your experience – paid or volunteer work experience, educational achievements, training, hobbies, sports, travel, or other – could serve as the basis for your response. Emphasize the information that best describes your knowledge, skills, and abilities. You must respond to all questions, as each one offers you an opportunity to tell us a different aspect about yourself.”

-(State Department Instructions)

The questions asked over the years for the Personal Narratives haven’t changed much. They cover topics like, “Why do you want to join the foreign service?” “What do you bring to the job?” They also ask you to exemplify certain traits like:

  • Leadership
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Management Skills
  • Communication
  • Intellectual Skills

Starting to sound like those college entrance exams, eh?

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The one thing that is different from your typical college entrance essay is that for 5/6 narratives, you will need to provide contact information for a verifier. This person may or may not be contacted by the State Department and questioned about the activities you mentioned. Whether or not they are contacted isn’t a positive or negative sign for your PNs – it is largely random. However, it is more likely that you will have a verifier contacted if you submit really crazy stories. P.S. – you can call your verifiers ahead of time to let them know they might be contacted by State!

Tips & Tricks

There are many different approaches to writing the personal narratives. Here are a few tips I have found from reading everything I could get my hands on and from my own writing experience:

  • Write with passion! Your evaluators are going to read hundreds of essays – get them excited about YOU.
  • Write clearly, concisely, with vivid examples.
  • Keep asking yourself if your story really answers the question. You must be willing to sacrifice any one part for the sake of the whole.
  • Don’t stretch your experiences to “make” them fit a question. It’s easy to spot and makes it look like you have nothing better to offer.
  • It’s a narrative, so tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. (If you’re stuck, try the STAR method).
  • Microcosms are more impactful than macrocosms – show your worth in the details.
  • Demonstrate you have what it takes to do YOUR job. Nothing will hurt you more than applying to be an economic officer and showing all the traits of a perfect public diplomacy cone. Read up on the life of each cone in Inside a U.S. Embassy.
  • 13 DIMENSIONS. If these aren’t your best friends already, fix that. These are the skills they evaluate you on. Pick stories that exemplify as many of these dimensions as possible.
  • No passive voice! DANCE, FS HOPEFUL, DANCE!
  • Skip the ambiguous nouns. Say what you mean the first time.
  • Happy endings only. Now is not the time to talk about failures. Even if you can turn them into positives, share that at the OA Interview later down the road.

Once you are finally happy with your essays, edit, edit, edit! Send them to your parents, your spouses, your long lost English teachers. But most importantly, send them to a stranger. The BEX panel will all be strangers to you – if it doesn’t make sense to someone who doesn’t know you personally, it won’t make sense to the evaluators.

One caution: you are now in competition with your fellow FS hopefuls. Feel free to exchange PNs, but consider doing so outside of your career cone. You are only competing against applicants of the same cone now, so anyone outside of that is a safe resource.

You get three weeks to write these essays. Don’t write them at the last minute! Don’t submit them then either – Technology has a way of lashing out at procrastinators in the worst way. In fact, another tech tip: don’t write directly in the boxes they give you, since there’s no spell-check. But don’t copy and paste from Microsoft Word. The boxes they use will turn your apostrophes into funny symbols. Copy and paste from a word processor like Notepad instead and check to make sure you don’t have any vanishing sentences that were cut off by pesky word boxes.

The hardest part about this selection process is that you will be ranked based on merit by the BEX panel and then the cut off for applicants who move onto the next part of the process (the Oral Assessment) is determined by how many people they want to hire that year. It changes often (especially this year…) and can mean that sometimes qualified people don’t make the cut one year, but might the next. Do your best and see what happens. If you don’t pass, keep trying!

Still panicking? Check with your Diplomat in Residence or attend this Facebook Live event to learn more.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Every Day, In Every Way, I’m Getting Better & Better: QEP & FSOA – Part 1 | Twelve Knots

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