Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How to Become a Foreign Service Officer: Part III--the QEP personal narratives

You have now taken the FSOT, and then you have spent the next two or so weeks trying desperately to remember some of the questions that you think you did wrong and google them obsessively for answers. Then you spend a week checking messages on the FSOT yahoo boards where everyone speculates wildly when the results will come out. You begin fearing that they will come out at a point when you have absolutely no access to Internet--the State Department is so advanced nowadays that it has a website where you can log in to get your Congrats/Regrets letter. And so you find yourself sitting at Heathrow Airport, on your way back from a skiing trip, with a screaming Son who is running around the airport windows gesticulating at planes in utter delight while all you can think of is that most likely the results are out and you have no way of getting them. And then, in a stroke of genius, you pull out your cellphone and turn it on (thank God, you have a GSM) and yes, there it is--a message from a caring Diplomat who has nobly gotten into my email account in New York, seen my results and left me a voicemail in case I check it at my stop-over in London. Thank you! You proceed to scream, "YES, YES, YES, I DID IT, I AM SO F..ING AWESOME" while the elderly British couple next to you at the airport look at you disapprovingly in a VERY reserved manner.

The next step is the writing of several personal narratives for review by the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP). You have about a month to submit your essays, which generally address you intellectual, interpersonal, communication, managerial and leadership skills. No, I cannot publish the questions, come on now! There is a character limit of 1300 characters per essay, which includes spaces. It is shockingly little, about 200 words or so. And it takes forever to polish and fit within the limit. My suggestion would be to start writing right away. The idea is to take examples from your life that demonstrate such skills. The examples do not have to be you leading the UN in spontaneous liberating action somewhere in Africa, or being Dalai Lama's right hand, or writing the next shocking physics theory or speaking 36 languages, including Martian and negotiating peace with the little people of the Moon. The idea of the essays is to show that you have enough common sense, stamina and emotional maturity to live abroad, communicate with people different from you, show some initiative and creativity when things go hairy (and I mean situations like when you have to deal with the notorious Washington bureaucracy, not like riots in Egypt, which I would gladly take over the bureaucratic process) and retain your sense of humor while doing all of that.

Be creative. Don't try to guess what the reader wants to hear. If the question explores your intellectual skills, do not necessarily dwell upon your heroic efforts to solve Fermat's Last Theorem before you were beaten to it by Andrew Wiles. Write instead about some problem you had and the awesome creative, last minute solution you found to it. Interpersonal skills will deal with your ability to communicate with people different from you. Again, don't rack your brain for examples from your ground-breaking water project in the villages of the Zanzibar, where you learned to speak Kiunguja in a matter of weeks and danced with colored sticks around the ceremonial fire every night (unless you actually have, in which case more power to you!). Talk about your crazy Argentinian roommate, who danced tango while sleepwalking and covered his walls with soccer posters, your Wisconsin colleague and his cheese-eating habits at work, or your prim British inlaws.
Whatever you choose to write about, keep it simple and VERY much to the point. You will have so little capacity to write that every unnecessary, albeit colorful detail, will have to go.

Do not underestimate the QEP essays--they are a very important part of your application. Start writing right away. Keep thinking of better and better examples. Ask you grandma. Ask your boyfriend/spouse/best friend for such examples. People sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. And then ask someone to read your creations. After you have read them over 345 times, your judgement about their literary and stylistic quality might have suffered just a bit. Take the criticism in stride. Re-write. You are awesome! Submit. Do not panic. Wait.

In other news, I have officially accepted my offer to join the March 28 A-100 class. I will be a proud part of Class 160!!! I also received my salary offer, which was surprisingly good and made me instantly go online and search for small but meaningful gifts to buy for myself. Finally, for those of you taking a BEX language test and finding yourself later on desiring to change the language to another one for whatever reason, I learned the following very important tidbit--you can swap languages for bonus points (if the languages carry the same or more points, obviously) until you actually join FSI. So now I am fervently studying Bangla and count on your joint well wishes and some mad luck to pass on March 3. In a demonstration how fervently I am studying, I am taking tomorrow as a mental day off. I promise to think to myself in Bangla all morning. Or not.

34 comments:

  1. Hello there! I think I may have left you a note elsewhere too! Congrats (again). I'm also in the 160th class and look forward to meeting you. Don't speak Bangla, but I do speak Urdu, so we may have words to exchange! Also, please look up the Facebook group 160th A-100 class so that we can connect! Best wishes!

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  2. Good advice and inspiration for my wife's forthcoming odyssey into the "Becoming a FSO" process.

    By the way, I've started my own blog entitled "Diplomatic Dad." I know it sounds like a rip off of yours but the title really suits me. I hope you don't mind. :)

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  3. at last inhouse competition is lurking. I am very confident that diplomatic mom will score and outbeat you in ratings particularly in subtle humor and exhaustive guidance for the apiring FSO, as she has slogged really so hard to achieve this milestone in her life. I am eagerly waiting for the day when the Diplomatic Son would start blogging!

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  4. This is great advice! I am only in the QEP stage, and am trying to stay calm while thinking of interesting narratives. Hopefully it won't be too difficult!

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  5. I love your funny, and informative, posts! Like Future Diplomat, I'm only at the QEP stage, and yes, it's true, writing the narratives has been it's own roller coaster ride with a thousand versions of one story only to be replaced with another!

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  6. That's "its" not "it's" for the second use...further proof writing the narratives has fried my brain! Cheers

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  7. I have a question for those who are actually working as Foreign Officers and/or whom have been hired at a late age. I see a lot of postings from students and folks in their 20's and I am starting to question my chances given my age.

    I just passed the FSOT and I am writing my PN. I am 55, look like 40, and in perfect health. I speak a second language. I have lived and worked for some top international companies, in many parts of the world. I am confident that I can write up a great PN and hopefully pass the Orals. Is the State department looking for younger people to mold, and do you think my age will count against me? Thanks for any thoughts.

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  8. Dear Elderly Anonymous. Fear not! My class had a 58-yr old person who is in this for just 2 tours and making the msot of every day. he is servingi n Manila and traveling the world with his wife. Another one was a bit younger but also with just a few tours to look forward to. The Foreign Service needs smart, fantastic people, regardless of age. YOu have so much to bring to the plate. GO FOR IT!!

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  9. Excellent! Thanks so much for this motivation as I am currently writing my personal narratives!! i was hoping this was the case and that my experience would be paramount to my age.
    How large was your class to have only had 2 50ish officers if I may ask.
    Also, when you say " who is just in this for 2 tours", how long does a tour in general last? I would think I would be in it for more than 2 tours... but not sure how long a tour actually is. Thanks so much for your comments and reply. Alex

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  10. Hi,

    Do you know what the website is from the State Department that says whether you passed the exam or not? I took the test on Feb 10, 2012 and unfortunately since then my email account that I was using has been deactivated so I'm not sure whether they ever sent me an email or not!

    Thanks a bunch - Elisa :)

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  11. Elisa, I don;t know, I am sorry :(. It was in the email they'd send you.

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  12. After you've written the PN, how long before you hear something back?

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  13. Thanks for this post, I am actually in the midst of writing my personal narratives....in Bangladesh, oddly enough. I'm a Peace Fellow working in Sonargaon for the summer, will have to check out some more on your blog if there's any details on your work and life here so far. :)

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  15. Hi there, just curious -- how long did you wait between submitting your QEP and hearing whether you qualify for the oral test? the waiting is killing me! :)

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  16. It said in our FSOT results letter that invitations to OA will go out in mid-to-late May. People are speculating by the 20th of May.

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  17. Thanks for the FANTASTIC post! This information is really good and thanks a ton for sharing it. I am looking forward desperately for the next post of yours.
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  18. Diplomatic Mom, you're truly hilarious and clever, may I ask where did you learn English? Your english is impressive, you're a fine writer also. I'd love to know, much more considering this is not your native language.
    Thank you for sharing with all of us!
    You're generous and lively!

    Thank you,

    Claudia

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  19. Diplomatic Mom,
    I feel it is worth saying I teared up a little when you revealed your congrats letter. I am taking the FSOT in October and find the info on your blog so helpful. Thanks for sharing!

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  20. :) At all the anonymous writers - thank you! I learned English first in my native land of Bulgaria, and then just kept reading voraciously. Thank you! Thank you :). I love compliments.
    Also, good luck on the FSOT. The more I am in this business, the more I love it. I am so damn lucky to have this job!

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  21. HI! does anyone know how long it takes to hear back after you submit your personal narrative questions?! Its been over a month and I'm getting nervous :/

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  22. Hi Diplomatic Mom! You should write a book!
    About Security Clearance, did they go to Bulgaria, to find information about you? I'd like to know more about the process, when you come from another country, how was it for you?

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  23. Thank you, I will one day :). as far as I was aware, no one did anything in Bulgaria. But then again, who knows, mysterious are the ways of the retired FBI agents who do this jolly task. I have no idea how different process is if you are naturalized American.

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    1. And do you know about how long it takes to hear back after you turn in the personal narrative questions?

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    2. Back then it took about a month, I think. But I think it might be different now, so don't bet on it.

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  24. Thank you so much for this blog, it has given so much insight into the Foreign Service. Can you comment on the Diplomatic Security vacancy announcement? How does it differ from what you are doing, and are the test the same for both Diplomatic Security Special Agents and Foreign Service? Thank You!

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  25. Hi, I have no idea how the DS process works, to be honest. Sorry :(. And no, I don;t think the test is the same. I think some steps are skipped and others are simply different. we do work a lot with DS and it is an awesome career, so strongly recommending it!

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  26. Thank you for the very informative blog. May I ask why you were surprised with your salary offer? I thought it was strictly based on degrees and years of experience plus current salary match. Did you find that they were flexible in what step they hire you into? I’m an aerospace engineer and would expect FP-04 based on my degrees and experience and Step 14 based on salary matching. However, I will be taking a year-long sabbatical to do a fellowship at State starting this fall. I am writing my PNs now and if I make it through to the register this year (wish me luck!), chances are that I will be hired while on sabbatical. My salary would be such that I’d only qualify for Step 7 based on their guidelines. Do you find that State considers individual circumstances or sticks strictly to the guidelines?

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  27. Hey there, aerospace engineer! I don;t have the foggiest idea, to tell you the truth. I would imagine that there will be some flexibility given your experience and salary. Folks at the Department are very logical and considerate, and want good talent, so I would imagine that they might be reasonable.

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  28. Thank you for your posting and important information about the FSOT and the next steps in the process. To what degree, if you know, does the U.S. Department of State take the actual scores from the FSOT when all other factors are added? Does the FSOT have a heavier weight or all aspects of an applicant reviewed? Thank you again.

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    1. Hi, to be honest, I have no idea for a fact but I have been told that it is none.

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  29. I am a senior studying psychology and public relations and am just about to take the FSOT in February. I am quite new to this career pursuit, but have really enjoyed reading your blog. You have a hilarious but very informative style! Cheers.

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  30. Good blog. I also recommend you visiting another source page on writing an application essay.

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