After months of obsessive email checking, I knew the fateful day had arrived when I saw the subject line sitting in my inbox: “Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) Score Report Available Notification.” After crossing my fingers (because that’s what diplomats do), I opened the email, but through squinted eyes (which make bad news less painful) saw only a link to log into my online testing account. HURDLES. I incorrectly entered my password three times before finally seeing the spinning wheel of loading doom. I re-crossed my fingers, clicked into my score report, and felt a flood of adrenaline as I saw the word, “Congratulations!”
And congratulations, indeed! You’ve made it to the Personal Narrative hurdle of the Foreign Service application marathon. Well done.
The Personal Narratives are six short essay prompts in which you have 1,300 characters per essay to explain why you’re the bee’s knees. These essays are read by a group of diplomats known as the Qualifications Evaluations Panel, or the QEP. I can only assume that these poor people are sitting in a fluorescent lit, windowless cinder block basement, where they are required to finish reading hundreds of essays before they are allowed their government-sponsored bologna sandwich and milk carton lunch.
But in all seriousness, the QEP reads every applicant’s submissions and all applicants receive a decision within a matter of weeks. These people are reading a lot of essays very quickly. So much like in college applications, the name of the game in this round is to grab their attention. Below are my tips!
- Answer the question they way they want you to. The Personal Narrative prompts are based off the Foreign Service’s Core Precepts (the rubric they use to determine promotions within the Foreign Service). And conveniently, this rubric is publicly accessible. Read this rubric, because the way the State Department defines “Innovation” and “Problem-Solving” may be different from the way you do.
- Use State Department approved vocabulary. The QEP will compare your essays to the 13 Dimensions, (the list of character traits exemplified by a Foreign Service Officer) so work this vocabulary into your essays. This will make the QEP’s job easier, effectively getting them one step closer to their bologna sandwich, and you, one step closer to the Foreign Service.
- Don’t be dull. The QEP panelists must be so. Incredibly. Bored. So do them a favor and make your essays interesting. I was very formal the first time I went through the Personal Narrative round and didn’t pass. So the second time, I dialed up the story-telling. Start each essay with a hook. Be clever. Be witty. Be yourself (but only if you are clever and witty).
- Be multi-faceted. A Diplomat in Resident (side note: contact your Diplomat in Residence, they are very wise and useful people) told me that each of the responses should come from a different experience in your background. So don’t tell six stories that are all vaguely similar. If you can, tell only one story from each job, extracurricular, or study abroad experience.
- Self-compliment like your career depends on it. Were these experiences a team effort? Probably. But the QEP doesn’t care what everyone else on your team did, they only care about what you did. Don’t waste valuable characters on other people. Use the STAR Method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to explain only the awe-inspiring things you accomplished.
Good luck, folks!