Fsot Personal Narrative Essays

Some people call this the PN or personal narrative stage. While the narratives you write play a big role, this is really about the QEP or qualifications evaluation panel (or some version similar to that. qualification evaluations? qualifications evaluations? qualification evaluation panels? no not that one).

This stage has the most questions surrounding it. It is, in my opinion, the hardest to pass. The equation or variables or whatever it is they use are not completely clear. Qualified people inexplicably get bumped, yet lawyers make it through. You are offered no explanations on why you failed. You are given no score.


So you passed the FSOT. Good. That’s behind you now, right? Wrong. Your score plays a direct role in if you pass the QEP stage at all. Nobody knows how much each factor weighs into you passing or failing this stage, but at the very least the following come into play:

  • your FSOT score
  • a copy of your FSOT essay
  • your resume/work experience, as filled out on your application
  • languages you speak and experiences abroad
  • your personal narratives written in this stage


If you went to law school, you will be familiar with how these are graded. The graders take all of your essays and put them in a big pile. They then go into a specially designated basement and stand at the top of the stairs. One of the graders proceeds to chuck the essays down the stairs. The ones closest to the top get a passing grade. The ones that fall to the bottom of the stairs fail. The question becomes, what if an essay is caught in the middle or straddling a stair? For those, they call your references and check up to see if you were being honest in your essay.

The standard underhand toss utilized by professors in every law school to establish a perfect bell curve.

Ok, so that isn’t how it really happens (in the foreign service, at least). There is a panel that reviews your entire application and decides if you are fit to move on at this point to the oral assessment. Think about that. They have just a few minutes with your file to decide if you are worthy. Because of this, you must sell yourself. This is why your resume in your application is so vital. You can’t change it now, so hopefully you were detailed in the resume portion.


Just like my article on “How I Studied for the FSOT,” this is my personal opinion and experience. There may be better ways. My ways might not work for you. But it did work for me.

1. Brainstorm

Easy enough, right? You have a couple hundred words to sell yourself. I created a spreadsheet with the six topics on the left side column and 3-5 ideas for each going along the rows. I asked my mom, my wife, my friends, my teachers for ideas of how I showed “leadership” or “communication” skills. Two of the six essays I ended up writing were on stories I didn’t remember on my own, but they were perfect stories for the process.

2. Writing for your audience

We know that the graders compare your application to the 13 dimensions and the 6 precepts. Since the topics of the questions line up with the six precepts, I wrote each essay with the precepts open on my screen. I hit key words in them and highlighted experiences that fit them. PAY ATTENTION. Leadership to you might be different than it is in the precepts. This is especially common when answering about “management” skills. The precepts can be found here. 

A general outline to use is STAR. I found this in “Brian’s PNQ Guide” under files in the Yahoo! group. I’d link to it, but it won’t work unless you click through the files to get there.

S: Situation


A: Action

R: Results

This gives you a good framework. I wouldn’t follow it strictly and without variation. Your essays need to keep the QEP’s attention. They need to have good flow, not a robotic equation. But if your essays have a sentence or idea that meets each of those letters, you have a good start to your essay.

3. SHOW, don’t tell

This was a motto in the creative writing department at Utah State. Show, don’t tell. What does that mean? Well, for the QEP stage it means you need to illustrate what you did, don’t just tell. At the same time, be as concise as possible.

Good: While working as the executive editor for the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation, I supervised a team of 15 staff editors.

Bad: I played a vital managerial role for the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation.

Good: In my current position at X company, I communicate with Y company through weekly status reports where I compile A, B, and C data.

Bad: I communicate on a variety of fronts through my position with X company.

The hardest part about showing, not telling, is doing it in a limited amount of characters. This takes constant revision and the use of direct language. Don’t use passive language. It takes up space.

passive voice: The team was directed by me to try a different approach.

active voice: I directed the team to try a different approach.

The passive version puts the focus of the sentence on the team. Not good, as this is about you. It also takes more words. And with that thought …

4. Focus on you

As a wise man and my spiritual guru once told me, “I like talking about you you you you usually, but occasionally, I want to talk about me.” We all know Toby Keith is the bard of the american people. Follow his advice.

Don’t focus on what “the team” did because it shows you are a team player. There is a time for that (the OA). Now, it is all about you. I did X, I accomplished Y, I I I I I. This is the same issue people have in the bio section on the FSOT. Don’t be humble. Be honest, be confident, and sell yourself.

5. Draft and edit

This step isn’t just about writing it down and splelchekcing. A good essay is more than good grammar. Consider the voice of your essay. If your mom read it, would she know you wrote it? She should. Don’t use words that you haven’t used in a conversation in the last week. Indubitably, you shall henceforth not succeed with your prose if such an occasion shall pass. If you have used the word “indubitably” in any conversation ever, unless using a fake cartoon snooty accent, then write in the  voice of George Bush because you will come off fake or like you are trying too hard.

Tone. What is the tone of your essay? Is it professional? Does it flow? Does it keep this same tone throughout?

I highly recommend that you do the following, repeatedly:

  • read your essay out loud (actually out loud as if you were presenting it, not just moving your lips over the words)
  • read it out loud starting with the last sentence and working bottom to top (this prevents your brain from jumping ahead to what is coming next)
  • get feedback from everybody you can


Recently, I volunteered to give some unqualified advice to people who failed the QEP. After reviewing essays, I noticed that a fair number of them did not answer the question asked. They talked about how they would make a good foreign service officer, but never answered “why do you want to join the foreign service,” for example. They were qualified. They wrote grammatically sound essays. But they were flopped nonetheless. Read each word in the prompt. Figure out exactly what they want you to do. Then do it.

7. Orwell’s 5 rules for writing

To me, Orwell’s 5 rules for writing are scripture. I find myself so indoctrinated with them that I don’t hesitate to follow them without thinking. They’re just habit at this point. In fact, I have suggested using 2, 3, 4, and 5 already without realizing it.

Here are his rules:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


  • Start strong. The first essay, as far as I know, is the “job knowledge” one that basically asks “why do you want to join the foreign service?” This is your chance to show your personality. Be passionate. Make a statement expressing that “I want to do this, and I know I can do a good job right now.” In my head, this first response sets a tone for the grader. Is this applicant truly interested? Are they passionate about this work? Do they seem like the type of person I want to work with in the future?
  • Write multiple essays for each prompt. You will see ideas come out that work better in stories you weren’t planning on using.
  • Constantly compare them to the six precepts.
  • Do really well on the FSOT. This can’t hurt. There seems to be a correlation to FSOT score and passing this stage, though causation may be lacking. Do people who do well on the FSOT have the qualifications and work ethic to pass this stage? Or does the high score just give them a virtual pass right through? Plenty of people barely pass but make it to the OA, so don’t give up just because your score is low.
  • Be prepared for a long, awful wait.

If you have any questions or want any clarification, don’t hesitate to comment below.

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Tags: foreign service, fso, fsot, qep

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.

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