Becoming an FSO Part II: The QEP

Approximately three to five weeks after sitting for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), candidates are notified of their FSOT results. State Department’s Board of Examiners (BEX) reviews each candidate’s application materials, along with their FSOT scores, and emails candidates their results. Passing the FSOT is the step that enables candidates to proceed to the QEP, comprised of several Personal Narratives (PNs). I’ll outline the QEP stage of the Foreign Service candidacy in this post.

DISCLAIMER: These are my own observations about a process I began in 2011.  I’m writing this series to pay forward some of the great information and insights I found online during my own candidacy. But the posts will eventually contain out-of-date information, and thus interested applicants should consult official instructions and sources when pursuing their own candidacies.

GETTING TO THE QEP

FSOT passers’ letters begin something like this:

“Dear Ms./Mr. (First Last),

Congratulations! The scores you achieved on your Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) qualify you for the next step of the Foreign Service Officer selection process, which is your prompt submission of a personal narrative for review by the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP).”

The letter goes on to explain that the Foreign Service selection process is a series of evaluations that can lead to an offer as an entry-level Foreign Service Officer (FSO), and gives instructions on how to launch one’s responses to a series of short essays which State refers to as Personal Narratives (PNs). Candidates have approximately three weeks to submit PNs to the panel; no extensions are given.

Failure to submit your PNs prior to the deadline, for any reason, will lead to the termination of your candidacy. If you don’t wish to proceed with your candidacy after receiving passing FSOT results, no action is required on your part. Your candidacy will be terminated automatically when you don’t submit PNs by the deadline, and you will be notified of this when QEP results are released a couple of months later. Passing the QEP stage is what enables candidates to proceed to the final step of their assessment, the Oral Assessment, which I’ll discuss in my next post.

QEP NEWS TODAY!

And so it happened that this morning, the latest FSOT cohort of test takers from February received their QEP results…including me. I passed! It was for my “backup” candidacy that I’d initiated earlier this year. Why did I initiate another candidacy when I had already passed the Oral Assessment in 2012? I’ll discuss the post-Oral Assessment hurdles in an upcoming blog entry, but suffice it for now to say that once you pass your Oral Assessment, receive a conditional offer, get through all of the clearances, and make it to your track’s rank-ordered link of candidates known as “the register”, your candidacy is only active for 18 months. If you don’t receive an offer to A-100 (the job offer) within 18 months, your candidacy is automatically terminated and you are removed from the register. If you wish to be reconsidered, you must launch a new candidacy from scratch. (!!!!)

Yes, people expire all the time. I was getting close. My termination was set for mid-July this year, and so a few months ago starting a new candidacy “just in case” looked like a super form of insurance. Many candidates languishing on the register launch another candidacy and hope it will lead them back to the Oral Assessment, in the hopes of boosting their score – after all, that score is what determines your rank on the register. When things take this long, you might as well get a move on instead of potentially losing another five months in the waiting game. That is, if you are really determined to get into the Foreign Service.

Luckily for me, since I already accepted an invitation to A-100 earlier this month on my current candidacy, I don’t need to do anything further after getting my backup candidacy QEP results today. They are excellent feedback, and I’m glad to know my PNs passed muster, but I don’t need to return to the Oral Assessment. It would be like applying for a job I was already offered. It’s mine, and I’m so happy! I’m one of the lucky ones.

Congratulations to all the hopefuls who received similar good news today as QEP results were distributed! May the OA preparation begin…just not for me.

SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS THE QEP?

The following QEP notes come from the Foreign Service Officer Test Study Guide, 5th Edition:

The Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) review complements the results achieved on the FSOT…by looking at a candidate’s total file: the FSOT and Written Essay scores, work history, education, and personal experiences, as well as any language ability validated by the Foreign Service Institute. Beyond relying on the test scores alone, FSOs screen candidates for additional job-related qualities that indicate a candidate’s ability to perform Foreign Service work successfully.

Candidates who pass the FSOT are invited to submit Personal Narratives (PNs) in which they answer questions describing the knowledge, skills and abilities they would bring to the Foreign Service. Candidates will be asked to address the following six areas: Leadership, Interpersonal Skills, Communication Skills, Management Skills, Intellectual Skills, and Substantive Knowledge…

Candidates may wish to keep the following considerations in mind when drafting their PNs:

  • Respond appropriately to the questions asked. A candidate may have a great story that highlights his or her unique qualities, but if the response does not directly address the question, the candidate will receive a lower score.
  • The PNs allow candidates to draw attention not only to what they have done, but also how they did it, why it mattered, and what effect it had. Simple lists of accomplishments, recaps of candidates’ resumes, or theories learned in school are not helpful.
  • The QEP panels are composed of experienced Foreign Service Officers who have read the PNs from hundreds of candidates and are familiar with the type of experience a candidate acquires when spending two weeks in Africa for a graduate school project or working as a summer intern in the State Department. While candidates should not be shy about reporting their actual accomplishments, inflating the facts of their work positions is counterproductive and very likely to work against them.
  • Candidates should not make assumptions about the types of responses the Department of State is looking for or the type of candidate it wishes to hire. While most candidates have had some overseas experience – e.g., travel, study, or business – many have not. It is possible that a candidate’s summer job at a local animal shelter could provide a better response to a PN question than the experience acquired during study abroad.
  • Before submitting their PNs, candidates should make sure they have provided responses that not only answer the specific question, but also are appropriate to the career track selected when they registered. Candidates are rank-ordered with other candidates in the same career track. If the consular career track is selected, it is not likely that a candidate will be ranked highly if he or she only provided responses demonstrating the potential to be an economic officer…
  • The test administrator will forward candidates’ files to the Department of State for the QEP review, where each file will be evaluated by panels of experienced Foreign Service Officers and assigned a numerical score. It is important to note that there is no “Pass” or “Fail” in the QEP review. Rather, candidates receive a relative ranking compared to other candidates in the same career track. Thus, the higher a candidate’s score, the more likely the candidate will be invited to take the Oral Assessment. There is no present cut-off score.

PASSING THE QEP

Where does all this leave the Foreign Service hopefuls, candidates that made it through the FSOT stage and now hope to squeak through the QEP…ahem, or rather, pass the QEP with flying colors?

For many, the QEP is the most mysterious and murky part of the FS candidacy process. As many as half of candidates are thought to be cut at this stage, depending on the testing cycle and current hiring needs of the service. No feedback is given to candidates who are not invited to continue their candidacies, and those who wish to try again are doomed to wait for a year to elapse before they are again eligible to sit for the FSOT. You read that right…if a candidate falls out at the QEP stage, he or she must begin another candidacy the following year.

My strategy for writing my PNs was (relatively) short and sweet:

  • Don’t procrastinate. As soon as you have access to the PN writing prompts/questions, view them and start thinking about how you will craft your responses.
  • Scour your professional history to help you identify the best stories you have to answer the questions you get. The more senior you are, the more of a tour through your impressive backstory this will be.
  • Don’t work within the website, where there is no spell-check and where your answers could theoretically disappear. Work on your own machine and back up your work frequently. Keep versions of each draft, including the final you end up submitting, clearly marked for your records.
  • Be very concise in your writing, and use the most impactful language possible to answer the questions. Your response space is truncated heavily, and you will likely have to do several edits to get your writing as tight as it needs to be. If a phrase or sentence doesn’t add value, cut it.
  • ANSWER THE QUESTIONS. Think carefully about how your answer addresses the specific question being asked. Addressing the question at hand takes precedence over the story you feel like telling.
  • Ask people you trust to read your PNs and give you feedback. I think it should go without saying, but please, don’t ask someone to review your work the day before it is due. It’s not professional, and you aren’t going to get helpful input (or make any friends) this way.
  • If you have written PNs previously and passed with them, don’t assume they will get you through again, even if you do get the same questions and/or writing prompts. Lots of candidates report failing at the QEP stage with PNs that got them an OA invite in a previous cycle. You don’t want to mess with success, but honestly, ask yourself whether your narratives could be written better. I used the same narratives twice and got through both times, although I did significant tightening the second time – just in case. My writing had improved a little in the two years that had elapsed between submissions, so potential ways to strengthen them were obvious to me.
  • Don’t submit your PNs on the last possible day. Stuff happens, and you don’t want your candidacy to be terminated because you had unforeseen problems responding before the deadline…like last-minute family or work crises, or the website crashing.
  • Perhaps most importantly of all, evaluate how well your PNs demonstrate what State calls “The 13 Dimensions of the Total Candidate” (colloquially known among candidates as the 13 D’s). See: https://careers.state.gov/uploads/4c/e8/4ce8ce99d45087fc22dbd582ebab88f7/3.0.0_FSO_13_dimensions.pdf

Before you think I’m kidding about the 13 Dimensions, read the document at the link very carefully and consider how well you exemplify each dimension. Looking forward, the FSOA is thought to be evaluated solely on candidates’ demonstration of the 13 Dimensions, so why wouldn’t you focus on them in your narrative stories, too?

I don’t have any proof of this, but I am convinced that I passed the QEP in the winter of 2011-2012 because each of my PNs were carefully crafted and re-crafted to encompass as many of the 13 D’s in each response as possible. Some of my answers even addressed 8-10 different dimensions. I literally printed out draft after draft of my PNs and wrote the dimensions each answer addressed in the margins.

I used stories from many of my past occupations as well as examples from my personal life. The richer and more diverse pool of experiences you have to draw upon, related to international relations or otherwise, the better off you’ll be – as long as the 13 D’s are reflected throughout.

Think of the narratives as a more pronounced opportunity to show the State Department, in writing, what you would bring to the FSO job.

WHAT THE GOOD NEWS LOOKS LIKE

If you pass the QEP stage, you’ll get another BEX letter that starts something like this:

“Dear Ms./Mr. (First Last),

Congratulations! Based on a comprehensive review of your candidate file, you have been selected to participate in the next step of the Foreign Service Officer selection process, the Oral Assessment…”

The first time I got my QEP results (not today), I think that’s about the part of the letter where I started hyperventilating! Something like, “YESSSSS! I made it. I get to go to the orals! Oh wait… this means I have to go to the orals!” Gulp…

Well, the dreaded FSOA will be my topic for the next edition of the “Becoming an FSO” series. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I’m curious about others’ experiences with the QEP. Do you think your strategies led to the outcome you received? Why or why not?

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Becoming an FSO Part II: The QEP

  1. Joy

    Hi, thanks for the post – it’s super helpful. I’m working on my PNs at the moment and am wondering whether each of the prompts must be answered with one example or whether it is acceptable to provide 3-4 examples. How did you approach this? Would love your feedback. Thanks.

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    1. Hi Joy – You are welcome, and I’m glad you found this information helpful. In my personal opinion, the response area for each PN is too truncated to really go into depth on mutiple examples, but other people may feel differently. In order to answer each question best, I chose one example that I felt answered that particular question and focused on fleshing out the details illustrating the 13 Dimensions. Anything else to my mind would’ve been too much of a laundry list. If you are a member of the FSOA Yahoo group, you can find lots of threads in the archives discussing this issue in depth. A lot of candidates have weighed in over the years on their strategies. As a two-time passer myself, I hope this is useful advice! Best of luck to you with this nebulous stage of the process.

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  2. Pingback: One Year in Blogging | Collecting Postcards

  3. Ty

    Thanks for your blog. It really gives a lot of important information that is hard to find elsewhere.
    Just curious, I am waiting for the results to my personal narratives. It has been one month since I submitted them and none of my references have been contacted yet. Do they contact and confirm with each reference and is this a bad sign for me? I ask this because even though I have another 3-weeks before they announce the results, I thought they would check references sooner rather than later due to the winter holidays.
    Thanks again.

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    1. Dear Ty, glad you find the blog helpful and thanks for your question. My QEPs were three years ago, but my recollection is that my references were not contacted. Can’t recall for sure, but I wouldn’t worry about it. You’ve done your part, and they have to do theirs. The biggest part of the game is waiting. Good luck to you!

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  4. Tae

    Thanks for the reply. I hope you continue to enjoy your travels. I really hope to be on the same adventure and career as you some day. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy blogs like yours. Cheers and Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Patrick

    This blog is amazing! I’m waiting for my FSOT results (felt good but am not counting on anything) and it’s wonderful to read about your application process. Engaging, thoughtful, and helpful posts. Congrats on getting in and good luck in bidding for your next tour!

    Liked by 1 person

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