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Personal Narrative Essay Foreign Service

So you've passed the FSOT and now have six "simple" questions to answer standing between you and an invitation to the Oral Assessment.

My big picture advice on the Personal Narratives:

1. Read the directions and answer the question that is being asked. Sounds simple, but people have a tendency to go off-topic. The Personal Narratives are a chance for you to show the QEP how awesome you are. Don't throw that chance away by answering a leadership question with an experience that's more appropriate for an intellectual skills question.

2. It's a narrative, so tell a story.

3. Be specific. Don't be big picture; get into the details of your narrative. 1300 characters per Personal Narrative is about 200 words or so. Make them count.

4. Use a variety of experiences. Don't show how you fulfill all 13 Dimensions by detailing a single experience that you just re-write for the five Personal Narratives.

5. Use your best stories (no matter how old a story is).

6. Get your writing done early, at least a couple of days before the deadline. This will give you some time away from your writing so you can self-edit more effectively. And you will need to edit.

7. Think very hard about the cone you selected and what life experiences you have had that match the work/responsibilities of that cone. If you've picked the Consular cone, don't demonstrate a bunch of experiences that are more suitable for Public Diplomacy.

8. Think about the structure of your answer. I'm partial to a 3 paragraph format: first paragraph for the set-up (what the problem/challenge/whatever was), one paragraph for the action/solution (daring, dashing FSOWannabe to save the day) and one paragraph on the conclusion or result (peace and harmony/free ice cream throughout the land).

Disclaimer: These are my suggestions. I have no idea if they "work" or not, and I've only gotten through the QEP stage once.

Additional disclaimer: corrected number of essays referred to above (there were only 5 the last time I answered the PNQ's).

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