Archives for November 2012

Suggestions on Writing Your Personal Narrative

Sorry that I’ve been out of pocket for the past month, but I’ve started a new job and, well, it’s been hectic.

First, I want to congratulate all of you who passed the written exam.  For those of you who didn’t, remember that you can give it another try in 11 months or so.  Don’t let it get you down, many FSOs have taken the exam two times, three times, even more before passing. It’s a quirky test, as you know, so you can better prepare for the next go round.  As Jeffrey Gitomer, the sales guru says, don’t let it get you angry, let it build up your resolve to pass it.

Personal Narrative

 Okay, for you who now face the Personal Narrative, you have my sympathies.  The narrative section, which didn’t exist when I took the Foreign Service Exam it, seems to be one of the most arbitrary and opaques steps in the Foreign Service Exam process — especially the Total Candidate approach.  The Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) sounds something like the Star Chamber or some other mystical body that orders executions.  To me, the QEP is another weeding out tool for those brazen enough to have passed the written exam (aka FSOT).  However, don’t be intimidated.  Never be intimidated.  The QEP is made up of FSOs, who are by and large a good lot, even those working in HR.  Many of the FSOs will be on your side.  Remember, too, that the QEP is going over everything about you to date — work and school background, self-evaluated language level, your FSOT and, of course, your PN.   The QEP is likely to be similar to a promotion panel or tenure board, which meet annually or more often.  They’re staffed by as many as five FSOs plus one member of the public.  In the QEP’s case, I would think that since they need to cull through so many PNs, they probably cut the size of the panel and dispense with the public member.    This leads me to my first admonition:

  • Write clearly, concisely and with passion.  No academese, no bureaucratese, the writing must capture the reader.  Remember the QEP FSOs are going through hundreds of Personal Narratives so you need to capture their attention.  Make sure you draw their attention.
    Write your PN as if you’re talking to someone, making vivid descriptions and colorful examples.

Yes, clear and good writing is essential, so go over your narrative carefully and many times.  Read it out loud.  Read it to someone you trust.  Have them read it.  Take the advice of teachers, mentors and anyone else who are willing to give you constructive criticism.  Next piece of advice:

  • Share your drafts with trusted others — friends, mentors, parents, professors, etc.  Ask them to tell you the truth: is it too long, is it boring, is it pompous, do you answer the questions in the proper format, etc.  Read it out loud to them.  Do they nod off?  Do they get up for a drink in the middle?  Are they squirming?  Rewrite accordingly.

Seriously, this step of the exam process — the Personal Narrative — can one of the toughest.  And it trips up so many.  Why?  Because you’re writing about yourself.  It’s a fact that, except for the most self-absorbed, writing about oneself in a self-glorifying manner is against everything we are taught.  It is very hard to do.  But you’ve got to do it.  FSOs do it once a year as they fill out their EERs (Employee Evaluation Reports).

Big Point Here: the six precepts happen to be taken verbatim from the EER (Employee Evaluation Reports) core precepts.  Hint: The core precepts form, DS-1829CP (a public document), gives you more guidance than the Careers.State.Gov site.  Take a look (I’m not sure this is the latest version, but the main ideas remain the same.)  Focus on the skills for Entry-Level.  The PN is only slightly different because the Department wants you to “focus on your own experience… [and] use these precepts as a guide to

1) give positive examples that demonstrate your abilities;

2) identify learning experiences;

3) indicate how your learning experience will contribute to success in your chosen Foreign Service career track.”

I recommend that you 

  • Sit down and under each of the core precepts, think of examples in your past — at work, school, hobby, avocation, etc — that show your abilities.  For example, under Leadership Skills, identify things that demonstrate your leadership skills — e.g., captain of the soccer team, coach of a Little League team, team leader for a project at work, conference organizer, river guide, CEO, head of a local Bar committee, etc.  You need to find and show with concrete examples how you have used leaderships skills.  And continue with the other categories.    Use the precepts as provided on Careers.State.Gov as well as DS-1829CP

When you have a sufficient examples, write your first draft in one sitting.  Yes, it’ll read like crap with grammar mistakes and major structural problems, but you’ve broken the first barrier.  If you have time, you should leave it and pick it up again after 24 hours.  Then review it and begin the editing process.  Streamline your text, hone your examples, figure out how your experiences prove that you’re right for your chosen career track.  The last task is the toughest and the easiest — tough because how are you supposed to know what a political officer does all day or what a consular officer spends the most time on.  It’s the easiest because all officers share certain traits and you can make your experiences via the precepts perfectly suited for the career tracks.  It is tough, however, so start with the Career Track Overview on Careers.State.Gov.  It will give you brief descriptions of what officers in each of the cones do.  Combine these examples with your own life experiences.  Keep writing and rewriting.  It will get better.  Read it out loud.  Share it with friends, mentors, professors, etc.  Rinse and repeat.

Total Candidate Review

Remember too that the QEP FSOs, probably grouped by cone, will review not just your Personal Narrative but also your work and school backgrounds, your self-evaluated language scores (lucky you, if you’re proficient in a “hard” language like Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc) and your score on the written test (FSOT).   The QEP’s rank for you in this “Total Candidate Review” — the State Department’s term, not mine — will determine whether you will be invited to the Oral Assessment.

Good luck with your Personal Narrative and keep the faith.