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.














  1. Thank you very much for your insight. I’ve found that the most difficult part of the PNs has been to take all that information and condense it into 1300 characters or less (spaces count, approx 200 words). I’ve found that I’ve become quite creative with using monosyllabic words and describing complex situations whilst using no adjectives. Ha!

    Thank you specifically for the mention of DS-1829CP. Providing the mindset of our audience is invaluable.


  2. Thanks very much for the great advice!

  3. Hey guys,

    Is anyone else having difficulty thinking of specific scenarios that match the question 100%? Take this question, for example:

    “In the Foreign Service you will confront challenging situations that require identifying the problem, collecting relevant information, and formulating or advancing innovative solutions to resolve the problem. Describe a time when you responded innovatively to **UNANTICIPATED CIRCUMSTANCES** [emphasis added] to solve a problem. What was the situation? What steps did you take to think through the situation? How did your action address the situation? What were the results?”

    What if you have a situation that ALMOST fits, but was not an *unanticipated* circumstance? I know this sounds like a really nitpicky issue but I don’t want to answer one of these questions only to strike out because my answer did not completely match the question. Does anyone know how serious of a concern this is? Or is the wording of the question intended to be more flexible than rigid?

    • Nikolai–

      Good question. The key traits you want to show the examiners are 1) innovative, 2) flexible, 3) adapting, and 4) capable of dealing with change.

      I would frame your response accordingly, and think that whether the situation is “unanticipated” or not is less important than demonstrating the four traits.

      As one of my followers — Jim from Texas — mentioned a few days ago, the PN is only +/-200 words so you’re going to have to focus your answers as clearly and succinctly as possible.

      Chrs and good luck,


  4. I attended a State Department careers networking event this past week. The FSO leading the panel said that, in evaluating whether people move to the next phase, they only see whether candidates passed or failed the FSOT. They don’t see either the score or how many times people have taken the test. I believe she was speaking of their process of evaluating the PNQs, but she could have been speaking of the in-person interview. At least, one’s FSOT score, if passing, does not follow one throughout the process.

    • Denise–
      That certainly could be the case. They also don’t care how many times you’ve taken it before. Whether she was talking about using the FSOT score in assessing the applicant’s PN or the oral assessment, I think that if they don’t use the score for one they likely treat the FSOT the same way. However, I confess I don’t know. I’ll ask my FSO friends in the Department if they know…
      Best, Bill

  5. Sorry, the above wasn’t clear. The FSO said that in evaluating candidates who have passed the FSOT, they only know that the person passed, not their score. I believed she was speaking of evaluating the PNQ responses, but she could have been speaking of the in-person interview. In any case, at some point, the score is no longer relevant to the evaluators.

    • No worries. It was clear. Sorry my answer wasn’t definitive, but as I recall when I took the oral exam (there was no PN in 1985, thank God) they knew only that we had passed the FSOT, not our scores.
      Another question is whether the examiners know your chosen cone (e.g., consular, economic, etc). I think the answer to that is yes…

  6. Thanks for your help!

  7. Do the QEP people know of previous PN submissions? Can one use the same scenarios rewritten from previous candidacies?

    Thanks. For this and your advice above.


    • Seth–

      Thanks for the good question. No, the QEP doesn’t retain previous PN submissions. You get a clean and fresh start every time you take the test.

      Good luck,


  8. Bill,

    I just found out that I have passed the FSOT (155.something, 6 on the essay) and am on to the PN portion. I have been searching and scouring trying to figure out a) if anyone knows generally how many of the applicants referred to the PN portion move on to the next round (i.e. half, 25%, etc.) and b) If the low FSOT score can be offset by background? I registered under the Econ Cone and just graduated with my JD and MBA in May, so I am hoping that my educational credentials and responses to the PNs may help “overcome” the scores.



    P.S. The two non-Phd degrees have me curious as to what pay grade they would actually start me on given that either of the degrees would put me at FS 05 if I make it that far. Any chance you have heard how that situation plays out?

    • Andrew–

      Congrats on passing the “written” exam and for graduating with your MBA and JD degrees. Sorry, I don’t have the percentages of those who pass the written test make it over the Personal Narrative hurdle. I do know that you need to make your PN the strongest possible. Reread my posts and responses to comments on getting through the PN portion. Focus on your best, most interesting experiences, write clearly and succinctly, and focus on “we” more than “I.” A little humility goes a long way in your writing for any portion of the Foreign Service Exam.

      Good luck, and yes your two degrees will help you in the PN section, but use specific, concrete examples and make your writing sing… It should get you a bump in salary, certainly to FO-05 level, possibly FO-04 level. Don’t be afraid to argue the decision and appeal it. I didn’t do that for a lot of issues — frankly I was thrilled to be accepted — but salary levels will play a big part if you stay in and have a big impact on your pension. Don’t be afraid to disagree. Do it politely, and even if they tell you no, you won’t have burned any bridges.

      Best, Bill

      • Hi, this may be a stupid question but how far back can you go in your experiences? I’ve been at the same job for 7 years now so either it will seem like all my professional examples come from the same place (with my current bosses as references, which is undesirable), or they’ll have to be from college/high-school, which the evaluators might deem to remote in time… any ideas? Thanks for your help!

        • Excellent question. I think the panel is looking for fairly recent actions — within the past three or four years– would be best. But to be honest if you did something seven years ago that fits perfectly with one of the dimensions, I’d go ahead and use it. There’s no rule that you have to say when you did something, just that you did it.

          Good luck,


  9. Hi Bill,

    First of all, thanks very much for sharing your experiences in this blog and working to inform the rest of us who aspire to begin a career like yours.

    I passed the written test in June and am now working on my Personal Narrative. This post has been quite helpful and I found that I inherently brainstormed in the way you suggest – hopefully a good sign!

    One of my grad school professors (a diplomat-in-residence abroad) gave me some sound advice for the entire recruitment process this spring. Regarding the PN, this officer said I should emphasize my willingness to work hard (embrace hardship posts/unattractive posts) and start “from the bottom” and work my way up. In this officer’s opinion, DOS is currently wary of hiring young JOs these days (especially “millennials”). Thus, in their opinion, the PN is going to be fundamentally tough for a recent Masters grad such as myself.

    Do you agree with that? I know you wrote a post on being too old to enter, but what are your thoughts on being too young?

    Thanks in advance!


    • Erin–

      Really good question. I agree and disagree. How’s that for a diplomatic answer? On the one hand, your DIR professor is right that you should mention your willingness to work hard and serve at tough posts, but I also think that’s a given, no? And as for State shying away from Millenials, that’s just plain wrong. I have served with scores of millenials, and yes they’re different than Boomers and Gen Xers, but most have been willing to work hard, advance in their careers and take what comes with a minimum of whining. Don’t underestimate the power of the Foreign Service culture and traditions to turn Boomers, Xers and even Millenials into the same passionate and patient FSO.

      Remember the average age of my class 25 years ago was 31. I don’t think that age has changed much so the Foreign Service tends to hire across a broad spectrum of ages. There are and will be younger folks joining the Foreign Service. I think rather than a specific age or generation, the State Department is looking for mature folks who’ve spent some time living overseas. If you have that overseas experience, play it up in your essays and interviews. State prefers to hire someone who has already demonstrated an ability to live in a foreign country rather than finding out someone is neither truly interested or prepared for overseas life.

      Personally, the energy and intensity that young people bring to the Foreign Service are an important part to revitalizing an organization that could become staid and pedestrian! Change and innovation come from all ages, but I think young folks are more apt to explore and test the culture.

      Good luck,


  10. I just wanted to let you know, this is still helping people. I really like the part about the core precepts, as it gives me one more significant data point to help prepare for the next step.

    • Grant–

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad the site’s still helping people. I am providing the advice that I learned over the past 25 years, and it’s the info I provided scores of ELOs and pre-FSOs over the years.

      Best, Bill

  11. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for such a great website and in particular this post.

    I have significant work experience, two Masters degrees, one in International Relations, I have lived and worked abroad 7 years (In Albania, Italy and Spain) and am fluent in 4 languages and currently work as a translator/interpreter. I am passionate about the career and have been trying to prepare and pass the exam for the past 10 years.

    I failed the FSWE in 2004 and passed the FSWE in 2010 but didn’t make it through the PN phase and there is no way to tell exactly why.

    Apart from the fact that I probably was discarded because of my answers, could the fact that I have significant student loan debt be held against me?

    Thanks for your reply.

    • MM–

      I’m one of the first to complain when the Foreign Service does something dumb, even nefarious, when it comes to the Foreign Service Exam process. However, in your case, MM, I can’t gripe against the system. The State Department won’t hold student loans against you. In fact, the U.S. Congress enacted a bill to help federal employees to pay off their loans in a bid to enhance recruiting and retaining. According to the State website, since 2002 the Department has helped 2,700 employees repay their student loans by lump-sum payments ranging from $4,600 to $8,,500. There are conditions to this benefit, of course. Not all State Department employees fill the right type of job, any repayment requires a three-year commitment and payments depend on the availability of
      Department funding. There are other types of programs, including one that forgives some or all of your federal student loans.

      MM, I would encourage you to keep trying. Take a look as some of my suggestions on the Personal Narrative both in posts and responding to comments. Hang in there. It really is a great job, and you have amazing skills to help the Department.

      Best regards and good luck,


  12. Thanks Bill. Your words are encouraging and appreciated (even if they are read and not heard).
    The guy who will be submitting PN’s in the near future.

  13. Hi, Thanks for your wonderful blog!
    I’m still working on my PN and am trying to narrow down the experiences that I want to use. Regarding the interpersonal skills question, I want to discuss a time when I successfully mediated a room mate conflict as an RA. This experience happened in 2010 when I was a senior in undergrad. I am concerned about two things,however, 1- that I’m going too far back in time, and 2- that the experience may make me appear to be too juvenile. I do have other experiences that I can draw from my current job at a government office as well as graduate school, but those examples seem less on target than the room mate conflict. What are you thoughts? any advice would be welcome!


    • Kesha–
      You should go with your gut. If it’s too far in the past, however, it is probably diluted somewhat. I don’t think there’s anything wrong about using an ugly situation as an RA, but maybe there was something in your job or grad school that might have show the same skill. Lord knows, interpersonal conflict abounds in the Foreign Service so your know-how as a mediator is good. In the end, if you really can’t think of a more recent example, then fall back on your college experience. Make it punchy and readable. Yes, they want examples of the 12 dimensions, but they will weigh good writing over stodgy, weak writing.

      Good luck. Let me know how it turns out.


  14. Hello,
    I am about to take the FSOT and currently have a sister who is a FSOT residing in Dubai. My concern is, I applied for bankruptcy over a year ago, but have since started new accounts which are all in good standing. Would it be problematic if I successfully pass the test and had to move forward? I also have a master’s of public health (MPH) degree, am a current federal employee, and have traveled extensively. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks, Georgia

    • With your experience, you sound like an ideal candidate. On the bankruptcy, well, first, I’m not a lawyer or a State Department lawyer, but my feeling is that if you are straight with the Dept — lay it all out in your financial disclosure documents, especially if you have a payment plan sorted out — then it shouldn’t hurt you.

      Anyone with a lot of debt is a security risk. The thinking is if you are desperate for money, the other side will likely know that (trust me, they will). It could lead to a recruitment effort; you supply docs in exchange for cash.

      Still, FSOs go through bankruptcy like anyone else, but with their steady government income and a realistic repayment plan they will likely they keep their security clearances and not be shipped home.

      Have you asked your sister about it? I’m curious what she said to you.

      My advice — take the FSOT and cross the bankruptcy bridge when you come to it. Completely honesty with the Dept is essential.

      Best, Bill

  15. How would one convey military service and how much does it really help? I was in Germany for 4 years with 6 months of that in Afghanistan. I would LOVE to go to Afghanistan as a FSO. Any veteran advice here is greatly appreciated as I prepare my PN.

    • Rob–

      Thanks for writing. I have known a lot of veterans who joined the Foreign Service after their military service. They typically make excellent FSOs because of their previous overseas experience, feel for protocol, and working with a mission in mind.

      I think you can weave your military service, particularly your tours in Afghanistan, into your exam essays and PNQs. For the latter, find good, clear examples of how your experiences connect to 13 Dimensions

      Good luck,


  16. sifeddine fehdi says

    I will try to take a FSOT test l work as a manager on duty ( hotel industry) l speak 3 languages fluent and l have a good experience how life overseas
    Any advises?
    Thank you

    • General advice that I offer to everyone is:
      — Take the practice exam offered by BEX and Pearson. Based on your results you should focus your studies in those areas, e.g., economics, English expression and grammar, computers, etc.
      — Read a good newspaper (NYT, WP, LAT) or a good magazine (The Economist is the best). Or do both.
      — Write everyday. As your HS teacher told you, writing’s like a muscle; if you don’t use it, it gets out of shape. Practice writing your biography (read the instructions on Careers.State.Gov) and practice writing on current events, important moments in history, etc.

      Good luck,

  17. I just finished college (undergrad) with a degree in political science and minor in global business. I took the FSOT about a month ago without any studying and without really being aware of the biographic information section (scored in the mid 30s on that section…), and I managed to pass. I’m working on writing my PN responses now, and I’m wondering what advice you could give to a 23 year old without a lot of work experience on how best to write the PN. Even if I don’t pass this time, it would be nice to know for possible future attempts.

    • Jake–

      If you don’t have much work experience, then you’ll have to dig back into your undergraduate studies. You need to convince the Review Board that you have what it takes to be an FSO. In many ways, your PN is easier to write simply because you don’t have as much work experience to draw from. I encourage you to dig into what you’ve done in the past, and use that material. Write about yourself, injecting humor and a self-deprecating style, to convince the Board that you’re different than the hundreds who are also writing their PNs. Originality and humor go a long way in winning over the Board. Trust me, after reading scores of essays all day, when the panel find someone who writes a straightforward, honest, and humorous PN will make it to the next round.

      Good luck and congrats on passing the first part of the FSOT.


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