Passing the QEP (AKA: How Toby Keith Can Land You the Career of Your Dreams)

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.

24 responses to “Passing the QEP (AKA: How Toby Keith Can Land You the Career of Your Dreams)

  1. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for this post, it’s really helpful! I just passed the test and am working on my PNQs now, I was wondering if you have any tips for getting creative with the communication section, I’m having trouble nailing down an experience for this that wouldn’t be better suited for the others.
    I’m in my third year of law school and also applied to consular, and was wondering how having a law degree helped with the process.



    • Look up the dimensions for communication. It includes written, oral, and foreign language. Try to hit on at least two of them. I wrote about a clerkship where I would write bench memos and then discuss with the judge what should be done. Having a law degree definitely helped. It gave me experience and legitimacy that I might not have had otherwise since I didn’t have a lot of work experience outside of law school. It also helped my speaking skills because I spent a lot of time in court. I think it is especially helpful in consular because it involves the interpretation and application of immigration law.


  2. Thanks! I was thinking of using something from my year abroad in college, but using both written and oral communication skills is a good idea. And congrats on making it onto the register!


  3. This blog has been immensely helpful! You are probably busy with A-100 training but I was wondering…how detailed were you with your comments related to work experience in the FSOT application? Short and punchy? Middle of the road (resume-style) or super detailed? Thanks!


  4. Hey Scott,

    Thanks for making your blogs regarding the FSO Process. I believe your strategies have helped me tremendously.

    This may seem like a trivial question, but depending on your experience, it may make a difference. For my PNs, I wrote all of them out in Microsoft Word and I have begun copy-pasting them into the Pearson Vue website. However, due to the character limit, it seems that I will need to adjust the formatting so my writing will not have the appearance of paragraph breaks .

    Should I rewrite my PNs so I can make paragraph breaks and indentations? I feel like breaking the text into paragraphs is more appealing to the QEP?

    Any advice would help, thanks.


  5. Hey Scott,

    Thanks for making your blogs regarding the FSO Process. I believe your strategies have helped me tremendously.

    This may seem like a trivial question, but depending on your experience, it may make a difference. For my PNs, I wrote all of them out in Microsoft Word and I have begun copy-pasting them into the Pearson Vue website. However, due to the character limit, it seems that I will need to adjust the formatting so my writing will not have the appearance of paragraph breaks .

    Should I rewrite my PNs so I can make paragraph breaks and indentations? I feel like breaking the text into paragraphs is more appealing to the QEP?

    Any advice would help, thanks.


  6. Hi Scott–I’m a lawyer looking to try and join the ranks of the Foreign Service as a consular officer. Last year, I washed out at the PN stage, and I’m determined to give it a better shot this time; however, given the opaque nature of the QEP, I’m concerned about what I might be missing that they are looking for in the essays. In your opinion, what do you feel was the most effective pivot point from law to the consular track?


    • For the PNs, the only thing that matters is explicitly explaining how your past experience and accomplishments will allow you to be a good consular officer by applying it to the precepts. All the qualifications in the world won’t help unless you can frame it in that way. The best way to accomplish this in my opinion is to ask “so what?” after each sentence. Does this point address a precept? Does it clearly tie my experience to the precept or does the grader have to interpret or assume it applies? That’s what helped me I think.


  7. Hi Scott, Thanks so much for posting this great resource. I found out I passed the FSOT a few days ago (on my 4th attempt!) Anyways, I’m now writing the PNs, I plan on attending a Q&A with the Washington DC Diplomat in Residence. I selected the Management track because from my research it sounds extremely people-oriented, and multi-disciplinary (which as liberal arts major is extremely attractive) One question I have is does a story have to be recent to be applicable? For example, a story I’d really like to use is about 10 years old, but it’s one I’m most proud of. Also, as a rather mundane point of style, does leaving a space between paragraphs matter? It provides a clean break, but also costs about 100 characters.


    • I’d say to use your judgment on if the story is the best one you have to show you meet the precepts.

      For the space, I’m not sure. Try it with and without. I recommend good use of white space.


  8. So, I’ve been told that it’s good to get an FSO to read your PNQs. Think you might have time to give them a once over for me? I’m sure you’re super busy, but any feedback, however slight, would be much appreciated.


  9. Thanks for keeping this blog up to date. I read this post without even realizing you’re in Kingston. I worked there over the summer with USAID COMET II as a Global Law and Development Fellow.

    One of my problems will be guestimating which experience I should use with which precept, because I’m told it’s not probably not a good idea to not use a broad array of experiences.

    Question for the PNQ, it is professional writing. Contractions are colloquial, but are they okay for these essays?


    • my recommendation is not to use them. if your word count comes down to a don’t vs a do not, you probably can make your essay more concise anyway.

      good luck!


  10. Hi Scott,

    This article is immensely helpful. I’m working through my PN’s right now and I’m having a hard time thinking about my experiences that have a contactable witness. How much does it matter that the State Department can contact someone to verify your experiences? I’ve worked through plenty of challenges on my own with the help of random acquaintances (thinking about my experiences in Latin America here), but I have no idea how I can contact them now, let alone how the State Department can reach them. Any advice?

    Thanks so much, hope Kingston is balmy and warm.


  11. Scott,

    Thank you for your advice in the article. I’ve tried to implement it in my PNs. Are you able to look them over and provide personalized recommendations?



    • Hi Joshua. I’m moving this week and going on home leave, so I am not going to have the time, but you should join the Yahoo group/reddit and see if anybody is willing to exchange drafts.


  12. Hi, Scott – I am just curious about your opinion on something. A gentleman failed the PNQs despite a 195 FSOT score, a PhD, and 15 years working overseas doing humanitarian work. Where could he have possible gone wrong on the PNQs (in your opinion?) Does showing personality matter, do you think? Thanks!


    • I’m not sure. It may be that he didn’t tick enough boxes on the rubric or didn’t answer the exact prompt. The stage is really competitive, but he certainly sounds qualified.


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