Monday, December 06, 2010

Personal Narratives and the Qualifications Evaluation Panel

Last year was my first attempt at the PNQs, and I did not pass.  This section sort of mystified me at first until I really sat down and read (and re-read) Step 4.  A quick review of the discussion in the Yahoo FSOA Group might lead one to erroneously believe that this step (QEP) is based solely upon the submitted Personal Narrative Questions themselves.  Do not fall into this trap!

The QEP actually looks at the "Total Candidate", examining four separate items:
  1. educational and work background;
  2. responses to the Personal Narrative questions;
  3. self-evaluated and Foreign Service Institute-tested language scores; and
  4. FSOT scores. 
Specially trained Foreign Service Officers (BEX) review and evaluate your application file as a whole, to see how well you demonstrate several characteristics (or 'precepts'), that have been identified as predicting a likelihood of success as a Foreign Service Officer:
  1. Leadership: innovation, decision making, teamwork, openness to dissent, community service and institution building
  2. Interpersonal Skills: professional standards, persuasion and negotiation, workplace perceptiveness, adaptability, representational skills
  3. Communication Skills: written communication, oral communication, active listening, public outreach, foreign language skill
  4. Management Skills: operational effectiveness, performance management and evaluation, management resources, customer service
  5. Intellectual Skills: information gathering and analysis, critical thinking, active learning, leadership and management training
  6. Substantive Knowledge: Understanding of U.S. history/ government/culture and application in dealing with other cultures. Knowledge and application of career track relevant information.
At first glance, it is tempting to pass these off as a shorter version of the 13-Ds, but a closer look will show that although they are similar, there are significant differences.  Perhaps the easiest way to see this is by examining their functionality.  Specifically, if the 13-Ds look at personal qualities, these precepts look at professional applicability, that is, "what you are capable of doing" versus "how you actually make it happen".

It is important to understand how this fits into the overall scheme of things.  The FSOT tests Substantive Knowledge.  The QEP looks at your educational and work background, and tries to determine HOW you have applied that substantive knowledge in the past.  The FSOA then tests whether you can produce and perform "on demand".  Medical and Security Clearances assess risk.  Lastly, the Final Suitability Review Panel (FRP) puts it all together to determine whether you will be a 'good fit' for the Foreign Service.

State's website states "There is no pre-set cut-off score. The QEP evaluates your file within your chosen career track, looking at how well you demonstrate the precepts outlined above" and that "the best qualified candidates are invited to oral assessments based on the QEP evaluations and State's anticipated hiring needs in each career track."

What does this tell us?  The cutoff process here is very similar to the FSOT: 1) hiring needs dictate the number of applicants that will be needed to provide a pool of potential candidates, 2) your file is scored and rank ordered against other applicants within your career track (cone), and 3) those scoring higher than the cutoff (ie. the top X number of applicants) will be invited to attend the FSOA.  Therefore, we can see that this step is just as competitive as the FSOT.

Unlike, the FSOT, however, BEX tells us exactly what we have to do to make our Personal Narratives (and the overall Application) as attractive as possible:
 "The PN offers you the opportunity to highlight not just what you have done, but how you did it and what you learned. You should provide examples from your previous experiences that show you have the skills to be a successful FSO."
"To help write your PN, focus on your own experience in answering the questions. 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."
"Although the QEP is a total file review, with no one element dominating all the factors considered, you have the most control over your responses to the PN. Your responses can be influential in determining your standing in your chosen career track. This is your chance to tell your story to the Foreign Service assessors. Bear in mind that your responses are subject to verification by the Board of Examiners."
 As you write your PNs, go back and compare what you say with what BEX tells us they are looking for.  Ask yourself: "What did I do?", "How did I do it?", "What did I learn", "How does this experience fit with my chosen career track?"  Do you answer each of those questions in each story?  If not, you may want to revise your PNQs.  Remember that you have complete control over your submitted Narratives.

I know that by discussing this publicly, there is a likelihood (albeit small) that other candidates will use this information to make their PNQs more competitive than they might otherwise be.  Perhaps they will be even better then mine and lessen the chance that I have in subsequent years.  But I also know that not everyone is as methodical as I might be, and there are plenty of applicants who rush to submit their PNQs without really thinking about what BEX is looking for.  That is their loss.  As such, this article is not for them, and they will probably never see it.  That is why I am comfortable posting it openly in this manner.

By contrast, anyone who reads this is free to interpret Step 4 differently than I do.  I do not claim any special revelation or insight about this process.  I only know what seems to work for me.

For the record, I passed this year, and was invited to the FSOA.  I did not attempt the SCNL bonus points this time (as I did last year, and failed), which could have boosted my QEP score even further.  But topping out my QEP score is unimportant.  The score that ultimately matters will be the one attached to my name on the Register if and when I ever get there.

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