Friday, April 9, 2010

The Mysterious QEP

As part of my separation anxiety from a sudden cessation of near-daily studying for the FSOT process, I'm following up my first post regarding good resources for the written portion of the test.  For the purposes of this post, we will assume that you, reader, have gotten your first life-changing email from the Department of State, informing you of your passing score.  Congratulations!  Now you are eligible for the next section, wherein you submit your PNQ answers to the QEP... Again with the acronyms. 

The PNQ are the five Personal Narrative Questions to which you will be asked to provide a written answer. This answer is provided to the Quality Evaluation Panel, or QEP. Moreso than any other section of the process, this section is surrounded in mystery. Insofar as I can, I hope to demystify it for you all.

A letter submitted by a spurned and disgruntled FSOA applicant to AFSA (American Foreign Service Association) is often trotted out around the same time as PNQ deadlines that seemingly demonstrates the futility of the whole thing. If you're so inclined, you can read the letter here. As a relatively young candidate, I felt awfully threatened by this when I first read it. I didn't have that guy's professional experience, his language credentials, or his contacts within the system. Furthermore, if his letter was an indicative sample, I wasn't certain that I was a radically better interlocutor than he. What chance did I have at passing the QEP, if he was found wanting?

A good enough chance, evidently. And so, possibly, do you.

You see, back in the day, there was no such thing as the QEP. You took the written exam, and if you passed you moved straight on to the Orals. Evidently, the problem was that too many people were passing the written test, and too few were passing the oral. Unlike standardized tests, which change over time with the population they are testing, the foreign service officer exam is supposed to draw a line in the sand. If you pass, you are considered good enough to represent the country abroad. The number of people who are actually employed in this endeavor depends on the funding authorized for this purpose by Congress, and on “The Needs Of The Service”, not on how many people actually apply. The QEP was instituted in 2007 (***) to more effectively identify qualified candidates for the oral exams given the finite resources of the BEX (Board of Examiners) and ACT(ummm...).

The numbers I've seen associated with this section seem to imply that a maddening 40% of applicants are deemed worthy by the QEP, and are allowed the privilege of booking passage to our nation's capitol. A scant few, to say the least. A number of very well spoken and gifted candidates are stymied every year by the QEP, and they understandably find it difficult to get much in the way of substantive answers as to why they should be stopped when others are not. Alas, there are no answers to be had from official channels – the process is designed to be no easier for an experienced applicant on their 4th candidacy than a rank amateur, and part of that is a spartan lack of feedback about why one passed or failed. For my part, I can only remark that preparation is never a bad idea, and that short, pithy stories are always the best. If you can say the same thing better in half as many words, try to get it down to 25% as many, and you're halfway there.


These are short on the ground. Since the QEP is relatively new and relatively vague, there are no real practice prompts. However, the PNQs themselves and their answers are not currently under any sort of NDA, so I can share them with you here.


1)Intellectual Skills: In the Foreign Service you may confront challenging situations that require creative use of your intellect to achieve a goal. Describe briefly how you have dealt with such a situation in your experience using your skills of critical thinking, resourcefulness and/or judgment. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to deal with the difficulty? What was the result?) 

One of many challenges I’ve dealt with was the arrest of six men from Lackawanna, New York on suspicion of being an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell. The arrest came after the bulk of the newsroom staff had already left. We had to get reporter and photographer crews to several locations, get information from the FBI, do live reports in studio and from the scene. It was necessary to handle the situation with delicacy and tact while handling difficult logistical problems and reporting the facts accurately. I was able to get staff members to the scene quickly by having them drive themselves there and meet up with each other instead of coming into the station and then leaving for the scene. I solved their video, and editing issues by having our live truck operators bring all the necessary equipment with them to the scene. By keeping a positive working relationship with the President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, I was able to get information about the suspects and reaction from the community as a great number of the people we wanted to interview did not speak English. As a news organization we were able to get exclusive firsthand accounts of exactly what happened when FBI agents made their arrests. The video and interviews we got were broadcast across the world.

2) Interpersonal Skills: In the Foreign Service, you will be called upon to interact with people from different ethnic, racial, religious, geographic, economic and other backgrounds. Describe a significant experience you have had with another culture, either abroad or in the United States. (What was the experience? What did you do? What was the result?)
On the 1 year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I put together and produced a televised town hall meeting about the cause and effect of the attacks. The guests I choose were members of the local community from different ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, who held a broad range of differing opinions about the role of U.S policy in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa and its relation to the attacks and aftermath. I thought it very important for our viewers to be able to understand the complexities of the issue, within my given time, while still being sensitive to the cultural differences between the mix of panel members. The discussion was heated at times, as the group had extremely different opinions on the problem and the solution. During the commercial breaks, it was necessary for me to calm the guests, host, and staff. I found myself playing diplomat by relocating agitated guests, comforting upset panel members, and using patience and empathy to facilitate an open and candid discussion which did not digress into petty arguments, name calling, and guests storming out. The show was difficult. But I believe it cleared up some common misconceptions about religion and ethnicity at a time when there was a great deal of fear and confusion in the minds of our viewers

3) Communication Skills: Communication skills are critical to successful diplomacy. Describe a situation in which you used your communication skills (either in English or another language) to further an aim or achieve a goal. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to deal with the situation? What was the result?)
During my cousins wedding, to a man of Sri Lankan decent, I acted as hostess between the two families. One of the most formidable members of his family was his grandmother. My cousin was quite nervous meeting her. One of the great hurtles to overcome was the fact that ‘Pati’ spoke little English. Upon our meeting, I greeted her with a big smile and gave up my seat for her. She seemed happy to have a place to sit, but since I no longer did, I sat on the floor. My casual air helped diffuse the tense awkwardness of a first meeting. From my seat on the floor I was able to ask ‘Pati’ numerous questions about her life and her family. As I was a recent new mom, we were able to bond more as I pantomimed questions and used simple gestures and questions to facilitate our conversation. Through her broken English and gestures, I was able to get her to tell me about her life in Sri Lanka, what she did, and why she left. We chatted, growing more engaged by showing one another little personal treasures. I wanted ‘Pati’ to get to know my family’s background and values, even though our conversations were limited verbally. By helping her to understand my extended family and I, she was able to learn more about her soon to be grand-daughter- in-law. The meeting was a huge success.

4) Managerial Skills:: Foreign Service Officers are often required to manage projects, demonstrating the ability to plan and organize, set priorities, employ a systematic approach, and allocate time and resources efficiently. Describe a project you managed or helped to manage and how you sought to achieve the project’s goals. (What was the project? What steps did you take to manage the project? What was the result?)
One of the biggest projects I’ve managed was a live televised wedding between 5 and 7am. I was able to choose the couple, our viewers had to choose the rest of the wedding details. I started planning for the event about a year in advance. I used an essay contest to choose the couple, then had to procure vendors for the flowers, cake, dresses etc..I also had to figure out how to institute viewer voting on what would be chosen. The project required me to work with our IT department to phase in internet voting, I had to coordinate with the vendors to get video of their products, and to work with all our own departments to assist with the big day, all the while keeping the bride, staff, and sponsors happy. The goal was to choose a wedding detail, give three product choices, have the viewers choose the item, then feature the winning item, all within a week. I did this with every aspect of the wedding while still producing a daily newscast. I supervised the camera locations, inside and outside of the event, coordinated with local law enforcement to block off streets and worked with the family to ensure a smooth day. The wedding was a stunning, everything worked out and not a thing went wrong. It is one of the most memorable, happy, live events ever produced at our TV station.

5) Leadership Skills: Leadership can be defined as motivating others, encouraging creative solutions, establishing positive team relationships, or significantly influencing the direction of the work. Describe how you have demonstrated leadership, either on one particular occasion or over time. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to show leadership? What was the result?)
As Executive Producer of Channel 2 News Daybreak, I was given the task of making the staff cohesive and making the show #1 in the market. When I started, there was a great deal of infighting and no vision for the show which had poor ratings. The first thing I did, was to assess the show’s format and evaluate the team, to try and figure out the issues leading to disenfranchisement about their work. I realized a large part of the issue was lack of communication, and no follow through. In short, they did not feel as though anyone cared. I immediately instituted mandatory weekly meetings to discuss grievances, and ideas. After a couple of meetings there was an attitude change. They started to listen to one another, but more importantly they began to take pride in their work. We used meeting ideas for weekly features, playing to the strengths of the team members. I had to use a lot of creativity with these projects as there was no budget and I couldn’t pull in staff. Oftentimes I would ask people to do the tasks for the benefit of the team with no monetary reward. They seemed happy to do it, saying that they’re usually never shown appreciation for a job well done. After one rating period the show grew, and in less than a year we became the number one rated morning newscast in the area

The answers are not mine, as I made the mistake of typing mine up directly in the form and not in Word, so they were not saved. These are provided anonymously by an individual who passed this stage and lived to tell the tale.  Nonetheless, I think they are suitably inspiring and universal.  Be brief, be interesting, be relevant, and answer the question as best you can.  Beyond that, it's all speculation.  Good luck!


fsowannabe said...

Just found your blog via the BFiles! Great writing on the process! Can't wait for your discussion on the OA (NDA-compliant, of course)!

Valdysses said...


A little bird told me (that phrase doesn't work so well in a post-twitter world, does it?) that you recently got a pretty cherry spot on the register. Congratulations! I love reading you blog, and appreciate having you here.

Anonymous said...

Well, something is telling me that PNQ and QEP will last until some stubborn (and nothing wrong with that, it might be me for all I care) individual brings a lawsuit against DoS with its faulty process and lack of explanation. Only a matter of time.

Seriously, if there is no NDA, why not share the feedback?

Valdysses said...


It is curious that there is no feedback on this stage, but in a way it's also consistent. No step of the process really gives "feedback", perse, they just give scores. A number of people in my FSOT group got sub-50 scores on their Bio sections, myself included, with nary a mention of why we should do so poorly on being ourselves. The OA is rather the same, in that you will receive a score without anything like subjective feedback. Feedback is nonexistent even for those who pass, all of whom are likely reminded that the more help they give others, the more likely they are to place themselves lower on the register. It's a tough process all the way through, to be certain.

I agree that a lot of good progress has been made by stubborn, litigious individuals, however.

Anonymous said...

A belated comment, looking at the actual applicant, it isn't completely surprising he was turned down. 2/0 in Mandarin is hardly impressive. I earned level 2 that after 1 month of intensive study, 3 after eight months of more intensive study, and 3+ / borderline 4 after another four years of working with the language. A 2/0 in Chinese does not do much to alleviate State's foreign language deficiencies.

That out of the way, State seems to be looking for qualities as opposed to experience. After all, a stellar candidate will stay with the service for at least thirty years; state can give officers experience on its own terms.

Valdysses said...

A good point, Anon, though if I fail to earn a 2/0 on my upcoming Turkish phone exam, I will feel a little foolish. One month of intensive study, huh? Maybe I need to free up a month...

E said...

Anonymous, do you also have a Masters degree, full tours in Kabul and Guangzhou, and seven years active-duty experience in the US Army as an officer under your belt? I'm guessing not, so stfu, and take your snotty childish commentary elsewhere.
The QEP is more than jut flawed. Rick Polney, and countless other people with similar or superior experience and qualifications, are a perfect example of this.

Valdysses said...

Let it be known that I welcome any and all childish, snotty commentary right here.

Also, I recently found a followup letter in the same vein as Mr. Polney's, if not more so. This one is from Robert Ward, and FSO, describing his wife's QEP rejection:

If this post was interesting reading, the article certainly should be as well.

Anonymous said...

Adding a dose of realism to the mix. Those who are stymied by the QEP may be victim to the educational elitism of the QEP panelist.

Certainly, the days are long gone when the FSO is primarily or exclusively "Yale, Male, and Pale", but perhaps remanants of the Ivy-centric focus remains. There are a few grad programs that offer scores of well-heeled, blue-blooded potential FSOs. Come now Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, et. al to the gates of the FS. Don't even mention Georgetown's Foreign Service school. How many FSOs you think are coming out of here every cycle? A lot. Nearly 1/2 of these graduating classes aspire to be FSOs - and many of them make it.

Now imagine, if a Ivy League grad student, who is also a former military officer, with the same language skills (2.0 Mandarin) is applying and the other candidate has a masters from (unknown) university. The choice seems simple. I'm not saying it's fair, but it happens.

Personally, I know a Columbia grad student who made FSO, and she had a handful of her classmates make FSO in the same cycle.

My advice...get a grad degree from a prestigious program (of course do everything else that's helpful). And at the end of teh day, you'd be hard pressed to not make it past the QEP.

Ariana said...

Anon, there is likely truth in what you've said about university pedigree.

As far as the paradoxical rejection of seemingly perfect candidates, you have to know that *something* is the cause, though one may have assumed that their case was airtight.

Both the Polney and Ward letters involved people who had worked for the State Department. The fact that they weren't selected could mean a) that their reputation was such that that they did not want to select them, or b) that somehow such experience really isn't what the QEP board is looking for. It's probably fair to presume that both candidates could get excellent references, so I'd say that the QEP board may be more interested in people they can grow and mold as they see fit--those who will work from the bottom up--than those who will come in believing that they know how it ought to be done and that they are deserving of x, y, and z.

In fact, I remember reading the story of a woman who was a corporate executive, had clearly demonstrated excellent leadership experience, etc., and yet didn't make it. It could be that the QEP board is concerned that those with extensive amounts of professional experience will not deal well with starting over at the bottom and treating as equals those with a shallower professional background.

As for the blogger, your experiences are excellent.

Anonymous said...


It's Anon, again...

Indeed, it seems that to some extent, the FS is a lot like major corporations and want someone who is talented and worldly, yet unsullied by years of professional experience that would engender a sense of entitlement and inevitability to wearing the badge of diplomat and harbor particularized notions of what the FS, diplomacy, and management are all about. Seemingly, there's a FS way of doing things that the service would like to inculcate on its own terms and not have to compete with entrenched ideologies from DoS civil service or the corporate world.

The Columbia grad in question, has the ivy squared pedidgree (undergrad and grad), had never worked a real job and more or less went straight through, although she spent a year or so in China teaching english in between. Her first post is in China.

Full disclosure. I'm hoping the Ivy pedigree will influence positively the QEP as I am Ivy- squared myself (undergrad, masters), plus a non-ivy law degree. Indeed, I practice that which I preach.

Chris said...

Is this blog still active? I just got denied by the QEP! I have loads of engineering, consulting, and i-banking experience. Lots of overseas projects and stints. What else can I do?! Or maybe, as some posts have suggested, State is looking for younger, more malleable candidates?

Anonymous said...

I have a question for those who are actually working as Foreign Officers and/or whom have been hired at a late age. I see a lot of postings from students and folks in their 20's and I am starting to question my chances given my age.

I just passed the FSOT and I am writing my PN. I am 55, look like 40, and in perfect health. I have lived and worked for some top international companies, in many parts of the world. I am confident that I can write up a great PN and hopefully pass the Orals. Is the State department looking for younger people to mold, and do you think my age will count against me? Thanks for any thoughts.

Anonymous said...

FYI - the FSJ article from Nov 2008 was moved to

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