Wednesday, February 16, 2022

How to Improve Your PNQs

Disclaimer: I have never served on the Board of Examiners (BEX) and do not share any of this advice with inside knowledge of how Personal Narrative Questions (PNQs) are scored. Everything I say in this post (and the blog) is my personal opinion and not official or representative of the Department of State.

PNQs are the stage of the process to apply to be a U.S. Foreign Service Officer that used to occur after the written test but is now done before, as I understand applicants these days submit their PNQs before they even take the Foreign Service Officer test (FSOT). I think this order switching is a huge improvement, because it means that the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) can start looking at your essays without delay if you pass the exam. I've had the chance to provide a lot of feedback on PNQs to folks I mentor (as mentors of mine did for me when I applied), so I thought I'd do a post distilling some of the most common tips I share and mistakes I tend to see. In no particular order, here are the things I always emphasize to folks drafting and revising their PNQs:

  • Answer the question. It seems the questions are actually much clearer now than they were when I applied. They tell you exactly what they're looking for, so make sure you address every aspect fully. It's obvious when someone is trying to work in an example that doesn't really fit. It's more important to answer the question than to bend over backwards to show off your unique example.
  • Familiarize yourself with the publicly available precepts for Foreign Service promotion. At least when I applied, almost all of the questions were based around these precepts and reading their detailed descriptions helped me better understand what the evaluators were looking for in my responses.
  • Don't include unnecessary details. PNQ space is highly limited, and you should only include those details that are either (a) essential to understanding enough background to follow the story in the example (assuming that story highlights your qualifications) or (b) necessary to highlight your qualifications directly. Most of the PNQs I read spend multiple sentences on current job descriptions, project details, or acronyms that don't add anything to the reader's understanding of the writer's qualifications.
  • Connect your examples back to the Foreign Service and your specific cone/track whenever possible. After you've established through your example what an amazing written communicator you are, for instance, talk about how you are confident you can bring that skillset to public communications or cable writing or whatever work you seek to do in the Foreign Service. Just one sentence on this at the end of each PNQ can really bring the example home and show that you're focused on the relevance of the narratives you chose to the job.
  • Don't recycle examples if you can help it. If you use the same example for every single question, it looks like you either lack experience or have so many negative experiences that you can only think of one to showcase something good.
  • Stick to professional examples. Stories from work, volunteering, or school are all fair game but I always recommend candidates steer clear of personal, family, romantic, or religious examples because you don't know how the reader will take them and because they will almost always be perceived as less appropriate. If you lack work experience, I suggest seeking out volunteer opportunities that will allow you to develop the skills you want to underscore in the PNQs. No matter where you live in the world, there are volunteer organizations that would love your help and give you experiences that not only make for great PNQ material but can help you excel once you do join the Foreign Service.
  • Reject the myth that you need a certain type of experience to do well on the PNQs. You can shine on your PNQs without a single international experience. You don't have to have a graduate degree in international affairs or a first career in public service or fluency in a foreign language to stand out, so use the best examples you have from your own life regardless of whether they fit the stereotype of what a diplomat-in-training would have seen or done by that point.
  • Be politically sensitive. Foreign Service Officers are apolitical bureaucrats who should be sensitive to perceptions of political bias and other leanings that might not reflect well on the Department of State, which represents all Americans overseas and carries out U.S. foreign policy. This doesn't mean you need to remove your experience working on a political campaign if it's the perfect example, but there's no point in getting into the details of a certain political party or candidate - after all, that information has nothing to do with your demonstrated qualifications. This also means you should definitely not include examples that undermine or contradict U.S. foreign policy, as your job as a Foreign Service Officer will be to advance that foreign policy regardless of your personal beliefs. (There are channels for constructive dissent, but at the end of the day all of us are responsible for toeing the line, especially publicly while serving overseas. If that becomes an insurmountable challenge for someone, they always have the option to resign.)
  • Use official terminology when referencing countries or geographic regions. There are a lot of disputed names for border regions, territories, bodies of water, and more around the world. It only takes a few minutes to look up online what the U.S. government officially calls something to make sure you are using the proper term you would be expected to use if you joined the Foreign Service.
  • Leverage the STAR method and explain the Situation, Task, Action, and Result in each of your examples. You should spend way more time on the actions you took and the resulting outcome than on the situation and task, which is only useful insofar as it provides the minimum context needed for the reader to understand what you did and how it demonstrates your qualifications.
  • Request feedback from people who are not already familiar with your examples. Outside readers are great for pointing out jargony or specialized terms, unnecessary background, and examples that confuse someone who isn't an expert in your field.
  • Keep your language direct, clear, and concise. This is not the time for poetic, flowery, or academic prose. You should avoid passive voice and run-on sentences and make sure each line of each essay is contributing something important to the whole picture.

I hope this advice is helpful to those blog readers who are applying (or thinking about applying) for the Foreign Service. As I always say, take all advice with a grain of salt, use what works for you, and toss the rest. It took me three tries to get past the QEP myself, and I don't think there was a major difference between my PNQs each of those times. Happy writing, and best of luck to you!

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