Don’t Write a Sloppy SF-86 – How to Write a Clean Questionnaire and Get Your Clearance

Security Clearance job interview

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Consider the following hypothetical scenario: Applicant X and Applicant Y – both recent college graduates – each submit a Questionnaire for National Security Positions (the SF-86). Their investigations are each initiated on the same day.

Applicant X discloses five residences within the last seven years, and a slew of part-time employments during the same period. Applicant X also discloses an alcohol-related incident that occurred while the applicant attended college. Meanwhile, Applicant Y’s questionnaire discloses one residence within the last seven years, and unemployment spanning the same period. Applicant Y’s questionnaire is ostensibly clear of any suitability issues. The field work for Applicant X’s investigation is subsequently completed six weeks earlier than Applicant Y’s.

How did this happen? While Applicant X presented the more complex case on paper, Applicant Y failed to properly complete his or her SF-86. Applicant X’s issues were all resolved during the personal interview with an investigator, and all of his or her activities were accounted for at the start of the investigation. Meanwhile, it is discovered during the personal interview that Applicant Y only listed her parents’ residence, despite the fact that she lived at several college residences during the specified period. Applicant Y also failed to disclose any part-time employment activities until the interview. Which applicant will end up getting a security clearance faster? The one with the most complete paperwork.

While the investigator is ultimately responsible for sorting through the proverbial weeds and submitting an acceptable report, an applicant’s contribution greatly impacts that goal. I cannot count how many times in my career where an investigation started out as fairly straightforward, but dragged on for weeks due to inconsistencies and omissions in an applicant’s SF-86.

Each investigation is comprised of several moving parts, with investigators working during different phases, and often in different parts of the country. Every omission or inconsistency could potentially set into motion an entirely new set of parts.  The amount of field work that could be completed before you ever sit down with your investigator is immeasurable if the SF-86 is easily interpreted and properly submitted.

When completing your application, bear in mind the two primary purposes of your personal interview with an investigator: to verify the information on the SF-86, and to expand upon that information as necessary.  The more complete and accurate your application, the easier it is to satisfy both purposes.

Simply put, an extra few hours spent on your SF-86 at the start of your investigation could eliminate weeks of unnecessary field work tacked on to the end of your investigation. The following is a non-exhaustive list of suggestions to consider when submitting your SF-86.

Check your dates

This simple, but often overlooked aspect of the application process is surprisingly critical. That annoying, omniscient deity that doesn’t allow you to advance to the next page when you are answering your questionnaire electronically is there for a reason: to inform you when you have failed to complete a prompt. It cannot, however, always decipher whether there is a gap or overlap in time between consecutive activities.

Perhaps an illustration will clarify. Suppose you indicate that you left one job in August, and started your next job in September. Unless otherwise indicated, your investigator has no way of ascertaining whether you finished one job at the end of August and started the next job at the beginning of September, or if there was a 60-day gap between activities.

Of course, you very well may have had only days in between employments, and this can be resolved during your interview or specified in the comments section. But more problematic is when these gaps exist in one section of the SF-86, and not in another. For example, you indicate on the SF-86 that you lived and worked in Pennsylvania through August. You then indicate that you moved to Virginia in September, but began working in Virginia in August. The SF-86 now reads as though you lived in one state, and concurrently worked in another.

I have conducted countless interviews where this was the only mistake made by the applicant. But the mistake was so prevalent that the interview was extended considerably while reconciling these discrepancies. The simplest way to combat this issue is to construct a horizontal timeline of your activities on a piece of scrap paper, marking each activity with its corresponding location. This will provide you with a complete visual of your activity history, thus allowing you to easily spot any erroneous gaps or overlaps.

List all activities as required

Read the instructions carefully. Most residences are required disclosures; as are compensated, part-time employments.

Why is this so important? Imagine a scenario in which an applicant maintained five part-time employments during the last seven years. The applicant lasted only a few weeks at each of them. Because of the short duration of each employment, the applicant did not find it necessary to list the employments on the SF-86. However, the applicant left under unfavorable circumstances at each employment. Wouldn’t that fact be probative to an adjudicating official? Certainly. Unwieldy as it may seem to list every employment, thorough disclosure allows OPM to develop a clearer picture of the applicant.

The same principle often applies to your educational and residential information. Just because you attended a community college on a part-time basis for two semesters doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be listed. Likewise, if you attended college during the school year and returned home during the summer, you want your SF-86 to reflect this by listing each summer at your family home as a separate period.

Delineate your job locations as necessary

Even the most experienced applicants are guilty of this mistake. If you worked at multiple job locations for an employer, you want to indicate such on the SF-86. If you work at the same employer for 10 years, but at four different locations during that same period, simply listing the headquarters or your most recent job location is not an accurate reflection of that activity. More often than not, an applicant had a different supervisor and different co-workers at each location.

Likewise, an SF-86 may incorrectly reflect that an applicant worked in one location for five years, but correctly reflect that the applicant lived in three different states during the same period. Unless the applicant works in a uniquely small region, this is a reliable indicator that one or more job locations were omitted.

The “Optional Comments” section is your friend

This sorely underutilized component of the SF-86 is valuable aide to both applicant and investigator. It fills the holes that otherwise can’t be filled by a standard form questionnaire. Your listed supervisor only worked with you for the last two months at an employment? Provide information for your previous supervisors in the comments section. Your employer may have moved since your departure? List the alternate address in the comments section. There were some mitigating circumstances involved in a criminal offense? Outline them in the comments section. Another valuable use for this section would be indicating when a prior employer has since changed its name, or is now defunct.

Whatever supplemental purpose the comments section serves, it behooves you to use it where applicable. An investigator who would otherwise reach a standstill in your investigation may just be able to proceed because that valuable lead was found within the comments section.

Update your information

Another pitfall of the experienced applicant. One of the benefits of the eQIP web site (the site through which the SF-86 is electronically submitted) is that it automatically populates information from prior applications. If left unchecked, however, this is often a severe impediment.

If addresses and phone numbers were incorrect when the prior application was submitted, they are still incorrect when you have access to eQIP before your current investigation. If certain addresses and numbers were correct when you last submitted them, they may be incorrect today. That prior residence that was once six years old is now 11 years old. An SF-86 riddled with incorrect, outdated, or extraneous information can wreak havoc on the timeliness of an investigation. Be sure to verify all the information retained from your prior SF-86, and to remove any information that is no longer required based on the scope of the current SF-86.

 

This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

Andrew Levine is a former background investigator. Andrew worked on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management contract from March of 2007 through August of 2014, and conducted high-volume field work in Washington, D.C., area. During his career, Andrew trained incoming investigators and assisted in developing training curriculum for experienced investigators. A New York native, Andrew is currently pursuing a law degree at the University of the District of Columbia.

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