I recently had lunch with an FBI agent who has done hundreds of interviews with hopeful FBI prospects over the years. He highlighted a reality I hadn’t considered in our chat – while the FBI notes you must be at least 23 to be considered for agent positions, the average 23-year-old is going to have an incredibly hard time getting their foot in the door. Laying aside the fact that the competition is always fierce – thousands of candidates vying for a few positions – like most Intelligence Community organizations – a recent college grad will have a difficult time answering some of the cornerstone questions in the FBI interview process:

  • How have you shown integrity in your career?
  • What is a time when you’ve solved a significant challenge, and how did you overcome it?
  • Describe your leadership qualities.

If you’re applying for a desk job with a defense contractor, describing the time you had to navigate a really stressful term paper or work on a group project might cut the mustard – but not in an organization that hires less than 5% of its applicants and with high-demand positions.

What Experience Matters

If you have dreams of working in the IC, it’s worth noting the FBI experience – and why it’s okay to start your career somewhere else before launching into your dream job. Where can you get the kind of experience that will impress an FBI interviewer? Almost anywhere – the important thing is to have tackled challenges outside of a classroom setting, and outside of your comfort zone.

The FBI agent I spoke with noted one of the more interesting responses to the ‘tackling a challenge problem’ question was a one woman who described how she had managed and planned for her wedding day – it was a response that certainly stood out for the law-enforcement heavy FBI interviews, but it was relatable and clearly outlined a plan from inception through implementation. If you’re a recent grad or an entry-level candidate without years of experience under your belt, there are ways to highlight experience even when you lack it from a traditional nine-to-five. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Unpack a difficult family history. HUMINT, the craft of gathering human intelligence, is necessary at every IC organization, from the FBI and CIA to NSA and NGA. If you grew up with divorced parents, complicated siblings, or any personal issue that required tenacity, adaptability, resolve, and resilience – those are excellent qualities to unpack in an IC interview process. Your most difficult challenge doesn’t have to be career related. If it’s happened within your family, don’t be afraid to note that. If you’re going for an FBI job and a Top Secret security clearance, some of your family history will be asked about in the SF-86, anyway. You don’t need to be afraid to air your (not too) dirty laundry in the interview room.
  2. Display your thought diversity. The FBI is a stand-out in emphasizing diversity hiring. They are actively engaging and recruiting in non-traditional markets to try to get a diverse talent pool. If you have personal experiences that highlight a time when you felt out of place, and how you overcame that – that’s a skill the FBI is looking for. Regardless of your race or ethnicity, being able to describe a time when you were in the minority opinion and how you addressed the challenge of getting your point across is a valuable skill.
  3. Don’t be afraid to get untraditional experience. If you lack the experience to ace an IC interview – go out and get some! The push to achieve your career objectives yesterday is a very millennial phenomenon. But take it from folks like Regis Philbin – sometimes it takes awhile to achieve your dreams. Experience might look like taking a gap year to travel (just beware foreign entanglements!), working at a 7/11 (there’s no way you won’t overcome some unique adversity with a job like that), spending a few years working on Capitol Hill, or taking an internship or two.

Whether it’s an interview with the FBI or another government agency or defense contractor, be prepared to show what you’ve accomplished outside of the classroom if you want to land a job. And if all of your current experiences are academic, it’s time to broaden your horizons and get some real life, real world examples under your belt.  Just don’t do drugs. The FBI hates that.

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Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves the NISPPAC, social media, and the U.S. military. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email lindy.kyzer@clearancejobs.com. Interested in writing for ClearanceJobs.com? Learn more here.