For many security clearance applicants, the prospect of taking a polygraph can be the most intimidating part of gaining their clearance. Not all clearances require a polygraph, but applicants who are required to take it may find themselves anxiously googling to learn as much as they can before this magic machine reads their minds.

The Goal of the Polygraph

But a polygraph can’t read your mind and is not even an accurate lie detector. What it can do is encourage applicants to tell the truth. When combined with the questioning tactics of the interviewer, it can encourage subjects to reveal new information they didn’t disclose on the SF-86 or contradict any false information they may have provided. Signals picked up by the polygraph may help the interviewer recognize areas to ask more probing questions.

Polygraphs are simply a screening tool used by the government as one more way to vet applicants for their honesty. Knowing they have to take a polygraph test is often enough to weed out undesirable applicants, and knowing they need to continue passing polygraphs deters current employees from bad behavior.

But that doesn’t negate the anxiety felt by many applicants, especially those taking a polygraph for the first time.

Getting Ready for Your Polygraph

To get ready for your polygraph, you should try to maintain your normal routine as much as possible. Get a good night’s sleep, eat at the same time, exercise if it’s something you typically do, take your medicine at the same time. In short, keep your routine as similar to a normal day as you can. Try to think of it as just another item on your to-do list for the day instead of a major event you need to stress about.

What you shouldn’t do is read deeply into how to pass a polygraph or ask others about their experiences. Taking any countermeasures, such as learning breathing techniques or taking medication to slow your heart rate, can backfire when your interviewer detects them. Those measures alone are enough to cause you to fail your polygraph.

What happens if your polygraph results are inconclusive? While you may not get the clearance level or the job you were applying for, failure to pass a polygraph won’t remove your current clearance levels. You can also re-take the test – sometimes retaking it can remove some of the anxiety around the tests after you’ve been there and done that.

As always, honesty is the best policy during your polygraph. Answer the question that was asked and try not to overthink or stress about your answers.


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Brynn Mahnke is a freelance writer specializing in researching, writing, and ghostwriting for clients in the career, finance, SaaS, and B2B/B2C niches. She focuses on writing case studies, whitepapers, ebooks, and articles showcasing the value her clients bring to their customers. When she isn't writing, you can find her running, cycling, or wrangling children. She can be reached through her website or at