The higher you go in life, the more scrutiny there is. It’s the same with the security clearance process. For many candidates it’s normal to wonder if it’s easier to get a Secret clearance – especially if there are specific things in your past that could get you denied a Top Secret clearance. Tier 3 investigations are not as rigorous as Tier 5, which is the investigation level for Top Secret clearances. Depending on your background, getting a job that requires you to get a Secret clearance could be your ticket into national security.

Is It Easier to Get a Secret Clearance?

What will that look like for you? Whether you’re going for a Secret or a Top Secret clearance, the adjudicative guidelines are the same. The difference is the extent of the investigation. That’s why some people are surprised that when they are denied a Top Secret clearance, then they are also denied a Secret clearance.

The criteria for eligibility doesn’t change, but the Top Secret clearance investigation process will dig a little deeper and may discover items that wouldn’t come up in a more basic investigation – particularly any issues with lying or personal conduct that may not have been discovered in the largely automated aspects of a Secret clearance investigation. The Top Secret investigation process includes more interviews to confirm the information on the SF-86. It’s all part of establishing the ‘whole person‘ picture that might not be clear just from the information on the form.

If you have some skeletons in your closet you may want to wait to ensure passage of time can mitigate those issues before you go farther up the clearance ladder.

Getting a Secret Clearance – What’s That Like?

Once you get a job that requires a Secret security clearance, your employer (government or contractor) will walk you through the process. Review the adjudicative guidelines and be thorough when filling out your SF-86. Watch the timelines for each of the questions – did they ask for the past year, ten years, or ever? Once you submit your forms in eQIP (your web-based SF-86), a background investigator will sort through all your information, follow up on any questions, and interview your neighbors, friends, and family. Next, your clearance is adjudicated, and they will make a determination to either grant or deny your security clearance based on the information at hand.

Of course, if your decision is not favorable, you can appeal and answer the issues raised on the Statement of Reasons (SOR). But assuming you don’t have go down that path, the process to getting a Secret clearance is fairly straightforward. It just isn’t always that fast. Timelines have changed over the years, but you’ll want to have some back-up work in the hopper while you wait for either an interim Secret clearance or the final decision.


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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.