There are many words people use to describe the clearance application process—quick isn’t one of them. And, while there aren’t any tricks to a quick turnaround, there are two main principles that will make the process move more quickly and more smoothly: honesty and diligence.

Top Tips for Smoother Clearance Processing

These may seem obvious but, as with everything of importance, the devil is in the details. Even some of my most honest and diligent clients have benefited from the practices below.

1. Be Honest with Yourself

Everyone knows you should be honest on the SF-86 (ok, almost everyone), even if some find it more difficult than others. But, to be truly honest, you first need to be honest with yourself. Sometimes that is surprisingly difficult, especially when it comes to topics that might feel unfair or deeply personal.

At the end of the day, being let go was not “pursuing another opportunity,” the foreign national you dated until they broke your heart last year isn’t just an “acquaintance,” and smoking marijuana within the relevant time-period should be disclosed even if you don’t remember if you got high or only did it once.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it is best to simply check a box and move on. In most cases, the applicant should also include mitigating information if the information is relevant and objectively accurate. If you are not sure, consult with a professional. Information that is misleading or untruthful will almost always cause more problems than the original issue.

2. Do Your Homework

Part of my job in helping folks, frankly, is being a nag. Have you requested your credit reports? Have you checked your texts and social media to confirm dates? Have you looked for the paperwork from your suspension three years ago? Have you asked your doctor whether you received the diagnosis you vaguely recall them mentioning once?

When it comes to difficult topics, even the most honest people can find themselves wishing on their own ignorance—but “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” doesn’t apply in the clearance world. What you don’t know can absolutely hurt you when you’re in the room with an investigator who may know everything.

And, most importantly, investigating yourself first gives you the chance to pay that debt you forgot about, accurately describe your termination, disclose mental health details with confidence, feel firm in the frequency of your prior drug use, etc. And, of course, it will help you be prepared to provide detailed, accurate mitigating facts at the same time.

3. Be Specific

For sections like drug use and foreign contacts, there are words that most of the time are best to avoid when describing frequency. These include words like, “sometimes,” “often,” “occasionally,” “frequently,” “infrequently,” etc. Essentially, if two people can use the same word and mean very different things, dig deeper.

While ambiguity may be easier on the form, it will make your life much harder during the interview.

4. Fix the Problem

Y’ALL. If there is a problem that can be fixed, fix it. Don’t wait for a Letter of Interrogatory (LOI) or Statement of Reasons (SOR) to file your taxes for those years you forgot or to get back on track with your student loans.

And, if it’s a bigger issue that requires a payment plan, a history of consistent payments will be key in mitigation. Sleeping on that is not doing yourself any favors.

5. Document, Document, Document

Documentation of mitigating information can come in handy in several areas, but financial concerns take the cake. If you pay off a debt or are making payments, keep records and stay organized. This can be tedious, but it is worth the effort.

The difference between someone who merely asserts that they resolved an issue and someone who can provide organized, verifiable proof may be the difference between someone who gets cleared and someone who gets caught up with an LOI or SOR.


The above content is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. The handling and outcome of any legal matter depends on varying factors unique to each matter, and results cannot be predicted or guaranteed. Do not act upon information without seeking legal counsel. 

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Elisabeth Baker-Pham is an attorney at Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman and Fitch (KCNF) and co-chair of KCNF’s security clearance practice. Baker-Pham advises applicants through the clearance process and represents federal employees and contractors whose clearances have been threatened or suspended, or whose suitability for federal employment has been challenged. Baker-Pham also contributed to the firm’s most recent edition of its long-running book, Security Clearance Law and Procedure. You can read more about KCNF’s security clearance practice and publications at