Becoming a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation is a goal for many, but an actual destination for very few. From deciding to apply to actually earning a badge can take years, and only those with the right education, preparation, and strength of character can hope to be among the select few that are hired.
The basic qualifications to become an FBI Special Agent are rigorous:
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Be between 23 and 36 years of age, unless seeking a veteran’s waiver
- Possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four year college
- Possess a valid state driver’s license
- Have worked as a professional for at least two years (or one year for applicants that hold a master’s degree
Meeting those basic qualifications can be considered the first steps on your path to becoming a special agent, and how you do so can affect your chances of being accepted and making it through the selection process.
The age and citizenship qualifications will come on their own, and if you can’t get a driver’s license without much trouble, you should probably leave high-end law enforcement work to others. But your choices for how you meet the education and professional experience requirements are the two primary qualifiers you have control over.
The Bureau values and accepts a wide range of degree majors and professional backgrounds, from business and accounting to engineering and the sciences. If you have already earned a degree and gained the requisite experience, skip straight to the application process, below.
Qualifications for Special Agents Involve Demonstrating Core Competencies Through Education and Work
G-men have always been highly intelligent and highly trained, but the subjects of their education and the nature of their professional backgrounds have changed in recent years. Today, a wide variety of degrees and professional backgrounds are accepted, while skills in everything from foreign languages and communication to engineering and IT are highly prized.
The focus in today’s Special Agent hiring process is on the current needs of the Bureau and on the skills and qualities of each individual. That means that you want to look at your education and professional experience as an opportunity to demonstrate who you are rather than just being a way for you to meet hiring requirements.
To ensure they are hiring individuals with the adaptability and character to take on crime in a fast-paced world, the hiring process now relies on evaluating each individual on the basis of eight core competencies:
- Collaboration– The ability to resolve and manage conflict and work with others effectively.
- Communication– The ability to persuade, listen, interpret, and share information.
- Flexibility/Adaptability– Managing change and adapting to present circumstances quickly and efficiently.
- Initiative– Proactive development and unprompted public service.
- Interpersonal Ability– The ability to establish a rapport with other individuals.
- Leadership– Evidence of mentoring, inspiring, or setting strategic direction for organizations or other individuals.
- Organizing and Planning– The ability to prioritize, plan, and follow through, and the execution of initiatives.
- Problem Solving and Judgment– Identification of problems and the analysis and decision-making exhibited in risk management situations.
How you perform in your bachelor’s degree program and in your professional life leading up to your application will be evaluated with a view toward determining how effectively you have demonstrated these competencies.
Earning a Bachelor’s Degree From An Accredited U.S. University
The range and sophistication of modern criminals and intelligence services has created a need for professionals with extensive knowledge in areas not traditionally associated with law enforcement. You might be surprised to learn that applicants are actively sought with degrees in fields like:
- Computer Science
- Biological and Physical Sciences
Of course, degrees in law, criminal justice, and accounting are still highly relevant and perfectly acceptable. But there are many applicants with those credentials, and those with degrees in less common fields may actually have an advantage over the traditional paths.
The degree has to be from a fully accredited university. If the university is not in the United States, then applicants must provide a certification of foreign equivalency at the time of application.
The Master’s Degree Option
An advanced degree isn’t necessary to join the FBI, but candidates with a master’s degree or higher are allowed to substitute that for one of the two years of professional work experience that are otherwise required.
A master’s from a U.S. university is also a way to circumvent the foreign equivalency requirement for the bachelor’s option for those who may have earned a degree outside of the United States. That means if your master’s degree was earned at an accredited U.S. institution, then the Bureau will not require any other documentation on the equivalency of your bachelor’s degree.
Gaining Two Years of Professional Work Experience
FBI hiring requirements are intentionally vague about the two years of work experience required, other than to say that it must be professional in nature. That generally means full-time practice at a high level within the candidate’s area of expertise.
That area of expertise can be as broad as the subject of the bachelor’s degree, however. There is no telling what areas the Bureau may be interested in. However, it’s always a benefit to select positions in which you can actively demonstrate as many of the core competencies as possible.
FBI Special Agent Application Process
With basic eligibility requirements in place and education and experience requirements met, the application and vetting process involves two testing phases and a thorough background check that candidates go through before being granted a conditional appointment offer and beginning training.
Submitting Application For Screening
The application process begins online at www.FBIJobs.gov. There, candidates will create an account and submit their resume and other necessary paperwork. That includes:
- Official or unofficial college transcripts
- Resume in the Federal Resume Template Format
- An SF-50 for applicants with current or prior federal work experience
- A DD-214 or Statement of Service for current or former members of the military
- A VA letter and SF-15 form for disabled veterans
You will also choose a processing field office from one of the 56 domestic field officesin the U.S. This will serve as your initial location for testing and interviews. You do, however, need to be prepared to travel anywhere in the U.S. at later stages of the application process.
Phase I: Initial Assessment and Information
Applicants who pass the preliminary screening will be invited to take the Phase I computerized assessment within 21 days. In a three-hour timed exam, you will be tested on:
- Logic-Based Reasoning
- Figural Reasoning
- Personality Assessment
- Preference and Interests
- Situational Judgment
The test is highly structured and it’s recommended that applicants review the Testing Guidelinesfor information on how to interpret the questions.
Candidates who meet the required score on the exam will be asked to submit additional required information and paperwork. This includes a self-assessment of abilities to complete the Special Agent Physical Fitness Test, Critical Skills, and self-reported Language Abilities.
During this phase, candidates will also enter the first part of the in-person evaluation process, a meet and greet session to review the submitted application and other information, and to evaluate the material in light of the Core Competencies.
If you have reported language skills, you may also be asked to take a language test during this stage.
This stage averages around 23 weeks in length.
Phase II: Testing and Interview
Candidates who pass the initial tests must then submit to a second round of testing that includes written and interview portions.
Phase II begins with a writing skills test. In a two and a half hour assessment, applicants are asked to read a fictional scenario and provide typed reports.
After completing the written test, candidates may be scheduled for a structured interview conducted by three current Special Agents. The format is a typical performance-based government interview using standardized criteria.
The Special Agent Physical Fitness Test
Passing Phase II leads to the FBI Physical Fitness Test, a basic assessment of physical ability measuring:
- Situps performed within one minute
- Timed 300-meter sprint
- Maximum, untimed number of pushups performed
- A 1.5 mile run
- Maximum, untimed number of pull-ups performed
Male and female candidates are scored on separate scales, and higher scores are required for special agents on track to tactical unit assignments like SWAT and HRT (Hostage and Rescue Team) through the Tactical Recruitment Program.
The Conditional Appointment Offer and Background Checks
If approved, the candidate will be provided a Conditional Letter of Appointment. This will come in short order after successfully passing the PFT, and must be responded to within five days.
Assuming the offer is accepted, the longest phase of the application process will commence in the form of a background investigation to clear the candidate for Top Secret status. A Personal Security Interview, polygraph, drug test, and medical examination will be completed quickly.
The Bureau then begins a process of conducting interviews with friends, relatives, and co-workers to confirm the information you’ve submitted, and also performs broad record checks and a criminal background investigation. This can take 18 months or even longer for candidates who have lived or traveled extensively overseas.
Basic Field Training
The final phase before placement is the Basic Field Training Course at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. If selected, applicants become employees of the Bureau, with the status of New Agent Trainee at a GS-10, Step 1 pay grade. Only on successful completion of the training will they become full-fledged Special Agents.
Over 21 weeks of intensive training, new agent trainees receive 800 hours of instruction in four major concentration areas:
- Case Exercises
- Firearms Training
- Operational Skills
Under the watchful eye of professional instructors as well as subject matter experts pulled from departments throughout the Bureau, trainees undergo instruction in every aspect of criminal detection, investigation, and apprehension as well as the essential elements of counter-intelligence and counter-terrorist work. It’s a demanding curriculum grounded in real-world cases and detailed role-playing and practical exercises.
Although the standards are high throughout the application process, the goal of becoming an FBI Special Agent is attainable if you’ve got the grit, intellect and character for the job.