Passing the Polygraph

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Conducting a polygraph test

Not all security clearance applications require a polygraph, but when they are necessary it helps to know what you're getting into. According to William Henderson, a retired federal clearance investigator and author of "Security Clearance Manual," polygraphs are usually only issued "for Sensitive Compartment Information (SCI) and other Special Access Programs (SAP)." Some federal jobs do require a polygraph regardless of the clearance level required by the position.

There are two types of polygraph exams that can be issued: counterintelligence and lifestyle. Counterintelligence questions cover the following topics: espionage, sabotage, terrorist activities, deliberate damage of U.S. Government Information Systems, intentional compromise of U.S. Government Classified Information, secret contact with a foreign national or representative. Lifestyle questions include: involvement in a serious crime, personal involvement with illegal drugs during the last seven years, and deliberate falsification of security forms.

Related: Search for Security Clearance jobs.

If you're sick, you most likely won't be tested until you get better, as illness may make you uncomfortable, which will affect the readings. Whether your take medication or not, Thomas P. Mauriello, the Department of Defense chief, recommends the following prior to taking a polygraph:

  • Don't ask anyone who has taken a polygraph what theirs was like.
  • Don't spend time soul searching your life thinking of things that may be asked during the test.
  • Don't be influenced by any anti-polygraph websites.
  • Don't anticipate what questions will be asked.
  • Don't be late for your scheduled interview time.
  • Don't believe anyone who tells you that sexual related behavior is a standard polygraph question.
  • Get a good night sleep the night before your test.
  • Maintain your normal routine prior to test (i.e. drink coffee, eat breakfast, etc.).
  • Take your prescribed medications as directed by your physician.
  • Discuss any concerns or ask any questions of your polygraph examiner at anytime during the process.
  • Complete your security forms (SF86) as thoroughly as possible.

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You can think about polygraph tests as taking place in three phases: pre-test, in-test, and post-test. The pre-test phase is probably when you'll be most nervous since everything is still largely unknown. Your rights are read to you, the equipment is explained, and the questions are reviewed. You can discuss any point of confusion about the test before it begins, but during the in-test phase you can only answer yes or no questions. Questioning takes about six minutes and you'll be asked a mix of relevant and irrelevant questions – nervousness is normal, and it will not affect the results. The questions are repeated three to six times, and the polygraph ends.

When the questions are over, the reviewer will ask you about your responses if the results are inconclusive or it's determined that you lied. Official results of the test are not released until another polygraph examiner confirms them. If you passed, you will not be asked in for another test.

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