Things to Know About Passing a Polygraph Test

Some federal jobs require a polygraph, regardless of the clearance level required by the position.
Some federal jobs require a polygraph, regardless of the clearance level required by the position. (Adobe stock image)

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 require a polygraph, regardless of the clearance level required by the position.

Two types of polygraph exams 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
  • 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 you take medication or not, Thomas P. Mauriello, the Department of Defense chief, recommends the following before 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.
  • Sleep well the night before your test.
  • Maintain your normal routine before testing (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 any time 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. Because everything is still largely unknown, the pre-test phase is probably when you'll be most nervous. 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 3-6 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 test results are not released until another polygraph examiner confirms them. If you passed, you will not be asked to take another test.

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