Top 3 Challenges for Potential FBI Agents

By David Browne, J.D., Program Chair of Security Studies

CTU Criminal Justice Degree - FBI ApplicantsTell your friends and family that you want to be an FBI agent, and they’ll remind you of a few things you’ve probably heard before: that it’s extremely tough to get into, the FBI will do an incredibly thorough background check on you going all the way back to grade school, and that they’re looking for people who fit ‘the’ profile. Let’s shed a little insight.

Challenge #1: Details Matter

Ask any special agent – they’ll confirm that getting into the FBI isn’t easy. Qualifying and applying takes a lot of time, effort and planning. A particularly daunting task you’ll encounter initially is accounting for every single place you’ve lived over the course of your life. Addresses and dates of move-in and move-out – compiling such information takes a lot of effort even if you’ve kept good records over the years.

Consider this your first investigative challenge. To qualify to become an FBI agent, you must exemplify persistence and the ability to search deeply and exhaustively, and to document well. Many applicants are eliminated at this stage due to failure to provide a continuous timeline record of their residency from birth, which the FBI background investigators use to conduct their investigation of your past.

Challenge #2: Combining Skill, Intelligence and Bravery

The FBI hires many highly educated professionals like attorneys and accountants, but they look for other skills as well. The most important qualities they look for in candidates are fidelity, bravery and integrity. Bad grades or past mistakes don’t automatically disqualify you from the eligibility pool. A successful candidate can explain how they made a mistake and improved afterward. Receiving a C-minus in an administrative law class could have been a big accomplishment for someone who had other challenges going on in their life at the time. If you’ve made a mistake in life, explaining why it happened and how you learned from it can show you to be a strong person.

Challenge #3: Life is Imperfect

As the faculty sponsor of a criminal justice club, I invited an FBI agent to visit our school and share her story of recruitment during our career day event. Once she began to speak of her life, the room grew silent. She told us of her father, an inmate on death row for murder, and talked of her mother who struggled with addiction, mental illness and living on the street. As a child, the agent struggled to look after her mother while attending school simultaneously, frequently living on the street herself.

Agents don’t come from perfect backgrounds. Agents are special before they gain the formal title because of the will to overcome challenges in their lives. Whether they’re big challenges or challenges like mine, which seem small compared to the agent I had invited to speak, how you have handled obstacles in life proves whether you have the qualities the FBI seeks in candidates.

If a profession in the FBI or other federal agency is your goal, consider how your past has prepared you, and how you can further prepare from where you are now. Whether to qualify for this or any other opportunity, strive to excel in any circumstance.


David Browne, J.D., spent over 14 years as a Special Agent in the FBI and most recently as a Crime Analyst at the University of Chicago for six years. He earned a J.D. law degree from Case Western Reserve University and a Bachelor of Psychology from the University of Michigan. He is currently program chair of Security Studies at Colorado Technical University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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Image credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kos-Read


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