Recruited—How I Got Into the CIA

Everyone wants to know, “How do you get hired to work for the CIA?”  I remember looking at a large pile of resumes—there were hundreds of them—and throwing mine on the top.  I had never met a CIA agent, and I had no idea what they were looking for, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t me.  I desperately needed a job, so I threw my resume into every possible pile hoping something would work out.

I had just attended the CIA’s information session at Georgetown University, where I was working on my masters degree in Arab Studies.  Recruiters like to shock the students by reminding them that this is not Hollywood. It’s serious business.  They told us,  “The CIA steals secrets.”  “CIA Intelligence Officers talk people into committing espionage against their countries.”  Yikes.  This is hardcore.  Not sure I’m up for this, but they’ll never call me anyhow.  I was so sure I didn’t fit the bill. I slinked back to class and told no one about my little adventure.  I hoped no one had actually seen me at the recruiting venue.

But it turns out I was wrong.  I received a phone call two weeks later, and it shocked the heck out of me.  The woman on the other end of the phone confirmed that she was a recruiter for the CIA, and the Agency was interested in me.  Apparently, it was because I had knowledge of a hard language (I was learning Arabic) and extensive overseas experience. (I studied in the Middle East and had already spent time in six different countries.)  My resume indicated that I was a person who sought adventure and wasn’t scared by the small things.  While my friends were studying abroad in London, I went to Cairo and explored the back streets and alleyways of this fascinating city.  I was discovering the Sphinx, exploring the pyramids, climbing Mount Sinai, and diving in the Red Sea.

But, it’s not enough to catch the CIA’s attention.  You have to pass an extensive series of tests, a recruitment process that can last up to two years.  Pursuing a position as an intelligence officer requires a thick skin and considerable determination.  If you think that a smooth road equals success, then consider all of the bumps in the road I endured to get into the extremely selective Clandestine Service:

First Phone Interview:  My first phone interview went well. The nice lady on the other end of the line asked me about current events.  I answered all of her international affairs questions without a hiccup.

Second Phone Interview:  The second phone interview did not go so well.  The interviewer asked which part of the world I knew the most about.  Without hesitation, I proudly answered, “The Middle East!” “Great,” she said, “I’m going to ask you about Latin America.”  Oh crap.  I hardly knew a thing about that part of the world. I had tried to learn by reading newspaper articles on Central and South America, but quickly found myself bored and focused on Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. I deeply regretted doing so at that moment.  The interviewer asked me the name of the person who had just been elected the president of xxxx country.  She reminded me that it was a landmark election.  I was so embarrassed—I had no idea.  I stalled.  I hemmed and hawed.  Not knowing what else to do, I apologized and said, “I’m not really this uneducated.  I am so sorry, I just don’t focus so much on Latin America.” Total fail.  I thought I’d never hear back.

First Personal Interview:  Contrary to my assumption, I was asked to come in for the first series of personal interviews, which included three days of physical and psychological testing. The interview lasted a very long time (several hours).  Everything was going smoothly until the woman told me we were going to do some role-playing.  Knowing my specialization was the Middle East, she asked me to pick a country.  From out of nowhere and for reasons I am completely unaware, I chose Saudi Arabia—a place I had never been to and knew the least about in the Middle East.  What?  What did I just say?  Where did that come from?  Turns out my role player just happened to be an expert on Saudi Arabia’s history and culture.  Just my luck.  I said to myself: Nice effort Michele, but I think you’re finished here …

Meeting with Psychologist:  After completing several days of personality and psychological testing, I was seated in front of a psychologist who opened the conversation in a very unorthodox manner. (Mind you, I’m terrified, I think the CIA is a giant and knows everything, and I am utterly intimidated.)  The doctor informed me, “Michele, based on the way you answered the questions on the exam, you’re either lying or you are a psychopath.”  Huh?????  I swallowed hard.  Oh Lord, how in the world do I reply to that?  What should I say?  Neither option he gave me was palatable or true.  “Um, sir, I was definitely not lying.  I just found some of the questions hard to answer because they were situational and unclear.”  He sat staring at me for what seemed like an eternity.  My heart was racing and my palms were sweating.  The interview never really recovered.  It was a bust.  I don’t remember anything else we discussed; all I remember is that I couldn’t wait to get out of that chair—I practically flew out of the psychologist’s office.  This time I was certain that he was drawing a big X on my recruitment file, and I was about to be kicked out the door.  To this day, I don’t know if he was a complete idiot or there was some method to his madness.  But for whatever reason, months later I found out I was still in the running. …

Polygraph:  To pretend that a polygraph is not a BIG DEAL is a BIG FAT LIE—unless you are a psychopath, which clearly, I am not.  The examiners tell you not to be nervous while they hook your body up to a strange-looking device that we have all seen in the movies.  You are told to clear your head, but because they are asking whether you have ever lied or cheated, a movie reel of material flows through your mind—every sin you have committed in your whole life.  The polygrapher reminds you that you need to clear your head and just answer the question, but all you can think of is, Maybe I’m forgetting to tell her/him something!”  It is at this point that all serious Catholics and conservative Evangelical Christians completely fail the exam because we know—based on decades worth of preaching—that even if we have considered a sin in our hearts/minds, it’s as if we’ve committed the actual sin.  God sees our hearts, and the polygrapher must too!  We feel so guilty for our transgressions that the polygraph goes haywire, making it look as if we just tortured and killed someone in the next room.  For people like us, the polygraph is hell.  There is no way around it.  The polygraph is a torture device that is most effective with people who have a conscience.  The rest seem to get through it without a hitch.

And yet somehow, despite my certainty that I had failed, I did make it through the gauntlet to begin my year of training—and I crossed my fingers that I could get through that!

About Michele Rigby Assad

After obtaining a masters degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University, Michele applied—along with hundreds of others from the university--to work for the CIA. After a long and grueling hiring process and a year of intensive training, she became an intelligence officer for the National Clandestine Service, the covert (operational) arm of the Agency. Serving for a decade as a counterterrorism officer, Michele worked in all of the awful places you hope you’ll never visit, including Iraq during the height of the war. To date, Michele has traveled to 45 countries, lived in six of those, and has a lot of crazy stories to tell about life overseas. While working for the CIA, Michele initially decried the traits that made her different from senior male officers, but later realized that these traits were what made her a great intelligence officer (empathy, intuition, strong interpersonal skills). Now she’s on a mission to show women that they have the elements to be a Femme Fatale—the incredibly intelligent and operationally astute woman that gets stuff done. After years of service to her country, Michele has left the undercover life behind and now works as an international management consultant focused on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She has a more “normal” life now and a lot more time to do the things she loves: writing, cooking, traveling for pleasure, walking on the beach—and most of all, inspiring others!

16 thoughts on “Recruited—How I Got Into the CIA

  1. Even though its 2 years old I can tell you didnt get in…tells you to keep your mouth shut about working for them..being able to keep a secret is key

  2. I am currently 2 years into my bachelor’s for criminal justice: strategic intelligence. I have wanted to join the CIA since I was 18, But I wanted to be prepared and have some life experiences first. I have an IQ (tested by MENSA) of 131, last I had it done. I have ways been interested
    in learning Arabic (I wanted to be an Egyptologist as a kid) and though I don’t know another language than English I would love to. I travel to at least one place over seas every year and was in the Army for a [to] brieft period of time (I miss it).
    Any advice on what I should minor in to help show that I am a good candidate to be employed at the CIA?
    Thank you for your service to our wonderful country.

  3. Hi, I have always wanted to serve my country. I want more than anything to be in the Clandestine Services. I graduated college 3 years ago, and didn’t do as well as I had hoped. My focus was more on travel, and extra curricular programs. I speak French and Dutch. I have spent time and lived all over the world. I have recently decided to give my dream another shot. I want to go in prepared though. I have started taking a class on intro to cybercrime and terrorism, and want to give myself a stronger chance. In college I got degrees in Marketing, Entrepreneurship, and International Affairs. What classes do you recommend I take and really any advice would be helpful. I have recently started taking ju-jitsu, kick boxing, and barr.

  4. Thanks for the article! I’m a high school freshman with an interest in pursuing a job in the CIA. I was wondering what you’d suggest doing in the meantime to stay on this path, since, to my dismay, they do not have opportunities for people my age whatsoever. I know how to prepare– I have a 4.0 GPA, participate in leadership organizations, stay up-to-date on foreign affairs, study Arabic and basic Hebrew (I’m planning on taking my sophomore year somewhere in MENA), etc. etc. This is just something I’m really passionate about and don’t want to wait a decade until I can really get into it. Any suggestions for how to get involved? Thank you so much!

  5. Hi Claire! It depends on what type of job you are interested in: operations officer? technical officer? analyst? I obtained my masters degree in Arab Studies which is one of the areas that the CIA is focused on. You want it to be specific enough to show expertise in an area of interest to the U.S. government and something that makes you stand out from the thousands of other resumes submitted by other candidates. I hope this helps!

  6. I am in highly interested in joining the CIA as Operations officer, I have many questions about this field. I’m still in college for an Associates degree in Computer Programming, but I am reaching out because I want to be totally prepared for when I do apply. I was wondering if you are willing to help me understand better what I will go through if the CIA were to accept my application! Any help would be appreciated!

  7. John, I hope you find your dreams, either in the CIA or elsewhere. If you are supposed to get in, I’m a believer that you will get through all of those fantastically difficult obstacles–including the poly. If not, it wasn’t meant to be and there’s something better for you out there. Thank you so much for your service as an EOD tech and prayers for you as you deal with the very real issue of PTSD. It’s a crazy job….but someone had to do it and thank you.

  8. I was just recruited by the CIA, but I really don’t think I will pass the polygraph. I did 17 years as an EOD tech in the Navy and was retired for PTSD. Stress and anxiety…while controlled and virtually unnoticeable to others…wreak havoc on my heart rate at times. I would love to pursue it though.

  9. So glad you enjoyed it Julie–you SHOULD have been a spy since you are the great elicitor! And nobody knows better how to read body language and look for CI concerns than Moms!

  10. So cool. I tried to get “enlisted” …. Oh to be a SPY! Apparently, as per my last inquiry, they don’t accept women over the age of 40. Not very smart if you ask me, no body knows counter intelligence like a mother does! HA! Alas, I have given up on that dream. I am glad that you are here to tell us all about your adventures!

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