Now that you’ve chosen your Foreign Service Officer (FSO) Career Track, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of ACTUALLY going out and trying to become an FSO. I’m going to tell you up front, this is not a short process. Even if everything goes smoothly without any inefficiencies (government moving quickly, ha!), it’ll still be the better part of a year before you make the registry (more on that in a later post), let alone get hired. That’s not all to be a Debbie-downer, but to let you know that you should probably keep your day job while you prepare. There are eight steps in total, we already spoke about the first, and the last few are out of your hands. This post will break down steps two and three: registering for and taking the Foreign Service Officers Test (FSOT).
Registering for the FSOT
First and foremost, you have to register. Can’t take the test if they don’t know you exist. You’ll create an account, answer some basic eligibility questions (Are you a U.S. citizen?), and start the actual application. This application, like most, is basically a rundown of your resumé. Likely, you have most of this information ready to go on some word document in your portfolio. Be extra, EXTRA careful to check your spelling, grammar, and formatting. Such errors won’t prohibit you from taking the test, but they will be a problem should you pass the test. Another point of interest is listing your language proficiency. Again, no language skills or lack thereof will prohibit you from taking the test, but if you misrepresent yourself, it will most definitely come back to bite you in later steps. Finally, you will declare your career track. You’re not necessarily bound to this track forever, but until you’re in the actual Foreign Service, there won’t be any opportunity to change it.
Once you’ve done your due diligence to check for errors and are ready to commit, it’s time to register for the FSOT. The FSOT is free to take, BUT you will be required to pay a $5 down-payment that will be refunded after you take the exam. Should you skip out on your exam, you will be charged a $72 no-show fee. That won’t happen to you though, because you’re serious! Now, pick an exam date at your local testing center that gives you plenty of time to prepare and you know you’ll be free for at least four hours.
Studying for the fsot
This is the big mystery. How do you even study for this test? It covers such a vast array of topics! Worry not future diplomat, it’s not that difficult to prepare. Here are my five tips for studying:
Read. Read a lot. I recommend at minimum reading a major newspaper and a longer form news source every single day. My preferred two are The New York Times and The Atlantic. Check out Reddits pertaining to foreign policy, politics, and world news. See what’s on the list that day, but do yourself a favor and avoid the comments. It never hurts to listen to NPR too.
Pick up these two books and read them cover to cover:
Practice your geography and general knowledge of American history on Sporcle.
Take the Practice FSOT on State’s website. This will give you the best idea of format, type of questions, etc.
Practice your writing. Be certain to write practice essays on issues in the five-paragraph format (more on this in a minute). Practice making a quick outline. The quicker you’re able to consume a problem and come up with an argument for or against it, the more time you’ll have to write. Give yourself reasonable time limits (~30 minutes) and be critical of spelling and grammar errors as the actual essay software won’t have spell check.
Taking the FSOT
Time to take the test. You’ve studied, you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep, and you’ve nervous vomited only twice; it’s going to be great. The FSOT, like any standardized and computerized test, will be at a testing center in which they lock you in an eerily quiet room and take all your stuff. Dress comfy, take a deep breath, you got this!
The test itself is broken into down into a few different categories that occasionally change. When I last took the test in 2017, the test was three multiple choice sections and a written section. The categories for the multiple choice were: Job Knowledge, Situational Judgement, and English Expression. The only change from the 2016 test was the “Biographic Questionnaire” became, “Situational Judgement.” So far as I can recall, the content was essentially the same. Job Knowledge is probably the part you’ve heard about; the big multidiscipline section that asks about history, government, geography, politics, and seemingly less relevant topics like tech, science, stats, etc. Situational Judgement tests your ability to respond to leadership or interpersonal situations FSO’s may encounter. An example would be along the lines of two employees are having a conflict that is affect embassy efficiency, what should be done? It feels subjective, but there is still a “technically” correct answer. Last, English Expression is the same English grammar test you’ve taken 100 times in high school. You’ll be fine.
The essay has a different topic each year and there is no “right” answer to the question. While I can’t recall mine (nor do I think I’m allowed to disclose them...), the purpose is to see how well you can write, present evidence, and persuade an audience. The essay is timed, and you won’t know your prompt ahead of time, but I really cannot stress enough the need to slow down for a second, plan out your thoughts, and then start writing. The recommended essay format is a basic five paragraph. That may sound simple, but from all I’ve read and my experience, it is the likeliest format to score well. It’s scored 0-8 and generally a 6 or higher will be good enough to pass.
So there you go! Three hours or so later you walk out of the testing center and treat yo’self to some sushi and beer. That wasn’t so hard, right? Right.
Next time we’ll examine what happens after the exam and the next two steps towards you becoming an FSO!