D.C.

How I Passed the Foreign Service Officer Test on My First Try

It’s almost November and I’ve submitted my Personal Narratives a few weeks ago, but writing the title is still just as mind-boggling to me now as it was when I received the above notification in June.

You may be wondering, what exactly is the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT)? Basically, it’s a standardized test for anyone with aspirations to join the U.S. Foreign Service. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are essentially what we think of as diplomats: they are U.S. personnel who carry out U.S. foreign policy around the world in embassies, consulates, etc.

Being a Foreign Service Officer is a long process that officially begins first and foremost with passing the FSOT. The FSOT is administered three times a year and offered in designated test centers in the U.S. and abroad. The test takes about three hours to complete, and includes three multiple-choice sections and an essay.

Here’s what I did to prepare for each section.

Job Knowledge

According to the State Department website, the Job Knowledge section contains questions that “cover a broad range of topics including, but not limited to, the structure and workings of the U.S. Government, U.S. and world history, U.S. culture, psychology, technology, management theory, finance and economics, and world affairs.”

I interpreted that as trivial pursuit for government nerds. OK, got it.

I took the practice test online and quizzed myself using the DOSCareers app, but was struggling with those questions because most of them are outdated.

So, I prepared by creating a spreadsheet of all U.S. Presidents and their important policies–paying particular attention to foreign policy. I know you’ve probably heard from various teachers in your life not to use Wikipedia as a a reliable source for your research. But, for this particular instance, Wikipedia is a great resource for starting your research. I used Wikipedia to get a sense of past (and current) presidents’ policies all the way back to the Cold War. Afterward, I did the same for past Secretaries of State.

Besides Wikipedia, I also used the History Channel’s informative website on U.S. Presidents. (They also have a website on the First Ladies, which I found really fascinating, albeit unrelated to the FSOT.)

I also paid particular attention to landmark Supreme Court cases and all Constitutional Amendments.

I should also note that I am a naturalized U.S. citizen, which means that I had passed the Naturalization Test. While the USCIS reports that the overall pass rate of the test is 90 percent, a national survey found that only 2 out of 3 Americans pass the test. It might be a good idea to brush up on your civics and/or American government knowledge by perusing the study materials for the Naturalization Test.

It is expected that you are well-read and well-informed on current events. Both the Department of State and the American Foreign Service Association have recommended reading list for those who interested in the foreign service. More on keeping up with current events in the “Resources” section below.

English Expression

This section is focused on grammar rules, sentence and paragraph organization and structure, punctuation, and writing strategy. A lot of websites say that it’s “basically like ACT and SAT English,” but I remembered going through a lot of vocabulary flash cards in high school when taking these standardized tests, and I think they’d be much less helpful when preparing for this section.

The best tip that I have in preparing for this section is to read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. It’s literally only $2 on Kindle, and the paperback version runs less than $10 on Amazon. If you aren’t necessarily into grammar rules like I am, you’d probably find this book a bit dry. But I swear by it when it comes to this section (and for good writing in general)–English Expression was my highest score, and I attribute it to this book.

Situational Judgment

This section replaced the Biographical section of the FSOT pretty recently. The test will present 28 or so scenarios that a candidate might encounter on the job as an FSO. Each scenario is accompanied by a possible response to the scenario. For each scenario, the candidate will choose the best response and the worst response.

I’ll be honest–it’s difficult to “study” or prepare for this section. But I’d also say that since taking the FSOT, I’ve encountered similar tests on other applications for positions in the Federal Government (Pathways Internships, Presidential Management Fellowship, etc.). According to the Office of Personnel Management–which is basically the chief HR agency for the Federal Government–Situational Judgment Tests “measure effectiveness in social functioning dimensions such as conflict management, interpersonal skills, problem solving, negotiation skills, facilitating teamwork, and cultural awareness.”

I think it’s always helpful to browse through and internalize the 13 Dimensions. and the 5 Career Tracks of FSOs when thinking through these scenarios. In addition, the questions are written to assess specific competencies related to the job of an FSO, including adaptability, decision making and judgment, operational effectiveness, professional standards, team building, and workplace perceptiveness. So, basically, imagine yourself as a diplomat, and I think making decisions for each scenario would come naturally to you.

I should also state that you aren’t required to know the State Department’s policies, procedures, or organizational culture in order to answer these questions effectively. I think that the point is to truly assess your decision-making process (and, to an extent, moral compass) to determine whether the FSO career is a good fit for you.

Essay

As of the October 2019 examination cycle, the written portion of the FSOT is scored along with your Personal Narratives. In the past and when I took the FSOT, I had to wait about 3-4 weeks for my test results because my essay had to be scored. But that’s no longer the case–apparently, now, you get an email within the hour of finishing the test letting you know whether you have passed the multiple choice test. If you pass, you’ll automatically move on to submit your Personal Narratives, and the essay that you wrote during your FSOT will be scored at the same time.

The essay is pretty self-explanatory. Concise, clear language in organized paragraphs with a thesis statement. If you read Elements of Style, this should also be a walk in the park!

Resources

Some helpful and up-to-date resources that I found helpful while preparing for the test:

I mentioned above that I’ll note about keeping up with current events. Truly, what I think helped me through preparing for the FSOT and the selection process in general is internalizing what public service means to me.

I’m drawn to public service as a Kantian and an individual who believes in duty. I’m drawn to public service because I have been so blessed to have had teachers who made a difference in my life and parents who espouse the ideals of “giving back” and contributing to the greater community that is comprised of all of humanity, not just those in my immediate midst. I have been lucky to have had my eyes opened to the myriad of experiences that led me to want to make a difference in the world, and I am constantly overwhelmed with emotions when I speak about how much I yearn to serve in this capacity. Because I truly believe in the government by the people and for the people. And on that note, I believe that the government is a medium through which I can reach people and make a difference in their lives.

And so, before you think about being a diplomat, I encourage you to think about what service, especially public service, means to you. At the heart of it all, I believe that it’s not about the traveling, the constant moving, or the political negotiations that is at the heart of diplomacy–it’s about service.

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