Archives for November 2018

FSOT Prep: State Department Writing and How to Prepare for the FSOT Essay

Writing, writing, writing… It’s how the State Department conducts its business. State does also rely on oral communication, and there are millions of telephone calls, video conferences, and PowerPoint presentations every year. But decision-making both in the Department and overseas is through written memos. Some will go to the Ambassador at post, some will go to an Assistant or Under Secretary, and some will go all the way up to the Secretary of State (SecState) and the President (POTUS). From overseas there are spot reports, analysis pieces, and mandatory messages, like the Human Rights Report. In the Department, there are action memos, briefing memos and info memos. FSOT Prep will help you improve your writing.

Good Writers Are Promoted Faster

The Foreign Service cares deeply about writing.  Good writers are tenured and promoted faster than their peers. If you’re overseas, you’ll be drafting reports, what State calls ‘cables,’ back to the Department and to other posts. The Political (Pol) or Economic (ECON) sections could be sending out cables on human rights conditions, the in-fighting within the ruling party, or how the government and courts are not policing intellectual property violations. The Public Diplomacy (PD) Officer could be sending in a cable with the names and reviews of applicants for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program or how free is the local press. The Consular Officer (Cons) might prepare a Briefing Memo for the Ambassador’s call on the local Police Chief. The Management Officer could be writing a memorandum of conversation (MemCon) with the local power company.

Writing is so important to the State Department that there are writing tests on all parts of the FSOT: in the first part of the FSOT, the Personal Narratives, and the Oral Assessment. In the following, I will give you advice on how to prepare for the first FSOT essay.


How Best to Prepare for the FSOT Writing Tests

Although this post is primarily for those who need a little help with their writing, it provides information important for good writers, too.

  1. All FSOT applicants should practice their writing before the test. I would recommend every day to produce 250 words of copy, especially the month before the test. Writing is like a muscle, the more you use it the faster and stronger you get;
  2. For the FSOT Essay (Part I)  you will only have 25 minutes and a maximum of 2,800 characters (approximately 550 words, or two pages)
  3. To practice for the essay test, pull questions out of articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post or The Economist.  For example, if you read an article about the U.S. trade imbalance, write five-paragraph essay under a 25-minute time limit.
    • Start in para 1 with a strong thesis statement and hook.
    • Lay out your findings in paras 2-4 that provide points to reinforce your argument and how you analyzed the issue.
    • Finally, in para 5, restate your thesis statement and connect it to the body of the essay, underlining each piece of information from paras 2-4. You final sentence should uphold your argument in a clear and compelling way.
  4. This is very important. In the FSOT essay, you will not be judged on your position but on how you analyze a topic and draft a coherent essay. The reviewers are only looking at the mechanics and analysis of the topic. They want to see proper grammar, English usage, transitions, and punctuation;
  5. For that reason, besides writing practice, I suggest you identify good transitions ahead of time, including “Experts say…” or “Certain governments are concerned…” or “a recent Stanford University/Harvard/ NYU/University of Chicago study showed that…” Yes, the studies may be make-believe but they will help you move through your main paragraphs, 2-4.

For applicants seeking to improve their writing skills, I recommend the following books and website (Note: if you purchase the books here, I will receive a small commission from Amazon that I use to defray the costs of running the website)


Free WebpageHome |
This is a U.S. Government (USG) website that provides information on the use of plain language. Congress passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 mandating that the website provide a source of information so that government writers can learn to write clearly, enabling the public to better understand government rules and edicts.

I found the following books to be very helpful to not only improve your writing but also to help you frame an argumen. The last book teaches how to write like a journalist. It is excellent and precisely the type of writing FSOs do overseas, especially Pol and Econ officers. It’s a bit overpriced at $24.95 so make sure you look for a previous version among the used books.


The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
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Price: $8.95
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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
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YouTube FSOT Prep on Writing Personal Narratives

I just posted my sixth screencast on YouTube. The video covers how to write your best possible Personal Narrative (PN).

As you know, the State Department invites applicants who scored the highest on the FSOT part one exam to complete PNs. Successful PN writers advance to the Oral Assessment.  Examiners from your chosen cone will grade your Personal Narrative and then pass it to the Qualification Evaluation Panel (QEP), which reviews your total file to date. The QEP will review your performance on the FSOT and Written Essay scores as well as your work history, education, and personal experiences. The Panel will also look at your language abilities, either your FSI-tested results or your self assessment.

The Personal Narratives are based on six subject areas drawn from the Decision Criteria for Tenure and Promotion in the Foreign Service:

— Leadership Skills
— Interpersonal Skills
— Communication Skills
— Management Skills
— Intellectual Skills
— Substantive Knowledge

Yes, these may look familiar and when you join the Foreign Service you will be judged on your performance in these areas annually for the length of your career.

For your Personal Narratives, it’s a bit different. The Department wants you to answer three questions under each of these rubrics:

— Why do you want to be a Foreign Service Officer (FSO);
— What do you bring to the Foreign Service; and,
— What will you bring to your chosen Career Track or Cone.

You MUST answer these in all of the six categories listed above; if you don’t, you will graded low and your Foreign Service application will be “terminated.”

I have a couple of tips for writing your Personal Narratives. First, understand that this is the first time the examiners will see you as a whole person. Therefore, this is the opportunity for you to provide the best examples in the six areas. Remember that the examiners will be reading hundreds of Personal Narratives so you need your writing to be clear, in the active voice, and stylistically flawless. Skip “acadamese” or “jargon-filled” language. Write like a reporter — sharp and on point.

Besides those language suggestions, provide good examples of your work history, education, and personal experiences. For example, if you’re a military veteran competing for the consular cone, use your service experience to show that you know what it’s like to be on the frontline of national security. Today’s consular officers in issuing visas serve the same frontline role.

In addition, if you can show teamwork, a Department favorite, then do so and underline the importance of your team to accomplish your goal. Likewise, a little self deprecatory never hurts. You need to show you’re human, professional to be sure, but also someone with a sense of humor and engaging personality. In short, you want to come across as someone your reviewer would like to work with.

I know it’s easy for me to say all of these things, but you’re the ones who have to put words to paper. Along those lines, show your drafts to family members, trusted friends and colleagues at work. Explain the questions, that you’re trying to explain why you want to be an FSO, what you bring to the Foreign Service, and what you will bring to your Career Track. And let them mark it up and give you feedback.

Finally, the Department gives you just two (2) weeks to complete your PNs. Each area is limited to 1,300 characters, say 260 words or a page. (Sorry, I buried my lead)