Change to the FSOT & Why You Really Need to Practice Writing

The Department has decided to change the format of the first part of the Foreign Service Exam. Starting with the February FSOT instead of having one topic on which to write, applicants will choose one out of three “short topics.”

In the past, some test takers were actually asked to write two essays, not just one. I don’t know how this change squares with that.  In those cases, I’ve heard that the testing company and the Department didn’t score the essay, but used it to “improve” the test.

One of the Easiest Ways to Improve Your Score

Remember, the graders reviewing your essay are not looking at your opinions, but judging you on your writing skills — fluency, clarity, word choice, and grammar.

This is another reason why writing practice remains the best way to boost your score on the Foreign Service Exam. Writing is a major skill inside the Foreign Service and it is also a major stumbling block for test-takers. The trick is to draft clearly, succinctly, and with some humor and flair. If you emulate the journalists at The Economist, NY Times or Washington Post, your scores will be higher.

How to Improve Your Writing

Okay, it might be tough to add humor and elegance to your writing in the two weeks remaining before the February exam, but you can become a better writer. To do so adopt the following:

— write for 30-60 minutes every day;
— pick news stories that you find interesting, and practice rewriting them in your own voice;
— practice writing your autobiography.

Writing is a muscle that becomes stronger the more you use it. The goal is to write faster and more clearly. This will give you a major edge on the FSOT and once you pass the first test, it will give you an edge in the next round of the exam process — the Personal Narratives.

Good luck!

How to Prepare for the Foreign Service Exam

Quick step-by-step guide to pass the first exam of the FSOT:
1. Take the State/Pearson Vue practice test;
2. Based on your score, Identify your strengths and weaknesses.;
3. Study areas where you’re weakest.
4. Use general overview books to review subjects such as economics, US history, international relations, European/Asian/African histories, etc.
5. For English Expression, read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, visit the Grammar Girl Quick-and-Dirty Tips website, and the English Grammar 101 website.

Trivial Pursuit or Can You Really Study for The FSOT

Someone wrote recently that the FSOT is like Trivial Pursuit and therefore you can’t study for it. There is some truth to that, but I believe you’re off if you review areas where you’re having trouble, especially if you haven’t been in a college classroom in years. There’s a reason why Ivy League graduates, as rumor has it, continue to outperform other test takers. These universities push a strong liberal arts education, including writing instruction (which we’ll get to in the next posting).

Above all, don’t stress about the FSOT. It’s just a test, and if you prepare in advance you will be more likely to move to the next round — the Personal Narrative part of the selection process.

Download the DOSCareers Mobile App (Apple, Android)

Make sure you get the right one. The DOSCareers app is free, gratis, $0.00. Developed by the State Department and MetroStar Systems, the FSOT app is excellent and mirrors what’s on the State Department Career website — Careers.State.Gov.

Be warned there are a bunch of apps that offer to teach and test and prep you for the Foreign Service Exam. All of these apps cost money. Make sure you get the DOSCareers app first. You cmight want to buy them; I leave that up to you.

ForeignServiceExam.org Primer: How to Pick your Career Path (Part 2)

I’ve promised to produce a primer for applicants taking the FSOT in Jan-Feb 2017.  One of the first steps you take is to choose your career track, also known as your cone.  It’s a big choice as it will be how you are judged, how you are promoted, and how you spend your 20+ years in the Foreign Service.  Perhaps, most importantly, once you select your career track, there’s no changing. (well, okay, not quite, but it is pretty important).

When the Written Exam Was Actually Written

In 1985, circa the Dark Ages, when I took the “written” FSOT, it really was a written exam with answer sheets, N0. 2 pencils, and stern admonitions not to mark outside the ovals.  My score was rated across the four cones — Political, Economic, Consular, Administrative (now Management) — and as I recall you could pick any cone to secure a place on one of the career track registers. Most but not all applicants selected the cone in which they scored highest.  (Until 1999, PD officers worked for the U.S. Information Service, a separate agency.)

I selected Consular, which was my highest score, and after more than two years I got an offer.  Yes, the process was ridiculously long back in the old days.  It has speeded up considerably.

Today, the five career tracks open to Foreign Service Officers (FSO) are:

  • Consular
  • Economic
  • Management
  • Political (the one nearly everyone aspired to join back in my day. It’s probably still the case.)
  • Public Diplomacy
Picking your Career Track

State insists that you pick your career track before you take the Foreign Service Exam.  Many (most?) applicants have no idea what an FSO does much less in his or her career track.  We may not like it, but we have to accept it.  “Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die” and all that.

For all the Department’s shortsightedness on coning and other issues, they do provide you with a huge amount of online material to help you make the career track decision — quizzes, video interviews, descriptions of the various cones, and even an infographic detailing what officers do in their tracks

I encourage you to read everything on the Careers.State.Gov site.  You will find additional insight through online discussions, especially at the Yahoo Group – Becoming a Foreign Service Officer. This is an excellent resource and can help you in deciding your career track and other questions as you continue through the selection process.  Or it could make your head explode because there is just so much information and not all of it correct.

After you’ve reviewed this information, and you still have doubts or questions about your cone, take the Department’s quiz,  Which Career Track is Right for You? , to help you winnow down your choices.

Diplomat-in-Residence: A Great Resource

When you complete the quiz and have an idea of the track you lack it’s time to reach out to real FSOs and ask them questions. They are the Diplomats-in-Residence, 16 or so FSOs and Specialists the Department has assigned around the country to answer questions and to drum up interest in the Foreign Service as a career.

They provide an excellent way to nail down your career track. As you might guess, the quality of these sources varies, but I’ve known many of top-flight FSOs who have served as Diplomats-in-Residence. Although the Department may frown on my advice, I do recommend that you reach out not just to the DIR in your region, but any other who by cone, sex, or minority status may help you not only with your choice of career tracks, but also whether the Foreign Service would be a good fit for you.

DIRs are located at universities and colleges throughout the United States, but every candidate can and should make use of them.

Can I Change My Career Track When (or After) I Join?

No!  Err, maybe…

If you show up at A-100 demanding a change in cone, the answer from the State Department will be “no.”  The Department tries to cushion the blow by saying that FSOs throughout their careers serve in out-of-cone assignments throughout their careers and the higher you the less your career track matters.  For instance, I was a consular track officer, but in my final 12 years in the Foreign Service, I was in multifunctional (sic) jobs — twice as a DCM and twice as a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS).

The Department doesn’t want you to get your hopes up, but in truth a few mid-level FSOs do change career tracks. Openings in the tracks do open up, but if you think you can join the Political track, you’re dreaming.

Seriously,  there are lateral transfers between Consular and Management, and even some Political and Economic FSOs who grow tired of working the cocktail/reception circuit and decide to join the Consular and Management tracks, which have a more “9-5” schedule.

So, no, if you are a Management or Consular or PD Officer, you will not find a way to join the Political ranks because there are no/no vacancies at mid-level.  Similarly, the Economic track only rarely seeks mid-level FSOs, and you be so far behind in competing with your new peers for promotion, it’s probably not a wise career move.  I don’t have a lot of information on the Public Diplomacy career track, but it is very attractive at the junior and mid-level ranks because the cone features work as an Information Officer (spokesperson), Cultural Affairs Officer (exchanges, cultural activities, spending money to preserve important historical sites) or the  Public Affairs Officer, the big kahuna who manages the mission’s entire Public Diplomacy program.  I don’t see many PD Officers leaving their career track.

Ivy League Applicants Still Have Edge on the FSOT

ForeignServiceExam.org has learned that graduates of Ivy League schools pass the FSOT at a higher rate than other applicants.   Exam officials are probably scratching their heads after spending spent enormous time and money to recraft the Foreign Service Exam — at least the first (or written) test — to make it more diversity friendly.

This reminds me of rogue CIA agent Philip Agee’s remarks in his book, [easyazon_link identifier=”055324311X” locale=”US” tag=”foreignserv06-20″]Inside the Company: CIA Diary[/easyazon_link]how in the Agency in the 1960s and 1970s sought more applicants from the Midwest, eschewing the Ivy League

So why do Ivy Leaguers pass more than graduates of other schools?  I think it’s pretty clear:
  • Ivy League applicants study a Liberal Arts curriculum that the new FSOT — even in its revised form  — continues to focus on;
  • Most Ivy League colleges still insist on clear and succinct writing;
  • Ivy Leaguers have secured admission to the cream of U.S. universities on the basis of test scores and essays.   Someone admitted to Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth has mastered the art of test-taking and completing admission applications with interesting, innovative essays;
  • Finally, FSOT applicants from Ivy League schools are a group that follows the news and probably has for years; that is, they read the NY Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal since they were young.

I will not say that Ivy League graduates are smarter.  Of course, many are brilliant and qualified to serve in the Foreign Service, but you can compete against anyone — if you prepare.

So Why Aren’t There More Ivy Leaguers in the Foreign Service

However, on an anecdotal note, in my last years in the Foreign Service (circa 2006-12) at Main State, I didn’t run into a lot of Ivy League Entry Level Officers (ELO). As I recall, many were from state universities and small liberal arts colleges. Among Civil Servants, there were a large number with master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins (SAIS) and American University.

Why so few from the Ivy League?  I see two reasons: 1) the Board of Examiners may have knocked out Ivy Leaguers in the (arbitrary) Personal Narrative or Suitability Review Panel phases of the exam process, or 2) most of the Ivy League graduates who pass Part 1 of the FSOT end up not joining the State Department. Unwilling to put up with the 12+ month wait and the uncertainty of passing all sections of the test, they opt to take jobs on Wall Street, with international consulting firms or other corporations that could get them overseas.

Again, I bring up this Ivy League edge not to freak you out, but to underline again the importance of preparing for the exam, especially devoting sufficient time to your writing.

P.S.  I went to the University of Chicago.

P.P.S Philip Agee died in 2008 in Havana, and up to his death remained one of the CIA’s fiercest critics.  He was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.  You can learn more about Agree here and here

Foreign Service Exam Primer for FSOT Feb 2017 (Part 1)

I’m going to give you the best advice I can on prepping and passing the Foreign Service Exam (aka FSOT).

It’s changed a bit since I took it in 1985 ?!  There’s more writing now, including the brutal Personal Narrative requirement. There’s also a final scrub that was probably there in the 1980s, but now they’ve institutionalized a physical panel, which I call the Star Chamber (aka Suitability Review Panel).

In spite of changes to the FSOT, I spent my career learning and understanding what the Foreign Service is looking for in new recruits.

Take the Practice Exam

So my first word of advice — if you want to take and pass the FSOT — is to register, read this State web page and take the practice test.  If you want to jump ahead directly to the exam, click here.  It will prompt you for your e-mail address, the one you used to register.  (If you didn’t register, no worries; you can take the practice test with any e-mail address)

Find Your Weaknesses, not your strengths

Your goal with the practice exam(s) is to identify your weaknesses. Those areas are where you need to study. For instance, if you’re strong in English grammar and expression, skip studying those subjects. If you’re strong in American history and economics, but are weaker in IT and English grammar, focus on IT and English grammar.

If you’re weak everywhere, well, it’s going to be a tougher slog for you.

If You Ace the Practice Test, Notify the State Department

If you’re strong in all areas.  Mazel Tov!  Bravo!  Call the State Department (202-647-1212) and tell them you aced the practice test. On second thought, don’t do that, the operators don’t have the best senses of humor.  They might take your name and forward it to the Board of Examiners….  Just kidding!

Seriously, if you aced the practice exam, don’t let it go to your head.  You should start to work on your writing.  Very few applicants have the writing skills that measure up to Foreign Service standards.   Everyone needs to practice his or her writing.  Trust me on that.

How to Pick Your Career Track

And, yes, I haven’t forgotten that you still need to pick your career track – Pol, Econ, PD, Cons, Mgmt — before you register.  Stay tuned I’ll get into it next in the Foreign Service Exam Primer.