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!

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Free Ways to Prep for FSOT English Expression Questions

I have always done poorly on the English Expression part of the FSOT.  I don’t know why.  I’m a reasonably good writer and after graduating from college I worked as a reporter/editor for United Press International.  In any case, when I took the practice exam last month, I scored in the high 70s in English Expression.  Pretty dismal.  And people say it’s a lot easier than the FSOT!
If I had to take the FSOT again, I would work with the following four free resources:
Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, has a blog (and podcast) chock full of grammar answers, like Who v. Whom or Affect v. Effect, at the Quick & Dirty Tricks website.  Fogarty insists she focuses more on “usage” than grammar, but both the book and her podcasts will help you.  Free
WorldWideWords.org is a British site that focuses primarily on words, but also includes discussion on grammar and usage.  Of course, the British v. American English rule applies — The US and UK are, two countries separated by a common language. Free
Elements of Style, the best known of American style guides.  Written by William Strunk, a Cornell professor, on the eve of WWI and published in 1920, the book has gone through a number of editions.  Essayist, children’s book author, and former Strunk student, E.B. White brought Elements of Style into the modern age and into millions of libraries and bookcases across the United States. White’s editions also include his chapter on writing.  Strunk’s original version is offered free through Amazon’s Kindle program Elements of Style and in PDF format at Washington University in St. Louis website ()
A new paperback copy of the Fourth Edition will run you $5.20; and good used version will run you $4.00 with shipping, both on Amazon. The Fourth Edition includes a foreword by Roger Angell, longtime sportswriter for the New Yorker and White’s stepson.  Free
Grammar and Vocabulary Exercises — a kind fellow has published a website chock full of test questions that will test and ideally improve your overall grasp of English Expressions.  You can just load them on your browser bar.  When you get breaks in your schedule you can just fire them up and test yourself.  Grammar and Vocabulary here  Free
I hope you’re still writing, sitting down four or five times a week   Also, write and rewrite your bio — mind the new character limit —until you can do it in your sleep.  The more time you practice now, the less time it will take you on FSOT.  Remember, one of the biggest complaints of FSOT takers is that they run out of time.
Good luck!

6 Economics Blogs to Prepare You for the FSOT

Karl Marx (1818-1883) on antique print from 1899. German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist and revolutionary socialist. After Pinkau & Gehler and published in the 19th century in portraits, Germany, 1899.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

 

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you followed my advice last week, you’ll have taken the practice FSOT and determined your weak spots.  To brush up on economics knowledge, I offer you the following seven economics blogs from columnists, academics, and private sector thinkers.  They should help you get up to speed for the FSOT.

And for those who need or want a deep dive, well, here you go.

 

I’ll be posting basic level resources shortly.  Good luck

3 Steps to Passing the FSOT

Embassy Ottawa (Image courtesy stock.xchng user canuckboy)

Embassy Ottawa (Image courtesy stock.xchng user canuckboy)

Greetings,

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving, especially those who are going to take the FSOT in February 2016.  Many of you will be thinking about the best way to prepare for the exam, whether it’s the first time you take it or the fifth.  Trust me, there’s no shame in taking the FSOT multiple times.  I know many (most?) Foreign Service Officers who flunked the test more than once, even if they no longer admit it.

With the February FSOT still two months off, it’s a good time to start preparing, and my advice is to do the following right now:

  1. Take the Pearson practice test;
  2. From your results, identify your weakest areas, and then start review those areas — US history, economics, management theory, English expression (grammar), etc.  (I put English grammar because it was always my poorest area, and in fact when I recently took the practice FSOT, I scored a 92 in Job Knowledge and, yes, a 71 in English expression);
  3. Practice writing six days a week at least 500 words a day.  This writing regimen will not only improve your writing on the FSOT, but will also help you in your Foreign Service career.   The State Department is still an institution that relies on cables  (telegrams) and memoranda to carry out its business.  Sure you’ll use PowerPoints at Main State and overseas, but writing — clear, focused drafting — is the way to pass the test and do well in your FS career.

Six days a week sounds a bit much, but trust me that the more you write, the faster and clearer you’ll get.  For the first few weeks, you can write about anything to get to the 500 word mark.  Love affairs, Donald Trump, ice cream.  After that, start pulling news articles from the NY Times and The Economist and rewriting them in your voice or analyze the subject or review a policy position that you think is wrongheaded  or right from current day (Why the United States’s Syria policy is failing) or the past (How the the United States dropped the ball in the Suez Crisis).

That’s it, three ways to help you pass the upcoming FSOT.  I’ll be posting resources shortly to help you bone up on your weak subjects soon.

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FSOT-Like Test Questions to Boost Your Skills

Folks–

There’s a great website that goes over English grammar, usage, and vocabulary.  Even better, there are scads of test questions that are very similar to those on the FSOT.

Check it out here.

I’d like to give a shout-out to the owner of the blog, but I lost his email.  If he or she does see this, I want to thank you again for alerting us to such a rich resource.

 

 

 

 

 

Tom Hanks’s Great New Writing App (iPad only for now)

Okay, I haven’t written in a long time, but I wanted you to be aware of a new writing app that the Apple Store released yesterday.

And you know how I go on and on about how important writing is to pass the Foreign Service Exam and to boost your career once you get in….

So it turns out that Actor Tom Hanks apparently has a thing for old manual typewriters. Who knew?  Et voila, he’s created an iPad app — Hanx typewriter — mimicking the typewriters of old, click-clack, ding, and carriage return.

Will it help you pass the FSOT?  That, I don’t know. But if you find your writing energy slipping, this could be just the thing to get you back into the writing spirit.  Chin the writing spirit, something to recharge your batteries, then this is it.

Check it out…

And keep writing!

 

 

 

 

 

Full-Length FSOT Online Now

The State Department has recently announced that they’ve made available a full-length Foreign Service Exam online.  This is a great way to time yourself and avoid running late on the various sections.  You’ll receive your score after completing the test as well as an “estimate of your probability of passing an actual FSOT.”  Don’t worry about the passing probability, it’s probably a gimmick and inaccurate, but use the test score to show you where you’re weak and you need to study more.  No essays or Biographical Information Questionnaire or Written Essay(s) on this test.

Based your results on the practice Foreign Service Exam, the program will provide you with suggestions on study materials to improve your score.  Meantime, here’s a preliminary list from the practice FSOT

At the same time, the Human Resources announced they have switched FSOT administrators from ACT to Pearson VUE. It’s unclear why they opted to quit ACT, but presumably it was the result of a bidding process.  State insists that the transition will be seamless, and ACT will continue to take in FSOT registrations until March 14, when the registration process changes.

Apparently Pearson VUE will not go live until April 28.  Register here to receive an email informing you when Pearson VUE is stood up to receive registrations.

Pearson VUE will contact all applicants who completed their registrations on ACT with instructions on how to create a new registration profile.  With this new account, you then log in to select your test date and site.

So, plain and simple:

  • you can register on ACT until March 14;
  • after March 14, neither ACT nor Pearson VUE will accept registrations.  Consider it a dead period;
  • in late April, Pearson VUE will go live and accept new registrations; and,
  • if you had registered on ACT, Pearson VUE will contact you to re-register on their system and pick your test date and site.

As always, good luck.