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.

FSOT Coaching?

To FSOT Applicants,

I’d like to know how many of you would be interested in coaching?  I was thinking about offering six lessons — one per week — in the month in half before the next Foreign Service Exam.  We’d connect by telephone or by Skype.  I’d recommend books and go over concepts that you’re unsure about, provide time management skills, and give you writing topics and one-on-one reviews of your work.

This is something brand new, and I’m curious if anyone would be interested.

Please let me know.

Best regards,

 

Bill Fitzgerald

 

 

 

IMPORTANT – Deadline for State Department Internships

You don’t want to miss the Oct 17 application deadline for unpaid student internships over Summer 2015

 

Half the interns will serve at the State Department in Washington, DC, while the other half will serve overseas in some of the 270 U.S. embassies, consulates, and missions.  It’s not clear how many internships there are, but get your application before the October 17 deadline to be considered.

 

Important reminder: begin the process to secure your security clearance ASAP.  This is the hurdle that trips up many hoping to work for the USG. 

 

The information about the internship program can be found here at USAJOBs or via Internship Applications.

As I’ve said before there is no better way to see if the Foreign Service is right for you than to work for 10 weeks as an intern.  Even better, since these internships are over the summer you will very likely be filling in for an FSO who will be on leave or transferring.  I’ve relied on interns as political officers over the summer in my overseas posts.  In Washington, it’s not unheard of for interns to assume the duties of desk officer in a regional bureau or program officer in a functional bureau.

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the FSOT – Part Two

Can you prepare for the Foreign Service Exam?  It’s such a quirky, weird exam that wants to see if you know subjects ranging from Voltaire and Kant to Windows 7 and PERT charts.  How can one really study such varied and disparate subjects.

But I do believe that you can study for the FSOT.  And pass it.

My previous advice hasn’t changed — find the areas that you need help and focus your study there.  And just as important practice writing every day (seriously).

But in February the Board of Examiners has recently given applicants a wonderful present.  If you haven’t checked out the careers.state.gov website in awhile, go there right now.  The gift is a full-length practice test, compliments of a Midwestern HR firm, Campion Consulting.

The State Department encourages you to take this test in one sitting when you are rested and won’t be disturbed.  The Examiners want you to prepare for the Exam ahead of time.   This is where I disagree.  To prepare as efficiently as possible, you should take the test without studying.  This will pinpoint your weaknesses.  When you review your results you’ll know whether you need to bone up on economics or British literature or the Cold War.

The Department also gives you a reading list to help you in studying.  Of course, the State Department cannot endorse these texts, and some of them are weak, but nevertheless it’s a good starting place.

I would also add the following books on general knowledge and on writing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Requirement in the Oral Assessment

The State Department announced today that a three to four minute “Ambassador’s Debrief” will be added to the FSOT for each applicant right after the Oral Assessment’s discussion exercise.  The change will come into force March 3.

No great surprise and nothing to lose sleep over.  You will be doing a lot of this in your Foreign Service career, and probably do it now as a student or employee.

In short, immediately after the discussion section, you will be expected to brief two assessors, one of whom will act as ambassador, on the group’s decision and the rationale.  You can take notes during the discussion, but you won’t have access to the notes for your briefing.

I believe that since there’s only a little time to brief — four minutes — you’d be best served by first going over the facts — who, what, where, when.  After the decision, you should handle the “why.”  The rationale.  First, discuss how the group arrived at the decision, highlight the alternative options (a key piece of info for any boss in the Foreign Service), and describe any dissenting views.

A change in the Assessment, especially adding an exercise, is always something to take notice of.  But really you should be able to handle this easily, and it will give still another way for the assessors to see how well you brief, answer questions and think on your feet.

The Foreign Service says that you should practice your “oral briefing skills.”  Duh.  But honestly this is only a minor change.  You’ll sit through the whole discussion session and follow the formula — decision, rationale, dissenting (or interesting views) — and you won’t go wrong.  Give the facts, and when the “ambassador” asks you questions — did you agree with the decision, why the decision doesn’t seem sensible, etc — hit him or her with your opinions.

Consider this an extemporaneous portion of FSOT.

Good luck and crush it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Debriefing (a new component added effective March 3, 2014) 

The Ambassador’s debrief simulates a situation frequently experienced by FSOs. Following the conclusion of the group’s discussion, each candidate will have three to four minutes privately to brief two assessors on the results of the group’s deliberations. One of these assessors will play the role of the Ambassador and ask the candidate several follow-up questions, while the second assessor will escort the candidate from the group exercise room to the interview room. Both assessors remain in the room for the duration of the conversation. Since the dynamics of each group will vary, a candidate’s ability to prepare for the debrief will be limited. However, candidates may find it useful to practice oral briefing skills. It will also be critical that candidates fully understand the group’s final decision and the rationale that led to that decision. Although candidates may take notes during the presentation and discussion phases, these notes will not be available during the Ambassador’s debrief.

Consular Work

I wrote this response to someone who emailed me about the Consular Track.  I was a Consular officer during my career, I tried to give her an idea from what I experienced in the field.  

I joined the Foreign Service as a consular officer in 1988. I worked in consular sections in Guayaquil (Ecuador) and Lusaka (Zambia). As I hoped, they were very different experiences. Guayaquil had a huge visa volume in Nonimmigrant and Immigrant visas. In NIVs, a typical day involved interviewing 100 applicants. In IVs, there were fewer, maybe around 10, but they were also more complicated, and had it not been for the skilled and experienced locally employed staff, I would have been lost.

Guayaquil had about four or five consular officers, and we rotated as the chief of each section for 6-12 months. I particularly enjoyed the work in American Citizens Services, helping AmCits in various ways, from renewing their passports to visiting them in prison. It was a lot of fun and responsibility for a 20-something. Sometimes scary, too, wandering through the prison yard of a Third World country surrounded by thieves, drug dealers and murderers. Most of the American prisoners were in jail because they deserved to be in jail. If they hadn’t been locked up in Ecuador, they would have been locked up in the United States. Still, they were basically a good lot and I enjoyed getting out of the office to visit them.

I chose Lusaka for my second post because it was such a small consular section, but it could be something I controlled completely. It also got me a seat at the weekly country team meeting, chaired by the Ambassador. As the only FSO, helped again by able LES’s. I handled NIVs (10-20 a day), IVs (3-5 per week) and the myriad ACS cases, including the typical sort of crazy cases. In one, we heard about two elderly AmCit sisters — Madeline and Ruth — who had fallen sick in a faraway corner of Zambia. They had come to Africa to travel on their Social Security checks in part to see the continent, but also to “help the heathen.” Ruth had died quickly of an apparent case of cerebral malaria in Luapula Province.

Madeline was desperately sick and survived because of two Dutch volunteers who cared for her 24/7. She was admitted at a rural hospital whose heyday was probably in the 1950s. The windows were broken, the building was falling apart and it hadn’t been cleaned and painted for 10+ years. The pharmacy had aspirin but not much else. Somehow the Dutchies had scrounged up quinine and IV drips and kept her alive, and, slowly, miraculously, Madeline survived and got better.

We had brought a body bag and coffin from the Embassy to bury Ruth. Embassy workers strapped the coffin to the top of the Land Cruiser. My LES, Jacob, had warned me that we’d have trouble finding a driver. It was a typical African experience. A coffin on the roof was going to bring bad luck. In the end, only 1 driver out of 15 stepped forward, and he admitted later that he did it because they doubled the overtime rate to entice a driver. He too believed it was bad luck, but was a born-again Christian with four children who needed school uniforms.

En route to Luapula Province, we succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of scores of Zambians. In one gas station, everyone including the attendant fled when we pulled in. Emerson filled the tank and left the money on the pump. Finally, after at least 10 hours of driving — Zambia is a huge country — we arrived. I visited with the sister in the hospital and identified the sister in the “morgue,” which had seen better days. Bodies in the tropics don’t last long without refrigeration. Remember, I warned you. I understand they now take consular students to the Arlington morgue to get acclimated.  Ha, nice try…

We squared the death certificate with the hospital and police chief, and organized Ruth’s burial the following morning with an Anglican priest and gravediggers. We went out to look at the graveyard that had a huge new section, the mark of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was killing thousands of Zambians every year. It was 1992 and tens of thousands more would die before ARVs became available. (That’s another story). , The following day, with Madeline’s permission, we buried Ruth in a small but dignified ceremony.

Madeline continued her recovery. The Dutch volunteers were saints and a couple of weeks later, Madeline flew down to Lusaka. We found her a room at the convent of a local order of Catholic sisters. She continued to grow stronger, and we finally helped her fly back to Kansas. She wrote to thank me six months later me. She said she had ruled out any more trips to Africa, but was interested in Mexico. No problem, I thought, she’s not in my consular district, a phrase you’ll use often as a consular officer overseas.

It’s true what they say — consular work can be dull at times — but it always gives you the best stories (and memories).

Back to your original question:

Consular Track officers usually are promoted quickly through the lower ranks, in part because consular work is mandatory for all new officers and consular officers start managing LES’s from their first tour and FSOs in their third or fourth tour.

— at the FS-03 level, you’re likely to be the NIV, IV or ACS unit chief at a medium-sized embassy. Or a deputy chief at a large embassy (Mexico City, Seoul, any of the PRC jobs, Colombia, etc). Or the lone officer at an isolated consular job, like Lusaka.

— at the FS-02 level, you’re the Consul General at a medium-sized embassies or the unit chief at a large embassy. Technically only an officer at the FS-01 level and higher should be referred to as Consul General, but it’s use is accepted in the Foreign Service.

— at the FS-01 level, you’re the CG at a larger post, but typically not the largest, which are typicallyreserved for Senior Foreign Service officers.

Remember, if you get tenure, you’re guaranteed a career of 20+ years and retirement at the FS-01 level, which is a pretty good deal.

Your overseas tours will be interspersed with stints in Washington, DC. Consular officers serve on country desks and regional or functional bureaus as well as in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, including offices handling visa, child protection, adoptions, passport and other ACS functions.

You’ll also need to put in time at the Foreign Service Institute for advanced consular and management/leadership training as well as language school.

I think there’s a multifunctional requirement now to be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. Consular and Management officers are supposed to spend at least one tour in the more policy oriented tracks – Political, Economic or Public Diplomacy.

And occasionally, but not often enough, the Department nominates a SFS consular officer to be an Ambassador, usually at a small, fairly isolated place in South America or Africa.

So, I’ve given you both — the crazy, if sad, consular story and the path upward in the Consular Cone or Track. I hope it helps. You should also visit the travel.state.gov and read about ACS and Visa issues. It won’t help you on the exam, but it will give you a better idea of the work you’ll do as a consular track officer.

My path was different, and yours will likely veer too. It all depends on what work you like. I enjoyed managing people as well as writing cables and analyzing politics, economics, social issues, etc.

As for me, I did back-to-back consular tours in Guayaquil and Lusaka, and then returned to Washington to work in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs focusing on African security issues.

Next, I went back overseas as the Political/Economic chief in Bamako. From Mali, I went to Hermosillo, a good-sized consular post in Mexico made even larger by the new Border Crossing Card program.

I left consular work again to serve as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Lomé. After three years, I became DCM in Kampala. Following those tours, I returned as a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) in the refugee bureau.

Three years later, the Assistant Secretary in African Affairs hired me to serve as DAS in the AF Bureau. After three years — a lifetime in Washington — I retired in 2012.

No one follows a predictable path in the Foreign Service. But that’s why it’s such a wonderful and exciting job. The world’s wide open, and if you don’t like your job you only have to wait a year or two to go to another.

Best of luck in taking the exams. Serving as an FSO is the best job in the Federal Government…

 

Apologies for My Absence

Sorry for my long absence. I’ve started working on a telecoms start-up — Vanu-Africa.com — and it has sucked up all of my time. But in a good way.

We at Vanu-Africa (all five of us!) have the passion to provide access to cell phone and data service to rural Africa. In addition, the technology will provide internet wi-fi and battery charging stations. The equipment we use is completely green, can help provide jobs, and open up rural Africa like never before.

Up to now, all African countries have leapfrogged over landlines and embraced the cellular telephone. While Smartphones only make up about 20 percent of the market, more African countries are upgrading to 4g and LTE networks. In fact, in 2013, the number of cellphones in Africa (admittedly a larger population) has surpassed the number of cellphones in the United States. Mobile banking, telemedicine, literacy and other education programs are ramping up.

But in spite of these recent gains, rural Africans have been left behind. Carriers have balked at installing cell towers outside of metropolitan areas because of the expense (~$250k plus recurrent costs for diesel generators and fuel) and what they perceive as a marginal rate of return. Under government pressure and subsidies, carriers in Tanzania and a few other countries are pushing out into this large, if still untested, market that makes up at least 50 percent of Africa’s growing population.

And that’s where Vanu Africa comes in with a couple of solar panels, lithium ion-batteries and a 50-foot pole to provide access up to 1,200 subscribers and a signal that can reach up to three kilometers.

The heart of this technology is the CompactRan. Developed by Vanu Bose (the son of Amr Bose who founded and ran the Bose Audio company), the CRan is literally a network in a box that weighs 15 lbs. and draws only 50 watts of power.  This is no crazy untested machine; in fact, Vanu is installing them in rural Vermont to improve services there.

I will be writing more about the FSOT, so please stay tuned…

Best, Bill

Free Conference Call with 24-Year Veteran of the Foreign Service

Hi Folks–

I’m back again and am curious to know how many people are interested in joining me on a conference call to talk about the Foreign Service as a career.  I’m willing to field all questions, including those from anyone with questions about the October FSOT.

I have some free time later in the week, and I’d be willing to host the call for about an hour, maybe a little longer if people have a lot of questions.

Someone contacted me yesterday to ask if offered tutoring.  I begged off, but I would like to lend a hand to everyone.  If you have questions about life in the Foreign Service, how bad bosses State Department bosses really are, how do you decide on your career track before you have any idea what the different cones do…

This would be completely free with no obligation on your part.

Please let me know by posting a comment.  If there is sufficient interest, I may do some Webinars in the future.  For now, let’s see how a conference call goes.

Best regards,

Bill Fitzgerald

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring 2014 Internships Available at State; Apply Before July 1

As I’ve mentioned previously, a State Department internship is a great way to see if the Foreign Service or Civil Service is right for you.

These internships are targeted at undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in Foreign Service or Civil Service positions with the State Department.  Those interested in Foreign Service jobs can work at an embassy overseas and learn from U.S. diplomats on the job.  You will likely be asked to contribute or write cables and reports.  You could also participate in meetings with host country officials and foreign diplomats.

For those interested in work in the State Department, there are positions open in many Bureaus.  This internship will give you a firsthand look at how the State Department operates in Washington, working with our embassies overseas, handling multilateral and bilateral issues and understanding the work of the dedicated Civil Service experts. 

If you’re interested, you can find the notice at State.USAjobs.gov.  Follow the instructions there.  You should also visit State’s website for careers for additional information on the Spring 2014 Student Internship Program (unpaid).

Of course, there is no guarantee of future employment, but especially for civil servants the key to finding a job at State or anywhere in the Federal Government is to get your foot in the door.  From there, through networking and building contacts, you could end up with a full-time position.

An important tip is that if you’re interested, apply as quickly as possible. Although there are more than six months before the internships become available, the vetting process takes a long time, especially background checks for your security clearance.  In my experience, it is the security clearance process that is the biggest hurdle, not because it’s complicated but because there are too few investigators making the checks.

Your application is due July 1, 2013.

Good luck!

 

 

 

Student Internship Applications Accepted Now

Big news, undergrads, the best internship program for the Foreign Service has opened with a a deadline of 11/2.  Don’t miss it.  These are non-paying positions overseas and in Washington.  Language skills would help, but are not required. Big news, undergrads, the best internship program for the Foreign Service has opened with a a deadline of 11/2.  Don’t miss it.  These are non-paying positions overseas and in Washington.  Language skills would help, but are not required.

Okay, the best internships are the ones that pay, but for now this is an ideal way to see what Foreign Service Officers do on the job.  Even more important, you will have the opportunities that entry-level officers experience.   

Follow the link below or go to http://careers.state.gov/students/programs#nogo

 

Hello:
Announcing the U.S. Department of State Student Experience Program (formerly known as the U.S. Department of State Internship Program).
This program offers U.S. citizen undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to participate in 10-week, unpaid internships that provide intensive educational and professional experience within the environment of America’s principle foreign affairs agency.

The unpaid internships are available at many of the over 265 U.S. embassies, consulates and missions to international organizations around the world, as well as at the Department of State in Washington, D.C. and other locations throughout the U.S. Participants gain first-hand, hands-on experience, and learn the realities of working in – and with – Foreign and Civil Service professionals who are at the forefront of America’s diplomatic efforts.

As a Student Experience intern, you may have the opportunity to:
— Participate in meetings with senior level U.S. government or foreign government officials;
— Draft, edit, or contribute to cables, reports, communications, talking points, or other materials used by policy makers in furthering U.S. foreign policy objectives;
— Help organize and support events, including international and/or multi-lateral meetings and conferences on critical global issues;
— Contribute to the management and administration of the Department of State and America’s foreign policy; and
— Engage directly with U.S. or foreign audiences to promote U.S. foreign policy and improve understanding of U.S. culture and society.
— So consider spending your summer 2013 with the U.S. Department of State, witnessing and participating in the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy, working closely with the U.S. diplomats and civil servants who carry out America’s foreign policy initiatives. You’ll not only have an experience of a lifetime, you may even earn educational credit.*

* Applicants who are selected for a U.S. Department of State Student Experience can contact the selecting bureau, or the central Student Programs office, if they require further details about the program to support their request for academic credit.

Please visit http://careers.state.gov/students/programs for more information about the Student Experience Program, and to start the online application process via USAJobs. Please note that the deadline to submit completed applications is November 2, 2012.

We appreciate your interest in a career with the U.S. Department of State.
Visit our forums if you have any questions, or to search for topics of interest. The forums can be found under Engage on the careers.state.gov website. You can also search our FAQs for more information.

U.S. citizenship is required. An equal opportunity employer.

Questions? Contact Us