Why is the FSOT So Hard?

Is it, really? Is it tougher than say the MCAT or GRE?

I think it is for a variety of reasons: exams stretch over two days, require you to submit a personal narrative, overcome hurdles that can knock you out of the running.  Also many of you have been dreaming about becoming a Foreign Service officer for years. The emotional pressure is huge

The tests themselves also stretch you in so many ways from multiple choice on a range of subjects (Econ, history, computers, literature, grammar, etc) to writing two or three essays on varying topics. And, yes, the time pressure is intense.

Back in the old days, you’d look around you to see hundreds of others competing for the maybe 2000 slots for the Oral Assessment. And at the Oral Assessment you wonder which of the applicants sitting at the round-table exercise were going to cross all the hurdles to make the cohort of 200 or so who will be put on registrars. You know too that recent Washington buzzwords like sequestration and 0% budgeting mean that there could be even fewer slots open.

Similarly, for the past 10+ years there has been a huge push to hire more minorities, especially Hispanics and Asian Americans who are woefully underrepresented as ELOs and Senior Foreign Service officers. African Americans continue to be underrepresented, but not as much. Women have nearly caught up with men in entering classes, but lag under the Senior Foreign Service glass ceiling.  These hiring goals will affect hiring and promotion; some will be helped, others hurt.

The FSOT is a strange test, I can’t deny that, and there are so many things that come together to decide whether you’ll get on a register and whether you’ll get hired.




  1. Hello,
    My name is Daniel Hurley and I just graduated high school this past June. I have always been interested in joining the Foreign Service. Is there anything I can do to better my chances of fulfilling my dream of becoming a Foreign Service officer?

    • Daniel–
      I think we’ve chatted on Twitter, but I’ll repeat my advice for readers of the website.

      The Foreign Service professes to search the depth and richness of the American people in their hiring for the State Department. I have no doubt that’s true, and during my tenure there were major efforts to promote the hiring of minorities and women. These recruitment programs remain to boost the numbers of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans.

      Still, everyone needs to pass the FSOT, and to do that you should read a good daily newspaper (NYT, Wash Post, LA Times) or weekly news magazine (e.g. The Economist). If you’re going into college, liberal arts majors typically have a leg up on other degree holders. Study history, economics, political science, anthhropology, really any discipline that makes you think.

      Finally, to pass the test (and do well in the Foreign Service) you must write well; that is, clearly, succinctly and with a bit of humor or flair. Think journalism more than academic writing. There are some whose writing talent is God given, but the rest of us, the only way you’ll be a better writer is to practice. Practicing writing means writing practice. To improve your writing, you need to write, say, 250 words a day on any subject — the news of the day, the state of your life in college or work; why you want to join the Foreign Service…

      In addition to reading and writing daily, I would encourage you to take the practice exam. Identify those subject areas where you are weak, like economics or management (PERT, GANTT, etc), and bone up in those areas.

      Good luck,


  2. Hi Bill,

    I have a quick question for you. Im a masters student at Kings College in London, Im planning to take the Feb exam. Do you think I have enough time to study? (i.e 1 week more less)

    • Clement–

      Sorry this is so late. If you’re a student, you’re in a good position to pass, whether you study or not. Not everyone who passes the Foreign Service Exam spends time studying. If you keep current with the news of the day and do a lot of writing at university, you are way ahead of everyone else taking the exam.

      Good luck,


  3. Taylor drake says:

    Hi Bill,
    I’m four years out of college (though I did double major in Political Science and Global International Studies). I’ve been working in the nonprofit world since graduation. I was curious if you thought that enrolling in a GRE Prep Course would be helpful to brush up on grammar, writing and verbal reasoning. Outside of the course, I would focus my studies on econ, history, political events, ect. Just begging to dive into prep work now, and I do not plan on taking the test until June.

    • Sorry WordPress ate my reply.

      First, it’s been a long time since I took the GRE. As I recall, my results were pretty awful.

      Second, if it still has challenging English grammar and expression questions, by all means use it. I recently found another online site for the same sorts of questions — check it out here (http://bit.ly/2gMZSQJ)

      Also back in the Dark Ages when I took the test, the Department used the English Expression portion to cut down the numbers of applicants. You may find that there are typically a number of English Expression questions that could be answered in two or even three ways.

      On studying for the “knowledge” questions, take the practice exam first to identify where you need focus your efforts. I took the practice test, and scored more than 90% on American history questions. Of course, I was an American history major in college, remain a history/news geek, and pore over the NYT and WashPost every morning (a painful exercise these days).

      Again, find out where you’re weak and study those subjects…



      PS The Department now relies heavily on weeding out applicants with the PNQs and the Star Chamber, oops, the Suitability Review Panel.

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