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Mastering the Foreign Service exam

State_Department_Seal(UPDATE: Since originally writing this post, I passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment - FSOA - in April 2009.  I received Final Suitability and was placed on the Register in November 2009. In January 2010, I received and accepted an invitation to join "THE LEGENDARY" 152nd A-100 Class.  We graduated A-100 in April 2010, with Secretary Clinton herself administering the Oath of Office. I am now serving at my first overseas post.) 

Longtime readers of this blog will know that Mr. Crab has long dreamed of joining the U.S. Foreign Service (FS), and is now about 1/3 of the way through the hiring process.  The "Foreign Service exam" is a bit of a misnomer as it's actually a series of tests and background checks, all of which you must pass to advance to the next level. The entire process takes about 9-12 months (or longer) from the day you complete the online application until the day you are admitted to "A-100" -- the Foreign Service Orientation Course,  a sort-of boot camp for Foreign Service Officers (FSOs).   The first major hurdle is the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), more commonly known by its previous name, the Foreign Service Written Exam.  

I've taken and passed the FSOT twice, in October 2007 and November 2008. The first time, I did not study at all. The second time I studied ... for about two weeks. I passed easily the first time, and with flying colors the second go. IMHO, the new FSOT is not that difficult.  You don't need to be a genius, have a photographic memory or hold an advanced degree to pass this test.  My own educational background is limited to a BA in communication and minor in American History.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no educational, foreign language, or foreign travel requirement to join the Foreign Service. 

The pass rate of the FSOT written exam is about 40-45% (Source: Diplomat-in-Residence course, Washington, April 2009), nearly double the pass rate of the pre-2007 exam. But it's still a very competitive process. Even though the pass rate of the written exam is higher, the number of people who advance to the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA) is still the same. That's because the numbers of candidates are whittled down during the mysterious Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP), so only about 25% of people who start the process are invited to the Orals.  At the end of the day, only about 3-5% of people who start the process will eventually make it into the U.S. Foreign Service.  Good luck!


"Mr. Crab's Two Cents on Mastering the Foreign Service Officer Test."

--READ A DAILY NEWSPAPER. I can't stress this enough. I recommend The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian (UK) and The International Herald-Tribune. You don't need to read it cover-to-cover, but you should be aware of what the heck is going on in the world. Sorry folks, but the New York Post, TMZ and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart don't count.

--Read a news magazine. Some people swear by The Economist, which I personally find rather dull. I prefer Time and Newsweek and even the occasional Vanity Fair article. But you should read something that delves a little deeper into issues than the daily newspaper. 

--Read and know the U.S. Constitution. Learn all the Amendments to the Constitution. You don't need to memorize it word-for-word, but you should be able to immediately know, for example, that slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, that the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, etc.  I create little memory tools. For example, let's take the 18th Amendment: 18 was once the legal age for drinking in the United States but has since been changed to 21; The 18th Amendment instituted Prohibition, which was later repealed by the 21st Amendment. Get it? 

--Read and understand the Declaration of Independence.

--Join the Yahoo FSOT study group! This has been INVALUABLE. I learned more from my virtual study mates on Yahoo than from any single source.

--Know simple math. I am absolutely HORRIBLE at math. I never got beyond Algebra II/Trig in high school and never took an econ class in my life. But you don't need to be Stephen Hawking to answer the FSOT math questions. If you can balance your checkbook and know your multiplication tables, you'll probably do just fine. Know how to convert fractions into decimals and figure our percentages. Know how to exchange U.S. Dollars into foreign currencies and vice-versa. Familiarize yourself with the metric system. Learn how to translate Celsius into Fahrenheit or how many kilometers are in a mile. Know the difference between Mean, Median, Mode and Range. (Mrs. Crab's helpful reminder she teaches her student: Mean kids are AVERAGE, a median strip lies in the MIDDLE of the road, mode is short for models and fashion models are POPULAR).

--Read "Don't Know Much About History" by Kenneth C. Davis. No joke, it actually helped me answer a question on the last test!  

--Read "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know", which covers a variety of topics from the Bible to American pop culture. Pay special attention to the chapters on World History, U.S. History, World Politics and U.S. Politics.

--Be able to identify countries on a world map. Know what countries border each other. If you're a map and geography junkie like me, simply absorb the National Geographic World Atlas. I also found the "Traveler IQ Challenge" app games on Facebook extremely helpful!

--Know basic management and economic theories. Read the CliffsNotes on Economics. If you have an old econ or business textbook, even better. Go through the basics. Disclosure: I have never taken a single business or econ class in my life so I probably got all those questions wrong. But remember, there is no penalty for guessing.

--Put away your "Red State" and "Blue State" mentality.  Be able to defend a viewpoint that is a direct OPPOSITE of your own belief. This will come in handy in the essay question of the exam. If you're going to read partisan blogs like The Huffington Post or National Review, read BOTH, not just one or the other. Remember that when you're in the Foreign Service, you may be asked to defend U.S. policy that conflicts with your personal beliefs.

--Brush up on grammar rules of English expression. Read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White. For my fellow journalists, the Associated Press Stylebook is also quite helpful.

--If you haven't written in a while, practice writing essays. Scan the newspaper for a current hot topic (abortion, capital punishment, the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, etc.), pick a viewpoint and write a one-page typed essay that defends your viewpoint with clear, succinct examples (i.e. the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, current events, recent legal cases or other precedents you might have heard about in the news, etc). You are not graded by your position. If you believe that public schools should teach children that humanity originated from Xenu the galactic warlord, that's fine and dandy as long as you can defend that position with sane logic and specific examples and do so within 30 minutes.

--Learn to type fast and accurately. Sadly, typing is a lost art form that is no longer taught in schools.  If your typing skills are limited to "hunt & peck" or smart phone thumb texting, it's time to brush up on your typing speed. This will come in handy during the biographical and essay portions of the FSOT.

--Know basic computer skills. You should know how to use Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint for starters. The FSOT is administered on a standard PC. Sorry Apple fans, but the majority of government work is done on PCs.

--Know and understand social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Skype, WhatsApp, and whatever new popular app is out there. Even if you're not a fan, and especially if you're one of those folks who absolutely refuses to register for Facebook, you should have a basic understanding of how it works -- ESPECIALLY if you are PD-coned.  Facebook and other social medium are how young people across the globe communicate today, and most US Embassies now have their own Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube pages.

--Purchase and download the official FSOT Study Guide and take the sample test. And take it under timed conditions in a quiet setting. This will give you a good idea on your strengths and weaknesses.

--Consider joining and using Twitter. Why? Because the limited number of characters (140) will be good training for the biographical section of the FSOT. The answers on the Bio section are limited to about 300 characters, so Twitter will force you to condense your writing style. Also FYI, the State Deptartment has several official Twitter accounts worth following including Dipnote.  Most US embassies abroad also Tweet!

--Read "Career Diplomacy" by Kopp & Gillespie. This is more a necessity for the oral exam but it's also a good book to know what you're getting yourself into!  Two other good books in this category are "Realities of Foreign Service Life, Vol. 2" and "Inside a U.S. Embassy".

The day before the test, do NOT study. Take a day off and RELAX. Go watch a movie. Go for a walk. Go out to dinner, but don't stay out late. Get a good night's sleep. Wake up early. Eat breakfast, even if you're not a breakfast person. Don't be late. Wear what's comfortable -  unlike the orals, there is no dress requirement for the written exam; I took the test at US Embassy London and wore frayed jeans and my lucky George Mason University sweatshirt!  Most of all, have fun!  If you enjoy board games, puzzles, crosswords, sudoko, pub quizzes, Trivial Pursuit and other mind challenges, go in with the mindset that the FSOT is just a mind game...albeit with a much bigger prize at the end for the winners! The Foreign Service is not just a job...it's a way of life!

Best of luck!