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November 23, 2006

Taking the Foreign Service Exam

Editor's Note: This was originally posted on July 26, 2004 on my old blog. That blog gets a huge amount of traffic based on this one post. I decided to move it to this site to try to entice people to read my more recent ramblings.

Recently, many people have found my blog by searching for info on the FSWE and the FSOA. Lemme just say this as a previous test taker (took the FSWE four times, passed the first three times; took the FSOA three times, got on the passing list once). To be clear - I am *not* an FSO. I was on the list of eligible hires for 18 months, but never got into an A-100 class. If these terms make no sense, then send me an email or post a comment and I'll answer your question as best I can. I got a lot of help preparing for the FSWE and FSOA. My profs at Wellesley prepped us during seminars about the oral exam (even before we'd taken the written). My class dean's jaw dropped when I announced I had passed the written exam during my senior year of college (proving that yes, even those without straight As can get ahead in life). If you follow foreign affairs regularly and did well on the AP U.S. History exam, you'll probably pass the written exam. (check and check; I got a 5 on that exam.) To be honest, I passed the oral exam because I took it after spending a week learning how to be a union organizer. Sound strange? Here's why it's not: I had to explain my position, discuss sensitive issues, and reach compromises with people during that week of training. Those are the same things you have to do at the orals. I've also spoken to a few FSOs, one of whom worked as an oral examiner.

[For Google's Eyes Only. Update: For some reason, people are finding other posts about these topics but not this all inclusive one. So here's my attempt to teach google to find this post. Keywords: FSWE, FSOA, foreign service, foreign service exam, foreign service oral assessment, foreign service written exam, passing the foreign service exam, State Department, diplomat, blog.]

How to Study for the Foreign Service Exam
1. Don't look to Amazon for a good list of books before taking the written exam. Read the newspaper and weekly news magazines, especially The Economist. Read a book on management theory and one on economics. Read the Constitution. Play games about geography and learn as much world geography as possible. Learn how to write an essay. If you don't know any American cultural history, especially famous books about politics, read about that as well. (I think one of those big books of American culture would suffice.) Don't bother learning any more about the foreign service or diplomacy before taking the written exam. It's not worthwhile.

2. If you get to the orals, join the Yahoo groups on the subject. Also search the web for sites written by diplomats and expats for an idea of what you're getting into. Know the game before you get there: you'll have a group exercise to start the day. The point isn't to win (getting your project funded). All the projects are worthwhile. The point is to be a leader who brings your group to a consensus within the time period. Also pay attention to what the directions ask you to talk about during your presentation, and talk about those points. Introduce yourself before speaking. Stop taking notes on your project before the presentations start. Take notes on what your colleagues say.

3. Learn more management theory. It's really important. Learn how to read a budget and analyze a budget and manage idiotic underlings.

4. The point of hypothetical questions isn't to test your knowledge of diplomatic procedure. You can learn about the consular and administrative rules for embassies, but past that who cares? Always start by asking your supervisor for advice. Defer to them often. When asked why you want to be a diplomat, have an answer besides wanting to be an ambassador. Most FSOs never get to that point on the career ladder cause they haven't given money to a presidential campaign. (It's important to leave the really important jobs to diplomatic novices.) It doesn't matter if you know five languages or one, if you have five degrees or none. It's important to have a realistic career goal for going into the service. For me, I wanted to get into the Naval War College (the oldest war college in the country) and get paid to get a Masters degree in Security Studies. I thought that would look good on a resume above my Peace and Justice Studies degree.

5. Think hard about what you want to do in the Service and afterwards. If you want to get to know people in your host country, you should choose the Public Affairs or Consular cones. Those are the only cones that actually interact with the natives. The Economic and Political cones don't even chat with the foreign nationals who work at our embassies and consulates. There also isn't much power left in the Economic and Political cones. Economics is done by the Commerce Dept and politics are handled by Congress and every Administrative dept not labeled State. The public affairs officers create cultural exchange programs and teach host country citizens about American values and educational opportunities. Alternatively, you could join the Administrative cone since administrative job skills are the most easily transferable in the outside world. Consular officers do a thankless job and there aren't enough of them, so people in every other cone have to spend at least two years on a consular post. You stamp passports and deny entry to suspicious people. Least exciting work, but also the easiest way into the service b/c it has the lowest passing grade on the oral exam. You can't change your cone once you enter the service, so stop thinking the administrative and/or consular cones will offer a back door into politics or economics. If you're really interested in a meaty foreign policy job, go work at the Commerce department or at the House or Senate foreign relations committees. State does not make any policy, it only enforces it. You aren't going to change the world in a hugely significant way by being in the service, and if you agree with any other post on this site, you'll be a miserable and lonely person in the service.

6. Don't lie on any form you fill out. If you've done drugs, admit it. If it was at least two years ago, they wont care too much especially if it wasn't a "hard" drug. They'll throw you out of the running if they catch you in a lie. If you do lie on a form, fess up as soon as you have your first interview w. the FBI (or whoever it is that runs the background check). They're going to talk to your elementary schoolmates and your mamma's best friend and that chick who lived down the hall from you in college who hated your guts. They're also going to follow you and ask you why you went to a particular movie during your period of review and who that same-sex date was. Also, you wont get clearance to work anywhere in the world if you've got serious medical problems, so don't bother with these tests if you couldn't hack it in a third world country with minimal medical attention.

7. You'll live like royalty in a foreign land. That land will probably be a poor, newly independent state your friends have never heard of and probably have no intention of visiting you in. It will be a lonely and thankless life, offering little reward. There are much easier ways to work abroad. Teach English. Be part of the capitalist beast and go into international finance. Marry a foreigner. But don't marry a foreigner if you eventually want to be an FSO. It'll be harder to pass the background check if you do.

11/21/04 Update: I received an email from a retired FSO who pointed out that I discussed a lot of things you could do via the Public Affairs cone as responsibilities of the Administrative cone. My apologies for the confusion. When I first started taking the exam, the Public Affairs cone didn't exist (because it was still part of the U.S. Information Agency and just getting merged with State).

And just to reiterate: I'm not in any way affiliated with the USG. I've given up on my dream of being an FSO. Mostly because I love expressing my own opinion on world affairs and so instead am trying to eventually be a professional writer. For now, I work in the Midwest Advertising Office of a major national magazine that maybe you've never heard of.

Editor's coda: I currently live in Los Angeles. After five years as an account strategist in the advertising world, I now have a full-time activist gig: I'm the Bring Our War Dollars Home organizer for CODEPINK: Women for Peace. And I no longer want to give out advice over email. If you're curious for more info, just drop a comment.

Posted by cj at November 23, 2006 11:02 PM


I came across your site as I am exploring the foreign service as a career change. I appreciate your candor and insight regarding the testing process and your tips are tremendously helpful. Your site also piqued my interest as I'm also a Wellesley alumna (Class '95). As we're both based in Los Angeles, could I take you out for a meal to pick your brain about your experiences (esp. why you didn't get into an A-100 class despite passing the exam and orals)? To spare the blogosphere of my personal details, I'd be glad to tell you more about myself if you wish if you want to contact me. Look forward to hearing from you. E

Posted by: masomenos8 [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 2, 2009 11:46 AM

By far on of the most informative articles I've read so far. I have a hard time believe background investigations are as thorough as you say. How do they find who your friends are, and how do they get a hold of them? Do they really interview people within your social circle but outside of your family? Can you please elaborate on this in depth for the rest of us? Thank you, Mike.

Posted by: mike [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 13, 2009 2:33 AM

By far on of the most informative articles I've read so far. I have a hard time believe background investigations are as thorough as you say. How do they find who your friends are, and how do they get a hold of them? Do they really interview people within your social circle but outside of your family? Can you please elaborate on this in depth for the rest of us? Thank you, Mike.

Posted by: www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6423341 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 13, 2009 2:39 AM

Anyone interested in a course on the getting into the Foreign Service should check out the Foreign Policy Association's course. There's a link to it at www.fpau.org

Posted by: Lyle Matthew Kan [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 17, 2010 12:53 PM

Thanks for providing such a personal insider look at the FSOT process. I wanted to post something that might be of interest to your readers -- the Foreign Policy Association is hosting a seminar this Saturday 12/2 in NYC about landing a job in the Foreign Services and what the process entails. This wouldn't be so much of interest to you, but it might be a good opportunity for people visiting your blog to check it out.


Anyway, keep up the blogging -- I'm sure many visit here to live vicariously through this blog!

Posted by: Anna [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 1, 2010 9:45 AM

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