Reader Searches Part II- Joining the Foreign Service

As I promised a few weeks ago, I’m doing a couple of posts inspired by reader searches. As an aside by far the most entertaining key word search someone used to find my blog is “how many trash cans, fort bliss.” I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that one… but I have noticed a reoccurring theme on other search terms. People seem to want to know about studying for the Foreign Service exam and failing the foreign service exam. While there are some incredible people who pass through the FSOT, QEP, and FSOA the first time through I was not one of them. I failed the written exam twice (back when it was the FWSE) before passing the first try through the new FSOT/QEP system. I remember seeing a statistic back when it was the FSWE that only 2% passed all the way through the FSOA to get an offer (I do believe it is slightly higher now). I was lamenting to my sister that there was no way, I wasn’t one of the top 2% smartest people in the world, it just wasn’t going to happen. She gave me what was probably the BEST advice I got in the whole process. “So, be one of the 2% most persistent people.” More than anything this is a process that rewards persistence. Most people don’t pass the first time or they don’t get off the register after passing the first time. So for those intrepid applicants out there still weeding through the process–that is the best actual advice I can give– be persistent. The rest of this is just ramblings about my own experiences and what worked for me all within the confines of the NDA of course!

Step one for those attempting to join the foreign service is the FSOT. The FSOT is divided into 3 sections and an essay. The sections being the “Job Knowledge”, English Expression, and Biography section. For the biography section I pretty much prepared by looking at the 13 dimensions which are available on the careers.state.gov website. I assumed in preparing that since the State Department tells you that they are looking for those 13 Ds that they were probably looking for them in the biography section too. So I jotted down a few ideas for each of the Ds on things that I thought would demonstrate those dimensions. Other than that, I didn’t feel like there was much I could do to prep for that section. The toughest part on that one is time. I never had a problem finishing under the FSWE system, but I did under the FSOT. I took the FSOT twice just in case I didn’t get off the register the first time. It turned out I got “the call” before I got my scores from the second FSOT. Be prepared to go fast on the biography section, don’t get bogged down on one question. I nearly ran out of time both times and I wound up rushing through the last few questions.

On the English Expression, I pretty much feel like you either learned grammar in middle school or you didn’t. I did try to read through Strunk and White’s the elements of style but let’s be honest, anyone who reads this blog with any regularity (Hi Dad!), knows I pretty much put commas and punctuation where ever I want them and think they look pretty. But on the upside–this means there is hope for anyone! I even managed to do pretty well on the English Expression (55 the first time 59 the second time).

The last section of the FSOT is the job knowledge section. I’ve heard it described as “broad but not deep,” and that is pretty accurate. If you read the newspaper with any regularity you should be fine. I did notice the biggest improvement on this section between my first and second FSOTs. I jumped about 12 points, I credit that to taking economics for grad school just before I took the second test and reading Foreign Policy (the magazine) more regularly. My advice on this section is stay informed. If you have a weakness on one of the areas like maybe U.S. history or Econ, flip through one of those AP exam prep books. I was a history major in college and I do think that helped me out a lot on this section. I also played a lot of geography games before I took the test. I’m not sure how much it helped me for the test but when we got our bid list in A-100 I did know where all the posts were, even the weird ones. Don’t go crazy though! It just just one third of the test and it is fairly broad so you are never going to be able to study for every question on that test.

On the essay… well, remember they are looking for how you write not what you write. I failed the FSWE twice because of the essay. The mistake I made was believing that my mellifluous prose would make up for not doing things like structuring my essay well and including things like transitional sentences.  Once I got over myself and just tried to show I knew how to construct an essay, no problem. I got a 10/12 the next two FSOTs.

On to the QEP. This step is still a bit of a mystery. So all I can talk about is how I approached it. You are given a few questions and about 250 words to answer them. This is NOT a lot of space. I decided that they had my resume already, so they could see what I done in terms of work and educational experience. I figured that if they ask you to “tell us about a time when you were part of team that saved the world from annihilation”, they are not looking for “I’m wonder woman and as a member of the justice league I frequently save the world from annihilation.” I think your resume shows them that so instead talk about a specific incident or give an anecdote that shows your ability to work in a team rather than tells them “yes, I have worked in teams.” Show them something they can’t get from reading your resume. Don’t assume that the 20 years of experience running an international non-profit is going to speak for itself. Speak to the board of examiners through your essays–show them how you used that experience and what you learned. A lot of people use SAR for the oral assessment past behavior questions. SAR meaning Situation, Action, Results. I used that model on the QEP as well.

If you fail the QEP, don’t freak out. It is a tough step, a lot of people get tripped up there. You might submit answers that get you through one year, and they next they don’t. I’ve heard this happening to a lot of people, it could be that there are just fewer slots one year or the competition was tougher. I would just revisit your answers, see if you gave the strongest anecdotes.

Since this is getting pretty long, I’ll write up my FSOA advice next time. But if at any point you don’t make the cut– remember my one bit of actual advice “be persistent!” If this is really what you want, keep signing up for the FSOT until you get in off the register. Keep fine-tuning your QEP answers, keep trying to work on building examples for the 13 Ds– rinse, lather, and repeat until you get “the call.” It is worth it in the end!

2 Responses to “Reader Searches Part II- Joining the Foreign Service”


  • Does it make me a nerd that I still love playing those geography games I used to prep for the FSWE/FSOT?

  • I still love them too! I figure it is good to keep fresh so next time when they send me my onward assignment and it says Ouagadougou or something I won’t be totally in the dark. 😉

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