I took the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) October 7th. Due to my move from Colombia to Argentina only two weeks before and a scurry to find an affordable apartment, I never managed to write about studying for this exam. However, I spent about a month aggressively preparing so I was pleased to receive an email yesterday morning informing me that I had passed!
Who are Foreign Service Officers and What is the FSOT?
Foreign Service Officers develop and implement U.S. foreign policy while working in embassies, consulates, and other overseas missions. In short, they are diplomats. Your job can range between interviewing foreigners for visas, setting policy to protect U.S. business interests, helping to facilitate international adoptions, and organizing conferences and cultural events.
This exam is the first step in a long process to becoming an officer. It consists of four sections: Job Knowledge, English Expression, Situational Judgment, and the Essay. I can’t give specific detail due to the nondisclosure agreement.
Taking the FSOT Abroad
The morning of October 7th, Damian and I took the subway to the U.S. Embassy. I arrived just after 9 a.m. An Argentinian woman came to the main door to escort me. I put all my things through security and left my phone with a man in the lobby. The embassy was empty since it usually isn’t open on Saturdays. The only people there were working due to the exam. I had to give my driver’s license to a marine and my passport to the test administrator. Only three other women took the exam. The entire test was on a computer. If you’ve ever taken the GRE, its essentially the same idea.
I felt pretty good about the three multiple choice sections. I needed a score of 154 and passed with a 164.
I was pretty sure I failed the exam due to the essay. It was a standard 5-paragraph essay, which I’ve never loved. Ironically, for someone who enjoys writing, I’ve always dreaded formulaic essays. I spent seven minutes outlining my argument and had 25 minutes to write. After ten minutes I ran out of space, panicked, and spent the rest of my time just trying to pare down my already sparse essay. Luckily, I got the lowest possible passing score on my essay (a 6 out of 12).
*Damian met me outside the embassy a few hours later with a salad and a diet coke. A special highlight of the day. Then I slept for 4 hours.
How I Studied
Studying for the exam was actually quite fun. I mostly studied for the Job Knowledge section since I figured as an editor, there was only so much I could study on English Expression. Situation Judgment was new and few study resources existed. Job Knowledge can incorporate pretty much anything, though I read that it is generally U.S. History, U.S. diplomacy, and some economics and management questions. Here’s how I studied:
I went on Edx.org and took a few free courses. Seriously, this is an amazing resource and everyone should consider taking a course. They are mostly video lectures. I took:
- “American Government” with Thomas Patterson of Harvard— All the different aspects of U.S. government. This covered Supreme Court decisions and their influence, the economy, different committees, agencies, and departments, and a lot of U.S. history. It was a bit like a refresher of high school civics but at a deeper level, explaining terms and parts of the governments I always sort of understood but not necessarily very well. I would say it was the single biggest factor to my passing.
- “War for the Greater Middle East” with Andrew Bacevich of Boston University— Where was this when I started my Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies at University of Chicago? It discusses, chronologically, every time the U.S. got involved in the Middle East and why. It was quite critical of the U.S. government but really cleared some things up for me which I didn’t fully understand.
There are many I didn’t get around to taking including a course on Democracy in Africa and Terrorism and Counterterrorism. I still plan to finish these courses in my free time. They were as good as classes I took at UNC and UChicago, but free!
The State Department recommends a number of books to read for preparation.
- Rise to Globalism by Stephen E. Ambrose was particularly helpful. It gives a balanced account of U.S. international involvement beginning with World War II up until George W. Bush. The author really digs into why the U.S. responded to certain situations and how events shaped U.S. mentality toward international relations.
- Inside and U.S. Embassy by Shawn Dorman— short essays about different people’s experiences living and working as Foreign Service Officers. I skimmed it.
- The Economist—Some people swear by just spending a year reading The Economist and the news. I didn’t read every article but I tried to keep up with current events in general.
- Podcasts— While cooking, cleaning, and packing, I listened to:
- The Harvard Kennedy School’s PolicyCast—discussions addressing relevant policy issues through objective analysis with great guest speakers. Recent examples include discussions on health care, North Korea, and net neutrality.
- Al-Monitor’s Off the Hookah wit Phil and Cooper—Two guys breaking down current events in the Middle East in a layman’s terms. It’s helped me keep up with Middle East news. Its pretty funny and has good music.
- NPR’s Planet Money— It’s not so economic heavy that I can’t understand it but also good for familiarizing yourself with current events, especially related to business and the economy.
- The Presidents— National Geographic produced this series. I own the DVD series but it’s all on YouTube as well. It starts with George Washington and gives 5-10 minutes of important information on every president, their political successes, failures, and struggles. Watch it here.
- Practice Questions—You can find practice questions by downloading the DOSCareers app. I found these questions substantially harder than the questions on the actual exam. I also took the practice exam on the State Department Website.
The next step is to write six personal narratives about my life experiences. I’m actually quite excited about this part, and think I have a lot of interesting and diverse work experiences to discuss. However, someone in the foreign service wrote the grading on these essays can be quite random and many qualified people fail this step. I’m trying not to worry too much and just be thankful I even made it this far in the process.