As a Foreign Service Officer, you will be able to work at United States Embassies anywhere in the world, interact with different cultures, represent the United States to peoples of other countries and play an important role in the way that the U.S. interacts with other nations. You could even become an adviser to government decision makers. It is a career requiring many different skills, including the ability to communicate effectively, to think on your feet, to learn about other ways of life, and to manage crisis situations. It is one of the most exciting jobs available to a U.S. citizen and any citizen can apply to work in the Foreign Service.
Does this sound like the career that you want? If so, you’ll have to pass a rigorous examination and evaluation process. The Foreign Service wants to make sure that you have the right skills to represent this country, so they’ve created a process that will require several steps before you can become a Foreign Service officer. The most important of these steps is the Foreign Service Officer Test or FSOT.
Before you take the FSOT, however, you must choose a career track. The Foreign Service offers five different career tracks, all of which involve working in U.S. embassies abroad and interacting in various ways with people of various cultures and nationalities. The career tracks are described in detail on the State Department’s Web page at http://careers.state.gov/officer/career-tracks, but we’ll summarize them here:
Consular Officer. Consular Officers primarily work with U.S. citizens living or temporarily residing abroad. If any American has a problem in a foreign country, such as a passport irregularity or a legal error that can’t be resolved with the local government, a consular officer at the American Embassy is the person to talk to.
Economic Officer. Economic Officers deal in economic matters between the U.S. and other countries, participating (for instance) in the negotiation of trade agreements. It’s not necessary to have a background in economics to be an economic officer, just a willingness to learn about U.S. economic interests abroad.
Management Officer. Management Officers are much like managers in corporations, except that they manage one of the most complex and important entities in the world: entire embassies. It is the Management Officer who keeps the operation of the embassy flowing smoothly, who arranges for important visits from high-ranking U.S. officials and who holds the ultimate responsibility for the embassy’s functioning.
Political Officer. Political officers carefully monitor the politics of the countries where they are stationed, assess those politics in terms of American interests, and make sure that the information flows back to the U.S. government. Political officers are our eyes and ears on the politics of the world.
Public Diplomacy Officer. Public Diplomacy Officers represent the U.S. to citizens of other countries through cultural and information programs, exchange programs, and by offering as much information about the U.S. as possible to citizens of other countries. If political officers are our eyes and ears around the world, publication diplomacy officers are our public image abroad.
Once you’ve chosen a career track, you can take the FSOT. The FSOT is administered by the ACT testing organization and you can begin registering for the test directly on their Web site at this address: http://www.act.org/fsot/. Once you have notified ACT of your interest, they will send you a full registration package.
The test is only given during three eight-day windows each year. Depending on what career track you have chosen on your application, ACT will try to find space for you in the next available window. Approximately three weeks after you have taken the test, which will cover such topics as world history and the ability to communicate well, you will be informed by email that your results can be downloaded from an online site. If you did well, you will move on to the Qualification Evaluation Panel (QEP), where you will be given five personal narrative questions to answer. If the QEP is impressed with your answer, you will be asked to attend a full-day in-person oral assessment session before you can be chosen for the job.
FSOT Exam Study Guides
There is no specific educational background required for being a Foreign Service Officer. It doesn’t matter what you studied in college or what you consider your area of expertise to be. Rather, a wide-ranging, eclectic base of knowledge is called for and it should cover such subjects as verbal communication, grammar and composition, computers, economics, management, mathematics and statistics, the United States government, the society and culture of the United States, and world history and geography. All of these things are important in some or all of the career tracks in the U.S. Foreign Service and all will be tested on the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT).
So how do you prefer for a test on such a broad range of subjects? It’s not like there’s any one section of the library where you’d find books that cover all of these topics or even a single college curriculum that includes them all.
Fortunately there are study guides available intended specifically for the FSOT and they cover precisely the subject areas that the FSOT will cover. Such a study guide will offer sample questions like the ones on the FSOT so that you can test yourself to see where your knowledge is strong and where it’s weak enough to require additional studies. A good study guide will contain information that you can memorize so that you’ll have it ready when a question on that subject appear on the screen of your testing computer. A study guide will be so perfectly targeted at this test and this test alone that you can walk into the exam room confidently and without the pre-exam jitters that always come from going to an exam unprepared.
But where can you get a study guide? In several places. Bookstores, in particular, are likely to carry some and you’ll find a number of them advertised on the Internet. You might even want to invest in more than one, just to cover all your bases. After all, it’s the rest of your career that depends on the information they contain. These study guides can come in quite a few different forms. They may be books, flash cards, audio CDs, DVDs, even computer software.
And if you want something to supplement the study guides, the Foreign Service itself is willing to give you some help. The U.S. Department of State Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process (available at this address:http://careers.state.gov/uploads/e0/37/e03714459a7db348ecd722e7907ba631/3.0_FSO_RegGuide.pdf) has some sample questions that will help out too. You’ll probably want more information than is available here, though, and that’s where the study guides come in. Remember:
Every little bit of help you can get for the FSOT makes it that much more likely that you will soon have a job as a foreign service officer.
The FSOT Test
A career with the U.S. Foreign Service is one of the most exciting careers imaginable. You will work at embassies around the world, meet people of many cultures and represent the United States at its finest. It is career that other people will envy you for.
To begin such a career, however, you must first take the Foreign Service Officer Test or FSOT. And to take the FSOT, you must choose a career track. There are five career tracks with the foreign service, Consular Officer, Economic Officer, Management Officer, Political Officer and Public Diplomacy Officer. For detailed descriptions of these career tracks, see the State Department Web page at http://careers.state.gov/officer/career-tracks. Once you have chosen a career track, you are ready to sign up for the exam.
The FSOT is administered by the ACT testing firm and you can sign up for it at their Web site, following the instructions that begin here: http://www.act.org/fsot/. This will require you to create a registration on the ACT site, after which you will be sent the official application package for the exam. Fill out and submit the application to ACT and you will be sent instructions on how to schedule the test.
The test is only administered at certain times of the year, arranged in three separate eight-day windows. Seat selection for each of these begins at least a month before the window opens and selection will be made in the order in which the applications were received, so it’s advised that you apply as far in advance of a window as possible, especially if there is a particular window during which you wish to take the test. Your chances of being selected to test during a given window will be affected to some extent by your choice of career track and how many candidates for that particular track are needed.
If you are accepted, you’ll receive instructions from ACT on scheduling the test. Note that while there is no charge for taking the exam, you will need to give credit card information to ACT to pay the $50 no-show fee that will be assessed if you don’t show up on exam day without having cancelled at least two days in advance. On the day of the test, you must bring with you a copy of the confirmation email that confirmed the date and time of your test. You must also bring a government-issued photo ID such as a driver’s license, passport, or military ID. You shouldn’t bring any personal belongings into the exam room, including purses, backpacks or cell phones. You will be given scratch paper, though the test itself will be administered on a computer.
The test itself will take three hours and consist of three sections, the first two of which are multiple choice:
Job knowledge (general information about subjects such as politics and world history that could be of relevance to your career track);
English expression (testing your ability to express yourself well in English); and
A biographical information essay that, according to the State Department, “asks you to describe your work style, your manner of interacting and communicating with others, and your approach to other cultures.”
There will also be one or two essay questions on assigned topics.
You will be informed by email when your test results are available for download. If you did well, you will be asked to write essays or “personal narratives” explaining what skills, knowledge and abilities you will bring to your job. Your responses will be evaluated by the Quality Evaluation Panel (QEP) and if your essays are found to be satisfactory you will be invited to attend an all-day oral assessment panel. This is held in only a few cities and you must travel to it at your own expense. But if you do well at the oral assessment, you’ll probably be offered a career in the foreign service!
After You Pass the FSOT
The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) takes three hours to complete. A few weeks after you take it, you’ll receive an email telling you where to download your test results. If you passed it, congratulations! You’ve made it over a major hurdle on the road to becoming a Foreign Service Officer.
But you haven’t made it all the way down that road. In fact, there are a surprising number of hurdles still left in your path. You might say that the FSOT qualifies you to qualify for the job. You still have to convince the Foreign Service that you’re the kind of person they’re looking for.
The next step in the process is known as the QEP phase, where QEP stands for the “Quality Evaluation Panel.” You will be asked to write a Personal Narrative, or PN, that will explain what you feel you will bring to the Foreign Service. Your PN will then be evaluated by the QEP and analyzed for these qualities: Leadership, Interpersonal Skills, Communication Skills, Management Skills, Intellectual Skills, and Substantive Knowledge. All of these qualities are felt to contribute to success in the Foreign Service and the more of these areas in which the QEP feels you excel, the more likely that you will be invited on to the next stage of the qualification process. This is your chance to advocate for yourself as a future asset to the Foreign Service and the United States, so use the opportunity well. If you have indicated that you have some ability to speak any of the languages that the State Department considers “super critical needs languages,” you will also be given a language test over the telephone to prove your fluency.
The QEP will contact you about your PN and let you know how it was evaluated. If they feel you did well, you will be invited to the final and most critical stage of the assessment process: the Oral Assessment. The Oral Assessment is an all-day affair and it is only held in a few cities, one of which is Washington, DC. You will be given the chance to schedule your Oral Assessment, but you must find your own way there. The Foreign Service will not pay your way to the city where it is held. Before you can go, you must apply for a security clearance.
At the Oral Assessment your abilities and personal characteristics will be evaluated according to the 13 dimensions that have been identified as essential elements of Foreign Service jobs. These are Composure, Cultural Adaptability, Experience and Motivation, Information Integration and Analysis, Initiative and Leadership, Judgment, Objectivity and Integrity, Oral Communication, Planning and Organizing, Quantitative Analysis, Resourcefulness, Working With Others, and Written Communication.
If you do well at the Oral Assessment and are thought to be the type of person the Foreign Service needs, you’re almost home. In fact, you’re close enough to having the job that you would be justified in throwing yourself a party. But there are still some small hurdles that must be passed. The most important is the background check. You’ll need Top Secret security clearance for a job with the Foreign Service. There are plenty of reasons why you might not pass the background check and some of them might surprise you. Are you behind in your taxes? Have you ever declared bankruptcy? Do you have a criminal record? Do you have problems with drugs or alcohol? Do you have a dishonorable discharge from the armed services? All of these will hurt your chances of getting a security clearance.
You will also need to pass a medical evaluation to see if you are fit to work at some of the more physically arduous overseas posts. You must be able to work anywhere in the world, though the Foreign Service will grant waivers for certain disabilities.
All of this information will be evaluated by a Final Review Committee and if everything checks out — congratulations! You’re now in the Foreign Service!
The Contents of the FSOT Exam
If you’re preparing to take the Foreign Service Officers Test (FSOT), you’d probably like to know what questions are going to be on it. So would a lot of people. Unfortunately, the actual questions are known only to a few people in the State Department and at ACT, the company that administers the test. They can’t tell you in advance what those questions are going to be because that would be cheating.
However, the Foreign Service has been willing to share information about the subject areas that will be covered and the types of questions that will be asked. So on this page we’ll show you what subjects you should be looking into if you’re preparing for a career as a Foreign Service Officer.
The test is broken into four sections. They are:
- Job Knowledge Test. This part of the test will evaluate the range of relevant knowledge that you can bring to the exam. We’ll talk some more about what that range will include in a moment, but for now we’ll just say that it’s a pretty eclectic and diverse mix of information.
- English Expression and Usage Test. This part of the test determines how well you know your own language. Knowing foreign languages doesn’t hurt in the Foreign Service, but it’s English that they want you to know best, so this section will test your knowledge of English grammar, usage, spelling and punctuation. It will also evaluate your ability to compose written reports and edit the work of others.
- Biographic Information. This is where you get to describe your own experience — jobs you’ve had, courses you’ve taken, and any life experiences that may make you better at this line of work.
- Essay. In this section, you’ll get to write one or two essays on the test computer about assigned topics. The testers want to know not only how well you write but how good you are at developing ideas and expressing yourself clearly. Note that your opinion on the assigned topic doesn’t count either toward or against your score, but how well you write about it does.
Earlier we promised that we’d mention what subjects would come up in the job knowledge portion of the test. Here’s a list supplied by the Foreign Service itself:
- Communication. How good are you at communicating ideas to other people? Are you an effective public speaker? How much do you know about the media and other common sources of information?
- Computers. Do you know how to perform basic computer operations? You don’t have to know how to program one, but you should know something about standard computer applications, such as word processors, databases and spreadsheets. You must be able to use email.
- Economics. What do you know about basic principles of economics? Do you have a general understanding of economic issues and how the U.S. economic system functions?
- Management. What sort of management skills do you have? Do you understand basic principles of managements, supervisory techniques, human psychology in general? Do you know how to lead people and motivate them? Do you understand equal employment practices?
- Mathematics and Statistics. Do you understand basic math and statistics? At this point, the test may require you to perform calculations.
- United States Government. Do you have a general understanding of how the U.S. government works and how it is structured? What do you know about the Constitution of the United States, including both its contents and history? Do you know the role of Congress in foreign affairs? Do you know how policy is formulated?
- United States Society and Culture. How much do you know about the culture of your own country, including its history and institutions, major political movements of the past, national customs, social issues and how all of these things affect U.S. foreign policy?
- World History and Geography. What do you know about the world as a whole — its history, its politics, its geography — and the role of the U.S. within that world?