After you pass the Foreign Service exams: my 738 days from FSOA to Register
Updated: Mar 24, 2019
Passing the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA) back in March of 2017 felt cathartic. It was the end of a 7-month process that started with registering for the written exam in September 2016 and ended with a full day assessment in downtown DC where I was not only told I passed the exams, but also presented with a score that made me feel happy and confident I’d get the job, eventually.
The process had already been a wild ride—from increasing my “general knowledge” during the weeks I studied for the FSOT, to taking the computer-based test in a dreary test center along a highway in Virginia. And from meeting new and interesting people at FSOA prep sessions during DC’s freezing winter months, to taking the orals with a big pregnant belly and a medical complication that almost prevented me from getting there.
But passing the orals is not exactly the final stop before rolling into the world of diplomacy. Not even close. There are a lot more hoops to jump through which, in my case, took well over two years.
I registered for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) relatively late—about three weeks in advance of the October 2016 test date. After a few months of waiting I found out I passed and was asked to submit a personal narrative to the Qualification Evaluation Panel (QEP). I passed this stage sometime in January of 2017. A few weeks after that I stayed up all night to sign up for the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), picking a Thursday in mid-March. I chose one of the earliest possible dates, partially because I was mid-pregnancy and partially because I was impatient.
Thus, the examination process took about six months in my case, but it can easily take a few months longer for folks who sign up for the FSOT earlier and choose FSOA dates further out.
Obtaining a medical clearance was surprisingly easy. I got it a few weeks after passing the FSOA. It probably helped that I already had a Class I clearance as a FS spouse, and because I lived near DC all I had to do was have a physical examination at the State Department’s MED unit. I was issued the clearance within a matter of days. I was pregnant at the time, so I expected a little bit of trouble in that regard (especially because I had complications), but it didn’t seem to matter at all.
However, I heard stories from people whose medical clearance process took a lot longer. If you have a medical issue, or indicate you may have a medical issue (like saying you’ve seen a psychologist once), a whole new can of worms opens, apparently.
The day you pass the FSOA a diplomatic security agent gets you started on the security clearance process. This seems efficient, but in reality it’s only a tiny first step in an incredibly lengthy and laborious process. Essentially, they just register you so you can go ahead and fill out a ton of forms.
I started filling out my E-Qip forms as soon as possible and—after spending several days on completing it—submitted the package mid-April 2017. I guess completing the forms isn’t hard for people who’ve never moved, changed jobs, or traveled overseas, but for everyone else it’s a nightmare.
That said, I also found it an incredible trip down memory lane because I had to dig deep into my own past: emailing employers I hadn’t spoken to in eight years; getting information from foreign friends who moved but hadn’t given me their new addresses; remembering my former addresses and thinking of persons who might still know me from that time; and figuring out where I’ve traveled, when, and with whom.
I grew up in the Netherlands. I’ve traveled and visited about 40 countries. My friends live all over the world. So it was a lot of work. But besides the enormity of the task I managed to have fun, reconnecting with people and sharing with them the exciting news that I was in the process of becoming a diplomat.
The scary part of filling out the security clearance forms was that it could reveal something I did in my past that would potentially disqualify me for the Foreign Service. Nobody is perfect, and I definitely made my share of youthful mistakes, so it made me feel nervous. In some strange way I felt like I needed to convince myself at some point that I’m in fact a law-abiding citizen with a harmless family!
By July 2017, about three months after I submitted my security clearance forms, an FBI-agent-turned-DS-contractor contacted me for an interview. I was anxious about it. I thought he was going to ask me uncomfortable questions and “grill” me. It didn’t help that he showed up at my doorstep flashing his badge.
But I needn’t have worried. The interview was pleasant and—or so it seemed to me anyway—much more focused on checking whether I filled out the forms correctly and adding missing information than on “catching me” on some inconsistency or problematic answer. It didn’t feel like a cross-examination at all, although it did take several hours.
After the interview I submitted a bit more paperwork to complete my file and clarify a financial incident that occurred years earlier but wasn’t serious (or so I hoped, anyway). After that, I didn’t hear from the investigator(s) again. By the fall I contacted the case manager and was told my file had been sent to the adjudications division in September 2017.
That’s when things got tough. My case was in adjudications for 15 months. I didn’t receive any updates. Because it took so long, I found it increasingly difficult to remain calm. Even though I was never contacted about any kind of problem or issue—and I knew that plenty of people where in the same boat as me—I lost more confidence with each passing month. Honestly, by the end of it I started thinking about moving on, as painful as that thought was, because I couldn’t stand thinking about the FS anymore.
How I found out I got my security clearance? Normally, they don’t tell you about it until after you pass the suitability review and you’re added to the Register. But I found out because I was trying to get another (spouse) job, which was a good thing because my case had been stuck in a between-adjudications-and-suitability-review limbo for a month since my medical clearance information was not properly communicated or stored. A little nudge did wonders because…
… I was in suitability review for only a week. I was hearing left and right (mostly on the Reddit foreign service thread) that people linger in suitability for months these days. Reportedly, the process originally lasted only one or two weeks, but nowadays many people wait for much longer.
Whether I passed suitability quickly because I had an uncomplicated file or because I checked in with the Registrar to make sure they had all the necessary information I will never know. All I know is that for me it didn’t take much time at all.
I was added to the Register (the list where cleared candidates wait for up to 18 months to get a job offer—or not) in March of 2019. Once you’re on there, the Registrar (the office that manages the Register) gives you an approximation of your rank on the list, which is based on your FSOA score). Hiring is based on rankings but is also influenced by how many people are hired in each career track for each class, which is unpredictable.
If you’re lucky enough to rank in the top third, you can expect to get a job offer within a few months. There are several new “orientation” classes each year—typically three or four—and the dates are announced about a year in advance. So if you’re at the top of the list, you basically have to get ready, at least mentally, to get into the Foreign Service. If you’re ranked in the middle or lower third, your situation is a less clear. You may get an invite for an upcoming class, but the chance is small(er).
I’m lucky enough to be in the top third, so I’m gearing up! I might get an invite about a month from now because invites are typically sent 60 days before the starting date of the orientation class. I finally feel like things are going to happen soon—and fast. Thankfully I’ve lived the Foreign Service life for a decade now, so I know what to expect. Still, I also know nothing is for sure until it’s for sure.
Not there yet…
Throughout this whole process I’ve felt like sharing each milestone with my friends and family, and everyone has been very nice about asking me how things were going. But at the same time, I felt like each time I moved forward in the process it was a non-event.
I mean, when I passed the entry exams it felt life changing, but in reality my life didn’t change at all. When I got my security clearance two years later, I felt incredibly relieved but it didn’t mean much because I still had to pass the suitability review. And now that I passed the suitability review I still feel like nothing is happening because I have zero control over if and when I get hired.
So I haven’t told my family about being on the Register yet. It’s only been 48 hours and I’ve already gushed about it in front of dozens of friends here at post, because they understand the situation, but I don’t have something to announce that’s for sure. So, life basically goes on as usual until the faithful day I receive an ACTUAL job offer. It can’t come soon enough.