Foreign Service exam advice: for college students
Updated: Apr 14
I recently got a question from a student about how to join the Foreign Service. It inspired me to look at the application process from the perspective of a college kid who is still figuring out what to do and where to start. I can easily take myself as an example, having been in the exact same position about ten years ago. So let’s go!
The Foreign Service selection process essentially has five steps, or hurdles, if you will. This is what they are and what you need to overcome them:
- Registration (Pearson Vue website)
What you need: US citizenship and being 20–59 years old.
- Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT)
What you need: General knowledge and ability to write a 5-point essay.
- Qualifications Evaluations Panel (QEP)
What you need: Relevant experience and motivation.
- Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA)
What you need: Analytical, writing, and presentation skills.
- Security and medical clearances
What you need: no background (or mitigating circumstances) of significant drug use, criminal activity, financial issues, etc.
JOINING RIGHT AFTER COLLEGE?
Can you become a diplomat right out of college? The short answer is yes. I know several diplomats who joined in their early or mid-twenties. Anyone who is 20-59 can apply and your age doesn't count against you during the selection process.
The long answer, however, is that it depends on the hiring situation and your personal background. Some people got hired at a young age because the State Department was hiring large numbers at a time, for example during the 2009-2010 hiring surge—and arguably, the bar was somewhat lowered at that time.
Most importantly, however, is that any candidate needs to have a significant level of skill, appropriate motivation, and useful experience. If you think you already have that at age 21 or 22, go for it. If you're in doubt about what you want and what your strengths are, perhaps it's better to gain some work experience, do an internship, or go abroad first.
READING IN AND UP
If you want to become a diplomat you should first figure out what it really is and how you get there. There's no shortage of information on the web and you can ask specific questions to diplomats too, for example diplomats who hold information meetings at colleges throughout the US.
Really, with everything that's out there nowadays all it takes to figure out the what and the where of it is looking online, especially at www.state.gov for the most reliable and updated information, and at this Subreddit for a wide variety of foreign service related questions. You’ll find just about any question or answer as long as you keep digging.
Being a diplomat is a lot about self-help, resourcefulness, and learning new things. When you start your application process by registering, it's crucial that you don't make dumb mistakes like filling out wrong or incomplete information, or picking a career track you later regret. Knowledge of the process and attention to detail are important here—if you're more of a big picture thinker you can have your shining moment later as a rock star diplomat, but until that time: just put in the effort like everyone else.
After registration, the first entry exam you’ll face evaluates your general knowledge. I wrote a prior blog post about the FSOT where I discuss each element of this computer-based test, ways to prepare for it, and the chances of succeeding.
Increasing general knowledge within a limited time frame is a daunting task, so let’s just focus on the stuff you really need to know: US law and government institutions; high-school level history; international topography; and basic economic concepts.
I can boil it down to the following advice: take the online practice test here. If you did great: good for you. If there’s room for improvement, go to Amazon right now and order these books:
- Any international relations history book of your choice, for example Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic by J.W. Davidson et al.
If you manage to read and understand these books, and you are willing to spend $40 to get second-hand copies of these books, that’s a really good sign. If you don’t, well, maybe you’re not in the right place (yet) to pursue a career in the Foreign Service.
I mentioned in a prior blog post that many diplomats already worked for the US government as interns or in other capacities (eg. peace corps volunteer, military, civil servant). Although not a requirement at all, I think it really helps to have government experience before applying for the Foreign Service.
Applying for an internship is not overly difficult; wait for the application season to open and follow the steps online. I asked my FSO husband—who did an internship at an embassy right before he applied—about tips. Turns out he doesn’t have any besides articulating clearly why you’re interested in the position.
My husband evaluates many internship applications nowadays and he told me he’s always looking for people with real interests in foreign affairs. He also mentioned that it matters a lot where you apply. He said: “In the Netherlands, we had tons of applicants and we had to reject many of them. I imagine it’s a lot less competitive in places like, let’s say, the Central African Republic.”
You’ll hear it over and over: to join the Foreign Service, what you need most is relevant skills and experience.
If you have a genuine interest in serving America and working overseas, you probably already have useful examples of this: maybe you’ve volunteered abroad through church; maybe you’re majoring in international relations; maybe you’ve learned a foreign language; maybe you’re part of a political debating team. These are all examples you can use during the application process to explain your skills and experience.
But what if you’re lacking in the experience department? When I was an international relations student, I felt I knew almost nothing because I’d never been to another continent and I hadn’t done any relevant (volunteering) work in international relations. All I’d done was a student exchange to Canada, which I hadn’t even enjoyed.
So I made a decision: I’m going to gain work experience through internships until I know enough about international careers and how to proceed. I ended up doing three: part-time at Amnesty International (while also attending to my regular studies and working as a waitress), three months at the United Nations (which is very expensive since they don’t pay for any of your expenses), and six months at the Dutch embassy in Nigeria (which I could afford because they gave me free housing and a stipend).
You probably have opportunities to gain international experience too. Through your studies, your church, the government, or any organization you’re affiliated with. Many people wonder if it’s “worth it” to spend time and money on going abroad, but I’d say it totally is. Sure, you might not make a world of difference and the work itself might even be disappointing. But setting out on your own, traveling abroad, dealing with foreign cultures, picking up foreign languages, getting in contact with foreigners from all over the world, getting first-hand experience in the field of international relations—I’d say that’s a big return on your investment.
Even so, you don’t actually have to leave the country to figure out if you want to become a diplomat or gain experience. Working for an international organization in your city might do the trick; look around for NGOs and foundations that offer internships or volunteer in other ways, for example at the local refugee council, teaching English as a second language, or anything else that gets you in contact with foreign cultures, people, and languages.
GETTING REAL ABOUT EXPECTATIONS
I hope you take away from this post that if you want to become a diplomat and you're willing to do what it takes, you have an honest chance. Don't be discouraged by the sheer amount of information presented in this post, or anywhere else on the web! Just take it one step at a time.
Nothing, however, can ever guarantee you’ll get in. I'm not saying that to scare you away. And I'm definitely not trying to say that, ultimately, the Foreign Service is some kind of exclusive club that may not want you. Not at all! It's just because I know how I was as a student: I found it difficult to oversee the enormity of the job market and I was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to commit to any particular career plan.
Trying to join the Foreign Service requires a certain level of commitment: it’s a long road, and for some it’s very long. At the same time, however, it's fine if you're not sure what you want: just keep it open as an option and go ahead and pursue other career opportunities—those experiences are only going to help you in the long run.
More generally, it’s probably best for your mental health to give yourself an open time frame for applying; do it when you're ready. Or at least know that you may have to take the test a few times before you pass, and that the whole process may take several years. And just remember that beyond the difficult tests and the bureaucratic hurdles, there are a finite number of spots.
The funny thing is that despite of all of this you’re lucky you live in America and not in any other country, because I know from experience and research that it’s far more difficult to become a diplomat anywhere else in the world. So be prepared for a long, tough, but ultimately transparent and meritocratic selection process.
Also: see it as a learning opportunity! Any knowledge and information you pick up along the way isn’t going to hurt you; it may even help you to figure out how the government works, what you want, and what you like (or don’t).
Want to know more about a career with the State Department? Check out careers.state.gov or check it out on social media @DOSCareers
Read more! About my experience with the Foreign Service in the section How To Become a Diplomat; different Foreign Service career tracks in Diplomacy 101; my experience working as a FSO in What Diplomats Do.
For career advice from people with great international jobs check out:
Other posts on international careers on this blog: