FSOA: wear a lucky jacket and other advice
Updated: Feb 17
Entering the US Foreign Service is a lengthy process; I think we can all agree to that. First, you need to register online and fill out a long questionnaire. Then you need to take the Foreign Service Offer Test (FSOT), aka the written exam.
If you pass the FSOT, the next step is to submit your answers to a handful of written interview questions to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP). If you are among the lucky few who pass that, you’ll be invited to schedule your Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA). Only if you pass that third test, you’ll be extended a conditional offer of employment with the State Department.
Now, if you are one of those test-takers who likes to prepare, here is what I think you should know: preparation really helps.
For one thing, it’s almost impossible not to get nervous for the FSOA, so solid preparation is going to help you out when you are put on the spot and your mind is spinning in different directions.
Second, you have a limited time to show what you can do. It’s important to know what you want to say, and how you are going to approach the various exercises.
That said, I know plenty of FSOs who did not prepare much for the test and who passed on their first try. Like I said, this post is just for people who like to prepare for this kind of thing.
The most obvious starting point is of course the official and free Foreign Service Officer Oral Assessment Information Guide. It explains the various components of the test and gives some fine examples.
Now let’s take it step by step
The first thing you need to do is find out is why you want to be a diplomat, and what you think that means.
On the one hand, being a diplomat means moving yourself plus your immediate family around the globe while being far away from all your other family and friends. Living and working in cities and countries you’ve never even heard of. Potentially (likely) dealing with air pollution, disease, bureaucracy, hard languages, long working hours, and security threats.
On the other hand, being a diplomat means serving your country, traveling the world, having a stable income, making tons of new friends, becoming a linguist, and generally learning new things all the time.
It’s a good idea to write all of your thoughts down properly. You’ll kill several birds with one stone because:
you’ll know what to answer when the examiners ask you about what attracts and what scares you about the Foreign Service;
on the day of the FSOA you need to give the examiners a written statement of the reasons you want to join the Foreign Service anyway;
you need to be a decent writer to join the Foreign Service, so start practicing!
As you write about your motivations, consult the description of your chosen career track to get some ideas. Read through each bullet point carefully and consider your relevant experiences and ambitions.
The next thing you want to do is join the FSOT Yahoo Group. Frankly, I could stop writing right here. There is so much information on that site that it makes posts like this almost redundant… except for the fact that most people on that site never actually passed all the tests of course!
Here is my advice on how to work the Yahoo Group site:
Structural interview questions:
It’s actually not that easy for me to explain how I prepared for the interview part, because in a way I feel that I prepared for it my whole adult life by amassing experiences, skills, and getting better at explaining my motivation and accomplishments so far. I read and traveled a lot, got a master’s degree in international relations, studied languages, and worked different jobs.
Still, I know for a fact that you can pass the test if you have done only a few of those things. The important thing is that you can remember all of your relevant experience and give some examples that say something about what you're all about.
To give some structure to this process, I recommend looking at the suggested flashcards in the files section of the Yahoo group and think of some great work-related examples to give in your replies, preferably about five different ones that you can use for multiple questions. You can also just look up common interview questions online.
Example questions: think of your biggest successes, your hardest tasks, your toughest boss, your proudest mentoring moment, or your most impressive skill. Rehearse your examples like you would for a performance. Trust me, you are not going to be tested on your spontaneity–there is nothing wrong with knowing your stuff. Just don't be too bland, giving only cookie-cutter answers that don't show any personality or worse, appear to hide your personality.
Also, remember that the interview part is not the time to be shy. Don’t tell the testers that you want to join the Foreign Service in order to learn new things (I’m talking to you, ladies!). Instead, explain to them what you will bring to the job.
In your answers, be sure to include the 13 dimensions. These are not suggestions – it’s what you’ll be tested on. Make sure you know these!
After the personal interview, the examiners will present you with a couple of hypothetical situations. This is actually a lot of fun and you probably don’t need to rehearse this part a lot. Before taking the test, I thought that I needed to have a complete template in my head about all the official steps a diplomat is supposed to take in a case of emergency, but in hindsight I think I worried about it too much.
Hypotheticals are much more about common sense and good judgment. There is a great website about hypotheticals that gives you an idea of what to expect, and gets you thinking about what kind of things you may want to include in your answer.
The group exercise is where you might want to join one of the group meetings that are organized worldwide through the Yahoo group. You can find a roster with in-person sessions (mainly in Washington DC) and through Skype.
I attended an online practice session that was organized by someone who lived in Italy! I also went to an in-person group exercise and found it extremely helpful. It’s fun to meet fellow aspiring diplomats – but be careful not to take anything too seriously. Remember: even if they have gone through the process before, they are not (yet) in the Foreign Service!
In my experience, there are two key benefits from practicing the group exercise. First, by doing it in a serious way you will get a pretty good idea about what it’s really like during the test. You’ll know how you do on timing and if you need to change anything about your note taking or presentation skills.
Second, when you know how the group exercise works you can use this decide what you want to do during the real test to make yourself stand out. Are you going to be the note taker or the timekeeper? Or are you going to be the one who brings everyone together in the end to make a great decision? Pick a role and envision yourself doing the same on test day.
This part of the test is all about making evidence-based decisions and - very important - time management. I suggest practicing at least one case study from the Yahoo group (I did Sharon Mitch) and timing it. I don’t think you can really prepare for the content of the case study, but you can definitely practice your writing skills and your timing. Determine in advance how much time you are going to give yourself to read and organize your thoughts, to write the memo, and to review your work.
And don't forget to prepare for the logistics of getting to the test! Slip into your favorite jacket and plan to arrive an hour early. Just in case. You don't want all that prep to be for nothing!