How many times should you take the Foreign Service exam before giving up?
In some countries you get only one shot at being a diplomat--if you're rejected, you’re done. You can't apply for the job again because, I suppose, they don’t want to invest in screening and assessing people more than once.
In the US, on the other hand, it’s not unusual for Foreign Service applicants to take the test multiple times. The American system allows for a high volume of applicants and nobody cares how many times you try. And because the first test (FSOT) is computer-based and takes place several times per year in locations across the country, it doesn’t really matter how many people take it. The number is typically between 10,000 and 20,000 people per year. In a way, the more people who take it the better it is, because it increases the chance of high-quality applicants.
Of course, the enormous number of applicants needs to shrink substantially for the State Department to meaningfully assess individual candidates. It needs to be narrowed down to the few hundred that are hired every year.
Who passes the first time?
Passing all the tests the first time around is certainly possible. I passed everything on my first try. I was ready for it. I had an International Relations degree, worked in embassies before, and prepped well for the exams.
My husband also passed the first time around. Like me, he’d worked at an embassy before, had experience in international relations, and had an international degree. But—as he’s always claimed—he didn’t actually prepare or practice for the tests.
I know several more diplomats who took the test only once. Some came straight out of college and some even took it “just for fun.” But I don’t think it's the norm.
Is it “bad” to try multiple times?
From what I can tell, many diplomats tried multiple times to get in but most don't want to talk about it. It’s not that it’s a big secret or a source of shame, but after you’re hired it just doesn’t matter anymore. Someone may have tried three times and passed with a score of 5.5 and someone else may have tried once and gotten a 5.9. So what?
The funny thing is, people who try more often sometimes end up with much higher scores than those who passed the first time around. I know one person who tried five times, then got a score of 6.0 (6.2 being the highest score I know of). Another person I know tried and got a 5.2 the first time around, then managed to get a 5.9 one year later.
So how often you take the tests doesn’t really matter or say anything about your chance of success. Trying multiple times just means you’re persistent and if you pass, it demonstrates that you’re able to learn and grow.
Some people take the test eight times or more. The fact is that candidates have different odds of passing because they have different backgrounds and approaches—some are only 21 and simply need a bit more experience before being able to convince the Board of Examiners that they’re capable, while others fail (initially) because they’re nervous or unprepared for the rigors of the test. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t or won’t be good diplomats down the line.
Stranded in the QEP
Some years ago the Foreign Service introduced the Qualifications Evaluations Panel (QEP), which is basically where candidates explain their professional achievements, adding an additional step to the testing process. Nowadays, this seems to be where a big chunk of candidates fail. Many find it frustrating because they don’t get feedback about what was good or bad about their narratives.
When you fail at the oral assessment (which is the next step) at least you were physically present at the test, and you're probably (painfully) aware of the mistakes you made. Failing during the QEP stage, on the other hand, is more like submitting a job application and not hearing back. It makes wonder if you can improve and how.
Then again, it makes sense that lots of people get knocked out during the QEP stage because the State Department has neither the capacity nor the need to personally interview and assess thousands of people each year. They have to narrow the applicant pool down somehow.
The one awkward thing…
I find it kind of awkward to talk to people who failed the test but try to hide it. Sometimes I'm gushing about how happy I am about joining the Foreign Service when I suddenly get a funny feeling that the person I'm talking to tried but failed and is, for whatever reason, too ashamed to mention it.
In some cases, I find out about people's attempts to join the Foreign Service much later. There’s someone who I consider my friend now who never mentioned to me that she was trying, even as I was telling her all about my own experience. Then she suddenly became a diplomat before me! Apparently she was taking the test at the same time as I was and got in earlier because her security clearance took less time than mine.