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Tips for high school students: what to study for the FS?

If you’re in high school right now and you already know you want to be Foreign Service Officer I say: good for you! Many FSOs will grumpily remark it’s too early to focus on the FS when you haven’t even gone to college yet, but I don’t agree. I think it’s great if you already have ideas about what you want to do later. And I think that preparing for the Foreign Service is never a bad thing.


Preparing for the Foreign Service is like preparing for the labor market in general: get a degree (although you technically don’t need one), practice transferable skills, learn about world history and current issues, familiarize yourself with the U.S. government system and, if you have the opportunity, learn a foreign language.



Here are some FAQs by high school students that recently hit my inbox:


What should I major in in college?


What you should study before you take the FS test is entirely up to you. There’s no right or wrong. The Foreign Service is looking for a wide variety of skills and talents, so just do you. Trust me, the Foreign Service isn’t a big legion of lawyers and international relations experts—we have social workers, literature majors, photographers, military, preachers, physicists, and everything in between.


Then again, I want to be helpful. That’s why I wrote the post What educational background do you need to become an FSO? in which I describe ways to strategize and get diplomatic skills even if you don’t go to a university that teaches courses on diplomacy.


Do I need a master’s degree?


This is where I agree with my cautious colleagues and say: don’t worry about it. You don't need a master’s degree to get into the FS, and many FSOs don’t have one. Then again, lots of them do.


In my case a master’s degree felt necessary because in the Netherlands an academic degree is not considered complete without the specialization and thesis that are part of the master’s program. My husband, who is also an FSO, has a master’s degree because he wanted to change course—instead of business he wanted to work in international development (before he landed in the Foreign Service).


I’m guessing many FSOs have master’s degrees because they like to study, or because they didn’t really know which career path to choose and simply wanted to postpone entering the job market. There are lots of reasons to get a master’s degree but not having one should definitely not stop you from applying for the Foreign Service. Once you’re in the FS, the only tangible benefit of a master’s degree is that you’ll get a higher paycheck (you go several steps up on the FS pay scale).


If you’re looking to study overseas: great. I’m sure you’ll have a fascinating experience. One note of caution, however: not every master’s degree will count as a master’s degree in the FS! This has to do with the length of the program. For example, my bachelor’s degree was three years and my master’s degree one year, which makes a total of four years and that, according to the State Department, is not long enough.


By the way, you can even get a master’s degree during your tenure in the Foreign Service. Every year multiple FSOs get scholarships to go study while continuing to receive their salaries.


Should I learn a foreign language?


This question is complicated so I’ve gone over it in a number of posts already, including What educational background do you need to become an FSO? The bottom line is that you shouldn’t worry about it too much unless you really like foreign languages or have the opportunity to become fluent in one.


Knowing a foreign language is not a requirement for the Foreign Service and many new FSOs don’t speak foreign languages already. Typically, the only FSOs that are fluent in a foreign language are those with immigrant parents or who lived abroad for a long time, for example when they joined the Peace Corps. But even those people, I’m afraid to say, often find that their level/style/vocabulary/accent does not meet the FSI standard and that they need more training.


Knowing a foreign language really well can help you score extra points on the Foreign Service test: you get plus .25 or.38 extra for Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, Dari, Farsi, Pashto, Urdu or Korean and .17 for other languages. Speaking a foreign languages may also give you a leg up with the examination board because it’s a good sign of your potential to learn languages and could say something about your suitability for the FS. However, you can’t get bonus points for multiple languages, so learning lots of foreign languages isn’t useful for that purpose.


Should l do an internship with DOS?


Yes! If you can, I recommend applying for an internship at an embassy or at the State Department in Washington DC. What better way to learn about the institution and get a sense of what it’s really like to work there? And think about it: any question you ever wanted to ask about the Foreign Service or the test you can ask your colleagues!


If for some reason you can’t do it, or you really want to do an internship elsewhere, that’s okay too. I’m sure the board of examiners would love to hear something else for a change. However, I’d advice you not to underestimate the power of trying something before you go all-in: it just makes sense to test-ride a government job before you align your career goals with it. It also gives you a taste of what to expect and what’s expected of you: the way people talk, write, discuss the news… you have to try to fit in and that’s way easier if you’re part of the scene.



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