Wanna be a diplomat? Here’s how to ace the FSOT
Updated: Apr 14
I always dreamt of becoming a diplomat, even as a kid; I wanted to work for the United Nations and after I moved to the US, I pictured myself working for the Foreign Service. I dreamt and dreamt, and did little about it.
I did go to school for it though. At university, I majored in international relations because I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else. But after graduating I didn’t feel ready to get a job as a diplomat—I was convinced that I needed more skills and experience before applying. I felt like I needed to know not just enough to get by during the test, but to blow everyone away with incredible experience and knowledge of international affairs.
A few years later I realized that, if I was ever going to be a diplomat, I needed to start focusing. Even though I had some experience with international relations and working in embassies, I still felt like I didn’t know enough. So I decided to read a couple of books to prepare for the test. I read some general books about political history and international affairs, and some more specific ones like Cliffs "Foreign Service Officer Test" and "American Government." I also read the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” to improve my spelling.
Perhaps reading books helped me pass the test. But in hindsight, what I think I really needed was the confidence to start going through the application process for real, not just in my mind.
The thing is; you can take the FSOT multiple times. As many times as you want, in fact. So it’s okay if you fail at first. Fear of failure was one of the main hurdles I had to overcome before I took the test. I had to convince myself that, like anything else, it’s normal to suck at something when you start out.
I remember the exact moment I realized that fear was holding me back; I had a conversation with a female friend who happened to know a diplomat I also knew, and she told me that his wife had tried to pass the test five times, and that, when she finally passed, she had a really high score. I was so impressed with her perseverance (and her high score) that I signed up for the test that same week.
However, this doesn’t mean that I walked into the test center thinking it was okay for me to fail a bunch of times. At that point, I was fully committed. I knew I was ready to become a diplomat because all of a sudden, I didn’t think the application process was such a problem anymore.
Before, the Foreign Service exam had seemed like an impossible obstacle course, but that changed when I actually started taking them. I enjoyed the challenge. I had a little voice in my head saying: of course you need to do these tests, how else are they going to find out that you are totally qualified for this job? Go kick some ass!
The first test is the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), also called the "written test", which is a computer-based test that contains four sections (actually, it also contained a biographical section when I took it, but I heard they have since taken it out): The sections are:
· General knowledge
· English expression
· Short essay
There are several books and websites dedicated to explaining the FSOT. What follows is just my own experience and advice on how to handle it.
English is my second language, so I was most nervous about the English expression part. I thought it might be tricky for me because there are certain types of tests that I have problems with, for example tests that involve identifying words without vowels. Fortunately, I found this part of the test pretty easy (I am a language person).
But what certainly helped was reading the English expression part in “CliffsTestPrep Foreign Service Officer Exam: Preparation for the Written Exam and the Oral Assessment” (get a used version on Amazon for a dollar!). I highlighted the punctuation rules that I didn’t know very well, like when (not) to use a comma, semi-colon, etc. Knowing my weak points really helped!
After the English expression part, I found the general knowledge section the most daunting part of the test. I mean, who knows everything? Not me. I do not typically win at Trivial Pursuit, if you know what I mean. So where to start when you feel that you lack general knowledge?
To improve or refresh your general knowledge, you might want to read a book or two about history, politics, or international relations. Another good idea is taking lots of FSOT practice exams. I took all the practice exams I could find online and I made copious notes. Seems like a lot of work? Not really, if you consider that once upon a time there was no Wikipedia! Honestly, if you are willing to do some superficial research into basic history, politics, economics, culture and psychology, you should be fine.
I prepared for the short essay in two ways: by looking up topics to write about and by actually writing essays. I hadn't heard of "5-paragraph essays", but apparently this is a thing, and it's probably the best model to use for this exercise.
It's impossible to guess what the topic is going to, and it's illegal for me to tell you the topic I got (signed an NDA), so what I did was just figure out what I was going to say if the question was related to anything that's a typical policy issue. Things like: universal healthcare, gun legislation, human rights, obesitas, immigration, death penalty, tax reform, and legal drinking age. I looked up pros and cons of each issue in order to be prepared for at least some topics and mainly to get some practice forming quick arguments and counterarguments.
The other thing I did was actually writing short essays. Honestly I didn't do very many of them, but it was still helpful to do it and really feel what it's like to write a short essay about a policy topic under time pressure. It's also a good reality check for spelling; you may think that your spelling is pretty good, but throwing it in a Word document with spelling check might reveal otherwise!
You can't really prepare for judgement questions I don't think. They're kind of funny, kind of confusing, and kind of easy. I mean, you get a description of a situation and then you simply say (it's multiple choice) what you're most likely to do and what you're least likely to do. I had no idea how I did on this part, but I just tried to make choices with confidence and not worry about it.
All in all, there are different ways to go about studying for the FSOT. For those who want to prepare: you can easily find out what to expect (online, in the bookstore, or from a diplomat in residence) if you think it will help you. I personally believe it can make all the difference.
Alternatively, you take the test without any preparation, (potentially) fail at it, learn from it, and then try it again. The only drawback is that you have to wait at least 12 months before you can retake the test.
For those who fail over and over: I'm a big fan of honesty and tough-love. First of all, I'd recommend preparing better. You can study for this test. It's doable if you're willing to do the work and don't lose confidence.
But if you don't pass after a couple of tries, you might want to get some advice from a real diplomat (diplomats in residence, for example) because you might be overlooking something. The odds of passing the FSOT are pretty good (I read 50% somewhere). So it doesn't make sense to spend years just making that cut, only to fail a later portion of the test (QEP and orals assessment).
Good luck, and I'm happy to answer questions!
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.
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