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What you should REALLY read to pass Foreign Service exams

Updated: Mar 24, 2019

It’s a common question by FS-wannabes: what should I read to prepare for the Foreign Service exams (the FSOT and the FSOA)? In my experience, there are three types of answers diplomats give to this question.

The first type of answer I’ve heard people give is this: don’t bother reading or doing anything specific—just focus on developing your general knowledge and skills. If you’re meant to have a diplomatic career you can just read the Economist sometimes and that should do it. Not really helpful, right?

The second type of answer you’ll find (mostly online) is a referral to a long list of books proposed by the State Department. The suggested reading list is wonderfully elaborate but rather discouraging; reading the reading list and then making a selection is already exhausting.

One particularly helpful blog for Foreign Service exam takers—called “Path to the Foreign Service”—provides a reading list that’s almost as long and equally intimidating but at least Jack added descriptions of the books so you know what they’re about. Still, it beats me why anyone would prepare for the exam by slogging through works like the “Investigative Reporter’s Handbook.”

Third, some people suggest you should figure out what your weaknesses are first. This is the approach I used and would recommend to others.

Find your weaknesses

Before you read anything, you should take a bunch of FSOT practice exams. There’s a practice test provided by the State Department, and there are several others freely available on the web and in a variety of mobile apps.

The point is not that these practice exams will tell you whether you’re going to pass or not; I think their main purpose is to show you the format and the topics of the exam. This allows you to find out what you need to read up on.

Besides the free exams online, it doesn’t hurt to get a used copy of one of the books below (I only used the first suggestion). These books describe the exams, summarize basic writing rules, and provide tests. Whenever you see anything in there that’s unfamiliar, just look it up on Wikipedia and go from there!

- Foreign Service Officer Exam: Preparation for the Written Exam and the Oral Assessment, CliffsTestPrep

- FSOT Study Guide Review: Test Prep & Practice Test Questions for the Written Exam & Oral Assessment on the Foreign Service Officer Test, Test Prep Books

- Foreign Service Officer Test: Complete Study Guide to the Written Exam and Oral Assessment, Adar Review

- The Complete FSOT Study Guide: Practice Tests and Test Preparation Guide for the Written Exam and Oral Assessment, Robert Clark, Aegis Review

Imagine the work & lifestyle

I worked in embassies before, so for the FSOA it was relatively easy for me to imagine the embassy work environment and the lifestyle. For those who haven’t it could pay off to read a book about what happens inside embassies, exactly.

I read some of those books recently—all of them, perhaps. Here is the list of books that describe in detail what the US Foreign Service is all about:

- Career Diplomacy, Harry Kopp

- America's Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st-Century Diplomacy, Nicolas Kralev

- Inside the U.S. Embassy: Diplomacy at Work, Shawn Dorman

- Realities of FS Life, Patricia Linderman

As far as I know, the first two books are the only recent books about the State Department’s work overseas that are general enough to give you a full understanding of what American diplomats do. Kopp’s book is a bit dry, but the best guide to the Foreign Service that’s currently available. Kralev’s book is more journalistic and a bit easier to read.

The latter two books aren’t really useful for studying, just for imagining what your work and lifestyle would be like. You don’t read them cover-to-cover—just pick the stories that seem interesting and relevant to you.

Refresh/build your general knowledge

I have to admit that I minored in History and majored in International Relations. So it’s possible that I know a little bit more about diplomatic issues than the average applicant (or not—that’s also entirely possible).

If you really lack a solid understanding of U.S. government, international relations, and development issues altogether, you may want to grab that one textbook that’s going to give it to you straight. For example:

- Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938, Stephen Ambrose

- American Government, CliffsQuickReview

- Global: An extraordinary guide for ordinary heroes, Lyla Bashan

The first book is a general book about history and international relations that comes highly recommended by current FSOs. The second book is a handy little guide that will remind you of all that stuff you learned about how the government works.

The third one is a wonderful new book by a friend of mine that vividly describes all the main global/development issues of today. It’s geared towards a younger audience, but that makes it all the more easy and fun to read.

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