What you should REALLY read to pass Foreign Service exams
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
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.
Don't read anything?
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.
The idea is that 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?
Giant list of recommendations?
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.”
Make a plan!
Third, some people suggest you should figure out what your weaknesses are first. This is the approach I used and would recommend to others.
Step 1. 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 if 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!
This guide is a great tool for improving your knowledge of basic grammar and basic writing skills. And it does a great job of explaining how the Foreign Service exam works.
Wonderful source of test questions that prepare you for exactly the kinds of topics you should know something about. Use it to refresh your knowledge and a starting point to do some (shallow) research in the areas you're lacking.
Another study guide that's general enough to be helpful and specific enough to understand which types of general knowledge areas you should learn about or brush up on.
Step 2. 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
The only book that describes the Foreign Service as it is and how it functioned over the course of its history. It's objective, a little dry at times, but the only one of its kind if you really want to know about what the Foreign Service is all about and what it means to work there.
This book is not quite as comprehensive as Kopp's book, but it's nicer to read and just as informative about all the important aspects of the foreign service. Written in a more journalistic style, focused more on personalities who made difference in the Foreign Service and first-hand accounts of diplomats themselves.
Inside the U.S. Embassy: Diplomacy at Work, Shawn Dorman
This book is a compilation of short "what my day is like" written by employees across the Foreign Service, deliberately giving a very broad perspective of the work that the various men and women do in embassies. Not exactly a gripping tale, but a great source of real information and insights.
Realities of FS Life, Patricia Linderman
Written by the spouse of a Foreign Service Officers. Definitely a book that's more about the lifestyle and what it means to live abroad as a family, or single.
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.
Step 3. 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
A great handbook for understanding major historical and political events and trends. Truly a crash course in international relations. This book about history and international relations that comes highly recommended by current FSOs.
American Government, CliffsQuickReview
This is a handy little guide that will remind you of all that stuff you learned about how the government works.
Global: An extraordinary guide for ordinary heroes, Lyla Bashan
Very readable book about all the major international development issues and political and economic issues of global concern. Written in a fun, easy-to-understand style.