Every year, thousands of people apply for just a handful of positions in the Foreign Service as a Foreign Service Officer, or FSO. The process is extremely rigorous and requires dedication and long-term commitment to bring this dream to fruition.
The first big step in becoming a Foreign Services Officer is taking the written exam. It is computer-based and requires no test-taking materials. Bring your authorization letter, a valid photo ID or passport, dress comfortably and professionally and show up for the test rested and ready to be focused for several hours.
The written test is the culmination of what should be a year or longer of preparation and study. The test is extremely diverse and covers a large array of topics and subject manner that one might need while serving in the Foreign Service.
There are several steps beyond the Foreign Service Officer Test, beginning with the application you fill out before the test. After taking the FSOT successfully, they will be an individual narrative, an oral interview, and medical and security clearances that must be obtained.
Foreign Services Officer Test
After filling out an application, the next step is taking the Foreign Services Officer Test (FSOT). This test cannot be underestimated. The test has 4 main areas: General job knowledge, situational judgment, English and grammar, and an essay portion.
The first 3 sections of the test are multiple-choice, and the essay portion is objectively graded. You should get your test results back within 4 weeks, with instructions on what steps to take based on your score.
When you arrive at the test site, you will need to present your authorization letter to sit for the test. If you are in the United States, you will need to show your government-issued photo ID card, such as a driver’s license. If you are testing overseas you will need to have your passport with as your photo ID.
You will also be photographed as part of the onsite registration process. The picture is just for identification and security purposes, and there will not be anyone there who will be interviewing you later. So, you will want to dress professionally for the picture, but you do not need to worry about first impressions.
This test requires dedicated study and months to years of focused effort. Normally more than half the people that make it fail the written test. The FSOT is computer-based, except for the essay portion. The test is offered 3 times a year and can be taken twice in one year. Many FSOs have taken the test multiple times before being selected for the service.
The general knowledge area is an all-encompassing test that covers any relevant job-related knowledge, including world history, government laws, and policies, world current events, etc. This requires a lot of daily study and memorization which can easily get overwhelming if you do not pace your learning and start early in this area.
Situational judgment questions score how you react to certain situations. These could be job-related, ethical questions, personal responsibility, or any other topic that brings into play your decision-making process.
The English and grammar content area is simply that, a test over your knowledge and ability to understand and use correct verbiage and grammar. A lot of the FSO job will require formal written and oral communication and having a strong grasp of the English language and grammar is a must.
And finally, the essay portion is a 30-minute period where you will be expected to write a brief essay on a prompted topic. The essay needs to be clean and organized, but also cover the topic completely and be written in a way that shows a command of the subject manner.
The Foreign Service Explained
If you are actively pursuing a career in the Foreign Service, or specifically as a Foreign Service Officer, this information is not new to you. However, if you are contemplating a career in this field, or simply gathering information to make an informed decision, read on to find out what options you have.
The Foreign Service falls under the United States Department of State. The State Department oversees all the diplomatic Missions and facilities throughout the world, almost 300 in total. The Missions are successfully operated and maintained by a combination of Foreign Service employees, United States Military, vendors and contractors, and foreign nationals.
At the heart of every diplomatic Mission are the State Department Foreign Service employees. The Employees fall into 2 primary categories, Foreign Service Officers (FSO), and Foreign Service Specialists (FSS). The Foreign Service Officers handle the diplomatic aspects of the Foreign Service while the FSS are primarily there for support function.
These employees do everything from manage properties to handle major diplomatic functions. Collectively the employees take on every function necessary to maintain the diplomatic Missions, including embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic posts.
FSOT graded submission information here: https://civilservicehq.com/fsot-graded-submission/
History of the Foreign Service
The premise of foreign service for international purposes goes all the way back to the Second Article of the Constitution. Originally referred to as the Diplomatic Service, it has undergone several major changes and revisions over the years.
In the late 1700s, legislation provided for the establishment of United States Consuls all over the world to varying degrees. The original consular was not paid by the United States Government. They earned their keep from basically charging fees and making a commission on trade and commerce they arranged with their respective foreign assignments.
The result of this set-up was the appointment of more business-minded people with merchant or commerce backgrounds and connections over those with more of a diplomatic background or focus. At this point, establishing and maintaining trade links and the flow of goods was the greatest priority of the service. Many consular were not even United States citizens.
In 1856 Congress moved the service away from trade and began the focus on diplomacy. Local fees could still be charged but only certain consuls could continue working in trade and commerce. This action by Congress began to divide the consuls into different classifications and lower-paid positions could continue in trade and commerce while the higher paid ones focused on diplomatic Missions.
Congress toyed with other changes and improvements to the service, and by the end of the nineteenth century, there were over 60 consular clerks who were specially trained and considered the first professional consular diplomats.
When Theodore Roosevelt was president, he used Executive orders to widen training and testing procedures for all classifications of employees for the Consular Service and the Diplomatic Service, which were both operating separately at this time to perform the functions that would soon become the Foreign Service.
In 1924 the Foreign Service was officially formed by the passage of the Rogers Act. The main accomplishment of this act was to move both the Consular Service and Diplomatic Service under one organization, the Foreign Service.
Is Being a Foreign Services Officer for Me?
When it comes to working with foreign countries on behalf of the United States Government, there are many options. There are jobs based in the United States, jobs based overseas, jobs for private contractors and contract workers, jobs for government employees, and many more options.
The first step in the Foreign Services Officer process is to ensure that you are making the right decision. The FSO process is extremely competitive and takes a year or more to complete the process in most cases.
If you finish the process and are selected as an FSO, there is plenty of room for advancement, but there is a tradeoff. You are expected to be available for assignments all over the world, and to be prepared for assignments with short notice. While it sounds adventurous and challenging, it is difficult for someone with a family or who enjoys a regular schedule.
You will also need to stay up to date on current events. Many jobs in the Foreign Service require daily briefings and information gathering. The world of politics is very dynamic and changes frequently and rapidly, so as an FSO an up to the minute knowledge of current diplomatic realities is essential.
You will also need to be open to new cultures and experiences. Some assignments will be to areas that require some cultural conformity or participation. Other assignments may in areas with certain levels of danger or risk.
If you feel being an FSO is for you, there several steps to accomplish before test day.
What’s Next After the FSOT?
If you fail the test, which a majority do in most circumstances, your attempt at becoming a Foreign Service Officer is finished and you will need to register again to take the test and start over. However, if you pass the test, it is just the beginning of a journey with many more hurdles ahead.
After passing the FSOT, you will need to submit a personal narrative to the Qualification Evaluation Panel (QEP). This personal narrative entails 6 essays of a maximum of 1300 characters each. The essays are written about your life experiences and successes. You will have 2 weeks to finish the essays and submit them.
After completing the personal narrative essays, you will need to schedule a Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA). Many test-takers who make it this far feel like this is the hardest, or at least the most intimidating, part of the process. It is estimated that roughly a third of the prospective candidates that make it to the oral review pass it and continue to move forward.
There are many online tutorials, blogs, and talk groups about the FSOA. There are a couple of successful strategies used to navigate this process. It can be extremely challenging and getting pointers from people who have completed this process can be helpful.
Once you successfully pass the FSOA, you will need to get medical clearance. For some, this is a simple process, while others may have a more involved process. You can get a jump on this process by being sure you have a regular doctor and are in good health before the FSOT process.
A security clearance is a final step in the process. This can be an exceptionally long process. There is minimal involvement from you, but it is a waiting game. It is a very exhaustive process that looks through every aspect of your personal history. Nothing is off limits-finances, criminal history, employment history, and any other relevant life events.
Once all of these steps are completed, your name appears on the Registry. The Registry is where your name is registered with the Foreign Service office. As jobs become available, those posting the jobs can look over the registry to find qualified Foreign Service Officers. The jobs are all over the world and can last a few months to years. As you gain more experience, your time on the registry decreases as you get selected quicker.
As you gain more time in the Foreign Service, you can bid on some jobs and can be more selective in what jobs you take. You are usually not expected to take jobs you do not want, however, as a new Foreign Service officer, you would do well to take any job that comes your way.
What is a Foreign Service Specialist?
A Foreign Service Specialist is a support role serving in the State Department. These Specialists serve in functions such as information technology, administrative rolls, logistics, facilities management, and maintenance, etc.
Some Foreign Service Officers begin their careers in the Foreign Service as Specialists. This allows them to become familiar with the process and begin making connections while working on Foreign Service officer classification.
What about student internships?
The United States Department of State has multiple internship programs for high school and college students. They vary greatly and are available for both domestic and foreign locations. The internship programs are available to both United States Citizens and international students who meet the criteria.
The internship programs are an excellent way for younger people to decide if the Foreign Service is for them. It allows for hands-on experiences in real-world situations that can allow a student to make an informed decision on their future in the Foreign Service.
To learn how to best prepare and study for your foreign service exam click here!
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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.
Hi! I’m Shawn Chun and I’m so grateful that you’re here.
Civil servants are some of the hardest working, most generous people I know. I have been passionate about all types of civil service career paths for years now and enjoy sharing everything I continue to learn about them.
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