How to pass the FSOT

I’ve received several questions about the Foreign Service application process, so for the next few posts, I’ll outline how I approached each step. Up first? The FSOT.

The first hurdle in becoming a diplomat is passing the Foreign Service Officer Test, or the FSOT. This four-part computerized test is administered at testing centers around the U.S. (and abroad) and tests the “knowledge, skills and abilities that are necessary to the work of a Foreign Service Officer.” Many will tell your that you can’t study for the FSOT because it’s too broad. Do not listen to these people. There are strategies to taking any test and below I’ve outlined the strategies I used to pass the FSOT. Woohoo! Studying! Fun!

The lofty plans of a diplomat wannabe, (who has better hole-punching skills than demonstrated here).

Test Basics

Most importantly, know the test. How many questions are in each section? How many minutes do you get for each section? How is each section scored? Know how to play the game by their rules. And just as importantly, know thyself. Which sections do you feel comfortable with? Which sections do you most need to prepare for?

Read through the official State Department Application Process and the information they’ve posted on the FSOT, specifically the official Selection Process Information Guide, which contains an explanation of each of the sections as well as practice questions. They also have a separate practice test and a mobile app with additional questions. I suggest taking the practice test in the Information Guide before you start studying, so you know where your strengths and weaknesses are. The suggested reading list is nothing but overwhelming, so click that link with caution (I read none of these books and did just fine). Speaking of which, do not panic. There is a lot of information in the world and you will not know it all. You don’t need to. Prioritize and make a customized study guide for yourself. The test is bizarrely random, so the name of the game is simply to feel prepared.

I’ve heard several people recommend the FSOT Yahoo Group (an unofficial State Department chat group) and it’s always a good idea to reach out to your Diplomat in Residence. Furthermore, peruse the news (I recommend the BBC app’s top daily stories) and read a few Foreign Service blogs. They a great resource for study tips.

Part 1: Job Knowledge

In my opinion, this is the hardest section because the questions are so wide-ranging. In the State Department’s own words, these multiple-choice questions cover, “a broad range of topics including, but not limited to, the structure and workings of the U.S. Government, U.S. and World History, U.S. Culture, Psychology, Technology, Management Theory, Finance and Economics, and World Affairs.” And you were worried there wouldn’t be a question on price elasticity and economic demand! Phew!

My background prepared me fairly well for the Management, Finance, and Economics sections. With “fairly” being the operative word. But I hadn’t taken a history or civics class since high school, so my knowledge of history and the inner workings of the U.S. government was quite lacking. So to study, I lined up the below outline for myself:

  • Watch “America, The Story of Us,” a 12-part History Channel series. This was a good way to quickly review American history and see all the major events on a single timeline.
  • Take a few free online Khan Academy courses. They have a million useful topics and are very well done. I reviewed the U.S. history, World History, and U.S. Civics courses.
  • Familiarize yourself with the results of a few landmark U.S. Supreme Court Cases.
  • Memorize the ideals of a few major philosophers, such as Thomas Paine, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant.
  • Review some key Public Relations and Economic vocabulary. What’s asymmetrical communication again?
  • Know how the U.S. government works. This is an important one. Know how bills become laws and the difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate. Know the chain of command of the government. Know what all the U.S. Federal agencies do and about when they were founded.
  • Master the Sporcle global geography quiz. Know your countries. Also a useful skill on Flag Day.

Part 2: English Expression

This multiple-choice section simply tests your English grammar. In my opinion, it is very similar to the English Grammar section on the SATs and APs. If this is a tricky section for you, get yourself an SAT prep book and review the Grammar section.

Part 3: Biographic Questionnaire

For this section, know thyself and self-compliment effusively. The questions begin as multiple-choice. For example: How many times in the past year have you organized an event? Never? 1-2? 3-4? More than 4 times? Then the kicker: List these events in the box below, but surprise, a tiny character count! In my opinion, the hardest part about this section is the timing. There are a lot of questions and it flies by as you’re trying to condense all your accomplishments into a tiny text box. Finish the multiple-choice half of all of these questions, even if you don’t have a chance to fill in all the text boxes. For the text boxes, forget complete sentences and obscure event titles and try to give descriptions if you can fit them. So not: “Organized Paris Peace Treaties,” but “Negotiated end of WWII between nine warring superpowers.” And you know what else counts? Those weekly meetings you set up at work. And that study group you organized for your French class. And that charity run you volunteered at. So yes, you organized events like this more than four times in the past year. Self-complimenting. It’s an art.

Part 4: Written Essay

They’ve changed this section since I took the test. Currently, you get to choose one of three essay topics and have 25 minutes to write an eloquent and thought-provoking essay supporting your thoughts on the matter. The topics themselves aren’t overly difficult, but 25 minutes goes fast. So practice writing a few timed essays before you get to the test (especially if you haven’t written a proper essay since college). SAT essay prompts would be good practice here. Know what 25 minutes feels like and have a basic essay structure prepared that you can drop any topic into. Lastly, leave yourself time to re-read your paper. The computer will not have spell-check and typos will count against you.

Go get ’em, Tiger! Good luck!

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