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!

Happy Independence Day!

I interrupt our previously scheduled content to wish you all a happy Independence Day! Because there’s little I could write that would do this day justice, I’ll leave the rest of this post to the professionals:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of a right ought to be free and independent states and for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.”

– The Declaration of Independence, 1776.

Because there’s nothing more American than blue marshmallows!

Best seat in the house!

Happy birthday, America!

A Timeline: My Pursuit of the Foreign Service

It’s been another busy month here in the nation’s drizzly capitol! I received the required 1+/1+ on my first language exam and now have just three weeks to get to a 2+/2+. Ha. Ha. GULP. Portuguese continues to test the elasticity of my frazzled brain, but my English is definitely faltering so let’s hope that means that my Portuguese is improving. I also received my official Senate confirmation, which I assume passed with much gavel-pounding and hip hip hooraying. And I’ve had a lovely string of visitors, including my sister, who is gracing me with her presence while she job-hunts in Washington, D.C. Most importantly, she and I started watching The Great British Baking Show and have decided to become master bakers in our spare time. Attempt #1 was a success. Mary Berry would be proud.

In just nine hours, you too can create a Swedish Prinsesstårta!

I’d also like to thank those of you that have reached out recently with questions about the application process. While I was applying to be a diplomat (a painstakingly slow process that took well over two years), I read several Foreign Service blogs that were incredibly helpful in explaining the process. So for the next few posts, I’d like to add my two cents and delve into my pursuit of the Foreign Service. I hope you find these posts useful!

First up: the timeline.

June 19, 2014: ‘Twas a quiet summer morning in New York City. Birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and my study notes were flapping in the wind as I frantically debated whether or not I needed to understand the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. I rushed through the three-hour Foreign Service Officer Test because, as luck would have it, I had to report to jury duty that same day. At the same time. I skidded into jury duty an hour late and then promptly fell asleep in a waiting room chair. A month later, I found out that I passed the FSOT (yay!) but a few months later discovered that I hadn’t passed the following QEP essay round (how dare they!). I vowed to right this injustice and returned to my studying.

June 12, 2015: The State Department allows applicants to test only once per year, so I waited several months to take the test again. During the test, I plodded through hundreds of questions, but while I was supposed to be recalling obscure facts on everything from world history to economics to math, I was instead distracted by the giant computer font size and the provided ear plugs: does anyone actually use them? I stumbled out into the light a few hours later. I ate a bagel. A month later, I find out I again passed the exam.

July 2015: I have three weeks to write, obsessively edit, and submit six 220-word personal narrative essays. I struggle to summarize my many inspiring accomplishments in a mere 1,320 words. I attempt to add more pizzazz to my narratives in the hopes of impressing the QEP review panel, although I’m irked at them for not recognizing my brilliance the previous year. Luckily, pizzazz works! I receive an email three weeks later inviting me to the Oral Examination in Washington, D.C.

February 4, 2016: I spend the fall of 2015 in a perpetual state of panic. I annoy my friends with constant in-depth explanations of the three part, all-day Oral Examination, which involves a timed group negotiation challenge, a situational one-on-one interview, and a written case study. Evaluators watch silently throughout the day, and even the lunch break feels like a test. At the end of the day, as our heads bob from exhaustion, we nerve-wracked interviewees are led into individual rooms where we are told whether we pass or fail. Those that fail are literally escorted out of the building. Luckily, I pass! I take a celebratory nap.

February 2016: I spend the rest of February filling out giant stacks of paperwork in the form of medical and security clearance applications. Not only must I list every trip I’ve taken out of the country in the last 10 years but the name and contact information of almost everyone I’ve ever met. One day at work, a security officer interrogates me for three hours and then meets with all my nearest and dearest friends in a variety of deserted office lobbies and lonely park benches. My security officer is pleased that I’ve never done anything scandalous enough to warrant decent gossip. I received my medical clearance later that month, which means that I’m healthy enough to be sent to a country without doctors: must not fall off any ladders.

July 15, 2016: After months of obsessive email-checking, I officially receive my security clearance and am put on the Foreign Service Register, a list of super-qualified diplomat-wannabes. We are ranked only by our Oral Examination scores, so many people will make it this far and still never receive a job offer. We can wait on the Register for 18 months before we’re dropped from the list and have to start the application process over from the beginning. Eek.

September 26, 2016: I officially receive an offer to join the January 9, 2017 189th A-100 class! I spend a good part of the morning bouncing around a conference room at work and send dozens of ALL CAPS TEXTS to everyone I know.

January 9, 2017: I spend a few months wrapping up my current job, seeing my friends and family, and let’s not forget: packing. I arrive in D.C. the afternoon before I’m scheduled to start and neatly hang my first-day-of-work outfit in the closet. The next morning, I nervously approach the highly guarded entrance to the State Department. My heart nearly stops as the security guard scans his list of new employees and I breath a sigh of relief when he lets me through the gate. Let the fun begin!

Only about 40% of applicants pass the Foreign Service Officer Test, and then only 40% of the remaining applicants pass the QEP essay round and are invited to the Oral Examinations. 20% of the interviewees pass the Oral Examination, which is only 3% of the original applicants. Most diplomats went through this process more than once, as did I. So to those of you interested in applying, stick with it!

Portuguese Will Be the Death of Me

Being paid to learn a language is an incredibly cool part of this job. For diplomats, foreign language fluency is both a logistical necessity and a nod of respect to other cultures. As Nelson Mandela once so eloquently summarized, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

However. The joy I feel at someday being a bilingual representative of the United States does not prevent waves of terror from crashing through my very core. Because I have a total of 24 weeks to become fluent in Portuguese. A mere 168 days. I’m currently on my eighth week, which means that I have just 16 weeks left. This also means that I have my first formal evaluation next week, in which I must prove that I can speak/read at a 1+/1+ level.

[The audience hears a thud as the protagonist topples to the floor.]

The State Department uses the ILR Scale of Fluency, which ranks individuals on a 1-5 scale. At 8 weeks, I must speak/read at a 1+/1+ level. At 16 weeks, a 2+/2+, and at 24 weeks, a 3/3. If I miss any of these benchmarks, some lucky language teacher will call my future boss and tell them that I won’t get to post on time. Even more stress-inducing is the fact that I need fluency in at least one foreign language to receive tenure as a diplomat. The stakes are high.

[The audience hears the panicked crinkling of chocolate egg wrappers.]

The timing and required level of fluency vary based on the language you’re learning. If you’re learning Russian, you have 32 weeks to reach a 2/2. If you’re learning Mandarin, you have 36 weeks to reach a 2/1. But fear not. No matter what language you’re learning, the timing is short enough to give you crazed panic eyes. The mark of a true language-learning diplomat.

For reference, below are three videos, showing what an English learner sounds like at a 1+, 2+, and 3 speaking level. Now, please excuse me. I must go locate more chocolate.

ILR Speaking – Level 1+

ILR Level 1+

You got this, self.

ILR Speaking – Level 2+

ILR Level 2+

Dear heavens above.

ILR Speaking – Level 3

ILR Level 3

MAYDAY. MAYDAY. EVERYBODY PANIC.

So what exactly does a diplomat do?

Desk with Portuguese Homework

Português! O meo cérebro dói.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a lot to talk about! We could talk about my Portuguese class (Exames! Pânico! Desastre iminente!), or the rumored hand-to-hand combat training I have to take in October, or how one goes about buying a car on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I promise to revisit these stories in future posts. But first, I’d like to finally answer a pressing question on everyone’s mind: so what exactly does a diplomat do?

American diplomats “represent and protect the interests of the United States abroad,” and I’d argue that this mission falls into two categories. Bear with me now. On one hand, American diplomats push information out. They explain U.S. import policies to Italian business owners, ensure that Nepalese radio stations are reporting correct information about the United States, and encourage Ethiopian students to study at American universities. They are master negotiators and effective communicators. On the other hand, American diplomats pull information in. They are the United States’ eyes and ears on the ground and report back to Washington on the political and economic environment in more than 190 countries around the world. They know whether clean water or new schoolbooks are needed in a rural community in Liberia, or which political party in India is most likely to win the next presidential election, or whether a country is deteriorating into civil war. Even more importantly, they know how each of these issues will impact the safety and prosperity of the United States.

“Thank heavens these issues don’t affect me,” you think. But they most certainly do! Because it is a diplomat who helps make it safe for you to travel abroad. It is a diplomat negotiating the treaty that prevents sending American troops to war. It is a diplomat who determines which foreign individuals will be granted visas to enter the United States. It is a diplomat who dissipates anger against the United States with careful communication. 

Despite having done vast amounts of research prior to joining the State Department, I’m still boggled by how many issues the State Department’s 13,980 diplomats manage to juggle. That being said, there are five types of diplomats who obtain, process, and communicate all this information. As described by the State Department, the five career cones are:

  • Consular: Consular Officers facilitate adoptions, help evacuate Americans, and combat fraud to protect our borders and fight human trafficking.
  • Economic: Economic Officers work with foreign governments and U.S. agencies on technology, science, economic, trade, energy, and environmental issues.
  • Management: Management Officers are resourceful, action-oriented leaders responsible for all embassy operations from real estate to people to budget.
  • Political: Political Officers analyze host country political events and communicate effectively with all levels of foreign government officials.
  • Public Diplomacy: Public Diplomacy Officers engage, inform, and influence foreign societies in order to promote understanding and support of U.S. policies.

While I am officially a Public Diplomacy Officer, I will serve as a Consular Officer in Cabo Verde. Which means that in only a few months, I’ll be giving visa interviews in Portuguese. Gulp.

Swearing In

It’s official!

On a sunny Friday in February, my foreign service colleagues and I escorted our families through the halls of the Harry S. Truman State Department Building, attempting to show off our newfound insider knowledge, but instead getting lost in the maze of white hallways. We gathered in one of the formal auditoriums and listened as Under Secretary Tom Shannon welcomed us to, “lives of significance and consequence.” We then stood, raised our right hands, and took the above oath of office.

Pretty powerful stuff. We’ve been reminded many times throughout our training that our lives are no longer ours; we serve a greater purpose and must put the needs of American public ahead of our own. Nothing makes that mission resonate more than pledging your commitment alongside 100 of the brightest people you’ll ever meet.

Even the oath itself has historical importance. The oath was originally created by George Washington and the Founding Fathers, who were explicit that U.S. government officials not swear allegiance to an individual (as had been done in Great Britain to the king), but to the Constitution. This oath was later amended by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, when officers had to swear that they in no way supported the Confederacy. Following the Civil War, this oath was again amended by Congress, who developed the wording that is used today. And now this is the same oath that the Vice President takes!

Congratulations to the United States’ newest diplomats!

My family: the best cheerleaders in the house!

Flag Day!

Flag Day has come and gone and my classmates and I have all survived! The energy of the room was electric as nervous parents fretted over color-coded bid lists and State Department employees lined the walls, reliving the excitement of Flag Days past. My friends readied their cameras and specially-made Flag Day bingo cards, ready to provide emotional support should I happen to trip on my way to the front of the room.

I was one of the last people called, so I sat with my stomach in knots as the number of remaining flags dwindled. What countries were left? Should I exit my row to the right or left? Was the panic making my curls frazzled? Suddenly, I heard my name called from afar and found myself shaking the ambassador’s hand.

So where will I be going? Cabo Verde!

“Don’t tip over. Don’t tip over. Don’t tip over.”

One of my highs! Cabo Verde is a chain of ten islands off the coast of West Africa. Combined, the islands (including three volcanos – gulp) are about as big as Rhode Island, but what Cabo Verde lacks in land mass, it makes up for in exuberance. The country is known for its music, beaches, and people, yet more Cabo Verdeans actually live abroad than in the country, which boasts a population of just 500,000. Cabo Verde has a higher standard of living than any other West African nation and gained independence from Portugal in 1975. As a result, the country’s official language is Portuguese, although many citizens also speak Crioulo, an African/Creole/Portuguese mix. Perhaps most importantly, there is one goat for every two people in Cabo Verde. Goats mean cheese.

My new home!

Let’s zoom in a tad…

There it is!

I’ve listened to other people’s Flag Day stories for years, but being in my own was surreal. The Foreign Service is now tangible. The job exists. I can mentally picture the next two years of my life. And I can’t wait to get started. I will spend the next few months in intensive Portuguese and Consular training and will depart for post in October. Time to get to work!

The Bid List

fullsizerender

Darn right I will.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. A downright whirl of wind. I’ve spent my days in A-100, State Department speak for basic training. And I’ve spent my nights bouncing between happy hours with my new 189th A-100 classmates. My pool game is improving.

I will delve into A-100 training in a future post, but for now I want to focus on The Bid List. The Bid List is the list of job openings for us newbies. Aka, a single piece of paper that determines the direction of our entire lives. Exaggeration? I think not. Somewhere on this piece of paper is the name of the city in which I’ll spend the next two years. The city that will determine what language I’ll learn, how long I’ll be in DC, and whether I’ll have guaranteed access to scones in the near future. The city that will impact the trajectory of my entire State Department career. How’s that for epic? You’d think such a document would arrive embossed and stamped with a wax seal. Or at least laminated. But alas, on an otherwise normal Wednesday afternoon, a single piece of plain paper was dropped on our desks. My subsequent thoughts:

Bureau: SCA (“South and Central Asia! I know where that is!”)
Post: Tashkent (“Wait. Where is Tashkent?”)*
Cone: CONS (“Behold my visa-processing future!”)
Language: TB 3/3 (“Tajiki. That’s fun!”)

*I get hollered at if I divulge state secrets. This is not a real bid list post. Please don’t fire me.

That’s all the information we get. Listed for each post is the region, a city name (no countries, that’s too easy), the cone (U.S. diplomats are hired to work within one of five cones: Public Diplomacy, Consular, Management, Political, or Economic – all newbies are required to do at least one Consular tour), and the required language level (based on the 1-5 ILR fluency scale – a 3/3 designating fluency in Speaking/Reading). We have two weeks to research and rank each post as a high, medium, or low based on our personal preferences. We then turn our completed lists over to our Career Development Officers, who compare the lists of us chipper hopefuls, cross-reference our preferences with the needs of the service, and assign us our first posts as U.S. diplomats. My internal dialogue for the past few weeks went something like this:

How cold is cold? Do they have Internet? How big are the bugs I’ll find in my shower? Will I have a shower? Will I have to drive on the other side of the road? Do they have cheese? Do I have to bleach all my vegetables? How concerned am I with air pollution? Do I want danger pay incentive? What do they mean when they say the air smells like fish? Can people come visit? Is learning Tajiki useful? Should I spend a year learning Mandarin instead? Why did I agree to be worldwide available? Do my preferences really even matter? Am I too manic for island life? Thank heavens I don’t have any pets. Or worse, children. Land mines? I need to be worried about land mines?!

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A list of languages taught by the State Department. Kinyarwanda, anyone?

Having ranked and re-ranked the posts hundreds of times, I have officially submitted The Bid List. My future is no longer in my hands. And it is absolutely thrilling. In less than a week, I’ll be sitting anxiously in an auditorium among my shaky peers as we clutch highlighters and copies of our lists. The name of each post will be called out randomly to an audience of 500 family and friends. And then through the suspense hanging in the air we’ll hear the name of one of our classmates. When my name is called, I’ll walk shakily to the stage, where I’ll accept the flag of my new host country, pause for an official picture, and try to remember to address the flag-hander-outer as Mr. Ambassador. Wish me luck.

Inauguration Day

 

“We the people of the United States…”


Today is a fascinating day to be in Washington, DC. The city is resplendent in red, white, and blue and people from all walks of life are seeing our nation’s capitol for the first time. A president who served this country and its people for eight years is stepping down and another is assuming his responsibility. Our nation is in the midst of change.

It is also a fascinating time to be working for the State Department. Many offices contain nothing but cardboard boxes as the former occupants find themselves looking for new employment. Career ambassadors who have served their country for 30 years have left their posts, their jobs suddenly back up for grabs. Last week, we were briefed on the State Department’s structure, with the caveat that in just a few days, entire bureaus may no longer exist. Meanwhile, hallway upon hallway of transition team staff work furiously to figure it all out. And even though I’ve spent the past two weeks being briefed by everyone from ambassadors to security staff to resilience counselors, I’ve not heard a single person complain.

The reason? Because there’s still work to be done. No matter what’s happening here at home, other countries in this world still depend on the help and example of the United States of America. And as rocky as the past year has been for this nation, millions of people in the world are far from enjoying our many privileges. There are still people in this world without access to food or medicine or education. There are people in this world whose homes have been turned into war zones. In very few countries do people have the freedom to attend their president’s inauguration one day and then protest peacefully in support of issues they care about the next. And in very few countries can an ordinary citizen not only share their political opinions, but openly affect change in their country. We are lucky to have been born in the United States of America.

Last week, my class was briefed on the mission of the U.S. Department of State: To shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world, and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere. The striking thing about this mission is that it is built upon the idea that our freedom depends on others being free. Our prosperity depends on others being prosperous. And our security depends on others being secure. The best way to help ourselves is by helping others and that is a mission I am proud to represent. We are all we the people.

Goodbye, New York City!

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight with a one-way ticket to D.C., which means that in a few hours, I will also say goodbye to New York City, my home for the past five years.

I was seven years old when I decided to move to New York City. It was a snowy December and my mittened family took a day trip to see the Radio City Rockettes. I remember weaving through the bundled crowds on Fifth Avenue and stomping through snowbanks as yellow taxis flew past. I was handed a giant pretzel from a vendor beneath a red and white umbrella and later craned my neck to see the arched ceiling of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As Christmas carols jingled merrily in the background, my sister and I leaned over the edge of the Rockefeller Skating Rink and listened to the happy shrieks of the skaters below. And oddly enough, I don’t remember the Rockettes at all, because all I could think about was the city on the other side of the doors.

Rockefeller Center in New York City

I will miss New York City. I will miss the constant onslaught of new people and places, 3am cake delivery, and scone and cheese nights. I will miss the creaky front door of my first apartment building, the one that in five years, never properly locked. I will miss falling asleep to distant sirens and waking up to mariachi bands warbling below my window. I will miss the rumbling subways, Central Park picnics, and the ever-watching Empire State Building. I will miss afternoon tea at the Pembroke Room, backstage Broadway tours, and singing at Carnegie Hall. I will miss walking into a shiny midtown office building every day, feeling important, but then feeling like a imposter whenever I found myself in Saks or the Ritz-Carlton. I will miss having my friends and family camped out on my living room floor and opening my apartment door to find my boyfriend holding a bouquet of flowers. I will miss the grinning tourists who are thrilled just to be taking pictures of the city in which I was lucky enough to live. And oh how I will miss New York City bagels.

Rockefeller Center is still my favorite place in New York City. Not because of the busy crowds or the sparkling tree or the hundreds of flags waving in the breeze, but because that’s where it all started. Even today, some 20 years after I saw New York City for the first time, I can sit near that same bustling skating rink surrounded by skyscrapers and feel the city’s magic. Each day that I lived here was, quite literally, a dream come true.

Until next time, New York City!