How to pass the QEP

PN Email

An official eagle seal!

After months of obsessive email checking, I knew the fateful day had arrived when I saw the subject line sitting in my inbox: “Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) Score Report Available Notification.” After crossing my fingers (because that’s what diplomats do), I opened the email, but through squinted eyes (which make bad news less painful) saw only a link to log into my online testing account. HURDLES. I incorrectly entered my password three times before finally seeing the spinning wheel of loading doom. I re-crossed my fingers, clicked into my score report, and felt a flood of adrenaline as I saw the word, “Congratulations!”

And congratulations, indeed! You’ve made it to the Personal Narrative hurdle of the Foreign Service application marathon. Well done.

The Personal Narratives are six short essay prompts in which you have 1,300 characters per essay to explain why you’re the bee’s knees. These essays are read by a group of diplomats known as the Qualifications Evaluations Panel, or the QEP. I can only assume that these poor people are sitting in a fluorescent lit, windowless cinder block basement, where they are required to finish reading hundreds of essays before they are allowed their government-sponsored bologna sandwich and milk carton lunch.

But in all seriousness, the QEP reads every applicant’s submissions and all applicants receive a decision within a matter of weeks. These people are reading a lot of essays very quickly. So much like in college applications, the name of the game in this round is to grab their attention. Below are my tips!

  • Answer the question they way they want you to. The Personal Narrative prompts are based off the Foreign Service’s Core Precepts (the rubric they use to determine promotions within the Foreign Service). And conveniently, this rubric is publicly accessible. Read this rubric, because the way the State Department defines “Innovation” and “Problem-Solving” may be different from the way you do.
  • Use State Department approved vocabulary. The QEP will compare your essays to the 13 Dimensions, (the list of character traits exemplified by a Foreign Service Officer) so work this vocabulary into your essays. This will make the QEP’s job easier, effectively getting them one step closer to their bologna sandwich, and you, one step closer to the Foreign Service.
  • Don’t be dull. The QEP panelists must be so. Incredibly. Bored. So do them a favor and make your essays interesting. I was very formal the first time I went through the Personal Narrative round and didn’t pass. So the second time, I dialed up the story-telling. Start each essay with a hook. Be clever. Be witty. Be yourself (but only if you are clever and witty).
  • Be multi-faceted. A Diplomat in Resident (side note: contact your Diplomat in Residence, they are very wise and useful people) told me that each of the responses should come from a different experience in your background. So don’t tell six stories that are all vaguely similar. If you can, tell only one story from each job, extracurricular, or study abroad experience.
  • Self-compliment like your career depends on it. Were these experiences a team effort? Probably. But the QEP doesn’t care what everyone else on your team did, they only care about what you did. Don’t waste valuable characters on other people. Use the STAR Method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to explain only the awe-inspiring things you accomplished.

Good luck, folks!

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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!

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!