Thursday, January 12, 2017

How I Passed the FSOT

The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) is... a lot. It's the first step* to becoming a Foreign Service Officer, and it can be a daunting one. (It takes three hours! It has four sections testing very different skills! Not everyone can pass! And so on...)

If you've never heard of the FSOT before, I highly recommend starting at the most accurate and official source: the Department of State website here. You can also see my full, personal Foreign Service application timeline here.

Without violating any non-disclosure agreements, I thought I'd offer some good advice I received and some bad advice. For the purposes of understanding some of my advice, you should at least be aware of the test format and the four different components (as of this writing): job knowledge, English expression, biographical information, and the essay.

Good advice:

  • Just take the test. It's free, you might pass, and even if you don't you'll better understand where you need to improve.
  • Read a ton. Consuming lots of good journalism (short pieces on current events and longform articles on a wide range of topics) helped me. I recommend subscribing to the daily newsletters of The Atlantic, Vox, and CSIS. Making time for nonfiction books doesn't hurt, either.
  • Use free online resources. The Department of State provides a practice FSOT here. There's also a Yahoo Group* with resources and other applicants who often form study groups; you can find it by going to Yahoo Groups and searching "fswe" (for "Foreign Service Written Exam," a previous acronym if I remember correctly). There's even a subreddit for those who want to be in the Foreign Service here.
  • The English expression section is reminiscent of the SAT. I recommend reading the grammar book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss and taking advantage of free online resources for SAT grammar preparation if English expression is not your strong suit.
  • Flashcards can help for the job knowledge section. Flashcards for constitutional amendments, world geography, flags, and more are already available for free online! My flashcard app of choice is Anki (synced across my computer and Android smartphone).
  • Write the essay more like a government employee than an author. Concise, clear language used in organized paragraphs with a topic sentence and an overarching main idea or argument is better than employing a rhetorical flourish or sitting on the fence when it comes to your position on an issue.

Bad advice:

  • There is the way to prepare for the FSOT. There's simply not. Some succeeded with little to no preparation, others with a freakish amount of preparation, and some with a preparation style that would be bad for you. Take all advice (including this blog) with a grain of salt.
  • You can't study for the FSOT. I found that I definitely could study for certain parts of the exam and that my score improved. Practicing brainstorming, writing, and leaving time to edit an essay in thirty minutes helped me consistently complete that section on time.
  • You have to be an international affairs graduate. Although studying international affairs in school might give you an informational advantage, many who pass the FSOT and make it all the way into the Foreign Service do not have a degree in international affairs.
  • The biographical section is straightforward. Look, I passed the FSOT three times, and I still don't really get the biographical section. It's weird.
  • You have to invest money to pass. There are so many free resources online that I just don't believe this is true. You don't need a tutor or a prep class when you can find some free and legal AP U.S. History materials online (with content relevant for the job knowledge section), for instance.

*You do need to choose a career track and register for the FSOT, but I consider those pre-step-one. They're like the Preamble to the Constitution of your life as a Foreign Service applicant.

*UPDATE: The Yahoo groups no longer exist but the amazing Path to Foreign Blog captured many of their resources and made them publicly available here.

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