Friday, May 15, 2020

Final FSI Korean Test Complete!

I have thoughts, I have advice, and I have feelings to share. But first of all, what a relief to have passed my final Korean test at the Foreign Service Institute (i.e., Diplomat School)! After almost nine months of intensive studying, I feel like a weight has been lifted. Now, I'll be working on maintaining the language skills I've gained so far, but there's definitely a lot less pressure.

Given the pandemic situation, instead of a normal in-person test I was assessed over video conference. Even though the setting was remote, the format of the test was very similar to what it would have been under normal circumstances. The biggest difference was being able to take the reading and speaking tests separately instead of in one sitting. Thankfully, I received the results even sooner than I expected. My final score is: 2+/2+!

I have a lot of conflicting emotions about this score. I did much better on the reading than I expected, but I was disappointed I failed to reach a 3 in speaking after being estimated at a 2+ months ago. At the same time, I only needed a 2/0 to pass so I'm grateful to have that out of the way at least. Maybe I can even try again for a higher score once we make it to Seoul and I spend some time living in a more immersive environment. And although I failed to reach the 10% language incentive pay threshold, I still qualified for a 5% pay bump!

So without violating any non-disclosure agreements, I do have some advice. I feel like I've learned a lot since my first FSI language test in Arabic a few years ago. So I thought I'd share a few things that I found helpful or that I wish I had known earlier in hopes it'll benefit some future FSI language student:

  • Familiarize yourself with the ILR standards. The language scores are based on Interagency Language Roundtable criteria, described in detail here. You can also watch short clips demonstrating the various levels in English. There's an example of where I wanted to be here, and where I currently am here.
  • Do your best to get your head in the game, but accept that (as my dad often said) excrement occurs. For example, in preparation for my reading test I went to bed early the night before, had a nutritious breakfast, and tried not to stress out. Despite my best efforts, though, I ended up having a horrible stress dream where I had to take the test while insects were laying eggs in my ears (gross, I know... I probably read too much science fiction). Then, I accidentally burned my breakfast and set off my smoke alarm. I was way more frazzled than I'd hoped the morning of my test, but I just had to roll with it! I tried to think of it as good preparation for work, where I'm sure I'll someday have to use my language skills when my brain feels completely fried.
  • Be bold. The language test is not a time for shyness; you've got to give them something to evaluate you on, after all! I would err on the side of being talkative and don't be too timid to interrupt the tester if you need to ask a question or clarify something.
  • Practice your self-introduction. The speaking portion of the test always begins with an introduction and small talk, so I always find getting that right helps me build confidence for the rest of the test.
  • Time yourself reading. It's not enough to have good reading comprehension. The reading portion of the test requires you to read fast, so when you're getting closer to your test date I highly recommend giving yourself a limited amount of time to read, summarize, and analyze articles to practice increasing your speed.
  • Try to avoid comparing yourself to your classmates or others. I personally struggle with this, but comparison is not only the thief of joy but it's the mother of a whole lot of unnecessary stress. (Yes, I just made that up... But it's true.)
  • Prepare a one pager with all the vocabulary and expressions you want to memorize for articulating yourself intelligently before the test. I was inspired to do this by my colleague S's excellent one pager specifically for how to discuss economics and statistics in Korean (it's amazing how many words there are for "increase" and "decrease"). I found it really helpful in elevating my ability to have a conversation, so I called it my "Sound Smart Reference Guide". (A snippet of it is the cover photo of this post.)
  • Team up with others. I really benefitted from helpful videos, articles, and tips other Korean students sent me, so I tried to share relevant things with them. We're all in this together.
  • Put things in perspective. Plenty of successful diplomats I look up to have failed language tests. The vast majority of people will not have their career ruined by a single bad language test. Most folks will just take a little more time and then wind up exactly where they are supposed to be anyway. And a few years later, nobody will likely know, remember, or care how many weeks it took you to get that score.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. Best of luck to all of my colleagues who are preparing for language tests, and I'm raising a glass (of grapefruit seltzer) to myself and everyone else who is done!


  1. Hello N. Thank you for your blog posts, especially about testing in Korean language. I am going through the security clearance now, and considering an attempt at the Korean language test to get the language point bonus on the register. Would be great to connect as I have additional questions about the language test. Thanks again, and best of luck in your FSO career!

    1. Hi Jessica, best of luck with your candidacy! Those Korean language points certainly wouldn't hurt. If you're comfortable asking your questions here in the comments, I'd be happy to answer them in case other readers might also benefit.

  2. Thanks, N!
    I was just hoping to get some more details about the levels, and what kinds of 'difficult' topics you are able to converse in in Korean. "Daily life" situations I feel okay with, but I am worried that my fluency is not high enough to discuss topics such as North Korea, Korean politics, COVID-19, or other things that might come up.

    I am also hesitant to test because, when I speak with a Korean speaker I get by okay with simple topics, but if they start speaking English my mind suddenly goes blank to switch back to Korean - and I know that in the language test there might be some switching between English/Korean, as there are two assessors?

    Do you think speaking on daily life topics and not the more difficult topics would make one unable to reach a Level 2 in the test? I understand most people overestimate their language ability, as well.

    1. Here are the details on the criteria they use to determine your level: I am able to discuss those higher-level topics you mentioned, but I still make some mistakes and have limited vocabulary when I do. That's why I was scored at a 2+ rather than a 3.

      The phone test you do before you get hired to get language points is (as far as I know) actually a little different to the in-person test you would normally do at FSI. Before I started Korean, I did get informally assessed over the phone and it was pretty much all speaking in Korean once we got started. If they do a more formal test over the phone, they will probably give you the instructions in English and then switch to Korean, but in the full language test there is a part where you have to listen or read in Korean and then report back what you heard in English. The instructions are given in English, but aside from the instructions and the part where you report back in English, you would be using only Korean. They will definitely not switch back and forth mid-conversation during the speaking portion; the only scenario where I could imagine that happening is either you experience a technical issue or run out of time and they need to move on or get your attention.

      This is what a level 2 sounds like in English, so you can get an idea of whether your Korean is at that level:

      I recommend studying as much as you can and testing regardless because it can only help. You won't lose points for getting a low language score or anything, so it's worth a shot! I know a few people who did just that and got hired thanks to the language score boost after some private tutoring or personal cramming. I hope that's helpful.

    2. I will certainly do that.
      Thank you for your service!

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