Beginning with the June Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), the application process to become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) is changing. The FSOT will no longer serve “as a single gateway to applying.” This is a significant change to the application process, with candidates and officers approving and disapproving of the change (sources: 1, 2, 3, and 4). This change is also a continuation of State’s efforts to improve DEI (most recent change: new precepts).
This post will dive into the change and discuss the advantages and concerns from what we know publicly about the application process.
The process, before the change
Before the announcement, changes to how FSO candidates were selected occurred, but the overall structure remained intact. Three such examples are:
- Changing the biographical section to one asking situational judgment question
- Moving the FSOT essay to the QEP (i.e., a candidate must pass the FSOT to have the essay scored, and a candidate must score at least a 6 to move forward to the QEP)
- Requiring candidates to submit their narratives as part of their application to register for the test (before the change, candidates completed their narratives only if they passed the FSOT, and they would have 2-3 weeks to write their narratives)
However, the test was always the first component of the assessed process, thus creating the first barrier for candidates.
Before the change, the FSO selection process was as follows:
- A candidate must pass the FSOT with a combined score of at least 154
- A candidate must pass the QEP, which is a package of the candidate’s application, their FSOT essay, and the narratives
- A candidate must pass the Oral Assessment (OA) with at least a score of 5.25
For nearly 100 years, the FSOT has served as the first barrier to an individual’s candidacy.
Moving forward, a whole candidate approach
On Monday, April 25, the day the registration window opened for applicants to register for the June 2022 FSOT, the State Department published the following announcements:
“To meet the Secretary’s goals to modernize American diplomacy, win the competition for talent, and ensure that all applicants can present a full picture of their individual qualifications, the Department of State is announcing improvements to the Foreign Service selection process. The Department is moving away from the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) as a pass/fail gateway test and expanding focus on a candidate’s education and experience for a more holistic approach in the selection process.
Starting with June 2022 FSOT test takers, all candidates will proceed to the Qualification Evaluations Panel (QEP) where their performance on the FSOT will be one factor taken into consideration along with the Personal Narratives submitted during the registration process. Combined scores from the FSOT and the Qualification Evaluations Panel (QEP) – which reviews each candidate’s work history, education, experience, and six brief written narratives based on FS core precepts – will give the Department a more balanced view of candidates who will be selected for the next phase of the selection process, the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA).
This is the most significant change to the Foreign Service Selection process since 1930. We anticipate that this change will result in identifying a more qualified pool of candidates.”
Oh. My. Goodness. This is a big change!
In short, no matter your score on the FSOT, your candidacy moves forward to the QEP, where the BEX (Board of Examiners) will assess your entire package to determine if you move forward to the OA.
Advantages and concerns
So, this is a big change. With any modification, especially significant ones, it’s always good to look at the advantages and areas for concern. Let’s dive in.
The test has often been described as Jeopardy (specifically the job knowledge section) and the bane for many candidates. Online estimates hold that roughly 60% of candidates do not pass the FSOT, with many candidates and current officers taking the test multiple times before passing (myself included).
It is not uncommon to wonder if knowing a random historical fact, supreme court decision, or management principle prepares you for the Service. Is the test an accurate indicator of who will make a “good” diplomat or just an indicator of someone who knows a good amount of information and is good at taking standardized tests? An argument can be made for either choice.
The bigger question, though, does the test limit the diversification of incoming FSOs? The State Department says it does.
If this is accurate, removing the test as a “single gateway to applying” is advantageous. State has long had a challenge with diversifying its officers and retaining them. Taking proactive approaches to meet this need is a good decision.
Furthermore, nothing is more annoying than receiving a score of 153.93, as I did and countless others have, and not passing the test. However, obtaining this score pushed me to do better on the examination the following year, increasing my score by 13 points. That said, the new change technically means my candidacy still has a chance to make it to the OA, depending on how well I do at the QEP.
There are a few disadvantages to this change that I’ll note here. But before you read any of these, note that I find these disadvantages exist because of the lack of transparency from State when it comes to the QEP selection process. If State were to provide candidates with data on the selection process (i.e., a candidate’s rank, scores received for each part of the package, and more), then I think many of these disadvantages would not be an issue.
How does BEX assess candidates via a holistic approach?
When it comes to the assessment, this is what State shares:
“The test administrator will forward your FSOT scores, along with your Registration Package minus any proscribed data (age, ethnicity, etc.), to the QEP.
- The QEP uses a Total Candidate approach to review your:
- Educational and work background
- Responses to the Personal Narrative questions
- Self-evaluated language skill level
- FSOT essay score
- There is no pre-set cut-off score. The QEP evaluates your file within your chosen career track, looking at how well you demonstrate the precepts outlined above.
- The best-qualified candidates are invited to oral assessments based on the QEP evaluations and State’s anticipated hiring needs in each career track, inter alia.
Although the QEP is a total file review, with no one element dominating all the factors considered, you have the most control over your responses to the PN. Your responses can be influential in determining your standing in your chosen career track.“
As the header question states, how does BEX assess your package? If “no one element dominates all the factors considered,” does this mean that each component is roughly 25% of my assessment?
If a candidate wants to gamble on their application, should they note that they are fluent in one of the critical needs languages? Would this increase their score on the QEP? I don’t believe you are required to test your abilities, so how would BEX know? [warning: this is sarcasm, don’t do this as you have to sign an attestation that you submit truthful information. I am trying to make a point.]
Similarly, how does BEX weigh my education and work background compared to someone else in my career track if the eligibility requirements to join the Foreign Service are as follow:
- A U.S. citizen on the date the candidate submits the registration package
- At least 20 years old and no older than 59 years of age on the day the candidate submits the registration
- At least 21 years old and not yet 60 on the day the candidate is appointed as a Foreign Service Officer
- Available for worldwide assignments, including Washington, D.C.
Are there specific experiences the State Department will weigh heavier than others? With the experiences sought after by State change depending on administration? Will candidates learn why they were not selected?
These latter questions are some of the concerns raised by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) (statements 1 and 2). Though they favor improving the process of selecting officers, these modifications were made without their council, and none of the data was shared publicly.
How will candidates learn to improve?
How does all this “stack up” for and amongst candidates? Will the process be consistent? For example, will a candidate who scores highly on the test and narratives always surpass someone who doesn’t? Or, will there be times when a candidate who did not score well receives a higher placement because of their educational and work background?
Taking a holistic approach to assessing candidates opens up the opportunity for subjectivity and inconsistency. What will State do to address these items? How will candidates learn where they can improve or why they did not pass QEP? (NOTE: currently, BEX will only notify the candidate if they are invited to attend OA or if they are not. No scores, ranks, or reasons are provided).
Though requiring improvement, the FSOT serving as a barrier provided candidates with a measure for how to improve. Unless the QEP provides information to candidates on where their candidacy lacked strength, a candidate will not know if they need to improve their test scores, narratives, or experience.
The reason why providing the information is vital is because one of the strengths of the FSO application process is the eligibility requirements. This is not a traditional application with a long list of conditions and experiences required for a candidate to apply. Not sure what I mean. For example, check out any USAJOBS posting (e.g., Foreign Affairs Officer).
How long will it take to receive results?
This concern is a minor disadvantage. Whereas the other notes are thinking with candidates, this one is thinking on behalf of the members of the BEX, who must now assess thousands more applications.
Traditionally, a notice of awards would arrive 7-8 weeks after a candidate takes the FSOT. How much longer will it take now?
Though I raise this concern, I want to note that over the last year, the BEX has taken closer to 10-12 weeks to return results from the QEP. We believed this was because of COVID, but perhaps they were testing out this new process? Hence the increased length to produce results and their determination that it is better to review all candidates, regardless of reaching a minimum score of 154.
State is making moves to improve the hiring of diverse candidates. They have chosen to remove the FSOT as the “single gateway to applying” and move it to the QEP. I think this has the potential to help meet the goals of State. However, I am concerned that if BEX continues its practice of non-transparency and not notifying candidates of their component and total scores at the QEP, the process may cause harm and increase frustration for candidates.
I look forward to seeing how this new process plays out with the June cohort. I look to BEX to proactively share QEP results with candidates.
Finally, what will happen, if anything, to the OA? Are there areas for improvement here? Could an argument be made that we could increase the diversity of FSOs if they were to remove rank on the register by your OA score? Instead, make it your length of time on the register? State acknowledges these candidates are worthy of being FSOs. Why make them go through the process again if they rank low on the register and time out?
I welcome your thoughts on all of the above!