This is the ultimate guide to help you become a US Foreign Service Officer (FSO)/diplomat in 2021.
Along with a discussion on the process to become an FSO/diplomat, I will also share with you the steps you can take to best prepare and study for the personal narratives, the FSOT, and the oral assessment.
Plus, if you are on the fence about joining, I’ll tell you why I think 2021 is the year you need to submit your application.
So if you’re looking to join the Foreign Service and represent your country as a diplomat, then you’ll love this new guide.
Table of Contents
Foreign Service Officers
What does a Foreign Service Officer/diplomat do?
Diplomats, Foreign Service Officers (FSO) are the official representatives of the United States government. These public servants are at the front lines to building peace, improving trade relations, and protecting U.S. citizens abroad.
The official mission of the Foreign Service is “to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.”
With more than 270 diplomatic missions around the world, you have the opportunity to represent your country globally, to learn new languages, and to interact with peoples and cultures that differ from your own.
What are the Foreign Service career tracks?
The “job” of a Foreign Service Officer can vary with each new post you are stationed. On your first tour of duty, you could be processing visas. On your second, you could be writing policy briefs or negotiating contracts. Every post is different, and every location brings with it a different adventure.
Though your tours of duty may vary, there are five career tracks (cones) that FSOs can choose from:
- Public Diplomacy
A critical note for applicants. Once you choose your career track, you cannot change it during the application process. Furthermore, once in a career, it is very challenging to change your career track.
That said, it is common to serve in more than one career track during your career. As a “right of passage,” most new FSOs serve as a consular for their first tour.
For many U.S. citizens in overseas countries, the Foreign Service Consular Officer is the principal diplomat they will (ever) interact with. Adjudicators of visas and primary support to U.S. citizens abroad, the Consular Officer must hold a broad range of skills. Unlike the other career tracks, acting as a Consular Officer for your first or two tours is a “rite of passage” for most entry-level officers. Learn more.
The Foreign Service Economic Officer helps strengthen (or minimize) ties between the U.S. and the host country. By working with many different people in and out of government, the Economic Officer seeks out the information to benefit U.S. business. This can be as global as putting together a trans-continental environmental agreement to as local as determining human trafficking in your host country’s primary port city. For this reason, the Economic Officer could work on a range of issues at smaller posts or on distinct ones in larger. Learn more.
The ones who keep the embassy or consulate running, the Foreign Service Management Officers are in charge of small and large projects. Staff leaders, management officers supervise (potentially several) local staff from the beginning. They are trained to manage real estate, human resources, logistics, construction, budgeting, and more. Learn more.
When you think of the Foreign Service, the political officer’s duties are the ones that come to mind the most for people. These duties include: keeping up with national and international trends that affect the host country, speaking and networking with government officials and subject matter experts on a topic, and writing numerous reports. The Political Officer’s role is to be in the know to provide advice. Learn more.
Public Diplomacy Officer
The cultural bridge between the U.S.mission and the host country, the Public Diplomacy Foreign Officer, is the gatekeeper and promoter of information concerning the United States. During your career, you may represent a post as the spokesperson, promote student and professional development exchange via the Fulbright Program, organize discussion groups with the local community to teach, or be a resource on U.S. culture. All in all, increasing the influence of the U.S. via “soft power”. Learn more.
How do you become a Foreign Service Officer/diplomat?
There are a few different ways to become a Foreign Service Officer/diplomat. Different routes include transitioning from the Civil Service to the Foreign Service via the Mustang Program or joining the career through the Pickering Fellowship. However, the most common approach for applicants is to complete the Foreign Service Officer selection process.
The FSO selection process is a “marathon, not a sprint” that nearly 15,000-20,000 aspiring FSOs attempt each year for only a handful of open slots.
There will be moments during the selection process that require your full attention and other points of time where you won’t do anything for weeks or months. A safe bet is to consider the whole process, from your decision to apply to when you are offered the job, to take an average of 1.5 years.
What do you do during this time? The FSO selection process consists of the:
- Personal narratives
- Foreign Service Officer Test
- Background and health check
- Final suitability review panel
At almost every point listed above, there is an opportunity of not moving on to the next round.
The Foreign Service Officer application
Who is eligible to become an FSO/diplomat?
To be eligible, the U.S. Department of State requires that each candidate be:
- 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.
When can I register for the FSOT?
The FSOT is offered three times a year, and each testing window comes with its own registration window, which opens about five weeks before each testing window. The FSOT is traditionally offered in February, June, and October.
The testing windows for 2021 are:
- January 30 – February 6
- May 29 – June 5
- October 2 – 9
The FSO Application
The application is one of the most important, yet overlooked, parts of the FSO selection process.
This is the first opportunity the Board of Examiners (BEX) has to learn who you are.
Many candidates treat the application as a resume formality and overlook that this is a crucial opportunity to notify BEX as to why you are qualified for your chosen career track.
The main sections of the application are:
- About you
- Military service
- Career track
- Language proficiency
- Work experience
- Other personal information
If applicable, it is your responsibility to interweave what you know about the career track in the application.
The FSO Personal Narratives
Beginning in February 2020, applicants must submit their personal narratives with their application. This is a BIG change from previous years when only applicants who passed the FSOT were required to provide personal narratives.
What are the FSO personal narratives?
Candidates must complete six “mini-essays” that address the following areas:
- Substantive Knowledge
- Intellectual Skills
- Interpersonal Skills
- Communication Skills
- Management Skills
- Leadership Skills
Each of the six narratives will consist of no more than 1,300 characters, and their prompts follow:
The Foreign Service seeks a diverse workforce with broad job skills and a depth of experience to represent the United States overseas. Briefly describe why you chose the career track you selected and what you bring to that career track.
In the Foreign Service, you will confront challenging situations that require identifying the problem, collecting relevant information, and formulating or advancing innovative solutions to resolve the problem. Describe a time when you responded innovatively to unanticipated circumstances to solve a problem. Include the following elements in your response: the situation, steps you took to think through this situation, and how your actions addressed the situation. What were the results?
In the Foreign Service, you will be called upon to interact effectively and diplomatically with people in difficult situations. Describe how you have used your interpersonal skills in a specific situation to resolve a problem or achieve a goal. Include the following elements in your response: identify the goal or problem, and the specific steps you took. What was the result?
Communication skills are critical to successful diplomacy. Describe a situation in which you used your communication skills (either in English or another language) to further an aim or achieve a goal. Include the following elements in your response: the situation and the steps you took to deal with this situation. What was the result?
Foreign Service Officers are often required to manage projects, demonstrating the ability to plan and organize, set priorities, employ a systematic approach, and allocate time and resources efficiently. Describe a project you managed or helped to manage and how you sought to achieve the project’s goals. Include the following elements in your response: the project and the steps you took to manage this project. What was the result?
Leadership can be defined as motivating others, encouraging creative solutions, establishing positive team relationships, or significantly influencing the direction of the work. Describe how you have demonstrated leadership, either on one particular occasion or over time. Include the following elements in your response: the situation and the steps you took to show leadership. What was the result?
- You must submit references for each story (except for the substantive knowledge) that can verify your narrative.
- Do not list your spouse, other close relatives, or a person who is your direct subordinate. If you do not want the BEX to contact your present employer, do not list your present employer or supervisor as a verifier; instead, provide the name of another person who can verify your response.
Submitting your FSO application
Once you submit your application and personal narratives, it’s time to select your date and seat.
Note that selection is first come first serve! So it is imperative that you submit your application as soon as possible.
You must submit during the same five-week period immediately before your chosen specific testing window. Applications are valid only for that test and will expire when that testing window closes. The registration period closes three days before the opening of the testing window.
Once an application for a test window is submitted, it cannot be changed, and candidates may test only once in 11 months.
Beginning with the October 2020 test, online proctoring of the FSOT is now an option. This means you may take the FSOT wherever you can maintain testing requirements.
If you plan to take the test in-person, I recommend reviewing ahead of time where the test may be offered. This link includes overseas testing centers for those who require but do note that these are limited and are generally located in the capital.
A special note for overseas test takers: if you know 2-3 months before the test date that you will take the test, then check-in with the testing location to make sure they register to offer the test. If they don’t register, or forget, then you will have to wait until the next testing window.
The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT)
The Foreign Service Officer Test is a significant hurdle and the one most applicants associate with becoming an Officer. This is because upwards of 60% of applicants do not pass the test.
The test consists of the following four sections:
- Job Knowledge
- Situational Judgement
- English Expression
- Written Essay
The first three sections of the test are multiple-choice, and the last part is, as the title describes, a written essay. All four are completed on a computer and are timed.
The job knowledge section is about breadth, not depth. You are expected to be familiar with several different knowledge areas. As the State Department puts it:
The FSOT assesses knowledge and skills that the candidate has acquired from reading widely from many different sources, study or course work in several related fields, and other career or life experiences.
On test day, you have 40 minutes to answer 60 questions.
The job knowledge areas follow:
United States Government
This knowledge area encompasses a general understanding of the composition and functioning of the federal government, the Constitution and its history, the structure of Congress and its role in foreign affairs, as well as the United States political system and its role in governmental structure, formulation of government policies, and foreign affairs.
United States History, Society, Customs, and Culture
This knowledge area encompasses an understanding of major events, institutions, and movements in national history, including political and economic history, as well as national customs and culture, social issues and trends, and the influence of U.S. society and culture on foreign policy and foreign affairs.
World History and Geography
This knowledge area encompasses a general understanding of significant world historical events, issues, and developments, including their impact on U.S. foreign policy, as well as knowledge of world geography and its relationship to U.S. foreign policy.
This knowledge area encompasses an understanding of basic economic principles, as well as a general understanding of economic issues and the economic system of the United States.
Mathematics and Statistics
This knowledge area encompasses a general understanding of basic applied mathematical and statistical procedures. Items requiring calculations may be included.
Management and Leadership
This knowledge area encompasses a general understanding of basic management and supervisory techniques and methods. It includes knowledge of human psychology and behavior, leadership, motivational strategies, and training methodologies.
This knowledge area encompasses a general understanding of the principles of effective communication and public-speaking techniques, as well as media literacy (how to be a critical consumer of media) and general knowledge of social media, including best practices related to content privacy and cybersecurity.
The best approach to prepare for the job knowledge section is to read, read, and read.
This is in addition to reading a regular periodical, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or The Economist (the latter being my recommendation).
Now, do you have to read EVERYTHING on the State Department list?
I recommend taking online practice tests to determine the job knowledge areas you need improvement and then focusing your studies/reading in those areas.
The Situational Judgment section is designed to assess an individual’s ability to determine the most and least appropriate actions given a series of scenarios. The questions were written to assess precepts or competencies related to the job of a Foreign Service Officer, including adaptability, decision making and judgment, operational effectiveness, professional standards, team building, and workplace perceptiveness.
This is done by providing you with different scenarios to which you must select the BEST response and the WORST response to a given situation. These scenarios are situations that you might encounter on the job as a Foreign Service Officer.
The section is all about determining your ability to select the most and least appropriate action. In short, the State Department wants to know if you can interact professionally with others before they hire you.
For an in-depth guide to pass this section of the test, I recommend reviewing the following strategies on how to pass the Situational Judgement section of the FSOT.
The short version follows:
- Your world is the prompt
- You work in an organization with a hierarchy
- Don’t be passive-aggressive
- Take action
- Do your research
- Don’t punt your work
I highly recommend reviewing the guide, which contains examples to help you practice.
On test day, you will have 42 minutes to answer 28 scenarios.
The English Expression section of the FSOT will remind you of the English portion of the SAT or GRE.
The questions in this section concern mini-essays and sentences that may have grammatical errors. Also, different prompts will ask you to garner the meaning of the passage.
To pass this section of the test, you must understand the following:
Correct grammar, organization, writing strategy, sentence structure, and punctuation required for writing or editing reports: This knowledge area encompasses English expression and language usage skills required for preparing or editing written reports, including correct grammar and good writing at the sentence and paragraph level.
You will have 50 minutes to complete 65 questions.
The essay is simple in concept but challenging for many during the test. You are limited in both time and the number of characters you can use to write your response.
When you begin the essay portion of the test, you will have seven minutes to read the screen and select one of three available prompts. If you do not choose within seven minutes, then a topic will be automatically selected for you.
You will then have 25 minutes to write your essay, to which you are limited to 2,800 characters.
The essay section of the test consists of taking a position on a topic and developing a rationale for it. Your writing will be evaluated on your ability to analyze an issue and the writing quality, not the opinions expressed.
The Department’s writing style is professional rather than literary. That means that a well-written essay will be concise and well-organized. It will make a clear and compelling argument that is easily read and quickly understood. Other essential elements include word choice, spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation.
As I wrote above, I recommend reading periodicals to provide you with arguments for or against a topic that you may use in your essay.
For the essay section, I recommend the good-old five-paragraph approach:
- Intro paragraph with thesis
- Supporting paragraph
- Supporting paragraph
- Supporting paragraph
To pass the FSOT, you must score at least a combined total of 154 in the three multiple-choice sections of the test.
With the October 2019 rule change, your essays are now scored as part of the QEP. This means that you will find out within 30 minutes to two days if you pass the FSOT.
Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP)
The Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) is the first opportunity for the BEX to review your candidacy.
Under consideration are your application, your FSOT score, your essay, and your narratives. The goal of the QEP is to assess the whole of you and then rank you amongst your career track cohort.
Those with a high score are invited to orals. The dividing line between being asked and not is a secret and changes with each testing cycle.
Here is an example of the letter when you pass the QEP:
That’s a pretty great letter to receive.
But what if only the top 20 can be invited in February, and you are ranked as number 21? Then unfortunately, tough luck.
The best part, you will receive the same rejection letter as everybody else, which doesn’t help you to determine how well you faired next to the other applicants.
Here is an example of the letter if you don’t pass the QEP:
The QEP is by far the most disheartening stage for those who are rejected, as you receive no feedback or scores to help you understand why you were denied.
Just remember that the journey to becoming an FSO is a marathon and not a race. Try again next year. Many current FSOs had to go through the process multiple times before passing.
What is the FSO Oral Assessment?
If you’re invited to the Oral Assessment, then congratulations! This is a massive success on its own. You are part of a small percentage of applicants who get to this round.
So what takes place at the Oral Assessment?
The day kicks of at 7:00 am in the chosen city and doesn’t end until 5:00, maybe 7:00 pm (so expect the whole day). I say chosen because Chicago and San Francisco are sometimes options, but for the most part, the Orals take place in Washington, D.C.
During the assessment, your qualifications will be assessed by four FSOs on the following 13 dimensions of a Foreign Service Officer:
To stay calm, poised, and effective in stressful or difficult situations; to think on one’s feet, adjusting quickly to changing situations; to maintain self-control.
To work and communicate effectively and harmoniously with persons of other cultures, value systems, political beliefs, and economic circumstances; to recognize and respect differences in new and different cultural environments.
Experience and Motivation
To demonstrate knowledge, skills, or other attributes gained from previous experience of relevance to the Foreign Service; to articulate appropriate motivation for joining the Foreign Service.
Information Integration and Analysis
To absorb and retain complex information drawn from a variety of sources; to draw reasoned conclusions from analysis and synthesis of available information; to evaluate the importance, reliability, and usefulness of information; to remember details of a meeting or an event without the benefit of notes.
Initiative and Leadership
To recognize and assume responsibility for work that needs to be done; to persist in the completion of a task; to influence significantly a group’s activity, direction or opinion; to motivate others to participate in the activity one is leading.
To discern what is appropriate, practical, and realistic in a given situation; to weigh relative merits of competing demands.
Objectivity and Integrity
To be fair and honest; to avoid deceit, favoritism, and discrimination; to present issues frankly and fully, without injecting subjective bias; to work without letting personal bias prejudice actions.
To speak fluently in a concise, grammatically correct, organized, precise, and persuasive manner; to convey nuances of meaning accurately; to use appropriate styles of communication to fit the audience and purpose.
Planning and Organizing
To prioritize and order tasks effectively, to employ a systematic approach to achieving objectives, to make appropriate use of limited resources.
To identify, compile, analyze, and draw correct conclusions from pertinent data; to recognize patterns or trends in numerical data; to perform simple mathematical operations.
To formulate creative alternatives or solutions to resolve problems, to show flexibility in response to unanticipated circumstances.
Working With Others
To interact in a constructive, cooperative, and harmonious manner; to work effectively as a team player; to establish positive relationships and gain the confidence of others; to use humor as appropriate.
To write concise, well organized, grammatically correct, effective, and persuasive English in a limited amount of time.
The above is your rubric! Learn it, love it, hate it, know it.
The Group Exercise
For the first exercise of the day, candidates are brought together in a group of three to six individuals to comprise an Embassy task force charged with allocating resources to competing projects in their host country.
After a preparation period of 30 minutes, in which each candidate is reviewing their project in silence, four BEX assessors enter the room.
The lead assessor briefs the candidates and notifies them that they have six minutes to present their project. Time may be left at the end of each presentation for questions from other candidates.
Once the presentations are complete, the lead assessor will provide further instructions to the candidates. In this 20-25 minute phase, candidates have two goals.
One is to advocate the project they were given. The second goal is to help the group reach a consensus within the time allotted on which project(s) or parts of projects to recommend to the Ambassador.
It is acceptable to give up your project in favor of another candidate’s plan after the merits and drawbacks of all the projects have been thoroughly reviewed by the group.
Remember, the objective is to help the Ambassador decide how best to allocate limited U.S. Government resources among several worthy projects. Not to make sure your project “wins”.
Once the group has come to a decision, each candidate will have three to four minutes privately to brief two assessors on the results of the group’s deliberations. One of these assessors will play the role of the Ambassador and ask the candidate several follow-up questions. In contrast, the second assessor will escort the candidate from the group exercise room to the interview.
The Structured Interview
The Structured Interview is the closest to a “job interview” you will receive at the oral assessment. There are three parts to the structured interview.
Experience and Motivation Interview
For this portion, it is the “why” to your wanting to join and the skills you will bring to the job. Don’t just describe your experience, but make sure you describe what you learned.
You are presented with several scenarios by the assessors that closely relate to real-life situations regularly encountered by Foreign Service Officers overseas. Candidates are asked to fashion a solution that employs good judgment and common sense.
You do not have to know how an Embassy operates.
Similar to the situational judgment section of the FSOT, the assessors are looking for explicit action that you will take. Do not assign your duties to others.
Dimensions scored during this exercise include: Planning and Organizing, Working with Others, Cultural Adaptability, Initiative and Leadership, Judgment, Objectivity and Integrity, Information Integration and Analysis, Resourcefulness, and Composure.
Past Behavior Interview
In the final portion of the Structured Interview, you are asked targeted questions to extract your own experiences in specific areas.
You are given a question sheet containing the different dimensions being assessed during this portion of the interview, with two questions listed under each aspect.
You will have five minutes to select the questions they wish to discuss for each dimension (one item for each aspect) and to prepare their responses.
Your examples should be detailed and drawn from your own experience.
As with all aspects of the application process, make sure that you answer the question. Don’t try and fit predetermined talking points into what they are asking if it does not directly answer the question. You will not do well.
Dimensions scored during this exercise include: Planning and Organizing, Working with Others, Cultural Adaptability, Initiative and Leadership, Objectivity and Integrity, Composure, and Oral Communication.
A note for the interview section as a whole: you are allowed to use the same stories you wrote about for your narratives. The assessors will not have read them.
The third part of the Oral Assessment is the 90-minute Case Management Exercise. The purpose is to evaluate your management and writing skills.
You are given a memo describing the tasks to complete, with information about the central issue, a summary of ongoing problems, an organizational chart, email messages from different employees giving their perspectives on the issues, pertinent regulations, and details about the past performance of the staff.
A calculator is not needed in reviewing the quantitative data, but the analysis and recommendations must show a clear understanding of these data.
A suggested approach for completing this section is to spend 30 minutes reading and analyzing the material, 45 minutes writing the required memo, and 15 minutes reviewing and revising.
The dimensions scored during this exercise include: Working with Others, Judgment, Objectivity and Integrity, Information Integration and Analysis, Resourcefulness, Written Communication, and Quantitative Skills. The candidate is expected to incorporate data and other numerical information in the analysis and recommended solutions.
The Oral Assessment scoring
The minimum Oral Assessment score to continue a candidacy is 5.25 out of a possible 7. The Group Exercise, Structured Interview, and Case Management Exercise, each count for one-third of the total score. Overall scoring is on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 representing poor performance and 7 representing an outstanding performance.
If you pass the Oral Assessment, then the biggest of congratulations! That is quite the achievement. However, passing the Oral Assessment is not an automatic invitation to the Foreign Service.
If you score at least a 5.25, you must still pass security and medical clearances before undergoing a final suitability review. For the latter, they are looking at your history to make sure there is nothing that pops up that is a red flag for employment, or an aspect of your life that may be used by foreign agents to blackmail or bribe you.
If you pass all of the above, then you are placed on the Register.
The Register is rank-ordered by your chosen career track. Your score is from the Oral Assessment, plus any additional credit for language ability or veterans’ preference.
Placement on the Register does not guarantee employment.
A dynamic list, you are not chosen based on the length of time on the Register, but instead, you are selected based on your score and the needs of the State Department. A candidate may stay on the Register for a maximum of 18 months. If there is no appointment offered and accepted within that period, you time out.
In short, the higher your score, the more likely you are to receive an invitation for employment.
I hope everybody reading this not only gets on the Register, but is also invited to join the Foreign Service. As you can see, it’s quite the extensive process!
Why you should take the Foreign Service Officer Test in 2021
First and foremost, if you want to become a Foreign Service Officer, even if you are thinking about becoming an Officer. Then take the next test.
It’s that simple.
There is no fee to register or take the test, so long as you take the test (you are charged a no show fee). The only “cost” is your time to write the narratives, complete the application, and then complete the test.
These steps are a lot of upfront commitment. But it is worth it.
If you are still on the fence, then here is another reason why I think 2021 is the year to apply.
The Biden administration starts in a couple of weeks. At the time of publishing this article in early January, the incoming president has positioned himself as a supporter of the Department of State.
With control of the House and Senate, the State Department could see an increase in funding, and thus an increase in the number of hires to the Foreign Service.
You want to be part of the first wave of hires, and to be there, you should have applied in 2020. HOWEVER, the next best time is in 2021. 🙂
If you want to become an Officer, I highly recommend you take the test this year.
What do you have to lose?
Resources to help you become a Foreign Service Officer
We all study and practice for tests and assessments in our own way. But we also like it when there are tools we can use to help us succeed.
And for the FSO selection process, there most certainly are!
Here are a few resources that can really help you with the selection process:
FSO Compass is your one stop membership resource with study material on the FSOT, practice tests including the written essay, a course on how to write compelling personal narratives, monthly live Q/A calls with members, and many more resources.
State Department Practice Test
The State Department Practice Test is a great way to practice the three multiple choice sections of the FSOT. There is no written essay section to practice. The practice test does provide a “probability of passing” score, but I find this score highly problematic, so take it with a grain of salt.
U.S. Department of State Information Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process
If you want to read a thorough review of the Foreign Service selection process, then the Information Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process is a great resource.
State Department Suggested FSOT Reading List
The State Department has a large list of suggested reading material for aspiring Foreign Service Officers. The suggested FSOT reading list is broken up by area of study. The assortment is quite varied and worth a look.
Started by a couple of Foreign Service Officers, the Reddit group is a great resource. It’s also a treasure trove of information if you search the archive. Though all questions are welcome, I say it is more geared to those who pass the Orals.
The Facebook group (Future U.S. Foreign Service Officers) is another great online community. Members frequently assist with reviewing personal narratives, create study groups, and practice for the oral assessment.
Archive of the Yahoo Group files
The Foreign Service Yahoo Group was the gold standard when it came to studying for the Foreign Service. With the decision by Yahoo to no longer support groups, this community has dispersed to other social networking sites (listed above). However, the files were saved and with a little digging you can find fantastic items to help you practice for the test, write your narratives, and practice for the oral assessment.
Now it's your turn
So that’s how to become a Foreign Service Officer in 2021.
Now I want to turn it over to you: Are you going to apply?
Are you going to start your marathon? Your path to the Foreign Service?
Let me know by leaving a quick comment below right now.
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