Are you interested in becoming a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (FSO)/diplomat in 2023? Then this is the guide for you!
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 for the application, personal narratives, Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), and the officer assessment. Plus, if you are on the fence about joining, I’ll tell you why I think 2023 is the year you need to submit your application.
So if you want to join the Foreign Service and represent your country as a diplomat, then you’ll love this updated guide.
Table of Contents
Foreign Service Officers
What does a Foreign Service Officer/diplomat do?
Diplomats are the official representatives of the United States government overseas. These public servants are on the front lines of 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 worldwide, you can represent your country globally, learn new languages, and interact with people and cultures that differ from yours.
What are the Foreign Service career tracks?
- Public Diplomacy
For many U.S. citizens in overseas countries, the Foreign Service Consular Officer is the principal diplomat they will (ever) interact with while abroad. Adjudicators of visas and the 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 ones who keep the embassy or consulate running, the Foreign Service Management Officers are in charge of small and large projects. They receive training to manage real estate, human resources, logistics, construction, budgeting, and more. Staff leaders, management officers supervise (potentially several) local staff from the beginning. Learn more. Learn more.
The Political Officer’s role is to be in the know to provide advice. 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. 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 several 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 or other similar paths. 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 times when you won’t do anything for weeks or months. A safe bet is to consider the whole process, from your decision to apply to day one on the job, to take an average of 1.5 years.
What do you do during this time? The FSO selection process consists of the following:
- Application and personal narratives
- Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT)
- Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP)
- Officer Assessment
- Security and health clearances
- Final suitability review panel
At almost every point listed above, there is the possibility of not moving forward 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
- Open to acceptance of assignments based on the needs of the service
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 2023 are:
- February 4 – February 11
- June 3 – 10
- September 30 – October 7
To register for the FSOT, visit the Pearson VUE portal.
The FSO Application
The application is an important yet overlooked part of the FSO selection process.
The application 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 about 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, you are responsible for interweaving what you know about the career track in the application.
The FSO 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.
Select your FSOT seat
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! It is advantageous to submit your application as soon as possible.
Applications are only valid for the period you are planning to test, and the registration period closes three days before the opening of the examination window. Candidates may test only once in 11 months.
Beginning with the October 2020 test, online proctoring of the FSOT is now an option. This alternative means you may take the FSOT online at home. This is an excellent opportunity if transportation is limited or you live in a remote location. Note seats are still limited. Read more about my experience with online proctoring.
If you plan to take the test in person, determine ahead of time where the test may be offered. This link includes overseas testing centers for those requiring them, but note that these are limited and 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, check in with the testing location to ensure they register to offer the test. If they don’t register or forget, 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 most applicants associate with becoming an Officer. This historical association is because upwards of 60% of applicants did not pass the test each round.
The test consists of the following four sections:
- Job Knowledge
- Situational Judgement
- English Expression
- Written Essay
The first three test sections are multiple-choice, with the last being a written essay. All four are completed on a computer and are timed.
The job knowledge section is about breadth, not depth. State expects you 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 and take practice tests.
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 assesses an individual’s ability to determine the most and least appropriate actions given a series of scenarios. The questions evaluate 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.
BEX evaluates you by providing you with different scenarios to which you must select the BEST response and the WORST response to a given situation. You might encounter these scenarios 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 passing this test section, I recommend reviewing the following strategies for passing 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 passage’s meaning.
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 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, a topic will automatically be selected for you.
You will then have 25 minutes to write your essay, to which you are limited to 2,800 characters.
The test’s essay section consists of taking a position on a topic and developing a rationale for it. You are 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 arguments for or against a topic you may use in your essay.
For the essay section, I recommend the good-old five-paragraph approach:
For the essay section, I recommend the good-old five-paragraph approach:
- Intro paragraph with thesis
- Supporting paragraph
- Supporting paragraph
- Supporting paragraph
In the past, to pass the FSOT, you had to score a minimum of 154 on the test.
Beginning with the June 2022 test, candidates must no longer meet a minimum score. However, high scores are still more favorable. Read more about the change.
As this is a recent change, we are still determining how this will impact candidacies. If you need a “benchmark” to determine how you did on the test, consider using the old passing score of 154. However, as the resource linked above goes into more detail, take your score with a grain of salt.
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 receive an invitation to the Officer Assessment. 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 (you will see “oral assessment” below, which is how the Officer Assessment was formerly called):
That’s a great letter to receive.
But what if only the top 20 can receive an invitation in February, and you are ranked number 21? Then, unfortunately, tough luck.
The best part is that you will receive the same rejection letter as everybody else, which doesn’t help you 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 the most disheartening stage for those who receive a denial letter, as you receive no feedback or scores to help you understand why you do not move forward.
Just remember that the journey to becoming an FSO is a marathon and not a race. Many current FSOs had to go through the process multiple times before passing. Try again next year.
What is the FSO Officer Assessment?
If you receive an invitation to the Officer Assessment, then congratulations! This invitation 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 Officer Assessment? A bunch!
The day kicks off at 7:00 am in the chosen city and ends around 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 OA take place in Washington, D.C. In the near future, we expect virtual Officer Assessments to begin.
During the assessment, you are assessed against the following dimensions of a Foreign Service Officer:
Experience and Motivation
Information Integration and Analysis
Planning and Organizing
The above is your rubric! Learn it, love it, hate it, know it.
The Group Exercise
For the day’s first exercise, 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 group thoroughly reviews the merits and drawbacks of all the projects.
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 decided, 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 Officer Assessment. There are three parts to the structured interview.
Experience and Motivation Interview
This portion is the “why” you want to join and the skills you will bring to the job. Don’t just describe your experience; tell them 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, the BEX will ask you questions to extract your experiences in specific areas.
A question sheet is provided to you containing the dimensions under assessment, with two questions listed under each aspect.
You will have five minutes to select the questions you wish to discuss for each dimension (one item for each aspect) and to prepare your responses.
Your examples should be detailed and drawn from your own experience.
As with all aspects of the application process, ensure you answer the question. Do not 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 can use the same stories you wrote for your narratives.
The third part of the Officer 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 to review the quantitative data, but the analysis and recommendations must clearly understand 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 must incorporate data and other numerical information in the analysis and recommended solutions.
Scoring the Officer Assessment
The minimum Officer 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 outstanding performance.
If you pass the Officer Assessment, then the biggest of congratulations! That is quite the achievement. However, passing the Officer 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 foreign agents may use to blackmail or bribe you.
You are placed on the Register if you pass all of the above.
The Register is rank-ordered by your chosen career track. Your score is from the Officer 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 no appointment is offered and accepted within that period, you time out.
In short, the higher your score, the more likely you will receive an invitation for employment.
I hope everybody reading this gets on the Register and is invited to join the Foreign Service. As you can see, it’s quite an extensive process!
Why you should take the Foreign Service Officer Test in 2023
First and foremost, if you want to become a Foreign Service Officer, even if you are thinking about becoming an Officer. Then seriously consider taking the next test.
It’s that simple.
There is no fee to register, and so long as you take the test, there is no charge (if you do not show up, there is 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 why 2023 is the year to apply. In short, the anticipation of growth in the State Department ranks.
There is a whisper in the air that State will increase hiring. If true, this is exciting, but also something we have heard in the past. However, if it is true, wouldn’t that be great?! And if they do, you want to be part of this wave of hires. To be there, you need to apply now.
If you want to become an Officer, I 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 help you with the selection process:
FSO Compass is your one-stop membership resource with:
- Study material and courses to help you prepare for the FSOT,
- Practice tests
- A weekly challenge,
- A course on how to write compelling personal narratives,
- The famous personal narrative challenge
- A monthly live Q/A call with members,
- Interviews with current and former FSOs,
- 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.
U.S. Department of State Information Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process
The Information Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process is an excellent resource if you want to read a thorough review of the Foreign Service Officer selection process.
State Department Suggested FSOT Reading List
The State Department has an extensive 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 few 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 recommend reviewing the pinned FAQ first.
The Facebook group (Future U.S. Foreign Service Officers) is another excellent online community. Members frequently assist with reviewing personal narratives, creating study groups, and practicing for the Officer Assessment.
Archive of the Yahoo Group files
The Foreign Service Yahoo Group was the gold standard for studying for the Foreign Service assessments. With the decision by Yahoo to no longer support groups, this community has dispersed to other social networking sites (listed above). However, I saved the files, and with some digging, you can find fantastic items to help you practice for the test, write your narratives, and practice for the Officer Assessment.
I’ve mentioned this tool a few times above, but it is really that good. An online tool to help you improve your writing, spell check, check for plagiarism, and much more. Grammarly has a free version that is good and a premium version that takes the cake.
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