two laptops and two people reviewing a notebook preparing to apply to become a foreign service officer

How to become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in 2020: Guide

This is the ultimate guide to help you become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in 2020.

Along with the process to become an FSO, 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 2020 is the year you need to submit your application.

So if you’re looking to join the Foreign Service, you’ll love this new guide.

Table of Contents

Foreign Service Officers

What does a Foreign Service Officer 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, and 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:

  1. Consular
  2. Economic
  3. Management
  4. Political
  5. 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 the course of your career. As a “right of passage”, all new FSOs should expect to serve as a consular for their first tour.

Consular Officer

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.

Economic Officer

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 that will benefit U.S. business. This can be as global as putting together a trans-ocean agreement or environmental package, to as local as determining human trafficking in a specific port city of the host country. For this reason, the Economic Officer could work on a range of issues at smaller posts, or on particular ones in the larger. Learn more.

Management Officer

The ones who keep the embassy or consulate running, the Foreign Service Management Officers are in charge of projects both small and large. Staff leaders, management officers supervise (potentially several) local staff from the beginning, and are trained to be able to manage real estate, human resources, logistics, construction, budgeting, and more. Learn more.

Political Officer

When you think of the Foreign Service, the duties of the Political Officer is the one that comes to mind the most for people. 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 role of the Political Officer is to be in the know to give 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, and 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?

There are a few different ways to become a Foreign Service Officer. 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. A safe bet is to consider the whole process, from your decision to apply to when you are offered the job, an average of 1.5 years.

What do you do during this time? The FSO selection process, which everybody goes through, includes the:

  • Application
  • Personal narratives
  • Foreign Service Officer Test
  • QEP
  • Orals
  • Background and health check
  • A final suitability review panel
  • Register

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?

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.
listing of Foreign Service requirements

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 are:

  • February 1 – 8, 2020
  • May 30 – June 6, 2020
  • October 3 – 11, 2020
listing of upcoming Foreign Service testing windows for 2020

To register for the FSOT, visit the Pearson VUE portal.

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
  • Education
  • 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.

instructions for submitting the foreign service 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:

Substantive Knowledge

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.

Intellectual Skills

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?

Interpersonal Skills

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

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?

Management Skills

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 Skills

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?

Two notes:

  1. You must submit references for each story (except for the substantive knowledge) that can verify your narrative.
  2. 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.

How to write strong FSO personal narratives

Here are seven tips to help you kick things off:

  1. Answer the question! Don’t just write, but actually answer what it is they are asking you about. So many applicants fail right here. They don’t answer the question.
  2. Use the STAR method (except for the substantive knowledge). Situation, Task, Action, and Result. Situation: Set the scene and give the necessary details of your example. Task: Describe what your responsibility was in that situation. Action: Explain the steps you took to address it. Result: Share what outcomes your efforts achieved.
  3. The personal narratives are all about YOU. Even if you were part of a team, tell the BEX what you accomplished that stands out and answers the prompt.
  4. Every character counts! You only have 1,300 of them, and that includes spaces and punctuations, so make them count. As an example, this list is 1,510 characters.
  5. Use active tense. Applications like Grammarly will help you improve your writing.
  6. You don’t need to save an endangered species, be part of a dangerous situation, or travel overseas to have strong personal narratives. Everyday activities will work. For instance, I know candidates who successfully submitted personal narratives about captaining a sports team, completing a last-minute task as part of the school parent association, calming people after an argument through their use of communication, etc.
  7. Start early and critique ruthlessly. Ask many people to review your narratives. You need them to consider your grammar and your story.

Submitting your FSO application

Once you complete 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.

third step to submit an application for the foreign service taking the test

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.

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 that all aspiring Officers must face, 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.

Job Knowledge

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 will 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 mathematical and statistical procedures. Items requiring calculations may be included.

Management Principles, Psychology, and Human Behavior

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 equal employment practices.


This knowledge area encompasses a general understanding of the principles of effective communication and public speaking techniques, as well as general knowledge of public media, media relations, and the goals and techniques of public diplomacy and their use to support work functions.

Computers and the Internet

This knowledge area encompasses a general understanding of basic computer operations such as word processing, databases, spreadsheets, and using e-mail and the Internet.

The best approach to prepare for the job knowledge section is to read, read, and read.

The State Department suggests the following reading list for the test.

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 ought to read EVERYTHING on the State Department list?

Absolutely not.

What I recommend is taking online practice tests to determine the job knowledge areas you need improvement and then focusing your studies/reading in those areas.

You can find online timed practice tests on FSO Compass and the State Department.

Situational Judgement

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 that are 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 determine the most and least appropriate action. In short, the State Department wants to know if you have the capacity to 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 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.

English Expression

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.

Written Essay

The essay is simple in concept but challenging for many during the test. You are limited in both time and the number of characters that 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 your 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 on the quality of the writing, 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 as they will 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:

  1. Intro paragraph with thesis
  2. Supporting paragraph
  3. Supporting paragraph
  4. Supporting paragraph
  5. Conclusion

You can find online timed practice tests on FSO Compass and I highly recommend checking out Grammarly.

FSOT Scoring

To pass the FSOT, you must score at least a combined total of 154 in the three multiple-choice sections of the test (a fun note, the FSOT uses t-scores).

With the October 2019 rule change, your essays are now scored as part of the QEP. This means that you will find out within two days (and I have heard as quickly as two hours) 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 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:

Congratulations! Based on a comprehensive review of your candidate file, you are being invited to participate in the next step of the Foreign Service Officer selection process, the Oral Assessment. You are guaranteed an Oral Assessment appointment only within the dates associated with the February 2018 Foreign Service Officer Test, which are June 15, 2018 through October 25, 2018.

While almost all appointments are in Washington, DC, the Board of Examiners now also offers the Oral Assessment in San Francisco, California, contingent on the availability of funds. Any available San Francisco dates will be displayed if you search by that site.

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:

We regret to inform you that your QEP-determined relative ranking in your career track is not high enough to continue your candidacy to the next step of the Foreign Service Officer selection process, the Oral Assessment.

Please note that QEP scoring is not a pass/fail exercise nor is there a pre-set invitation score. Rather candidates receive a relative ranking in their respective career tracks. The most highly competitive candidates in each career track are invited to the Oral Assessment based on our anticipated hiring needs. Foreign Service Officer hiring targets are adjusted regularly. At present, a large number of individuals are applying for a very limited number of Foreign Service Officer positions and the process is extremely competitive. There are numerous cases where individuals who received an invitation to the Oral Assessment in a previous year will not receive one in a current year.

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?

step five foreign service officer 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?

A bunch!

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.


Cultural Adaptability

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.


Oral Communication

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.


Quantitative Analysis

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.

Written Communication

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.

four people around a table oral assessment group exercise foreign service officer

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.

people around a table for interview foreign service officer oral assessment 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.

Hypothetical Scenarios

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.

Case Management

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.

person at a computer raising against time case management foreign service officer oral assessment

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 Oral Assessment score needed 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.

The Register

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.

man holding long list register foreign service officer

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 2020

First and foremost, if you want to become a Foreign Service Officer, even if you are thinking about becoming an Officer. Then you should take the next test.

It’s that simple.

There is no fee to register or take the test. 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 2020 is the year to apply.

It’s an election year.

Putting aside political beliefs, we know that the current administration is not as strong a supporter of the State Department. Funds to the Department are low, and as such, the hiring rate of new Foreign Service Officers is decreasing.

If, emphasis on if, President Trump loses the election this year, then there is a strong possibility that 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 need to apply this year.

The selection process, from start to finish, averages 1.5 years.

If you take the February 2020 test and make it to the Register by June 2021, then you might be part of the upswell (again, if a new administration, and all the other ifs).

It’s worth consideration, and I highly recommend you take the test in general, but this year especially.

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

FSO Compass is your one stop membership resource with courses to help you prepare for the Foreign Service Officer selection process, practice tests on the FSOT including the written essay, 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.

Reddit group

Started by a couple of Foreign Service Officers, the Reddit group is a great resource for questions to be answered by a community. It’s also a treasure trove of information if you search the archive.

Facebook group

Though not as large as the Reddit group, 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.


I’ve already mentioned this tool a few times above, but it really is that good. An online tool to help you improve your writing, spell check, check for plagiarism, and much, much more. Grammarly has a free version that is good and a premium version that really takes the cake.

Now it's your turn

So that’s how to become a Foreign Service Officer in 2020.

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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10 thoughts on “How to become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in 2020: Guide”

  1. Thank you for a great post. This was very helpful. Do you have any suggestions regarding Language testing? Thank you.

  2. Thank you for all this information! I did what someone else did and wrote the 8 rules for the Situational judgment on my white board. So useful! I wish I had prepared better for the Job Knowledge as my score wasn’t exactly stellar but still passed the test yesterday so I’m super stoked. I looked back on my PN’s and, to my horror, found three typos on the very first one. Completely avoidable and hopefully not what ends up doing me in!

    Question: How does transportation and lodging for OAs work (assuming I make it… fingers crossed)? Does DOS arrange?
    Give allowance? Does the candidate cover it?

    Again, thanks for the great content and, to everyone posting and reading — BEST OF LUCK!

    1. Hi Diego! If you are invited to Orals then it is your responsibility to cover the costs of transportation and lodging. DoS will not cover this. I wish you the best and let me know if you are invited!

  3. Thank you so much for this updated summary on the 2020 process! This site has been so helpful for me throughout the past few years.

    Took the FSOT today (my 6th attempt so far) and passed! Last year, I was knocked out in the QEP, but hopefully my score and Personal Narratives this time are enough to get me through! Also, like you mentioned, hopefully the circumstances will soon change and allow for increased priority and funding to DOS so this could be an ideal time to start the marathon! With how this year has been – I definitely needed that pep talk! 🙂

  4. Hi, thank you for creating this portal. The application is the registration for the test? The PNs and all applicant info is filled out via the registration? The prompts for narratives you provided in this post are in fact the actual prompts? It’s also unclear if this coming round of testing will even be happening due to Covid. Any insight? Thank you.

  5. Hi – quick note – typo in this paragraph. The “right of passage” should be “rite of passage.”

    Nice site you have – thanks.

    Consular Officer

    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 “right of passage” for most entry-level officers.

  6. I signed up for the Feb 2020 test. I’m really hoping I can make it through. I have a question about the OAs, though. As they are 10~12 hours long, do they either feed us or allow us time to find (and consume) food? Also, I heard we won’t know the exact location until a few days before the OA we signed up for (big topic on reddit these days!). If this is true, do we at least get to know a general area or district? Or are past participant permitted to share such information with us? I would pay extra for a decent hotel within walking distance from the OA if it starts as early as 7, as I’m far from a morning person.

    1. Hi Kaity!

      Best of luck with the February test. As for the OAs, food is not provided. I know that at the DC location there is a cafeteria on the ground floor that you can have access to. Or, you can always exit the building and go elsewhere (I believe you get an hour, but it is dependent on how the day is going).

      As for the location. The DC location is known and provided on their website. As for the SF or Chicago locations (if they have it there, they don’t always offer these options), then go ahead and fly into SFO or either airport at Chicago. As for the exact location, they tell you 30 days before the event. I think the SF location is in the financial district.

      I hope that helps!

      1. I think it also depends on your track. My confirmation email for scheduling my OA contained a linked “What to Bring” document. The document states that Consular Fellow and OMS candidates will NOT be permitted to leave the building so candidates should bring food with them. Generalist candidates, however, would be given a lunch break. I think its due to the duration of each test.

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