fsot_situational_judgment

How to pass the FSOT Situational Judgment Section

The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), Situational Judgement section, is the newest component of the test, and the one that has left the most people asking, “how do you pass this”?

Fortunately for new test takers, it’s been a year and a half since its introduction, and this offers us the opportunity to review what others have written about it, my own experience, and what is officially posted by the State Department.

Why was Situational Judgement added?

In short, to increase efficiency, decrease subjectivity, and improve the capacity for examiners to review tests. The Situational Judgement (SJ) replaced the Biographical section of the FSOT, which was around for years.

Personally, I welcome this change.

The bio section was always somewhat subjective in my opinion, and at the very least, there was the opportunity to “game” this part of the test. For those that don’t know, the bio section would ask questions to better get to know you, the candidate.

  • How many times in a month do you do x?
  • How many of ____ do you have?
  • If we asked your supervisor to provide three character traits of you, what would she say?

Stuff like the above. The examiners would then list a scale between 0-5 (for example), and you would choose. Sometimes you would then be asked to write a reason to the answer you gave.

Some of the questions were also very similar to one another, which I took to mean they were trying to make sure you maintained a consistent response.

All in all, I didn’t think it was a good determinant to assess FSO candidates.

With the replacement section, the following is now possible:

  • Assessors do not have to read anything before the essay. Reminder: your essay is only reviewed if you pass the first three sections;
  • The SJ is multiple choice, which means the answer is either right or wrong. A candidate is not left worried about grammar issues, whether the response should have been bulleted or sentence, or whether the assessor was in a good mood or not; and
  • It speeds up the review of the tests and increases efficiency. Interesting enough, I remember speaking with ACT or Pearson about this (can’t remember the year, so I can’t remember who was administering at the time), I don’t think BEX reviewed the bio section at the FSOT level. I think it was reviewed at the QEP stage, which means your writing was not judged, just what you listed for the multiple choice.

Let’s dive into a little more about what this means…

What is the Situational Judgement section?

The SJ will present scenarios (i.e., descriptions of situations) that a candidate might encounter on the job as a Foreign Service Officer:

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.

(NOTE: Knowledge about the State Department’s policies, procedures, or organizational culture is NOT required to answer these questions.)

Information Guide to FSO Selection

On the test itself, this is how the directions will prompt you (also from the information guide):

The SJ presents 28 scenarios (i.e., descriptions of situations) that you might encounter on the job as a Foreign Service Officer. Each scenario is accompanied by possible responses to that scenario. For each scenario, select the BEST response and the WORST response. The SJ section of the test consists of 28 scenarios administered in 42 minutes.

And here is an example question (again from the information guide):

Your supervisor edited a document you drafted that will be sent to your agency headquartered in Washington, DC. You think the document was much better without the edits. What should you do?

  1. Accept all the edits and say nothing to your supervisor.
  2. Ask to speak to your supervisor to understand the reasons for the edits.
  3. Accept only the edits you agree with and send the document to Washington.
  4. Ask your supervisor to explain how you can improve your writing skills.
  5. Discuss the edits with your supervisor and suggest accepting only the most important edits.

As you can see from the example, and as the section title suggests, each scenario is placing you in a situation, and you must select the proper action to take so that State can judge your judgment skills (semi-meta).

If the prompt above is a good example for the rest of the test, then you will notice that the scenarios will purposefully place you in a situation of confrontation. How you react to such confrontation is the key to success.

Let’s return to the description provided by State to dive further into what the SJ wants to accomplish with some added emphasis:

The SJ 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.

First, you must act. The Board of Examiners (BEX) makes that quite evident in the first sentence of their description. They are looking to determine your ability to act, react, and be active, appropriately.

Second, BEX is working from a foundation of “precepts” and “competencies”. These are not general terms. The Department of State does have a bedrock of qualities that they look for in FSO candidates and that they expect their Officers to improve over the course of their career. Best of all, these are not secret codes of conduct that only the initiated are allowed to know.

Far from it.

They are based on public documents that you can have access to! Most folks know about one of them, but it’s the second that I am surprised more are not aware of. Luckily for you, I am about to share both of them below…

How to pass the Situational Judgement section

So the following needs to be written, especially if you are brand new to the blog. Please note that these are my opinions and you are welcome to either incorporate them or ignore them (I do not represent State or BEX, and these opinions are my own).

I am not writing in a vacuum. I’ve taken the real FSOT and the practice and have passed the SJ section on both with high scores when compared to the cohort who have shared passing numbers.

If you decide to follow the below, it doesn’t mean that you will pass the SJ section with 100%. What I provide below is a framework. Though I think it is a robust framework, I encourage you to think critically of the information provided and not blindly follow it. For if you do the latter, you are missing the point of the SJ section.

All right, with that out of the way, let’s dive in.

To pass the SJ section, there is:

  1. One rule;
  2. One chart and “environment”; and
  3. Eight principles.

The one rule:
Your world is the prompt that you are provided.

Don’t roll your eyes, don’t think this is a cop-out, and don’t glance over this rule. This is the ONLY rule for a reason.

BEX already states that “knowledge about the State Department’s policies, procedures, or organizational culture is NOT required to answer these questions”.

So don’t be worried about it.

Furthermore, and more importantly, don’t be worried about the “what ifs”.

  • What if I don’t get along with my boss?
  • What if I am brand new to the job, and maybe this is how they do things?
  • What if I know he is a micromanager or I know she doesn’t want to be told things?
  • Etc.

Don’t even consider the above unless it is in the prompt. Also, be careful in bringing your personal examples into the prompt.

During the test, the prompt is the world, your world.

In practice, what does this mean? Let’s look at the example above again:

Your supervisor edited a document you drafted that will be sent to your agency headquartered in Washington, DC. You think the document was much better without the edits. What should you do?

Your world is the following: there are two people involved, you and your boss, and there is a situation that occurred, your boss made edits that you do not agree with.

That is it, so stick with it.

The one chart and “environment”:
The Department of State is an organization with hierarchy. That means that you have a boss, your boss has a boss, she has a boss, etc. Additionally, you will oversee staff, which makes you a boss.

So keep this straightforward chart in mind:

org_chart

Unless the prompt (keep to the rule!) states otherwise, you are the far left green person in the hierarchical structure.

The “environment” is to imagine that everybody in the organization gets along and everybody is busy with their work.

(Wouldn’t that be nice in real life…)

The prompt is a new variable that is added to your environment and thus creates an imbalance. Your goal is to get back to equilibrium.

And to get back to equilibrium, you must address the issue.

The eight principles:
To address the issue, here are eight principles to maintain while you review the prompt:

  1. Follow the chain of command;
  2. If tasked with an item, do it;
  3. Research, be informed;
  4. Keep to deadlines;
  5. Don’t punt, be a leader;
  6. Respect your colleagues;
  7. Take action; and
  8. Be direct (i.e., don’t be passive and don’t be passive-aggressive).

The BEST response, will be one that upholds the above. The WORST response, will be one that is opposite to the above.

Let’s briefly discuss each one.

1. Follow the chain of command
You are part of a bureaucratic organization with supervisors. You need to respect this. This is not to mean that if your boss tells you to do something, you must follow it blindly. No. However, it means you must respect the task.

This also means that you do not go over your supervisor, and speak to his/her supervisor without first checking with your supervisor and understanding the reason for xyz decision. You should only go over the head of your supervisor as a last resort.

2. If tasked with an item, do it
As we have already discussed, BEX is looking for you to put forward the best action, which means you must act on the issue you are given. You have been delegated responsibility, and as such, you are the owner of the item. It is your responsibility if it succeeds or fails, so make sure it succeeds by actively acting.

3. Research, be informed
Don’t be a “yes man”, or blindly accept precedent, or do things because others have pushed it through.

If something doesn’t seem right to you or you are unsure of an action to take, then do what you have to do to be informed, and do so first as an individual. This will mean either research manuals, looking up procedure, speaking with your supervisor for reasons to feedback, and more. The important part is to research so that you can present (or act on) solutions.

Let me repeat that critical word once more, just in case you missed it. Act as an individual first. Remember the environment; everybody is busy with their work. Would they help you, of course. But State is looking for efficient and self-driven individuals. If you bother your colleagues every time you do not know the answer, then (a) you won’t learn, and (b) you will disrupt their work.

4. Keep to deadlines
If you are given a task with a deadline, do everything you can to meet that deadline. Providing nothing is often worse than delivering something – just make sure when you deliver said something you note all the things that are missing to be transparent.

5. Don’t punt, be a leader
Remember the “environment”; everybody is busy in the well oiled bureaucratic machine. Will they help you if you ask, most likely. However, if you are given a task, then you need to do everything you can to complete that task. Don’t seek others to do your assignments (don’t punt).

If you are a member of a team, or if you oversee a team, then lead and delegate. Leverage skills of the employees that you manage, provide reasons for decisions, and be the strategist.

6. Respect your colleagues
This one sort of builds off of the others, but still deserves its own highlight. Don’t be a pain to others. Don’t be disparaging. Don’t treat others poorly. Within this principle also lies the following, be culturally respectful and supportive. This includes having the patience not only to learn, but to also teach. Furthermore, do respect that if your colleagues have a dissenting opinion to yours, then you need to be professional and open to hearing differing views and trying to come to a consensus. Also, don’t keep your colleagues in the dark, be transparent with rationale and direction.

7. Take action
Also building off of previous principles but deserves its own highlight. You must act. No action is usually the worst choice. Passive action is a close second. If you are unable to take action without the approval of a supervisor, then do everything you can up to that point, and more. Accomplish this by having plans of action or solutions that you can discuss with your supervisor, and the choice you would like to pursue (but be open to feedback and course correcting).

8. Be direct (i.e., don’t be passive and don’t be passive-aggressive).
If you have a concern, tell the person (even if that person is your supervisor or someone higher up in the chain). If you do not like something that is taking place, then bring it to light. If you don’t like what your colleague is doing, then don’t start rumors, or doing passive-aggressive nonsense. Be direct, and tell the person what is on your mind, how what he/she is doing is disruptive, or how a situation is causing xyz problem.

Why the above works

Remember the precepts and competencies I mentioned, and how State has made these documents public?

Well, here they are:

  1. The 13 dimensions of a Foreign Service Officer
  2. The FSO core precepts

You should be very familiar with the first one, as this is how you are judged throughout the application process. If you are not, then here are the 13:

  1. Composure
  2. Cultural adaptability
  3. Experience and motivation
  4. Information integration and analysis
  5. Initiative and leadership
  6. Judgment
  7. Objectivity and integrity
  8. Oral communication
  9. Planning and organizing
  10. Resourcefulness
  11. Working with others
  12. Written communication
  13. Quantitative analysis

Do you see how easily many of the above fit into the eight principles we just went through?

Now go and review the precepts document. Seriously, go and read just a few pages. It’s a gold mine.

I’ll wait….

Ok, I am going to assume you read some of it. Now this document is/was supposed to be how current FSOs are reviewed, but that doesn’t mean we cannot apply it to the SJ section.

How?

Under each section, you will see bolded comments that are key metrics.

Let’s look at the leadership skills section and specifically at the “openness to dissent and differing views” part, as an example.

The entry-level officer needs to: “demonstrate the intellectual integrity to speak openly within channels and a willingness to risk criticism in order to voice constructive dissent. Publicly supports official decisions while using appropriate dissent channels in case of disagreement. Seeks to resolve disputes using appropriate mechanisms”.

WOW.

  • Speak openly: be direct
  • Risk criticism to voice constructive dissent: take action
  • Publicly support official decision: chain of command
  • Seeks to resolve disputes: respecting colleagues

I’ve gone ahead and condensed the information in these two resources into the eight principles, but I highly recommend that you review both of them.

Putting it together with an example

If you understand all of the above, you will do well on the SJ.

Let’s return to our example:

Your supervisor edited a document you drafted that will be sent to your agency headquartered in Washington, DC. You think the document was much better without the edits. What should you do?

  1. Accept all the edits and say nothing to your supervisor.
  2. Ask to speak to your supervisor to understand the reasons for the edits.
  3. Accept only the edits you agree with and send the document to Washington.
  4. Ask your supervisor to explain how you can improve your writing skills.
  5. Discuss the edits with your supervisor and suggest accepting only the most important edits.

Which is the BEST and which is the WORST? Click below when you are ready:

2

State department reason: You should speak to your supervisor to ensure that your original draft did not contain problems that you could avoid in the future. You should also verify that any changes he/she made were not due to a misunderstanding of your draft. Additionally, it is possible that talking to your supervisor could result in revisions to the edits and ultimately improve the document.

3

It is unclear whether your supervisor intended for you to send the document without further discussion. You also are not sure whether your supervisor has identified other issues he/she wanted to review with you before it was sent. Additionally, you have unilaterally ignored some of your supervisor’s edits.

  1. This is passive and not direct. You are not conducting research to be informed (i.e., determining differences and you can improve if necessary).
  2. You are being direct, you are seeking knowledge, and you are taking action. BEST
  3. This is passive aggressive, goes against the chain of command, shows a lack of respect to your colleagues, and you are not conducting research to learn more. WORST
  4. This is a start, but only goes half way. The prompt doesn’t go into detail about what the edits are. Your writing skills could be fine, and the edits could be more about substance. Additionally, this is passive to your supervisor, you are not raising awareness of your disagreement but deferring to your supervisor’s judgement. Better than C.
  5. This action could lead to confrontation with your supervisor. Though it shows an interest to determine differences, you are not showing an interest to play nice with the supervisor.

Concluding remarks

As always, I hope you find this information on how to pass the situational judgment section of the FSOT, and I welcome your feedback.

When it comes down to it, I think candidates with less job experience will find this section to be more challenging. You just may not have been put in some of these situations yet and may be timid to act. Hopefully, the above will express to you the importance that State places on acting, and acting the “right” way.

You will also notice that I never stated a ranking when it comes to the principles. I did this on purpose. Each prompt will be different, and the options for each prompt will differ from previous prompts. Act accordingly.

You must follow the one rule, carefully read what is being asked, and then apply the principles. You will not have to use all of the principles for every prompt. As such, it is essential to be familiar with them and then apply them.

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6 thoughts on “How to pass the FSOT Situational Judgment Section”

  1. Thank you for this article! Last year, I failed the FSOT because of the situational judgment section (31.4 🙁 ouch!) despite scoring my highest on the other sections. This year, you prepared me well and got me in the right mindset and I passed with a 58.5! Thank you!!

  2. Thank you so much for this schema. I believe that it will help me to better tackle the situational judgment section.

  3. Thank you! This was great. The prep book I have uses practice questions from the Air Force and I’ve noticed DoD and State have different principles – like the Air Force wants you to obey the chain of command even if its detrimental to your assignment while State seems to have more emphasis on getting the job done.

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