fsot_situational_judgment

How to pass the FSOT Situational Judgment Section (2022)

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

If this is you, then this post offers you the opportunity to learn from others, my own experience, and what is officially posted by the Department of State.

Why was the situational judgment section added?

The situational judgment section replaced the biographical section of the FSOT about five years ago. Why? In short, it increases efficiency, decreases subjectivity, and improves the capacity for examiners to review tests.

Personally, I welcomed this change.

The biographical section was always somewhat subjective, in my opinion, and at the very least, there was the opportunity to “game” this part of the test. A quick review if you did not take the test more than five years ago. The biographic section contained questions such as:

  • 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 be asked to write a reason for your provided answer.

Some of the questions were also very similar, 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 an excellent way to assess FSO candidates.

With the replacement section, the following two items are now possible:

First, the situational judgment section is now entirely 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.

Second, it speeds up notification of passing the test. After completing the FSOT, you could learn your results in as little as 20 minutes. The fourth section of the FSOT, the essay, is only considered if you pass the first three. The essay is reviewed as part of your total candidate package with your application and narratives. 

What is the situational judgment section?

The situational judgment section presents scenarios (i.e., descriptions of situations) that a diplomat might encounter in their career.

The Situational Judgment Test (SJT) 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 SJT 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 SJT section of the test consists of 28 scenarios administered in 42 minutes.

Information Guide to FSO Selection

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 places you in a situation, and you must select the proper action so that State can judge your judgment skills (semi-meta).

The scenarios will purposefully place you in a situation of confrontation or tough decision-making. How you react is the key to success.

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

The SJT 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 evident in the first sentence of their description. They want to determine your thinking by the action step you deem best and worst.

Second, BEX is working from a foundation of “precepts” and “competencies.” These are not general terms. The Department of State has a bedrock of qualities that they look for in FSO candidates and expect their Officers to improve throughout their careers. 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 judgment section

What follows is my tactic for passing the situational judgment section of the FSOT. If you are brand new to the blog, please note that these are my opinions, and you are welcome to incorporate them or ignore them in your studies (I do not represent State or BEX, and these opinions are my own).

I am not writing in a vacuum. I’ve taken the actual FSOT and the practice tests and have passed the situational judgment section on both with high scores 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 situational judgment section with 100%. What I provide below is a framework. Though 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 situational judgment section, there is:

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

The one rule

Your world is the prompt.

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 worry about what could be happening outside of the prompt.

Furthermore, and more importantly, don’t worry 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. 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:
  1. There are two people involved – you and your boss
  2. A situation occurred – your boss made edits that you disagree with.
That is it, so stick with it

The one chart and "environment"

The Department of State is an organization with a hierarchy. That means that you have a boss, your boss has a boss, she has a boss, etc. Additionally, you will (most likely) oversee staff, which makes you a boss.

So keep this chart in mind:

org_chart

Unless the prompt states otherwise (keep to the rule!), 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 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 is the one that upholds the above. The WORST response is the one that does not execute the above or breaks with most of the principles.

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 does not mean that you must follow it blindly if your boss tells you to do something. No. However, it means you must respect the task.

Do not go to your boss’s supervisor without first checking and understanding why your boss is making a decision. You should only go over your supervisor’s head as a last resort.

2. If tasked with an item, do it

As we have already discussed, BEX is looking for you to take the best action, which means you must act on the given issue. You have been delegated responsibility, and as such, you are the owner of the item. It is your responsibility to succeed or fail, so make sure you act.

3. Research, be informed

Don’t be a “yes man,” 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 inform yourself, and do so first as an individual. This will mean either research manuals, looking up procedures, speaking with your supervisor for reasons to feedback, and more. What is essential is to seek further understanding to act.

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 work. Would your colleagues 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 you note all the missing things to be transparent.

5. Don't punt, be a leader

Remember the “environment”; everybody is busy in the well-oiled bureaucratic machine. If you are given a task, you need to do everything you can to complete that task. Don’t seek others to do your assignments (don’t punt).

If you oversee a team, then lead and delegate. Leverage the employees’ skills that you manage provide reasons for decisions and be the strategist.

6. Respect your colleagues

This one builds off of the others but still deserves its own principle. 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, you need to be professional and open to hearing differing views and trying to reach a consensus. Also, don’t keep your colleagues in the dark, be transparent with your rationale and direction.

7. Take action

This principle also builds off a previous one but deserves its own highlight. You must act; no action is usually the worst choice. Passive action is a close second. If you cannot take action without a supervisor’s approval, 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 taking place, then bring it to light. If you don’t like what your colleague is doing, don’t start rumors, and don’t be passive-aggressive. Be direct and tell the person what is on your mind, how they are being disruptive, or how a situation is causing XYZ’s problem.

Why the above works

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

Well, here they are:

  • The 13 dimensions of a Foreign Service Officer
  • The FSO core precepts

You should be familiar with the first one. If 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 dimensions 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. This document is/was the rubric for determining FSO tenure and promotion, but that doesn’t mean we cannot apply it to the situational judgment section.

How?

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

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

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 in the situational judgment section. 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, not direct. You are not conducting research to inform your decision-making (i.e., determining why there is a difference of opinion and how 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 for your colleagues, and is not conducting research to learn more. WORST
  4. This is a start, but it only goes halfway. The prompt doesn’t go into detail about what the edits are. Your writing skills could be fine, and the revisions 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 judgment. Better than C.
  5. This action could lead to confrontation with your supervisor. Though it shows interest in determining differences, you are not offering complete support.

Concluding remarks

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

Candidates with less job experience will find this section more challenging, but it is not impossible. So, I hope the above will help you understand the importance that the BEX places on acting the “right” way.

You will also notice that I never state a ranking regarding 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 apply the principles. You will not have to use all of the principles for every prompt. It is essential to be familiar with them and apply them accordingly.

Join the pFS Newsletter!

Receive 5 lessons to help you prep, study, and practice for the FSOT.

Plus! By signing-up you are also joining hundreds of other FSO applicants in a communal pursuit to join the Foreign Service.

I promise not to spam, because I hate it. Powered by ConvertKit

18 thoughts on “How to pass the FSOT Situational Judgment Section (2022)”

  1. Jack,

    Thank you. Read your article last night. Took the test today. Previous attempts earned a 47 and a 48 in situational judgment. Popped it up to 61 today. Solid principles. Thank you.

  2. Hey Jack,

    I took the FSOT this morning and ended up passing! This section on the situational judgement test greatly helped me, and was one of the main things I used to prepare. Now the QEP reviews my narratives..

    Thanks again!

  3. Thank you so much for this. I will be taking the test for the second time and think this can really help. The only thing is that for some reason it does not show me the answers when I click or the explanation. How can I access that part?

    Thank you again!

  4. This is very helpful! I still got your example wrong after reading through this for the first time. Would you possibly be able to add in a few more analyzed examples of questions?

    1. Hey Jessica,

      Would you be able to tell us what the options are? For some reason it is not allowing us to click; the page only refreshes.

      Only asking you since you were the most recent that commented that seems to have seen it. Thanks for your help!

      1. Hey there Franny, I was having the same issue and used some web development tools to get around it. Here’s the answers:

        Best: 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.”

        Worst: 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.”

        Reasons:
        Answer 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).

        Answer 2: You are being direct, you are seeking knowledge, and you are taking action.

        Answer 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.

        Answer 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.

        Answer 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.

  5. Great job Jack. I have failed the SJ section 2x even though I passed the rest. Will it be possible to address the Memo (writing) section like this one?. I am on a different cone than most. I am Medical so, I do not take the FSOT> I move on straight from submitting my application to invitation to interview. Thank you kindly.

  6. Thanks Jack! Read your post a few times before the test. Put the eight principles to memory and then wrote them on the portable whiteboard they gave me as soon as I went in the test room, referencing them a few times during the test. Nearly doubled my Situational Judgment score from last time! Huge help!

  7. Hey Jack. I took the FSOT for the first time this morning and passed. Your website, and specifically this article, was a big part of my preparation. Thank you.

  8. I wanted to thank the author as this is a great article. Just took the test today and passed and keeping the principals in this article in mind was a huge help to breezing through the situational portion. I’ve both passed and failed this test in the past and this time I wanted to be prepared for the situational aspect. I always hated the situational test most as it can be tough to choose especially when trying to determine the worst answer. Keeping the precepts in mind this time helped me to avoid over analyzing and second guessing myself.

  9. 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!!

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

  11. 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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top
Daily, actionable advice

Subscribe for guidance

You will also receive updates when new posts are published on pFS.

Tweet
Share
Share
Reddit
Pocket
Email