Archives for 2012

Suggestions on Writing Your Personal Narrative

Sorry that I’ve been out of pocket for the past month, but I’ve started a new job and, well, it’s been hectic.

First, I want to congratulate all of you who passed the written exam.  For those of you who didn’t, remember that you can give it another try in 11 months or so.  Don’t let it get you down, many FSOs have taken the exam two times, three times, even more before passing. It’s a quirky test, as you know, so you can better prepare for the next go round.  As Jeffrey Gitomer, the sales guru says, don’t let it get you angry, let it build up your resolve to pass it.

Personal Narrative

 Okay, for you who now face the Personal Narrative, you have my sympathies.  The narrative section, which didn’t exist when I took the Foreign Service Exam it, seems to be one of the most arbitrary and opaques steps in the Foreign Service Exam process — especially the Total Candidate approach.  The Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) sounds something like the Star Chamber or some other mystical body that orders executions.  To me, the QEP is another weeding out tool for those brazen enough to have passed the written exam (aka FSOT).  However, don’t be intimidated.  Never be intimidated.  The QEP is made up of FSOs, who are by and large a good lot, even those working in HR.  Many of the FSOs will be on your side.  Remember, too, that the QEP is going over everything about you to date — work and school background, self-evaluated language level, your FSOT and, of course, your PN.   The QEP is likely to be similar to a promotion panel or tenure board, which meet annually or more often.  They’re staffed by as many as five FSOs plus one member of the public.  In the QEP’s case, I would think that since they need to cull through so many PNs, they probably cut the size of the panel and dispense with the public member.    This leads me to my first admonition:

  • Write clearly, concisely and with passion.  No academese, no bureaucratese, the writing must capture the reader.  Remember the QEP FSOs are going through hundreds of Personal Narratives so you need to capture their attention.  Make sure you draw their attention.
    Write your PN as if you’re talking to someone, making vivid descriptions and colorful examples.

Yes, clear and good writing is essential, so go over your narrative carefully and many times.  Read it out loud.  Read it to someone you trust.  Have them read it.  Take the advice of teachers, mentors and anyone else who are willing to give you constructive criticism.  Next piece of advice:

  • Share your drafts with trusted others — friends, mentors, parents, professors, etc.  Ask them to tell you the truth: is it too long, is it boring, is it pompous, do you answer the questions in the proper format, etc.  Read it out loud to them.  Do they nod off?  Do they get up for a drink in the middle?  Are they squirming?  Rewrite accordingly.

Seriously, this step of the exam process — the Personal Narrative — can one of the toughest.  And it trips up so many.  Why?  Because you’re writing about yourself.  It’s a fact that, except for the most self-absorbed, writing about oneself in a self-glorifying manner is against everything we are taught.  It is very hard to do.  But you’ve got to do it.  FSOs do it once a year as they fill out their EERs (Employee Evaluation Reports).

Big Point Here: the six precepts happen to be taken verbatim from the EER (Employee Evaluation Reports) core precepts.  Hint: The core precepts form, DS-1829CP (a public document), gives you more guidance than the Careers.State.Gov site.  Take a look (I’m not sure this is the latest version, but the main ideas remain the same.)  Focus on the skills for Entry-Level.  The PN is only slightly different because the Department wants you to “focus on your own experience… [and] use these precepts as a guide to

1) give positive examples that demonstrate your abilities;

2) identify learning experiences;

3) indicate how your learning experience will contribute to success in your chosen Foreign Service career track.”

I recommend that you 

  • Sit down and under each of the core precepts, think of examples in your past — at work, school, hobby, avocation, etc — that show your abilities.  For example, under Leadership Skills, identify things that demonstrate your leadership skills — e.g., captain of the soccer team, coach of a Little League team, team leader for a project at work, conference organizer, river guide, CEO, head of a local Bar committee, etc.  You need to find and show with concrete examples how you have used leaderships skills.  And continue with the other categories.    Use the precepts as provided on Careers.State.Gov as well as DS-1829CP

When you have a sufficient examples, write your first draft in one sitting.  Yes, it’ll read like crap with grammar mistakes and major structural problems, but you’ve broken the first barrier.  If you have time, you should leave it and pick it up again after 24 hours.  Then review it and begin the editing process.  Streamline your text, hone your examples, figure out how your experiences prove that you’re right for your chosen career track.  The last task is the toughest and the easiest — tough because how are you supposed to know what a political officer does all day or what a consular officer spends the most time on.  It’s the easiest because all officers share certain traits and you can make your experiences via the precepts perfectly suited for the career tracks.  It is tough, however, so start with the Career Track Overview on Careers.State.Gov.  It will give you brief descriptions of what officers in each of the cones do.  Combine these examples with your own life experiences.  Keep writing and rewriting.  It will get better.  Read it out loud.  Share it with friends, mentors, professors, etc.  Rinse and repeat.

Total Candidate Review

Remember too that the QEP FSOs, probably grouped by cone, will review not just your Personal Narrative but also your work and school backgrounds, your self-evaluated language scores (lucky you, if you’re proficient in a “hard” language like Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc) and your score on the written test (FSOT).   The QEP’s rank for you in this “Total Candidate Review” — the State Department’s term, not mine — will determine whether you will be invited to the Oral Assessment.

Good luck with your Personal Narrative and keep the faith.













Last Day to Register for the FSOT — Wednesday, September 26, 2012

You have until Wednesday, September 26 to register for the upcoming Foreign Service Exam.  If you’ve forgotten or been sitting on the fence, you really should sit down at a computer and complete the registration process.  You’ve really got nothing to lose.  It’s free, failing is not held against you and it gives you a shot at the most exciting career in the U.S. Government.  Yes, it’s a long slog, but in my opinion one well worth doing, even if you serve for only a few years.  I’ve had many colleagues who left after two or three years, and have gone on to careers and jobs that satisfied them more.  Face it, serving overseas as a Foreign Service Officer looks great on your CV.

Okay, I’m off the soapbox and leave it up to you.  Ask my 17-year-old son, he’ll tell you I’m a crappy parent and my advice is worthless…  Ah, raising a teenager is so much fun.


Student Internship Applications Accepted Now

Big news, undergrads, the best internship program for the Foreign Service has opened with a a deadline of 11/2.  Don’t miss it.  These are non-paying positions overseas and in Washington.  Language skills would help, but are not required. Big news, undergrads, the best internship program for the Foreign Service has opened with a a deadline of 11/2.  Don’t miss it.  These are non-paying positions overseas and in Washington.  Language skills would help, but are not required.

Okay, the best internships are the ones that pay, but for now this is an ideal way to see what Foreign Service Officers do on the job.  Even more important, you will have the opportunities that entry-level officers experience.   

Follow the link below or go to


Announcing the U.S. Department of State Student Experience Program (formerly known as the U.S. Department of State Internship Program).
This program offers U.S. citizen undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to participate in 10-week, unpaid internships that provide intensive educational and professional experience within the environment of America’s principle foreign affairs agency.

The unpaid internships are available at many of the over 265 U.S. embassies, consulates and missions to international organizations around the world, as well as at the Department of State in Washington, D.C. and other locations throughout the U.S. Participants gain first-hand, hands-on experience, and learn the realities of working in – and with – Foreign and Civil Service professionals who are at the forefront of America’s diplomatic efforts.

As a Student Experience intern, you may have the opportunity to:
— Participate in meetings with senior level U.S. government or foreign government officials;
— Draft, edit, or contribute to cables, reports, communications, talking points, or other materials used by policy makers in furthering U.S. foreign policy objectives;
— Help organize and support events, including international and/or multi-lateral meetings and conferences on critical global issues;
— Contribute to the management and administration of the Department of State and America’s foreign policy; and
— Engage directly with U.S. or foreign audiences to promote U.S. foreign policy and improve understanding of U.S. culture and society.
— So consider spending your summer 2013 with the U.S. Department of State, witnessing and participating in the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy, working closely with the U.S. diplomats and civil servants who carry out America’s foreign policy initiatives. You’ll not only have an experience of a lifetime, you may even earn educational credit.*

* Applicants who are selected for a U.S. Department of State Student Experience can contact the selecting bureau, or the central Student Programs office, if they require further details about the program to support their request for academic credit.

Please visit for more information about the Student Experience Program, and to start the online application process via USAJobs. Please note that the deadline to submit completed applications is November 2, 2012.

We appreciate your interest in a career with the U.S. Department of State.
Visit our forums if you have any questions, or to search for topics of interest. The forums can be found under Engage on the website. You can also search our FAQs for more information.

U.S. citizenship is required. An equal opportunity employer.

Questions? Contact Us

How I Would Prepare for the Foreign Service Exam Today – Project Management

The State Department loves Project Management, as I guess most large organizations do.  The outcomes from Project Management —  precise list of achievements, timeline and performance benchmarks – that enable the 7th Floor (where C-level folks work at Main State) principals and more importantly Congress budget watchdog to track multimillion-dollar programs.

Huge Project — New Embassy Construction

New Embassy construction is a program that lends itself to project management.  Based on the findings of the 1985 Inman Report (aka Report of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Panel on Overseas Security) and later security reviews, the State Department need to build or renovate embassies that didn’t meet the new security standards – more space between Embassies and the street (setback), bringing all the disparate agencies (e.g. USAID, Foreign Agriculture Service, FBI, etc) into the Embassy, moving out of congested city centers to more open land (to defeat new spying technologies.

Where’s the Money, Congress?

Regrettably, State did not act on the Inman Report until it was hastened by the 1997 Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and even then the schedule was woefully slow.  The September 11 attacks helped accelerate the process again, but now 11 years later, it appears that protecting our diplomats – the U.S. first line – has diminished in importance.   It comes down to the huge capital cost to replace or fortify the Department’s 260+ chanceries and principal offices overseas.   Ultimately, it is Congress that has balked at spending the money that the State Department needs for protection and security.  I served in a number of embassies going through chancery construction and everything and everyone had to obey the project management calendar.  But it’s not just big projects, but also small ones in HR, Budget & Finance and Consular, among others, that rely on project management programs and now software.

I’ll insert some of the pertinent Wikipedia articles to help you get the gist of Project Management, if you don’t have the knowledge already:

Project Management (

To be honest, I don’t know if the State Department is using proprietary software to manage the really huge programs.  I certainly hope not.  State (and USAID) has a terrible record when it comes to developing software to meet specific needs.  If you doubt me, as any Foreign Service Officer or civil servant how they feel about e-Performance.  A disaster…

Next Lesson – My Crush on Grammar Girl

Anyway, your reading is light tonight, in part because project management should not/not take up a lot of your exam and also because we’re moving onto English Grammar and Style tomorrow.  In fact, it may take two days to get through how you should write for the State Department.  (Note: if you’re the bookish sort, you can always jump ahead to the Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty’s blog and podcast on all things grammar.  Trust me, she’s one hot grammarian).

Deadlines for the October Exam

Here are the deadlines for the upcoming written Foreign Service Exam:



Deadline for candidates intending to test overseas to submit completed Registration.


Deadline for candidates intending to test overseas to schedule a test seat.


Deadline for candidates intending to test in the U.S. to submit completed Registration.

48 hours before start of your test:  Deadline for candidates intending to test in the U.S. to schedule a test seat—provided seats are still available.


Ninety percent of life is just showing up. ~Woody Allen

How I Would Prepare for the Foreign Service Exam Today – Management Theory

Hello…  I’m back again.  Here’s the second recommendation for preparing for the October Foreign Service Exam (written).  As I mentioned in my last post, there are different ways to get ready for this hurdle.  For me, if I were to do it all over again, based on what I learned during my 24 years working for the State Department, I would recommend a review of the following areas:

Management theory hit my radar based on a question that Jim from Texas raised in the Group Careers in Diplomacy on LinkedIn.  He asked me if I could explain the answer to one of practice questions from Department of State’s Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process (

13. A work group that has high performance norms

and low cohesiveness will most likely have

which of the following levels of performance?

A. Very high

B. High

C. Moderate

D. Low


And the truth is, I have no idea what the correct answer is.  I would add that never in my 24 years did this question ever come up, even in management and leadership training.  What is the Department of State (or ACT, who is hosting, grading and probably drafting most of the written test) saying by asking applicants a question like this one?  It’s not that I can’t answer it because I’m sure that there many who can, but what does Foreign Service work (or management writ large) have to do with such a ridiculous question.  It’s not even factual or definitive.  “A work group that has high performance norms and low cohesiveness will most likely have…”  Utter insanity.  But the folks who write the test have the last say, I suppose.

By the way, the answer to the above question is B, High.  (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot)

Anyway, forgive my rant, but it’s disappointing that State or ACT could ask so many more important questions that might actually weed out those unsuited for the Foreign Service.  When I joined, State personnel officials told us that 15% of those entering the Foreign Service, half by their own decision and half because they couldn’t get tenure.  I think the 7.5% figure for those who couldn’t get tenured is very high.  I think the true percentage is less than 2%.  You really have to go out of your way to not get tenure.  That’s my opinion, and the ones who don’t get tenure are either resistant to change or have the emotional intelligence of a tree.  Seriously, it’s not that tough to get tenure.

But I do believe the total percentage is roughly 15%.  That makes sense and largely held true for my entering class, the 43rd A-100 course.


Okay, I’ll set you up with the best management theory background materials that Wikipedia has to offer:


Interestingly, none of those answers the question about performance and cohesiveness.  Sorry, but this is the best – and I believe enough – for you to get through the test.

Good luck!

How Would I Prepare for the Exam Today – Economics

I’m starting a series of posts that I think will help you prepare for the Foreign Service Exam, especially the areas that will likely be important to passing.

If I were to take the written Foreign Service Exam this October, I would focus nearly all of my study efforts in areas where I feel I don’t know enough – economics, management theory, project management and English grammar.

I took some economics classes when I was an undergraduate far too long ago. Over the past 24 years as a Foreign Service Officer, it was rare for me to discuss economic theory, even when I was managing Economic Officers.  Nevertheless, the Foreign Service Test will have a lot of economics questions.  I myself would be at a disadvantage and spend too long trying to decipher the questions, much less know the answer.  I’ve put together some free Wikipedia articles in case you’re in the same spot.  I would also re-read the book I mentioned in my last post – Basic Economics, A Common Sense Guide to the Economy basic economics: a common senseas well as crack open a basic text, like Paul  Samuelson’s EconomicsEconomics

I’ve gone ahead and pulled all of the Wikipedia entries for economics  that I think are most useful:


Economics ( – do a deep dive on this – micro- and macroeconomics

Outline of Economics (

I know this is a lot of material, but you’ve got more than two weeks before the exam.  Just reading these articles will help you do better.  Focus on the key theories in each, understand them, and you’ll be able to answer most, if not all, of the questions.  There will be some outlier questions, of course. Questions that no matter how much you prepare, you need to have a PhD in economics to answer.  Accept that and move on.

Good luck; it’s a helluva career!

I’ve put this together relying on Wikipedia articles.  I’ve contributed to this website in the past.  If you use it as much as I do, I encourage you to give what you can afford here.



Non-Economics Majors Need to Read This


Economics is important.  No one argues about that.  But do consular and management officers — the backbone of the Foreign Service —  need to have a deep, nuts-and-bolts understanding of the Laffer Curve and Econometrics?  I don’t think so, yet the subject shows up all over the place on the Foreign Service Exam.

Be Prepared!

If you’re picking Management, Consular, even Public Diplomacy career tracks, don’t get caught with a weak understanding of Econ.

In earlier posts, I said that you don’t have to do a deep dive to prepare for the test.  For many liberal arts majors (and yes, you guys rock!), the test should be tough, but one you can pass by reading a good daily newspaper and the weekly Economist. But for everyone else or even liberal arts graduates who missed Econ 101 in college, it’s time to play catch-up.

Only Three Weeks to Go

Okay, lucky you, there is an excellent, very basic econ book that will help prepare you for the test.  If you’re serious about passing the exam, especially the niggling questions on economics, I recommend you pick up a copy and read it before October.  It’s available at Amazon:

The author, Thomas Sowell, gives a frank, straightforward account of many economics principles.  Admittedly his efforts to keep the economics free of technical jargon are too basic — “opportunity cost” is nowhere to be found — but it is an excellent primer.



N.B. I recommend only books that I have read or have heard good things about from trusted colleagues. In this case, I’ve read it 




New Foreign Service Exam Study Guide is Now Available


Get the new version of the Foreign Service Oral Exam Study Guide

This is by far the best study guide out there.  It’s produced by the U.S. State Department.  They should know about the exam, right? And, best of all, it’s free. Download at the link above.

By the way, the Foreign Service written test is only three weeks away.

Good luck,






Communication Failures in the Foreign Service

I harp on a number of points in this blog, especially how important it is to improve your writing.  The goal is to communicate ideas and thoughts clearly and succinctly in your Personal Narrative  and during the oral assessment.  Don’t blather.  Say it, mean it and shut up.

Good, open communication is key to any large organization, be it the State Department or IBM or the European Union.  I found in my career at State that communication breakdowns within a U.S. Embassy overseas cripple not only our efforts to persuade foreign governments but also to run effective, high-morale Embassies.

Scott Gration is the “worst ambassador” at State

Scott Gration, former Ambassador to Kenya

Take the case of Ambassador Scott Gration who recently resigned his post in Nairobi.  The State Inspector General released its assessment August 10 of Gration’s performance in Kenya.  Over and over, the IG highlighted his failings in very un-diplomatic prose:

—  The IG called Gration’s leadership to be “divisive and ineffective.”

— “The Ambassador has lost the respect and confidence of the staff to lead the mission.”

— “The Ambassador’s greatest weakness is his reluctance to accept clear-cut U.S. Government decisions.”

Press reports that followed simplified the findings, branding Gration the “worst ambassador in the State Department.”

An ally of President Obama and a darling of the higher-ups at the National Security Council, Gration ended up scorned and pilloried for many reasons, chief among them was bad communication.  He lied to Washington, he dissed his staff and he refused to meet with important Kenyan officials.  Ironically, Gration grew up on the continent and speaks fluent Swahili.  But just because you know the language doesn’t mean you’re a skilled communicator.

For what it’s worth, Gration never understood or tried to understand the State Department culture.  For two years as Sudan envoy, he was a sole proprietor in a sea of LLCs.  Besides contradicting State policy on Sudan, he botched completely one of State’s most important outreach and communication efforts.   He failed – really, refused – to speak with Congress.  Big mistake.

Finally, Gration has hurt the reputation of political appointee ambassadors in the Foreign Service.  Sure, some of them have been duds, but there have also been many career officers who have failed.   There will always be fools in Front Offices.  Political appointees who follow the lead of Mike Mansfield and Walter Mondale, past ambassadors to Japan, will do far better than those who fight the system and denigrate their officers.  Also, political ambassadors bring much-needed fresh blood into the Department.  So while Gration was destroying the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, two other political appointees on the continent – Alfonso Lenhardt in Tanzania and Don Gips in South Africa – were showing their excellent skills at communication and leadership as well as boosting morale and empowering their staffs.