Archives for July 2012

Foreign Service Exam – Don’t Psych Yourself Out

I’ll be the first to say that the written portion of Foreign Service Exam is a different sort of test. Part-Trivial Pursuit, part-college core, the test is designed to assess your abilities across a huge swath of knowledge – history, humanities, management, economics, culture, IT, etc. It will force you into a deep dive of what you’ve picked up at school and also what you’ve gathered growing up in the United States. After you take it, you’ll walk out of the exam hall feeling dull, achy and a little scattered. You’ll want to decompress for a few hours with a glass of wine or cup of coffee or both.

But it is only a test and your first hurdle into joining the Foreign Service – the best career in the U.S. Government.

Can you prepare for the Foreign Service Exam? While I was a Foreign Service Officer, I was emphatic that you had to just know the material. I remember taking it for the second time (yes, it took me two tries to pass the written test.) and waiting to enter the exam room, there were applicants reading history books, econ texts and other reference materials, furiously cramming before the Exam. I thought it was crazy. I felt if you read a good newspaper everyday (e.g., NYT, Washington Post, LA Times, etc) and a good news magazine every week (e.g. The Economist) with a college degree would get you through to the next round, the Oral Exam.

You Can Prepare for the Foreign Service Exam

But now after a 24-year career in the Foreign Service, I’ve revised my thinking and believe you can (and need to)  prepare for the exam. You won’t get there with flash cards or a scattershot approach with textbooks. No, that’s just a way to get you frustrated and angry. Also, cramming minutes before the Exam is a waste of time. It’s too late.  No, you need a good strategy.


First, you have to be honest with yourself. Where are your shortcomings? In what subjects are you the weakest? Economics, Management, American History, Modern or Ancient Thinkers, Project Management, English Grammar, Computer Skills, etc. Second, how long do you have before the Exam. As I write this, you have about 2+ months to prepare for the October test. Is that enough time? Yes, I believe it is more than enough time to get you up to speed on what you need to know. In my next posts, I’ll describe how to get prepared through a sensible, logical strategy.

For now, keep reading the good daily newspaper and The Economist. They will remain the foundation for passing the exam. Trust yourself, work hard and good luck.

Suggested Reading List I

Here are some books that should help you decide on your Career Track.  If they don’t they will certainly give you a better sense for the Foreign Service.  Good reading.

George Kennan (1904-2005) One of America’s most famous diplomats.  Soviet expert, architect of the United State’s containment foreign policy during the Cold War.


Richard Holbrooke (1941-2010).  Considered the best known U.S. diplomat who never reached cabinet rank.  In and out of government during his life, he started his career as an FSO in Vietnam in the 1960s.  The only person to serve as Assistant Secretary in two regional bureaus (Asia and Europe).  Arrogant, pushy, demanding, Holbrooke was an acquired taste.  Still, his success in brokering the Dayton Peace Accords and efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are impressive achievements.


George Shultz (1920-     )  Many members of the Foreign Service regard Shultz as the best Secretary of State in the past 40 years.  He is seen by FSOs as a Secretary (or “S”)  who truly cared about the Foreign Service as an institution.  He holds the record — 6 1/2 years — for tenure as Secretary of State.


Pick Your Career Track Before the Foreign Service Exam (Part 2)


Seriously, it’s kind of a crap shoot picking your Cone without knowing something about Career Tracks, or at least knowing something a bit more than what’s described on  If it were an ideal world, you would all have State Department mentors assigned before you make this decision has to be made.  Some of you will or have already interned at Embassies and Consulates overseas.  Others have learned as former Peace Corps Volunteers or staff members at overseas NGOs what officers in the five Career Tracks actually do.  You, who are so fortunate, at least have a clue what you’ll be doing.  For the rest of you, well, you always can ask me.  Fire away.  This post with some admittedly abridged descriptions of the five Cones will at least, I hope, put you in a position to the right questions.  Meantime, I’ll also provide the names of books that can help you.


No Hollywood movie has ever/ever accurately portrayed the work of a Foreign Service Officer.  I’ll devote a post to this later.  Screenwriters and directors routinely cast FSOs as schemers with the power to overthrow foreign governments or wiener-ish dweebs who go out of their ways not to help American Citizens in trouble.  The movie Midnight Express is one such movie, depicting the consul in Istanbul who deals  with Billy Hayes, a convicted hashish trafficker, as slimy, unctuous and dismissive.  In fact, my first boss in the Foreign Service was that consul, and I have never found a more courageous, straightforward and caring individual in my career.  He laughed about the movie, saying Midnight Express was wrong on so many levels that he watched it only once and thought it more a comedy than drama.  Midnight Express, like so many others,  was a smear job, a pathetic attempt to score points by depicting the consul as a weak, mealy-mouthed bureaucrat.  I guess it’s no surprise that the screenwriter was Oliver Stone, the lucky man who never fails to take complicated, nuanced issues and distill them to black and white.   But I digress and I promised you more information about the Econ, Consular and Management Career Tracks.


Econ officers are a sexy bunch, well, no not really, but they do work in a “substantive” Cone.  Honestly, when I joined the Foreign Service, Pol and Econ were the only really “serious” Cones.  But even then Econ trailed Political in attracting the bidders.  It’s crazy when you think that Economic Officers are the ones most likely to find employment when they retire, quit or otherwise bail out of the Foreign Service.  If you opt to bid on this route and you’re still in school, take more classes in micro and macroeconomics.  Those working in the private sector will also be in a position to do well.  The key is to  “hit the ground running” (one of the Foreign Service’s most overused expressions).   Economic Officers do similar work as political officers, reaching out and developing networks, trying to get a handle on a range of issues — from a country’s monetary policy to its stand on Climate Change, from a country’s export and trade policies to a U.S. company’s complaints on the Rule of Law in the country’s court system.  You draw on multiple sources, from government ministers to the local World Bank resident representative, and then report your findings and analysis back to the Department in cables.


The wonderful thing about Wikileaks, should one ever admit that the treasure trove of “front-channel” cables are in fact real State Department reports (still strictly verboten for FSOs and other Department personnel) are the accolades from outside observers.  Many media outlets, including The Guardian in London, no big fan of the U.S. Government,  acknowledged that not only was the reporting detailed and accurate, but the prose was excellent, even sublime.  Overseas, fellow diplomats and many government officials agreed that the quantity and the quality of embassy reporting was truly incredible, and at least for the diplomats had their capitals wondering what they did all day, if the Americans were producing so much information.


The Wikileaks scandal leads me to another point that is so important.  In the Foreign Service, you will be judged by your analysis and perhaps more importantly your writing skills.   You must write fast and accurately.  If you don’t, practice hard now.  There is no greater skill for an American diplomat.  The State Department’s writing tradition is as strong as the U.S. military’s oral tradition.  To be a good officer in the U.S. Army or any of the other services, you must be a good briefer — focused, to the point, preferably with  PowerPoint slides.  In the Foreign Service, to be a good officer you must be a clear and succinct drafter.  Cables and more and more emails are the grist of an FSOs life.  Coming in with strong writing skills will put you ahead of your peers for tenure and promotion.


Regrettably there are too many lawyers working in the Consular Cone.  I agree that the work lends itself to legal thinking and practice.  Just about all U.S. visa law — pertaining to nonimmigrant and immigrant visas — is set out in the Immigration and Nationality Act.  When politicians talk about immigration reform, they are discussing possible ways to amend the INA.  But if lawyers gravitate towards consular work because it resembles legal work, well, that’s (in my opinion, of course) is not a good thing.  Lawyers make lousy visa officers for a number of reasons:

  •  Lawyers find it impossible to deal in the gray area that exists in the law.  There is only one right answer and if it takes three days/three weeks/three months to hash it out, well, so be it.  With today’s workloads, hundreds of thousands of visa applicants receive a two-minute interview.  There is simply no time to deep dive into the nuances of the law.  Harsh, yes; accurate, absolutely.  The goal of  visa work is to process applicants — talk to them, discuss their circumstances and make a decision.  Fast.  There is no dilly-dallying in visa work.  The law is clear.  An applicant is deemed to be an intending immigrant, until and unless he can convince the interviewing officer to the contrary.  In short,  you’re guilty until you prove yourself innocent.  Lawyers generally can’t deal with the fact that a visa section resembles more a McDonald’s at lunchtime than a law office on main street.
  • Lawyers by and large make lousy managers.  Visa Sections around the world, especially in “Visa Mills” like Seoul, Mexico City, and Manila may have 20-30 FSOs and more than 100 local employees, handling hundreds of thousands of applicants.  Management is the name of the game.  You as the manager have to keep things moving, juggling the cultural differences, language hurdles and insane pace of the job.  I’ve seen some, but not many lawyers succeed at this.
  • Most lawyers that I’ve come across in the Foreign Service are not funny.  If you don’t have sense of humor, the Foreign Service is not for you, especially consular work.  You’ve got to keep your FSOs and your Foreign Service Nationas (FSNs) –now called LSE’s, or Local Service Employees — happy and laughing.  High morale is essential in consular work.  It’s important in every section of the embassy, but bad morale kills a Consular Section faster than any other office.
I’m going to discuss the other side of Consular work — American Citizens Services — in another post, but if visa work is tough and mean and unforgiving then ACS is the part where Americans help Americans.  Usually.  And it’s why I joined the Foreign Service.
Okay.  this is still another “too long” post.
I’ll sum up Management/Administrative Officers as some of the finest officers in the Foreign Service.  Tasked with Herculean duties, they do their best and put up with a lot of shit.  Who wants to go to an Embassy party only to be accosted by people complaining that their housing sucks and they want a new air conditioner.  It happens all the time.  The best Management Officers are gifted with handling people and have  the patience of priests.  They handle all the administrative functions of an overseas mission — human resources, shipping, diplomatic pouch, maintenance of housing and Embassy buildings, motor pool, finances, etc.  The officers range from the brilliant and speedy to the lazy and stupid.  All Cones have their share of those officers, but perhaps it gets noticed more among Management Officers.  Consular and Management work shares one important trait — if these sections are running smoothly, no one notices.  But if either service is sub-standard, everyone knows right away.



Pick Your Career Track Before the Foreign Service Exam (Part 1)

We called them Cones when I joined the Foreign Service in 1988.  At some point, the HR folks changed the name to be more in touch with the times so they became Career Tracks.  It’s a better description, but HR has apparently also decided that you need to pick your Career Track before taking the first exam — the written test.  As I recall, when I took the test, they scored us on how we did in each of the Cones, or Career Tracks, and then told us to pick our Cones.  I picked Consular, but that’s not important right now.

First, let me list and describe the five Career Tracks:

  • Political – dubbed “Pol,” as in she’s the pol off (political officer).  Political is considered the most glamorous Track, at least in political officers’ minds
  • Economic – known as “Econ,” or E-con.  The second “substantive” Cone or so political and econ Tracks were considered when I joined the Foreign Service
  • Management – used to be called Administrative, and is still referred to by many older FSOs as Admin.  HR and M (Under Secretary for Management) decided a few years ago that “Administrative” didn’t give the full breadth or importance of a Management Officer’s work.  So it became Management.  All FSOs manage, of course, but only Admin Officers are called Management Cone managers.  Go figure.
  • Consular – where some of the best State Department managers are found.  From Day 1, Consular Officers are called upon to manage local employees and their colleagues in visa and American Citizen Services sections in Embassies and Consulates around the world.  The number manages continues to increase as consular officers advance in the Service.  Every FSO has work as a consular officer before they are eligible for tenure (more on that later).
  • Public Diplomacy – called “PD” by FSOS.  When I joined, there wasn’t a separate Public Diplomacy Cone; all PD functions were run by a separate agency, the United States Information Service (USIS).  Around the turn of the century, State Department leaders (also known as the “Seventh Floor,” the highest floor at Main State decided that USIS should be merged into the State Department from whence it came some decades before.  There are still some bad feelings among long-time USIS officers, but although they had to give up their bigger houses and china, their budgets continue to remain outside the main embassy budget and each regional Bureau in the Department now has an extra Deputy Assistant Secretary from the PD Cone.

I’ll give you the skinny on Career Tracks.  The lion’s share of bidders still pick the Political Cone, which is still seen by many as the Foreign Service Officer Track.  Political Officers network with locals, glean information, complete analyses and reports (known as “cables”) to send to the Embassy.  Pol Offs frequently work closely with the Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission (the number two in an embassy).  She is called D-C-M, for short).

A Pol Off’s job should take place — in my view — outside of the Embassy, meeting with contacts, groups and others who have information that is important to an Embassy and ultimately the U.S. Government.  The only time a Pol Off should be in the Embassy is when he or she is drafting reports to send to Main State.  A Pol Off’s job is to schmooze, and if you like people and making contacts and going to receptions and other social events, then this is a great job.  Ironically, Political Officers in the Foreign Service are frequently introverts, which is not the best personality type for this intensely social field.  Some get over it.  Some do not, and it shows in their work.

George Kennan, perhaps the most famous FSO, admitted in his memoirs that he himself was very shy, but when he was a Pol Off representing the United States, his introversion disappeared.  He was doing his job as America’s representative, not as George Kennan, and he could in effect step out of himself and do his work.

Besides the glamour of meeting with political, labor, military and other types of leaders, Pol Offs — especially junior ones — usually get saddled with the myriad reports demanded by the Department — Human Rights Report, International Religious Freedom Report, Trafficking in Persons Report, and so forth.  Either mandated by Congress or demanded by one of the functional Bureaus or specialized offices at Main State, these reports can be drudgery.  To be sure, some are important.  Others, well, let’s just say they’re less important.  Ironically, the number of reports has increased as the number of Foreign Service Officers in the field has declined.

If the Political Cone attracts most applicants, I believe, Public Diplomacy comes in a close second.  PD is attractive work, whether you’re  the Information Officer (IO), an Embassy spokesperson.  Or you the mission’s Cultural Affairs Officer  (CAO), in which you organize public programs in music, art, books, etc.  American artists still make global tours, and the CAO organizes their visits. In the early 1960s Louis Armstrong did a number of foreign programs, and you can still find recordings of his trips.  For instance, I have a CD of Armstrong’s concert in Elizabethville in the Congo (now Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).  CAO’s also coordinate Fulbright scholars, International Visitor Programs (IVP) and other foreign visitors to the United States.  These are plum programs because they frequently last for several weeks and show foreigners a cross-section of American life.  Their themes can range from democracy, law enforcement, justice and equality, minority rights,  youth, women in government, etc.  The USG has sponsored these programs for decades and they pay dividends as participants have risen to the top of their professions, becoming important contacts with generally positive views of the United States.

This post is too long already.  I’ll discuss the Economic, Management, and Consular Career Tracks tomorrow.


Get Ready… The next Foreign Service Exam is in October

If you want to take the Foreign Service Exam go immediately to this place to complete your registration application for the test.

Registration, registration, registration.  You’ve got to sign up for the test and there are deadlines.  There are always deadlines.  This post should explain how to secure a seat at the next Foreign Service Exam, which according to the Department of State is slated for October 2012.  But is it?  Or did we miss the deadline?

Two facts, for what they’re worth:

  • Registration for the Foreign Service Officer Exam is open on a continuous basis.
  • The State Department will offer the written test three times in 2012 and 2013.
This is straightforward, so you need to register and you need to plan on a test date. Okay, fill out and submit the online application here.  Remember you will have to select your career track, formerly known as cone, when your are registering for the exam.  There are five:
  • Consular
  • Economic
  • Management (formerly Administrative)
  • Political
  • Public Diplomacy (formerly a separate Foreign Affairs agency, the United States Information Service, until it was reabsorbed by the State Department in 1999)
I will talk about the different cones, er, career tracks, in my next post.  The silly words State uses  led to other wonderful expressions, such as the process of changing one’s cone became known as conal rectification.  And to think people used to say this with a straight face.
Okay, you’ve registered, you select a day and time within the one-week window.  The upcoming Foreign Service Exam will be offered during the window from September 29 to October 6, 2012.  As I mentioned previously, you can take the test in many different spots around the United States, probably where ACT offers its more traditional college-testing services.  They have a nifty map of the United States, so type in your zip code to find the closest testing center.  A few days after you submit your choice, ACT will send you an email with the day and time of your test.  (Note: State expects you to handle the relationship with ACT so if you don’t get a response, it’s up to you to sort it out with the testing firm)
Final points:
  • if you register today — July 14 — you don’t have to take the exam in Sep-Oct.  You can take it during another window over the next 12 months.  If you fail to take it during that period, ACT cancels your registration.  If you decide then to really take it, you’ll have to re-register.
  • You are only allowed to take the exam once/once during an 11-month period.  Of course, if you fail the test or State doesn’t offer you a job, you can take the test as often as you like.
  • Don’t forget to take a copy of the email notification confirming time, test date and location and valid U.S. government-issued photo identification to the test center, according to Career.State.Gov.  They say in the next sentence that a driver’s license is okay so I assume they also mean state government forms of idea.  No, it doesn’t mean you have to get a passport.  Not yet, anyway, and Diplomatic Passports are a neat black color.  Trust me, you’ll like them.
Okay, one final note is a new pain-in-the-butt rule ACT and State have instituted.  The Foreign Service Exam remains free, but to prevent no-shows for the test, they will ask you for credit card information at registration.  If you don’t notify ACT and cancel your seat at least 48 hours in advance, they will charge you $50.  Keep that in the back of your mind.  Fifty bucks is still fifty bucks.

Why the Foreign Service?

So you’re majoring in international affairs or foreign languages or comparative studies or international economics.  Or your simply tired of the idea of living in the United States for the rest of your life.  You’ve traveled abroad, had foreign friends, and think that a career abroad might be interesting, fascinating, and fun.   And, you know, you’re right.  Well, you’re right, the Foreign Service is all of those things: interesting, fascinating, and fun.

I can guarantee that life in the Foreign Service, working for the State Department overseas, is like no other career.  You will have greater responsibilities at a younger age than your peers, especially if you’re fresh out of university and working in a developing country.  You will meet with some of the highest-ranking officials in your country of assignment. You will speak the language with greater and greater fluency.  You will understand this country, its culture and people, better than any other country, perhaps even the United States.  And you will have the opportunity to explore the nuances of the country’s politics, economics and social mores.   You will be a Foreign Service Officer, representing the United States Government to this country.

I just recently retired after nearly 25 years of service, and I can vouch for all of those feelings of wonder and excitement.

Even better, you get paid for this work.  Some of my colleagues confessed early on in our careers that they would do the work for free.  I don’t know if I would go that far, and your salaries can’t compete with your classmates who went on to big consultancies or hedge funds on Wall Street.  Still, the Foreign Service pays you a comfortable wage, provides your overseas housing and pays for  nearly all of your utilities.   Moreover, in many countries, you will receive a hardship differential, ranging from 5 to 25 percent of your base salary, depending on how difficult life is in your country of assignment.  In other countries, including but not limited to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, you will receive danger pay to compensate you for the increased risk of violence or attack.

So if your standard of living is quite high and the work is if not glamorous than at least pretty damn interesting, why don’t more people join.  To that, I would answer — they would if they could. Standing in their way, in your way, is the Foreign Service Examination.

The Foreign Service Test  is one of the toughest, most comprehensive and yes hair-pulling tests offered by the U.S. Government.  It’s difficult to describe, and it has morphed over the years.  The essential structure remains the same — a written test followed by an all-day oral examination.  You need to pass the written to be invited to the oral test.  I will discuss the details of the exam later, but for now I will only say that the written exam will test your knowledge of politics at home and abroad, macro and microeconomic theory, and management principles and strategies.  There will be history questions about the United States as well as Europe and much farther afield, from the Ashanti Kingdoms of present-day Ghana to the Meiji Restoration in  Japan.  The breadth of the exam is huge and if the substantive questions are daunting you will have to pass an English Language test too.  In my day, the English part of the exam was dubbed the “weed-out section,” because most of the people failed that part of the FS Exam.  Today they require a writing sample during the written test, so in addition to testing your grammar, the examiners will review your fluency, thought and diction.

Take the FS Exam; what have you got to lose?

All in all, the written test is tough and it will cut the ranks of test takers from 100 percent to about 10 percent, who will be invited to participate in the oral exam. My goal in this blog is to help you pass both tests.  Tips and hints and ideas of how to study and what to study.  It’s not as insurmountable as it would appear.  There are some things going in your favor: you can take it as many times as you want.  I took it twice, but I’ve known colleagues who took it 5 or even 10 times.  There was even a special colleague who took the exam 12 times before he passed!

The other positive feature is the cost of the test.  It’s free.  It only costs you the time you spend to take it.  The written test is offered all around the United States and overseas, at embassies and consulates.  You don’t even need to travel to Washington, DC to take the oral examination.  That too is offered in major cities across the United States. The time is right for you to explore this often discussed, little known segment of the U.S. Government workforce.  The time is right for you to work overseas and reap the excitement and prestige of becoming a U.S. diplomat, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer.