Archives for 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!


Happy Thanksgiving to you all. It’s a big holiday at U.S. missions overseas, and it brings together a lot of the American community, including expats, Peace Corps volunteers, teachers and many from the local community. I’ve found that Thanksgiving is sometimes a difficult concept to get across, but at least host country nationals leave knowing that it’s a very important U.S. holiday.

I’m attaching a video on diversity that the State Department produced recently – The Foreign Service: In Search of Diversity. It’s worth watching.

Why is the FSOT So Hard?

Is it, really? Is it tougher than say the MCAT or GRE?

I think it is for a variety of reasons: exams stretch over two days, require you to submit a personal narrative, overcome hurdles that can knock you out of the running.  Also many of you have been dreaming about becoming a Foreign Service officer for years. The emotional pressure is huge

The tests themselves also stretch you in so many ways from multiple choice on a range of subjects (Econ, history, computers, literature, grammar, etc) to writing two or three essays on varying topics. And, yes, the time pressure is intense.

Back in the old days, you’d look around you to see hundreds of others competing for the maybe 2000 slots for the Oral Assessment. And at the Oral Assessment you wonder which of the applicants sitting at the round-table exercise were going to cross all the hurdles to make the cohort of 200 or so who will be put on registrars. You know too that recent Washington buzzwords like sequestration and 0% budgeting mean that there could be even fewer slots open.

Similarly, for the past 10+ years there has been a huge push to hire more minorities, especially Hispanics and Asian Americans who are woefully underrepresented as ELOs and Senior Foreign Service officers. African Americans continue to be underrepresented, but not as much. Women have nearly caught up with men in entering classes, but lag under the Senior Foreign Service glass ceiling.  These hiring goals will affect hiring and promotion; some will be helped, others hurt.

The FSOT is a strange test, I can’t deny that, and there are so many things that come together to decide whether you’ll get on a register and whether you’ll get hired.



FSOT-Like Test Questions to Boost Your Skills


There’s a great website that goes over English grammar, usage, and vocabulary.  Even better, there are scads of test questions that are very similar to those on the FSOT.

Check it out here.

I’d like to give a shout-out to the owner of the blog, but I lost his email.  If he or she does see this, I want to thank you again for alerting us to such a rich resource.






Mobile Donating Could Raise Millions for The Ebola Crisis

Dear readers, this is not a typical post and may not help you pass the FSOT, but it is linked to the State Department and the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Please read it and if you agree, kindly send it on to your contacts.  The goal is to create a groundswell for State to take action as it once did just after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti…

Best, Bill

The attached paper is addressed to all those who care about foreign affairs, global pandemics, and the crisis that grips West Africa, where according to the Centers for Disease Control’s worst-case estimate the Ebola virus could infect up to 1.4 million people and kill nearly 1 million (with a 70% mortality rate).  I have a way to channel private U.S. donations to the fight ongoing in the Mano River region.  Please read the following:

Dear Subscriber:

Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. State Department did a curious thing. Embracing social media and tech savvy like no other Administration, Hillary Clinton’s State Department set up a mobile donating platform for Americans to give $10 by texting the word “Haiti” to the shortcode 90999. The donations, charged to the donors’ phone bills, topped at least $43 million. The money went to the Red Cross.

CNN published a story by Amy Gahran in 2012 to highlight the lessons of this unique and unprecedented State Department idea at

I propose that the State Department do this again to help the suffering populations in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone and especially those volunteers working on the frontlines of the Ebola crisis. In this case, instead of the Red Cross or a UN organization, I propose that the donations go to international Mèdecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), one of the NGOs leading lifesaving activities in the Mano River region.

Unfortunately, those who came up with the Haiti mobile donating idea have pretty much left active government, and while I believe there is enough institutional knowledge to replicate this effort, I don’t know if the idea has occurred to the Secretary Kerry’s State Department.

So it’s time for everyone who has an interest to begin sending messages via email, telephone calls, tweets. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram to Secretary Kerry to stand up this mobile platform once again to help those suffering in this unprecedented pandemic in West Africa. Feel free to use the attached text message and let your voices be heard. And please spread this message

CNN published a story by Amy Gahran in 2012 to highlight the lessons of this unique and unprecedented State Department idea at

Begin text:

Dear Mr. Secretary:

I am writing to you about the terrible tragedy that is taking place in the Mano River region of West Africa. The Ebola virus has spawned a pandemic the likes of which have the potential to rival the AIDS crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published a worst-case scenario that would see up to 1.4 million people infected with the deadly virus. Even with a reduced mortality rate of 70 percent compared to past Ebola outbreaks in East and Central Africa would mean a death toll of nearly 1 million. Yes, that’s one million people dying from Ebola. It would be higher than the Rwanda genocide and nearly five times higher than the death toll in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Mr. Secretary, I am writing to ask the State Department and you to stand up a mobile donating platform that was last used during the 2010 Haiti earthquake to raise money for the Red Cross. Americans and others donated $10 at a time by simply texting the word “Haiti” to the shortcode 90999. This was a State Department Initiative dreamed up by Secretary Clinton’s tech advisors and rolled out by the Secretary herself. With the assistance of telephone companies, the $10 contributions were charge to donors’ telephone bills. In the end, the total raised for Haitian earthquake victims was $43 million.

Can’t we do the same for the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who are and will be suffering from the Ebola catastrophe in West Africa? We need State Department leadership once again to stand up and ask the American people to be as generous as they have been since the start of the Republic.

I would ask that the State Department to coordinate with telephone companies to allow mobile phone operators to text “Ebola” to a new number or shortcode to send $10 to help the victims and those fighting on the frontlines on their behalf in the fight against this deadly scourge.

But instead of sending the donations to the Red Cross or to a UN agency, I support sending them to the international arm of the NGO Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), which has been fighting on the frontlines since the outbreak of the disease.

Mr. Secretary, please accept my deepest gratitude and please make this campaign a reality.


[Your Name}

The Honorable
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC 20520




IMPORTANT – Deadline for State Department Internships

You don’t want to miss the Oct 17 application deadline for unpaid student internships over Summer 2015


Half the interns will serve at the State Department in Washington, DC, while the other half will serve overseas in some of the 270 U.S. embassies, consulates, and missions.  It’s not clear how many internships there are, but get your application before the October 17 deadline to be considered.


Important reminder: begin the process to secure your security clearance ASAP.  This is the hurdle that trips up many hoping to work for the USG. 


The information about the internship program can be found here at USAJOBs or via Internship Applications.

As I’ve said before there is no better way to see if the Foreign Service is right for you than to work for 10 weeks as an intern.  Even better, since these internships are over the summer you will very likely be filling in for an FSO who will be on leave or transferring.  I’ve relied on interns as political officers over the summer in my overseas posts.  In Washington, it’s not unheard of for interns to assume the duties of desk officer in a regional bureau or program officer in a functional bureau.

Good luck!








Management 101: Don’t Let the Shit Float Up

Tips on How to Get Promoted in the Foreign Service.  If you can live with yourself…


More often than not, these guys (and most were men) did nothing of the sort.  And when I got back to Washington, first serving as a DAS in a functional bureau and later in a regional bureau, I was thrown under the bus by my so-called protective bosses.

I’d ask, “What happened to backing up my decisions, taking the heat for my decisions or arguments in meetings?”  The manager would typically stammer, hem and haw, and say something on the order of, “you’re in the big leagues now.  It means taking ownership for your decisions.  Trust me it won’t reflect badly on you.  In this building, no one makes decisions so someone who does is eventually valued.”

Bullshit.  The State Department has a thousand ways for the managers to cover their asses, and only one way to make a decision.  It’s easy to duck your responsibility — write an action memo to your boss or better still to your boss’s boss.  Pushing them to make the decisions.  As you’d expect, most of those came back with copious notes and no decision or the third box.  The first box is “yes,” the second box is “no,” and the third box is the principal’s response, which in so many words was “Don’t expect a decision on this from me.  Either send it to the Deputy Secretary or rewrite it to make it ‘less committal’ or better still spike it.”

No sour grapes (well, maybe a few), no unhappy camper, no respect within the building (but tons outside, where decision makers are actually admired)  To be honest, Washington, or at least the State Department runs more on non-decisions than true “yes” or “no” decisions…  Or wait until the crisis happens and then someone has to make decisions, usually at the highest level.  It is the essence of Edmund Burke’s conservatism.

In the Foreign Service, you will get promoted if you stay away from decision making..  You will get promoted if you don’t/don’t make waves.  You will be nailed and beaten down if you disagree with the higher-ups, even if they haven’t made a decision. You make a decision on something it’s your ass flapping in the wind.

Trust me, and forgive me my bitterness.  I still consider working as a Foreign Service officer the best job in the world, and certainly in the U.S. government.  It’s just with the passage of time, I see things more clearly.  And occasionally, just a few times, it irks me.

Pick your assignments carefully; pick your bosses very carefully  But that’s the subject of my next post.

Cheers and good luck,

Tom Hanks’s Great New Writing App (iPad only for now)

Okay, I haven’t written in a long time, but I wanted you to be aware of a new writing app that the Apple Store released yesterday.

And you know how I go on and on about how important writing is to pass the Foreign Service Exam and to boost your career once you get in….

So it turns out that Actor Tom Hanks apparently has a thing for old manual typewriters. Who knew?  Et voila, he’s created an iPad app — Hanx typewriter — mimicking the typewriters of old, click-clack, ding, and carriage return.

Will it help you pass the FSOT?  That, I don’t know. But if you find your writing energy slipping, this could be just the thing to get you back into the writing spirit.  Chin the writing spirit, something to recharge your batteries, then this is it.

Check it out…

And keep writing!






Preparing for the FSOT – Part Two

Can you prepare for the Foreign Service Exam?  It’s such a quirky, weird exam that wants to see if you know subjects ranging from Voltaire and Kant to Windows 7 and PERT charts.  How can one really study such varied and disparate subjects.

But I do believe that you can study for the FSOT.  And pass it.

My previous advice hasn’t changed — find the areas that you need help and focus your study there.  And just as important practice writing every day (seriously).

But in February the Board of Examiners has recently given applicants a wonderful present.  If you haven’t checked out the website in awhile, go there right now.  The gift is a full-length practice test, compliments of a Midwestern HR firm, Campion Consulting.

The State Department encourages you to take this test in one sitting when you are rested and won’t be disturbed.  The Examiners want you to prepare for the Exam ahead of time.   This is where I disagree.  To prepare as efficiently as possible, you should take the test without studying.  This will pinpoint your weaknesses.  When you review your results you’ll know whether you need to bone up on economics or British literature or the Cold War.

The Department also gives you a reading list to help you in studying.  Of course, the State Department cannot endorse these texts, and some of them are weak, but nevertheless it’s a good starting place.

I would also add the following books on general knowledge and on writing:







Full-Length FSOT Online Now

The State Department has recently announced that they’ve made available a full-length Foreign Service Exam online.  This is a great way to time yourself and avoid running late on the various sections.  You’ll receive your score after completing the test as well as an “estimate of your probability of passing an actual FSOT.”  Don’t worry about the passing probability, it’s probably a gimmick and inaccurate, but use the test score to show you where you’re weak and you need to study more.  No essays or Biographical Information Questionnaire or Written Essay(s) on this test.

Based your results on the practice Foreign Service Exam, the program will provide you with suggestions on study materials to improve your score.  Meantime, here’s a preliminary list from the practice FSOT

At the same time, the Human Resources announced they have switched FSOT administrators from ACT to Pearson VUE. It’s unclear why they opted to quit ACT, but presumably it was the result of a bidding process.  State insists that the transition will be seamless, and ACT will continue to take in FSOT registrations until March 14, when the registration process changes.

Apparently Pearson VUE will not go live until April 28.  Register here to receive an email informing you when Pearson VUE is stood up to receive registrations.

Pearson VUE will contact all applicants who completed their registrations on ACT with instructions on how to create a new registration profile.  With this new account, you then log in to select your test date and site.

So, plain and simple:

  • you can register on ACT until March 14;
  • after March 14, neither ACT nor Pearson VUE will accept registrations.  Consider it a dead period;
  • in late April, Pearson VUE will go live and accept new registrations; and,
  • if you had registered on ACT, Pearson VUE will contact you to re-register on their system and pick your test date and site.

As always, good luck.







New Requirement in the Oral Assessment

The State Department announced today that a three to four minute “Ambassador’s Debrief” will be added to the FSOT for each applicant right after the Oral Assessment’s discussion exercise.  The change will come into force March 3.

No great surprise and nothing to lose sleep over.  You will be doing a lot of this in your Foreign Service career, and probably do it now as a student or employee.

In short, immediately after the discussion section, you will be expected to brief two assessors, one of whom will act as ambassador, on the group’s decision and the rationale.  You can take notes during the discussion, but you won’t have access to the notes for your briefing.

I believe that since there’s only a little time to brief — four minutes — you’d be best served by first going over the facts — who, what, where, when.  After the decision, you should handle the “why.”  The rationale.  First, discuss how the group arrived at the decision, highlight the alternative options (a key piece of info for any boss in the Foreign Service), and describe any dissenting views.

A change in the Assessment, especially adding an exercise, is always something to take notice of.  But really you should be able to handle this easily, and it will give still another way for the assessors to see how well you brief, answer questions and think on your feet.

The Foreign Service says that you should practice your “oral briefing skills.”  Duh.  But honestly this is only a minor change.  You’ll sit through the whole discussion session and follow the formula — decision, rationale, dissenting (or interesting views) — and you won’t go wrong.  Give the facts, and when the “ambassador” asks you questions — did you agree with the decision, why the decision doesn’t seem sensible, etc — hit him or her with your opinions.

Consider this an extemporaneous portion of FSOT.

Good luck and crush it.















The Debriefing (a new component added effective March 3, 2014) 

The Ambassador’s debrief simulates a situation frequently experienced by FSOs. Following the conclusion of the group’s discussion, each candidate will have three to four minutes privately to brief two assessors on the results of the group’s deliberations. One of these assessors will play the role of the Ambassador and ask the candidate several follow-up questions, while the second assessor will escort the candidate from the group exercise room to the interview room. Both assessors remain in the room for the duration of the conversation. Since the dynamics of each group will vary, a candidate’s ability to prepare for the debrief will be limited. However, candidates may find it useful to practice oral briefing skills. It will also be critical that candidates fully understand the group’s final decision and the rationale that led to that decision. Although candidates may take notes during the presentation and discussion phases, these notes will not be available during the Ambassador’s debrief.