Foreign Service Exam: The Most Important Language

Folks, I hear from a fair number of people and see questions on the various forums about the Foreign Service Exam. One of the top questions is how do your abilities in foreign languages help you get into the Foreign Service. Unfortunately, except for a slight bump on the registers at the end of the selection process, they don’t help you on the Foreign Service Exam.

What is the critical language to master for the FSOT?  English. Hands down.

I’ve talked about this in previous posts —  How to Improve Your Writing 30 Days and Suggestions on Writing Your Personal Narrative — but the Foreign Service relishes and promotes on your ability to write. There are agencies in town wedded to PowerPoint and other trickster ways to avoid ideas in a narrative. The State Department still lives or dies by the written word.

We’re all familiar with George Kennan’s “The Long Telegram,” a 5,500-word treatise on why we should not deal with Stalin and the Soviet government . I’m not sure that anyone at State would read such a long cable today, but he followed it up with a shorter article in Foreign Affairs, published as the work of “X.” Both of these served to shape what we came to know as our containment policy towards the Soviet Union.

I’m not pushing you to write lengthy cables that probably won’t be read.  I’m simply arguing that writing has not/not gone out of fashion in Foggy Bottom.  The flourishes of Kennan’s writing likely wouldn’t be appreciated today either. Short, crisp, and factual writing is of critical once in your in the Foreign Service, and it’s equally important to pass the Foreign Service Exam.

Don’t underestimate English’s importance on the test. The Examiners want to hear about you, your experiences and perhaps more importantly how you learned through trial and error and occasionally falling on your face. Humility goes a long way in your FSOT writing, especially in the Personal Narrative section.

So while your skills in a foreign language — hard languages, in particular — will go a long way in your careers. You need to master English to pass the test.

As I recommended in my previous posts, there are a number of good books out there to help with your writing.  Below is one of the best.  It’s honest, straightforward and a quick read. Take another look, if you haven’t already.

Bon courage,


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