3 Steps to Passing the FSOT

Embassy Ottawa (Image courtesy stock.xchng user canuckboy)

Embassy Ottawa (Image courtesy stock.xchng user canuckboy)


I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving, especially those who are going to take the FSOT in February 2016.  Many of you will be thinking about the best way to prepare for the exam, whether it’s the first time you take it or the fifth.  Trust me, there’s no shame in taking the FSOT multiple times.  I know many (most?) Foreign Service Officers who flunked the test more than once, even if they no longer admit it.

With the February FSOT still two months off, it’s a good time to start preparing, and my advice is to do the following right now:

  1. Take the Pearson practice test;
  2. From your results, identify your weakest areas, and then start review those areas — US history, economics, management theory, English expression (grammar), etc.  (I put English grammar because it was always my poorest area, and in fact when I recently took the practice FSOT, I scored a 92 in Job Knowledge and, yes, a 71 in English expression);
  3. Practice writing six days a week at least 500 words a day.  This writing regimen will not only improve your writing on the FSOT, but will also help you in your Foreign Service career.   The State Department is still an institution that relies on cables  (telegrams) and memoranda to carry out its business.  Sure you’ll use PowerPoints at Main State and overseas, but writing — clear, focused drafting — is the way to pass the test and do well in your FS career.

Six days a week sounds a bit much, but trust me that the more you write, the faster and clearer you’ll get.  For the first few weeks, you can write about anything to get to the 500 word mark.  Love affairs, Donald Trump, ice cream.  After that, start pulling news articles from the NY Times and The Economist and rewriting them in your voice or analyze the subject or review a policy position that you think is wrongheaded  or right from current day (Why the United States’s Syria policy is failing) or the past (How the the United States dropped the ball in the Suez Crisis).

That’s it, three ways to help you pass the upcoming FSOT.  I’ll be posting resources shortly to help you bone up on your weak subjects soon.

Good luck!









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.






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!






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.







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,


Foreign Service Exam: Don’t Try to Game the System, Just Take the Test

The Foreign Service Exam is a difficult test to pass.  Don’t make it any harder.  It’s difficult, even a waste of time, to try to game this test.

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen arguments put forward on forums that the State Department wants to build up the ranks of the Consular Corps or the Political Cone or the PD Career Track.  So, as the advice goes, it’s a good time to make Consular, Political, Public Diplomacy your choice of career track.

 The problem is the system doesn’t work that way.

Yes, the Department does make an attempt to estimate Foreign Service personnel needs, but it’s a snapshot at that moment.  I’m not convinced that because State HR believes there will be a shortage in Pol officers, for instance, they will increase the hiring numbers of political officers in one year’s time; that is, when you pass the written and oral tests.  Remember too that all career tracks are in a constant state of change — attrition at all levels, out-of-cone assignments (e.g., DCM jobs, Cons to Pol, staff assistants and so forth).  If the Department needs more political officers, are they really going to increase hiring for the Political career track in when you reach the register. I think not.  What they will do is take more poloffs who have already passed the exam and are on the registers right now.

In the end, stop overanalyzing the process, gaming the system and believing you have an edge. Ultimately, it comes down to you and the Exam so crack the books, work on your writing (you should be writing for 30 minutes every day) and get ready to take the FSOT.  


Preparing for American History on the FSOT

Do you need a quick brush-up on your American history?  Here is the way to get back up to speed.  This U.S. history version takes the same style as my previous post on Economics prep:

History of the United States – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Other categories:





Mea Culpa


I screwed up

In my last post, I recommended you buy The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and set up an account n 750words.com.   The website would motivate you to write at least 750 words (three pages) as practice.

However, I visited  750words.com earlier in the week and discovered that as of May 1, the site is now asking for $5.00/month to use the website.

While I still think the site is excellent, kudos to Buster and Kellianne Benson who created it, I don’t expect you to pay $5.00 a month.

I have found a great  substitute — QuietWrite.com — which is still in Beta and free.  They count your words, give you a pleasant full display for writing, but they don’t have the kick you in the ass” reminders or passion that 750words.com has.  Still, either use QuietWrite or use Word; the point is to practice.






How to Improve Your Writing in 30 Days

Just in Time for the June FSOT — Two Things to Bump Up Your Drafting Prowess and Another That Could Be Your Secret Weapon (A hint: Think Wiki and I’m not talking about Wikipedia…)

The results are not pretty. According to FSOs, the weakest skill among ELOs is writing.  ELOs handicapped with an academic style — ponderous, pompous, and slow — are met with eye-rolling and shaking heads.  In fact, FS managers prefer those with poor or no drafting skills than someone with an affected and long-winded style.  As I’ve mentioned before, there is a distinct  style to Foreign Service writing — short, straightforward, some style, a little funny and sexy.  Your subject lines and summary had better sing, if you want to get your stuff read in the region and back in Washington.  And that is the goal.  Regardless of career track, trust me, you want to get read…

Writing is the currency in the Foreign Service

I can’t emphasize how important writing is to the State Department.  It’s simple — the better you write, the better you’ll do in the Foreign Service.  If you want to be a political, economic or public diplomacy, you’d better write your ass off and get up to speed now.  Management and consular officers will also be judged by their writing.  Hell, everyone is judged by his or her writing.  

If FSOs Need to Write Well; FSO Candidates Must Also

I believe that writing is the major part of your Foreign Service Exam grade.  The FSOT examiners — State or private — will scrub your essays and personnel narratives to see how well you meet the needs of the Service. The good news is that I’ve found three ways to get you up to snuff in 30 days. First, you need to buy this book and study it.  Incorporate its lessons into your writing.  Those who know me, understand that I think journalists and writers have a leg up on everybody else in the Foreign Service.  Why?  Professional writers have to write clearly and quickly, both skills prized in the Foreign Service.

I had hoped to find an online course to help improve your writig.  But I failed.  I couldn’t find anything good.  Sure, there are plenty of courses for creative writing, screenwriting, novel writing, even poetry writing, but none on straightforward expository writing.  If you know of one, please let me know.

So I discovered the next best thing: a book.  A great book.  This book if you study its lessons will help you improve in time for the June test.

The author, Paula LaRocque, is a writing consultant, blogger and most recently a novelist. She has years of experience in training others how to write.  Her clients have ranged from reporters and editors at the Associated Press to academia, business and governments.  She has lectured and taught on writing in North America as well as overseas.  Equally important, Paula is a professional writer herself — not just a teacher — and worked as an Assistant Managing Editor and columnist for The Dallas Morning News.  She’s the real deal, and her book is an excellent resource to hone your own writing.  Yes, some of you swear by The Elements of Style, another excellent resource, but LaRocque’s book is meatier and offers better instruction.   (Full disclosure: I do make some money if you buy through the Amazon link above.  I use this to  defray the costs of the blog.  I appreciate your help)

Besides reading about writing, I think the best way for you to improve your drafting is by doing it.  With no online courses to offer, I am recommending a website that I use — 750words.com.  This is a free website created by one Buster Benson who wants you to write 750 words per day.  He thinks everyone should do it.   I think it gives FSO candidates an enormous opportunity to get ready for the Foreign Service Exam.  Take a look at it.  Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to boost your writing skills than by sitting down and writing yourself.  This site encourages you to write 750 words, roughly 3 pages, every day on your interests, as a journal, or just a record of your mood.  I think that you can start for the first few days writing whatever pops in your head.

Write Three Pages a Day

After writing about anything, you should start pulling stories out of the daily news and rewriting them in the form of a State Department cable.  The more you practice writing, the more your prose will improve.  It’s excellent practice not only for the FSOT, but also for your job or class.  Check it out and let me know what you think.  (Note: I  make no money from this site, and I’m not even sure that the Buster makes anything.  If I knew him, I’d ask…)


Okay, that’s my advice.  I really believe you can dramatically improve your writing with just these two aids — Paula and Buster…


Wait, I mentioned a third, compliments of the US Army, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.  Disgusting and treasonous, the release of tens of thousands of State Department cables (which to this day officials neither confirm or deny) offers you a treasure trove of Foreign Service writing.  Remember, however, when you pass the test and join the State Department frowns on staff accessing the Wikileaks files on the Internet at work.  In fact, I have never looked at them until a week ago, when I thought of Wikileaks as an opportunity for FSOT takers.  I have never looked at them, not even when they were first released — as many State colleagues had — so I don’t know if my own cables were released.  I hope not.

Meantime, all of you who enter the Foreign Service will bear the fallout of the Wikileaks disaster.  I can tell you that Wikileaks has meant our sources dried up.  Who wants to tell anything to an U.S. diplomat when their previous comments are out there for anyone to see.  Don’t underestimate our enemies and allies — they’ve pored over the cables.  As a result, foreign officials as well as private citizens were fired,  jailed, perhaps even executed.  At least one U.S. ambassador was kicked out of his country. A catastrophe.  Your efforts overseas to recruit sources and contacts will be much harder.  You may not want to look at the leaked cables, and I can understand.  But if you’re interested in State Department writing, good and bad, they are out there.  Just Google them.














You Gotta Have Passion

I spoke with an aspiring FSO earlier this week.  She was smart (PhD, former college professor) and funny and very personable.  But there was something that didn’t click in our conversation.  Admittedly, it was just a 20-minute telephone call, but still it was almost immediately evident that she was missing what is perhap. s the most important thing for people who want to pass the Foreign Service Exam, especially the Oral Assessment.

She didn’t have any passion.  Not for the work, not for the career track, and not for the FS as a career.

Don’t misunderstand me.  There are some FSOs who don’t have passion for their work.  That’s too bad because I’m convinced they joined the Foreign Service with a great deal of zeal.  But over the years have lost that mysterious ingredient locked into a job because of the health, education and other benefit s.

Be honest with yourself.  If you’re not excited about the Foreign Service, living overseas and working for the U.S. Government, don’t waste your time.  The prep for the exams and the wait to get in are ridiculously long.

But what if you do have the zest and the passion to join the Foreign Service and live and work overseas, but you can’t pass the test.   Say you take it four or five times, but you still don’t pass.  What are the alternatives?  I’ll discuss that in a future post.