State Dept Guidebook for Oral Assessment

For those of you facing the Oral Assessment phase of the Foreign Service Exam, I want to call your attention to the outstanding manual that the Department has recently released. It’s not only an excellent overview of the assessment process, but provides a lot of examples on how to handle the group exercise, the writing assignments and other sections. Take a look even if you’re not yet facing this part of the Exam.

I know I frequently criticize how State runs the assessment process, but I’m pleased to say that the Oral Assessment Guidebook is superb.  Take advantage of it.




Just Do It — Deadline for February FSOT

The February FSOT is fast approaching.  Don’t miss the chance to take the test.  According to the State Department site — the bible for the FSOT (so check it out immediately, if you haven’t) — the deadline for signing up to take it overseas is today.

For those taking it at US test centers the deadline is January 30.  Borrowing from Nike, just do it!   The test is free, it’s a half day out of your lives and you may get it.  The exam process itself is something of an education, well, maybe an education in how truly bureaucratic the State Department and the whole US Government is!

I’ve been offline for a bit.  Started a new job, and yes it’s in the private sector.  I will continue to talk about the Foreign Service, the exam process and so forth, but I will also add my two cents on management/leadership writ large as well as life in the workplace and how to get ahead (or not).

Best of luck to all








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.













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).

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,






Best Strategy — Don’t Study

There are plenty of FSOs who say they never studied for the Foreign Service Exam. They just took it and passed it. No sweat, no worries.

Of course, they’re lying and for years I was a liar too. I honestly never thought I’d prepared for it. I never cracked an econ text, learned about a Gantt Chart  or brushed up on the U.S. Constitution. But as my 13-year-old says – I am a big, fat liar.

The truth is I did study. I just didn’t think of it as studying. And for more than 50 percent of you, it’s the easiest and best way to prepare. Better still, you’re already doing it.

Here’s my plan:

• Read The Economist every week;

• Read a good U.S. daily newspaper (e.g., sNY Time, Washington Post, LA Times) every day. I suppose you could read the Financial Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zietung or Le Monde Diplomatique, and the FT continues to scoop U.S. papers on Washington news.  But you need to read the American dailies for the big dose of U.S. culture — theater, museums, art, books, etc. The foreign papers do not. The Economist does more and more provide the U.S. culture scene, and I’ve completely given up on Time and Newsweek. They’re not quite sure what they are – People Magazine or The Huffington Post – and doing neither well.

• Read ”good” and “bad” books. Yes, continue reading Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev (but only the Constance Garnett translations). And partake in the so-called baddies — Stephen King, Robert Parker, John MacDonald, Janet Evanovich… The good stuff will help your writing. And the bad stuff will teach you about pacing, action and how to capture an audience. You’ll need to do both in the Foreign Service.

• Further still on writing and grammar, few people read writing books and fewer still consume grammar texts (sorry, Grammar Girl). But you will have to if you’re going to pass the English Expression section of the FSOT.  I suspect the Department still uses the English Expression test as the easiest and fastest way to cut the number of applicants from 20,000 to 2,000.

• Further still on writing: read a couple of good journalism books. No, not the blowhard tales of anchormen who saved the world, but books that will make you better reporters. Always write quickly, clearly and succinctly. If you do that, I don’t care what cone or track you are and in what bureau you’re working, your work will be seen and read. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Department of Defense is an oral organization and the Department of State remains a written one. On journalism, if you can find it, read John Chancellor’s The New News Business: A Guide to Writing and ReportingThe News Business. I don’t know if it’s still in print. It’s a basic book, but one that will help you improve your writing and drive the academic or business jargon out of your drafts. Remember, write for your reader – not for yourself.

• And E.B. White’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition)The Elements of Style.  Goes without saying. You could also try Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th Edition)    I had Williams as a professor in college. He treasures good writing and it shows in his book. However, now in its 10th Edition, the book has a textbook’s sky-high price — $20+. Even worse, the Kindle Edition costs $24.19. I mean really…

• Finally, if you graduated from college with a liberal arts degree you’re way ahead of the game. If you studied art or English or history, put up with your parents’ jabs and barbs about how you’ll never make a “real” living, you can taste the sweetest revenge by landing one of the best, most prestigious jobs in the country. A liberal arts education is finally worth something! Seriously. It is tailor-made to help you take and pass the Foreign Service Exam. If you didn’t take economics course, well, The Economist (1-year auto-renewal)The Economist should help, but you can always pull out a copy of Samuelson’s text on Microeconomics (Microeconomics (Mcgraw-Hill). Read and understand that and you’re golden. Those without liberal arts degrees, bless you, but you’re going to have to crack the books. I’ll go into that in a future post.

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.