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.


  1. Hey thanks so much for all this great information. I’m planning on taking the FSOT in its next cycle (in February), and your resources are really helpful.

    I do have a question about your guides. I’m pretty much the opposite of you. I’ve got strong background in Economics and Business/Management, but I’m weak in the liberal arts. The last time I learned anything about US History or Gov’t was back in High School!

    I notice a lack of guides for these subjects. I’m wondering if you are 1) planning on writing them later, 2) don’t include them because those are you strong points so you don’t need to study them, or 3) You think it’s not as important to study these subjects.

    Thanks in advance.


    • Steven–

      Excellent question. I do plan to write on them in the future, and will treat them the same as for economics and business principles. Stay tuned.

      Best, Bill Fitzgerald

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