Foreign Service Exam – Don’t Psych Yourself Out

I’ll be the first to say that the written portion of Foreign Service Exam is a different sort of test. Part-Trivial Pursuit, part-college core, the test is designed to assess your abilities across a huge swath of knowledge – history, humanities, management, economics, culture, IT, etc. It will force you into a deep dive of what you’ve picked up at school and also what you’ve gathered growing up in the United States. After you take it, you’ll walk out of the exam hall feeling dull, achy and a little scattered. You’ll want to decompress for a few hours with a glass of wine or cup of coffee or both.

But it is only a test and your first hurdle into joining the Foreign Service – the best career in the U.S. Government.

Can you prepare for the Foreign Service Exam? While I was a Foreign Service Officer, I was emphatic that you had to just know the material. I remember taking it for the second time (yes, it took me two tries to pass the written test.) and waiting to enter the exam room, there were applicants reading history books, econ texts and other reference materials, furiously cramming before the Exam. I thought it was crazy. I felt if you read a good newspaper everyday (e.g., NYT, Washington Post, LA Times, etc) and a good news magazine every week (e.g. The Economist) with a college degree would get you through to the next round, the Oral Exam.

You Can Prepare for the Foreign Service Exam

But now after a 24-year career in the Foreign Service, I’ve revised my thinking and believe you can (and need to)  prepare for the exam. You won’t get there with flash cards or a scattershot approach with textbooks. No, that’s just a way to get you frustrated and angry. Also, cramming minutes before the Exam is a waste of time. It’s too late.  No, you need a good strategy.


First, you have to be honest with yourself. Where are your shortcomings? In what subjects are you the weakest? Economics, Management, American History, Modern or Ancient Thinkers, Project Management, English Grammar, Computer Skills, etc. Second, how long do you have before the Exam. As I write this, you have about 2+ months to prepare for the October test. Is that enough time? Yes, I believe it is more than enough time to get you up to speed on what you need to know. In my next posts, I’ll describe how to get prepared through a sensible, logical strategy.

For now, keep reading the good daily newspaper and The Economist. They will remain the foundation for passing the exam. Trust yourself, work hard and good luck.


  1. Jeff–

    Thanks for the comment, and I hope you found my website at least a little helpful. Also, don’t count yourself out of the running yet. It’s a crazy test, and even if you didn’t have enough time to do the bio the way you wanted to, there’s a chance you passed it. Even better, the more you take the exam, the better you’ll do. Most FSOs have taken the test more than once before getting accepted.

    Anyway, on your question about the bio section, I’d say a month or so before your next test, pull out the 13 Dimensions that the State Department has said it uses to select FSOs. The more “qualities” you have, the better you’ll be ranked. Under each dimension, identify out two or three things in your background that demonstrate you have the “skills, abilities and personal qualities” for joining the Foreign Service.

    I think you should also take a look at the new guide to the FS Oral Exam. Even if you didn’t pass, it can help you focus better on the next written exam.

    Meantime, let me know how you did.



  2. Hi Bill,

    Very many thanks for the helpful and candid blog. Im registered for the FSOT in February– a first time for me. Im an economist and feel solidly enough prepared for the math and econ sections, but fear Im dreadfully weak on the history and culture sections. With just shy of a month to prepare, how would you recommend I focus my study time? Also, Im in my early 30s and wondering what you know about the demographics of those who take this exam- are most fresh out of undergrad or do lots of early to mid-career folks apply? Thanks again, Meghan

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