Why the Foreign Service?

So you’re majoring in international affairs or foreign languages or comparative studies or international economics.  Or your simply tired of the idea of living in the United States for the rest of your life.  You’ve traveled abroad, had foreign friends, and think that a career abroad might be interesting, fascinating, and fun.   And, you know, you’re right.  Well, you’re right, the Foreign Service is all of those things: interesting, fascinating, and fun.

I can guarantee that life in the Foreign Service, working for the State Department overseas, is like no other career.  You will have greater responsibilities at a younger age than your peers, especially if you’re fresh out of university and working in a developing country.  You will meet with some of the highest-ranking officials in your country of assignment. You will speak the language with greater and greater fluency.  You will understand this country, its culture and people, better than any other country, perhaps even the United States.  And you will have the opportunity to explore the nuances of the country’s politics, economics and social mores.   You will be a Foreign Service Officer, representing the United States Government to this country.

I just recently retired after nearly 25 years of service, and I can vouch for all of those feelings of wonder and excitement.

Even better, you get paid for this work.  Some of my colleagues confessed early on in our careers that they would do the work for free.  I don’t know if I would go that far, and your salaries can’t compete with your classmates who went on to big consultancies or hedge funds on Wall Street.  Still, the Foreign Service pays you a comfortable wage, provides your overseas housing and pays for  nearly all of your utilities.   Moreover, in many countries, you will receive a hardship differential, ranging from 5 to 25 percent of your base salary, depending on how difficult life is in your country of assignment.  In other countries, including but not limited to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, you will receive danger pay to compensate you for the increased risk of violence or attack.

So if your standard of living is quite high and the work is if not glamorous than at least pretty damn interesting, why don’t more people join.  To that, I would answer — they would if they could. Standing in their way, in your way, is the Foreign Service Examination.

The Foreign Service Test  is one of the toughest, most comprehensive and yes hair-pulling tests offered by the U.S. Government.  It’s difficult to describe, and it has morphed over the years.  The essential structure remains the same — a written test followed by an all-day oral examination.  You need to pass the written to be invited to the oral test.  I will discuss the details of the exam later, but for now I will only say that the written exam will test your knowledge of politics at home and abroad, macro and microeconomic theory, and management principles and strategies.  There will be history questions about the United States as well as Europe and much farther afield, from the Ashanti Kingdoms of present-day Ghana to the Meiji Restoration in  Japan.  The breadth of the exam is huge and if the substantive questions are daunting you will have to pass an English Language test too.  In my day, the English part of the exam was dubbed the “weed-out section,” because most of the people failed that part of the FS Exam.  Today they require a writing sample during the written test, so in addition to testing your grammar, the examiners will review your fluency, thought and diction.

Take the FS Exam; what have you got to lose?

All in all, the written test is tough and it will cut the ranks of test takers from 100 percent to about 10 percent, who will be invited to participate in the oral exam. My goal in this blog is to help you pass both tests.  Tips and hints and ideas of how to study and what to study.  It’s not as insurmountable as it would appear.  There are some things going in your favor: you can take it as many times as you want.  I took it twice, but I’ve known colleagues who took it 5 or even 10 times.  There was even a special colleague who took the exam 12 times before he passed!

The other positive feature is the cost of the test.  It’s free.  It only costs you the time you spend to take it.  The written test is offered all around the United States and overseas, at embassies and consulates.  You don’t even need to travel to Washington, DC to take the oral examination.  That too is offered in major cities across the United States. The time is right for you to explore this often discussed, little known segment of the U.S. Government workforce.  The time is right for you to work overseas and reap the excitement and prestige of becoming a U.S. diplomat, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer.


  1. Jeffrey Williams says

    It is interesting that the FS would require such a broad knowledge of history and facts which may not even have anything to do with the country of assignment you could end up in. It seems to me that that the FS would find solid, qualified, extremely talented candidates who they could assess and then assign to a given geographical area of the world, and as part of their training pipeline, send them to a country familiarization courses and a foreign language familiarization course to give them a basic capability, and set them on their way to being SMEs on the country of assignment. The military special operations forces begin their careers in a similar way and they turn out fantastic cultural and area/ country SMEs! Special Operations Forces are selected by vetting process, then trained, and finally assigned to a geographic region, where they will become SMEs on their area of operations and get to know the countries within their area of operations. It would seem that simply eliminating a candidate because they know absolutely nothing about the Ming Dynasty; The Scottish Highland Clearances, Scotland and the present Monarchy in the UK today, or some Chilean Government Policy under Pinochet would be short sighted. These are things talented diplomats can learn prior to being assigned and after assignment and on the job in their new assignments.
    Just my own humble thoughts though…

    • Jeff–

      I agree with you 100 percent. I’ve worked with a number of Special Ops guys in Africa, and most of them have the expertise of their State Department colleagues. State just doesn’t seem to get it a lot of the time. It’s frustrating, especially for entry-level folks who join with, say, superb Arabic skills and keen understanding of the Gulf States, but find themselves assigned to study Spanish and serve in Peru!? Happens all the time. In part, it’s supposed to take you out of your comfort zone and test your mettle, but these days we don’t have the budget or the staffing to send folks around the world willy-nilly.

      All that said, State is a fantastic place to work. Well, let me rephrase that… Working for State overseas is a really, really great life.

      And the testing is silly. They put questions in less to find out what you know than to trip up the 18,000 or so who won’t go to the oral assessment, the next phase. Supply v Demand…

      If you have any other questions or comments, please fire away.

      Best, Bill

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