My Test-Taking Strategy and Time Management Tips


Embassy Ottawa (Image courtesy stock.xchng user canuckboy)

Good luck to those taking the FSOT over the next week.  Don’t be nervous, don’t cram (it’s too late for that!), just try to relax and do your best. I remember sitting for the Foreign Service Exam at the Hotel Talleyrand, formerly the U.S. Consulate and Public Affairs annex in Paris.  The year was 1985 — yes, I know, in the olden times.  We were writing in test books, there were no essays, and none of us knew yet our career tracks (cones).  You had four hours to complete the exam, I think, but I tore through it and walked out of the room after three. I’m not boasting.  I finished quickly not because the FSOT was easy, but because I was afraid.   I felt that if I dwelled too much on the questions, especially in the English Expression section, I’d second guess myself and change my answers.  I still believe — at least for me — that on tests like the FSOT my first answer is my best answer.  I also found that treating test like a game of Trivial Pursuit helped me not get hung up on questions where I was guessing.  Everyone’s test-taking strategies are different.  I had taken the exam once before in Chicago, and did okay on the General Knowledge questions but tanked on the English Expression section.  I learned that second-guessing myself was pointless, so I went into the Paris Exam knowing that I just had to trust my first hunches. Answer all the questions: as with my Foreign Service Exam, the new FSOT throws some research questions into the mix.  They are not scored and are apparently designed to help ACT.  You can’t tell the research from the regular questions SO answer all of the questions, even the ones you’re guessing at. TIME MANAGEMENT While strategies differ, test takers may wish to follow these Time Management tactics: What you know already: The test will last three hours, divided up in four sections.  Three sections are multiple-choice and focus on “general job knowledge, English expression and a biographic section.”  The fourth section, which lasts 30 minutes, is one or two essays on “assigned topic[s].  I understand from recent test takers the order of the FSOT is, as follows: —      Job Knowledge —      Bio —      English Expression —      Essay(s).  Yes, they may give you two essay instead of one. Tactics: 1.      Don’t race through the bio and essay sections.  Take the allotted time for these two so you can make your best efforts.  You can always improve your draft on second reading. 2.      Take advantage of the frequent breaks — 5-6 minutes — before the bio and especially the essay portions.  Go to the bathroom, splash water on your face and do some jumping jacks to get your blood flowing.     Remember: If you mess up, it’s not the end of the world.  You can take the test again in 11 months.  No worries, no stress. Good luck!


  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to maintain this blog. I’ll be taking the written test for the first time later this week. I’ve just finished reading through all your posts, and I’ve found your advice to be helpful and reassuring.

    • Jessica–
      Thanks for the message. Good luck on the test, and don’t worry if this one goes well. A lot of the difficulty is the “process” of the test, and once you understand it, the better you’ll do.

      Let me know how it goes, please.

      Also if you have any suggestions for posts. I’d like to know what people are interested in? Life in the Foreign Service, How to best prepare for the written or oral or both exams, etc.

      Thanks, Bill

  2. Hi – Thanks for the tips. I took the exam today and was told that there were no breaks. Do options for breaks vary by test center? The person who checked me in said going to the restroom would count against my time. That wasn’t very appealing. By the time the essay section came up, I was incredibly distracted. Next year, when I will most likely have to try again, I will at least know the best section to sacrifice time.

    • Cathy–

      This is news to me. Where did you take the test? I’ll do some poking around State and find out what gives.

      Let me know how you did. You might surprise yourself. And if you want posts on specific subjects, etc.

      Thanks for your message,


  3. CJ, that is not normal. I’ve taken the test twice and each time I was allowed three breaks. I was told that I should take the breaks in between test sections.

    • Jim–

      Thanks. That sounded strange to me. I’m still checking with State contacts. Might have been a glitch, well, a jerk, monitoring CJ’s test…

      Chrs, Bill

  4. Patrick Wunderlich says

    When I took the exam on Feb. 8th over here in Korea, we were told that we could have breaks. We didn’t even have a set time, only that we could leave the building and have a long lunch between sections.

    • Patrick–

      That’s hilarious because it’s so absurd. One test taker in New Jersey is told “you can have a break, but it’ll come out of your time.” And in Korea they let you out to eat lunch between sections!

      Of course, you know the reason for the difference? The proctor in Korea was likely an entry level FSO, who are generally decent folks that know what it’s like to take the test).

      The proctor in NJ was probably an ACT-hired proctor, maybe a high school teacher, who’s used to dealing with 16-year-olds…

      Many thanks for the info. I hope you passed the test.

      Cheers, Bill

  5. Yay! The FSOT scores are in, and I passed. Well–this is my third time passing. It’s the Personal Narratives that always get me. Do you have any advice on them? I’m going for consular this time, and I think it will help that I’ve worked as a Consular Adjudicator in the past.

    Also, in Milan we were given breaks–he specified that I could have up to two ten minute breaks. I’m not sure where he got that number from.

    • Amanda–

      Congratulations! That’s great news…

      Take a look at my post — Suggestions on Writing Your Personal Narrative. It’s dated 11/01/2012. I’ll be updating it when I get some time, which is in too short supply lately!

      Thanks also for the information on breaks. It seems ad hoc and left up to the testing centers. State and ACT need to sort that out, and I’ll be pinging John Higi on the LinkedIn diplomatic career site today.

      Again, congrats and keep me (us) in the loop as you move forward.

      Best, Bill

  6. Katherine says

    I lookes on the internet site for a test location in Paris for the June FSOT exam but it said it couldn’t find any test locations.
    Does anyone know if the test will in fact be administered in Paris this June.
    Maybe I’ve signed up too late and there are no available seats…
    Thanks for your input!

    • Katherine–

      Yes, the June test is being offered in Paris. Check out I found a listing of all overseas locations where the June FSOT is offered

  7. Katherine says

    Yes, in fact just I got an e mail from ACT and apparently there are no more available seats. I registered too late and missed out this time around.
    It’s too bad, because I’ve been preparing since last December. Oh well, that’s the way the ball bounces.
    Thank you nevertheless for having answered Bill.
    Take care,

    • Katherine–

      That’s disappointing. How about showing up at the testing site in case there are no-shows? Now that the test is on a computer and your registration must show up, this might be tough, but it’s worth a shot. What the hell?

      I’d also contact ACT and ask if there are free seats in Brussels, London or elsewhere on the continent. Yes, it’ll cost you a train ticket, but I’m sure it be fun, too.

      Just thinking out loud. If you don’t take it in June, shoot for the next FSOT. They always offer them in Paris.

      Cheers, Bill

  8. Is it true you can’t take water into the test? Dealing with that might be harder for me than the test!

  9. Mary–

    I wish I could answer your question. Anecdotal reports suggest that test centers overseas are more laid back on issues like water, bathroom breaks, etc. In the US, some test personnel have warned test takers that if they had to go to the toilets, the time would be deducted.

    Simply put, I don’t know the answer.

    Good luck,


  10. Hi Bill,

    First of all, thank you so much for writing and maintaining this blog. I have gotten so many useful tips from reading your posts and other people’s comments. I’m going in to take the exam here in NYC today; I’m nervous. I took the exam once before in Florida and hit my wall with the PNQs, but that was before I got into grad school. My main question is: how much weight do they give to advanced degrees? Does it make a big difference or is it more like a small extra boost?

    Many thanks!

    • Josh–

      An important question. My gut feeling is that it can’t hurt — especially if you’re able to draw your graduate school experience into your essays or future PNQ. However, the State Department prides itself on being able to make a college graduate into a Foreign Service Officer. They’ll give you very basic instruction, maybe teach you a language, and then shoot you out of a cannon to an overseas post. There, it’s pretty much on-the-job training and testing whether you can live and work (thrive, really) overseas. These days they’ve started put Entry Level Officers into Washington jobs for a year, but for many decades it has been to get you into a foreign country as quickly as possible.

      Graduate work is nothing to sneeze at, and you certainly discuss it with your examiners (interrogators?) at the Oral Exam and in your essays. It indicates, at the very least, that you’re serious.

      Good luck,


  11. Hello, thank you so much for the information. This will be my first time taking the FSOT and I’ll be taking it in Milan on October 10. I am really nervous, but I hope I do well!

    • Alexa–

      Don’t be nervous! I know it’s easier said than done, but really the Department designed the FSOT to make you nervous. The Department needs to cut down 20,000+ test takers into a more manageable number, probably 500-1,000 after the two exams — written (computer-based) and oral. Then, you’ll have to get through the personal narrative.

      It’s seems impossible, but it’s do-able. Just focus on the next task. Right now, you should be focusing on how to pass the computer-based exam. Take the full-length practice exam, and identify your weak spots — Economics, U.S. History, Political Science, Understanding Computers and concentrate on brushing up on where you didn’t score well.

      Meantime, practice your writing. Sit down and write 500 words on a current affairs topic every day of the week. You can pick Russia & Ukraine one day, Middle East Peace and the Israeli Invasion of Gaza, Ebola and West Africa, etc. You want to exercise your writing muscle so when it comes time to take the FSOT you’re writing speed and fluency is trained.

      Let me know if you have any additional questions and good luck on the Exam.


      Bill Fitzgerald

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