What if You Can’t Pass the Foreign Service Exam?

The statistics are pretty bleak.  Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the then-director general of the Foreign Service, told a Savannah audience in April the following startling fact:

  • in 2012, out of 22,000 applicants took the Foreign Service Exam, the State Department hired only 425 FSOs.

What does this mean?  Well, your chances of actually getting hired by the Foreign Service are pretty slim.  In short, you have a 1.9% chance of passing the exams and being offered a job.  Ouch.  It also means that it’s time for Plan B for most applicants.

Plan B is not something to be ashamed of…  We’ve all fallen back on Plan B in our lives.  I applied to Georgetown for undergraduate studies.  I didn’t get in (didn’t even get wait-listed!) so I decided to go to a school where I was accepted, the University of Chicago.  It was my Plan B school.

I want the features offered by a $2,500 a month 1-BR apartment in Washington, DC. I couldn’t cut the price so a I fell back on my Plan B, a $1,500 a month studio apartment in Washington, DC.  We fall back on our Plan B’s multiple times every day.

Of course, career choices are a big thing, a huge thing, really.  So falling back on your Plan B is the stuff of angst, pain and depression.  Okay, you can pick yourself up now.  And get on with your life.

But think about what you wanted from your Foreign Service career:

  • living overseas
  • an interesting and satisfying job
  • helping American citizens or people in general
  • advocating policy positions
  • a well-paying job with good benefits
  • the prestige of being a U.S. diplomat

Well, I would argue that except for the last tic you can — right now — apply for an international job that will give you all of the same lifestyle and benefits that you would earn as an FSO.

Think about it.  Yes, there is  a job out there for you that will get you out of the States, push you into a new culture, have you work with smart and funny and bright folks, and make decent, sometimes more money then you would in the ForeignHow Service.

What’s the catch?  Well, you’ve got to find these jobs and get off your butt and apply for these jobs.  And seriously there are thousands of such jobs around the world.

And I promise to help you find them.  This is for Katie helping me to get off my butt and write it.



  1. Scott miloscia says

    I’ve had little luck trying to get back overseas. I taught English for a few years in Korea then came back to USA got a MBA and now work for local government as an analyst. My passion is to move out of the country again (almost anywhere) but it’s very tough when my language skills aren’t proficient enough and I don’t have a great network abroad. Please let me know if you can help. Cheers.

    • Scott–
      All good questions. There’s no arguing that a skill in a foreign language would be a major plus in your overseas job search. Have you considered the United Nations or any of its satellite agencies — UNICEF, WHO, UNHCR, etc? Or for that matter NATO or any other multilateral group – OECD, World Bank, IMF? The one thing these organizations have in common is that English is an official language.

      These organizations offer courses in many languages for employees. I guess the trick is to get your foot in the door.

      Best, Bill

  2. Katie jaycox says

    Hey Bill,
    I love this. I want to thank you for all this insight into foreign service. I didn’t get past the interview phase of the foreign service internship and need to look at another summer internship. Can I pick your brain for some ideas? I am currently doing a bipartisan internship with my local congressman’s district office and if I do not get a summer internship I plan on continuing it plus working at the local world refugee center. I am also looking into UN, Smithsonian, and Jewish Holocaust museum. I have an undergraduate degree in Cultural Anthropology and minors in History and European Studies. My graduate degree is in History and my thesis will be focusing on genocides. When I graduate I want to be a public diplomacy officer. Got any advice?

    • Hey Katie,

      I responded to your email separately. Good luck on the test and if you have any additional questions, you can send them to me.



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