Ivy League Applicants Still Have Edge on the FSOT

ForeignServiceExam.org has learned that graduates of Ivy League schools pass the FSOT at a higher rate than other applicants.   Exam officials are probably scratching their heads after spending spent enormous time and money to recraft the Foreign Service Exam — at least the first (or written) test — to make it more diversity friendly.

This reminds me of rogue CIA agent Philip Agee’s remarks in his book, Inside the Company: CIA Diaryhow in the Agency in the 1960s and 1970s sought more applicants from the Midwest, eschewing the Ivy League

So why do Ivy Leaguers pass more than graduates of other schools?  I think it’s pretty clear:
  • Ivy League applicants study a Liberal Arts curriculum that the new FSOT — even in its revised form  — continues to focus on;
  • Most Ivy League colleges still insist on clear and succinct writing;
  • Ivy Leaguers have secured admission to the cream of U.S. universities on the basis of test scores and essays.   Someone admitted to Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth has mastered the art of test-taking and completing admission applications with interesting, innovative essays;
  • Finally, FSOT applicants from Ivy League schools are a group that follows the news and probably has for years; that is, they read the NY Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal since they were young.

I will not say that Ivy League graduates are smarter.  Of course, many are brilliant and qualified to serve in the Foreign Service, but you can compete against anyone — if you prepare.

So Why Aren’t There More Ivy Leaguers in the Foreign Service

However, on an anecdotal note, in my last years in the Foreign Service (circa 2006-12) at Main State, I didn’t run into a lot of Ivy League Entry Level Officers (ELO). As I recall, many were from state universities and small liberal arts colleges. Among Civil Servants, there were a large number with master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins (SAIS) and American University.

Why so few from the Ivy League?  I see two reasons: 1) the Board of Examiners may have knocked out Ivy Leaguers in the (arbitrary) Personal Narrative or Suitability Review Panel phases of the exam process, or 2) most of the Ivy League graduates who pass Part 1 of the FSOT end up not joining the State Department. Unwilling to put up with the 12+ month wait and the uncertainty of passing all sections of the test, they opt to take jobs on Wall Street, with international consulting firms or other corporations that could get them overseas.

Again, I bring up this Ivy League edge not to freak you out, but to underline again the importance of preparing for the exam, especially devoting sufficient time to your writing.

P.S.  I went to the University of Chicago.

P.P.S Philip Agee died in 2008 in Havana, and up to his death remained one of the CIA’s fiercest critics.  He was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.  You can learn more about Agree here and here

Presidents are Breaking the Foreign Service (?)

A recent Washington Post op-ed, penned by no less than Tom Pickering, a Foreign Service legend — a former Under Secretary for Political Affairs (P) and multiple times an  ambassador — questions a “new” habit of placing political appointees into high-level, even mid-level positions at State.  “The Foreign Service is being relegated to a secondary status,” according to Pickering and his co-authors.

The phenomenon of  “political” ambassadors is not new, and the percentage has hovered between 40 and 60 percent since Jimmy Carter’s days in the White House.  Most FSOs hate the patronage system, correctly pointing out that it decreases the number of chief of mission openings for career officers overseas and staffs missions with less qualified U.S. representatives. 

But I’m not so dead-set against political ambassadors.

I think there have been excellent White House-selected ambassadors — Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker to Japan.   Sure there are a lot of duds and junk car kings who jet off to Europe and farther afield with no greater qualifications than bundling  millions of campaign dollars for  President Obama.  But I myself had the opportunity to work with two recent political appointees in Africa — Alonso Lenhardt (Tanzania) and Don Gips (South Africa).  Both were top-notch, and in fact far superior to some of the career officers running missions on the continent.  I think allowing outsiders into the ranks prevents the inbreeding that dilutes effective relationships and policy.

Pickering and his co-authors highlight the dangers with stacking the upper ranks (Assistant Secretary or higher) and mid-level positions (Office Directors, Deputy Office Directors):  

  • Political appointees are short-term officials;
  • They are subject to partisan, personality specific pressures;
  • The patronage system “does not notably contribute to [State’s] long-term vitality
  • This situation spawns opportunism and political correctness, weakens esprit de corps within the service and emaciates institutional memory.

Heady prose, indeed.

In closing the op-ed, the authors also take a poke at the Civil Service employees at the State Department with a damning indictment.  The growth of the Civil Service system has hurt the , Foreign Service — “The department has distinctly different systems, and the result has been an increasingly fractious and dysfunctional corporate environment, draining energy and focus… if the [growth of the civil service] is not reversed, the United States will lose the invaluable contribution of people with overseas experience.”

Pickering’s recommendation — State’s “civil service personnel system must be adapted to conform more closely to the requirements of professional diplomacy.”  Ouch!

I have problems with this op-ed because 1) it seeks to build up the Foreign Service, by trashing political appointees and civil servants, and 2) it’s near hysterical tone weakens its arguments and makes FSOs sound like whiners.  These are chronic issues and a “Chicken Little” approach doesn’t provide the concrete steps on how to change the personnel system.  Or, frankly, whether it needs to be changed at all.

What do you think?  I welcome your comments.