Online Situational Judgment Tests to Prep for Foreign Service Exam

In my YouTube video #5 to help you prepare for the Situational Judgment part of the FSOT, I promised to supply additional online (and free) SJ tests.  Here they are:

Good luck!








Registration for Next Foreign Service Exam Opens January 2


Yes, that’s right, you can register online starting January 2 for the Foreign Service Exam which will be held during the week of February 2-9. PearsonVue administers the test under contract with the State Department.

The Career Tracks

As I described in an earlier post, when you register for the Foreign Service Exam you must select your career track (cone). There are five cones: Consular, Economic, Management, Political, and Public Diplomacy. The decision is tough and unfair. How are applicants who’ve never worked in an embassy supposed to decide their Cone? It’s a decision that will guide your entire career of 20+ years.

Don’t Try to Game the System

Check out my recent post — Difficult Choice — What’s Your Career Track? — which provides  books and online resources to help make your Career Track decision. I also recommend that you not try to game the system. For example, an applicant believing the Management Track is underrepresented so if you pick the Management Cone you’ll have a better chance. First, I’m not sure where applicants can find out which Cones are underrepresented. Second, if you do succeed in joining the Foreign Service as a Management Cone officer, but realize one year in that you hate management work, then you’re stuck. The Department rarely allows you to change Tracks after you join the Foreign Service. Do yourself a favor, review the Career Track materials, and make an honest decision.

Register as Early as Possible

The Career Track decision requires thought and honesty with yourself. The earlier you decide will help because the sooner you register the better chance you have of scoring a seat close to where you live. I have known one poky applicant who ended up with a test center three hours away. The registration opens January 2 and closes January 30.

Government Shutdown: I don’t know what to tell you. The State Department has furloughed a lot of civil servants and Foreign Service officers, including those folks who staff the Bureau of Human Resources. I’d like to think the budget will be sorted out quickly, but the craziness in Washington, DC could last weeks (or longer!?).  Still, since PearsonVUE is under contract, it’s possible they are still gearing up to offer the February Exam. Please let me know if you have trouble registering or PearsonVue tells you the February FSOT date will slip.






Difficult Choice — What’s Your Career Track?



One of the first hurdles to joining the Foreign Service happens even before you take the FSOT.

The State Department makes you pick your Career Track, aka Cone, when you register for the Exam. That’s right, even before you’ve worked in an Embassy, you must select your Career Track.

Worse still, remember that your will guide your cone for your 20+ year career and it’s impossible to change it once you’re in the Foreign Service. Daunting, no?

Don’t worry. I have organized the information from Careers.State.Gov. I’ve also identified two books that will help in your search.

Five Career Tracks

There are five Career Tracks in the Foreign Service: Consular, Economic, Management, Political, and Public Diplomacy.

All of the Career Tracks offer varied and interesting work, and it’s no longer true that only Economic and Political officers become Senior Foreign Service officers, DCMs, and Ambassadors.

Many applicants choose to become Political or Economic officers because that’s the job that’s depicted in books or films. You know, pencil-necked, introspective quislings who invariably ends up relying on the hero of the story to survive. Seriously, that’s a myth and FSOs are usually courageous (at least most of the time!)

How to Decide?

You need to take a closer look at the Career Tracks to make your decision. Do the following:

— Read the information at Careers.State.Gov, take the Career Track Quiz and listen to the Diplomats@work (yes, a bit cheesy, but they can help)

Call a Diplomat-in-Residence (however with the current government shutdown, which has affected the State Department, the DIRs may not be working). Also check out nearby if there are nearby recruiting events. (Be warned, the search engine is not great);

— The following books are excellent ways to help you pick your Career Track:
1) Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America, published by the American Foreign Service Association, available on Amazon. ISBN-13: 978-0964948846

2) America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st-Century Diplomacy (Second Updated Edition), author Nicholas Kralev, ISBN-13: 978-1517254513

I also have a few videos on YouTube that focus on these specific topics. Search for FSOT Prep.



Happy to Report My New YouTube Channel — FSOT Prep


I am currently posting my videos on how to prepare for the Foreign Service Exam on a YouTube Channel.  I am walking possible applicants through the process of registering for the FSOT and choosing a Career Track. The State Department has linked the two so when you register for the October test, offered from September 29 to October 6, you must select your Career Track. There are five career tracks: Consular, Economic, Management, Political, and Public Diplomacy.

Picking your Career Track

Fortunately, the State Department has provided good information to help you decide your career track. Most of it is on the main recruiting website — Careers.State.Gov

To access the Career Track information, you need to drill down on that site. To learn what an Foreign Service Officer (FSO), including tasks and responsibilities for Entry Level, Mid-level, and Senior officers in each career track, select the following career tracks, aka cones, here.  Consular, Economic, Management, Political, and Public Diplomacy.

In addition, the State Department offers an online, 50-question test that based on likes and dislikes of work can tell you which cone is appropriate for you.This exam is under the rubric of “Which Career Track is Right for You.”


Finally, you can reach out to the 16 Diplomats-in-Residence(DIRs) posted at universities across the United States.  These DIRs are made of Foreign Service Officers with years of experience in their respective career tracks. I encourage you to reach out to ones in the cones in which you are interested.

Now, the State Department may frown at you for contacting, say, a political cone officer in southern Florida, if you live in a state outside of the Sunshine State. However, to me that’s ridiculous and you should contact DIRs in your prospective cones to find out more about the career tracks. Besides, everyone who signs up to be a Diplomat-in-Residence is typically open to any questions. I recommend that you first send an email (and fudge the state, if you’re squeamish) and set up a time to talk on the phone with the DIR.

Gaming the System: One word — “Don’t”

For those few seeking to game the system, applying for a consular or management job in the likelihood it will be easier to get into the Foreign Service. And once an FSO, he or she will just transfer into, say, the political career track. Well, you’re out of luck because the Department only allows “conal rectification” in very rare instances and never/never into the political cone.

My advice is to pick the cone in which you have an abiding interest.  For me, I joined as a consular officer mainly because I wanted to help American Citizens. You can have out-of-cone assignments, especially when you return to Washington, DC to work at Main State (the Harry S. Truman building). But in looking back on my career, I served in three consular positions for a total of 7 years and outside of consular work for 17 years.

Finally, the FSOT registration opened today, August 29 in which you’ll have to select your career track where, unlike me, you are likely to spend the bulk of your Foreign Service careers. It’s a big decision and one that is personal.

The FSOT will run from September 29 to October 6. The earlier you apply, the more likely you are to get the test center closest to you. If you’re living overseas, there will be test centers at most embassy or consulate locations.

Good luck!





Download the DOSCareers Mobile App (Apple, Android)

Make sure you get the right one. The DOSCareers app is free, gratis, $0.00. Developed by the State Department and MetroStar Systems, the FSOT app is excellent and mirrors what’s on the State Department Career website — Careers.State.Gov.

Be warned there are a bunch of apps that offer to teach and test and prep you for the Foreign Service Exam. All of these apps cost money. Make sure you get the DOSCareers app first. You cmight want to buy them; I leave that up to you. Primer: How to Pick your Career Path (Part 2)

I’ve promised to produce a primer for applicants taking the FSOT in Jan-Feb 2017.  One of the first steps you take is to choose your career track, also known as your cone.  It’s a big choice as it will be how you are judged, how you are promoted, and how you spend your 20+ years in the Foreign Service.  Perhaps, most importantly, once you select your career track, there’s no changing. (well, okay, not quite, but it is pretty important).

When the Written Exam Was Actually Written

In 1985, circa the Dark Ages, when I took the “written” FSOT, it really was a written exam with answer sheets, N0. 2 pencils, and stern admonitions not to mark outside the ovals.  My score was rated across the four cones — Political, Economic, Consular, Administrative (now Management) — and as I recall you could pick any cone to secure a place on one of the career track registers. Most but not all applicants selected the cone in which they scored highest.  (Until 1999, PD officers worked for the U.S. Information Service, a separate agency.)

I selected Consular, which was my highest score, and after more than two years I got an offer.  Yes, the process was ridiculously long back in the old days.  It has speeded up considerably.

Today, the five career tracks open to Foreign Service Officers (FSO) are:

  • Consular
  • Economic
  • Management
  • Political (the one nearly everyone aspired to join back in my day. It’s probably still the case.)
  • Public Diplomacy
Picking your Career Track

State insists that you pick your career track before you take the Foreign Service Exam.  Many (most?) applicants have no idea what an FSO does much less in his or her career track.  We may not like it, but we have to accept it.  “Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die” and all that.

For all the Department’s shortsightedness on coning and other issues, they do provide you with a huge amount of online material to help you make the career track decision — quizzes, video interviews, descriptions of the various cones, and even an infographic detailing what officers do in their tracks

I encourage you to read everything on the Careers.State.Gov site.  You will find additional insight through online discussions, especially at the Yahoo Group – Becoming a Foreign Service Officer. This is an excellent resource and can help you in deciding your career track and other questions as you continue through the selection process.  Or it could make your head explode because there is just so much information and not all of it correct.

After you’ve reviewed this information, and you still have doubts or questions about your cone, take the Department’s quiz,  Which Career Track is Right for You? , to help you winnow down your choices.

Diplomat-in-Residence: A Great Resource

When you complete the quiz and have an idea of the track you lack it’s time to reach out to real FSOs and ask them questions. They are the Diplomats-in-Residence, 16 or so FSOs and Specialists the Department has assigned around the country to answer questions and to drum up interest in the Foreign Service as a career.

They provide an excellent way to nail down your career track. As you might guess, the quality of these sources varies, but I’ve known many of top-flight FSOs who have served as Diplomats-in-Residence. Although the Department may frown on my advice, I do recommend that you reach out not just to the DIR in your region, but any other who by cone, sex, or minority status may help you not only with your choice of career tracks, but also whether the Foreign Service would be a good fit for you.

DIRs are located at universities and colleges throughout the United States, but every candidate can and should make use of them.

Can I Change My Career Track When (or After) I Join?

No!  Err, maybe…

If you show up at A-100 demanding a change in cone, the answer from the State Department will be “no.”  The Department tries to cushion the blow by saying that FSOs throughout their careers serve in out-of-cone assignments throughout their careers and the higher you the less your career track matters.  For instance, I was a consular track officer, but in my final 12 years in the Foreign Service, I was in multifunctional (sic) jobs — twice as a DCM and twice as a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS).

The Department doesn’t want you to get your hopes up, but in truth a few mid-level FSOs do change career tracks. Openings in the tracks do open up, but if you think you can join the Political track, you’re dreaming.

Seriously,  there are lateral transfers between Consular and Management, and even some Political and Economic FSOs who grow tired of working the cocktail/reception circuit and decide to join the Consular and Management tracks, which have a more “9-5” schedule.

So, no, if you are a Management or Consular or PD Officer, you will not find a way to join the Political ranks because there are no/no vacancies at mid-level.  Similarly, the Economic track only rarely seeks mid-level FSOs, and you be so far behind in competing with your new peers for promotion, it’s probably not a wise career move.  I don’t have a lot of information on the Public Diplomacy career track, but it is very attractive at the junior and mid-level ranks because the cone features work as an Information Officer (spokesperson), Cultural Affairs Officer (exchanges, cultural activities, spending money to preserve important historical sites) or the  Public Affairs Officer, the big kahuna who manages the mission’s entire Public Diplomacy program.  I don’t see many PD Officers leaving their career track.

Ivy League Applicants Still Have Edge on the FSOT 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

Foreign Service Exam Primer for FSOT Feb 2017 (Part 1)

I’m going to give you the best advice I can on prepping and passing the Foreign Service Exam (aka FSOT).

It’s changed a bit since I took it in 1985 ?!  There’s more writing now, including the brutal Personal Narrative requirement. There’s also a final scrub that was probably there in the 1980s, but now they’ve institutionalized a physical panel, which I call the Star Chamber (aka Suitability Review Panel).

In spite of changes to the FSOT, I spent my career learning and understanding what the Foreign Service is looking for in new recruits.

Take the Practice Exam

So my first word of advice — if you want to take and pass the FSOT — is to register, read this State web page and take the practice test.  If you want to jump ahead directly to the exam, click here.  It will prompt you for your e-mail address, the one you used to register.  (If you didn’t register, no worries; you can take the practice test with any e-mail address)

Find Your Weaknesses, not your strengths

Your goal with the practice exam(s) is to identify your weaknesses. Those areas are where you need to study. For instance, if you’re strong in English grammar and expression, skip studying those subjects. If you’re strong in American history and economics, but are weaker in IT and English grammar, focus on IT and English grammar.

If you’re weak everywhere, well, it’s going to be a tougher slog for you.

If You Ace the Practice Test, Notify the State Department

If you’re strong in all areas.  Mazel Tov!  Bravo!  Call the State Department (202-647-1212) and tell them you aced the practice test. On second thought, don’t do that, the operators don’t have the best senses of humor.  They might take your name and forward it to the Board of Examiners….  Just kidding!

Seriously, if you aced the practice exam, don’t let it go to your head.  You should start to work on your writing.  Very few applicants have the writing skills that measure up to Foreign Service standards.   Everyone needs to practice his or her writing.  Trust me on that.

How to Pick Your Career Track

And, yes, I haven’t forgotten that you still need to pick your career track – Pol, Econ, PD, Cons, Mgmt — before you register.  Stay tuned I’ll get into it next in the Foreign Service Exam Primer.












How to Improve Your Writing in 30 Days

Just in Time for the June FSOT — Two Things to Bump Up Your Drafting Prowess and Another That Could Be Your Secret Weapon (A hint: Think Wiki and I’m not talking about Wikipedia…)

The results are not pretty. According to FSOs, the weakest skill among ELOs is writing.  ELOs handicapped with an academic style — ponderous, pompous, and slow — are met with eye-rolling and shaking heads.  In fact, FS managers prefer those with poor or no drafting skills than someone with an affected and long-winded style.  As I’ve mentioned before, there is a distinct  style to Foreign Service writing — short, straightforward, some style, a little funny and sexy.  Your subject lines and summary had better sing, if you want to get your stuff read in the region and back in Washington.  And that is the goal.  Regardless of career track, trust me, you want to get read…

Writing is the currency in the Foreign Service

I can’t emphasize how important writing is to the State Department.  It’s simple — the better you write, the better you’ll do in the Foreign Service.  If you want to be a political, economic or public diplomacy, you’d better write your ass off and get up to speed now.  Management and consular officers will also be judged by their writing.  Hell, everyone is judged by his or her writing.  

If FSOs Need to Write Well; FSO Candidates Must Also

I believe that writing is the major part of your Foreign Service Exam grade.  The FSOT examiners — State or private — will scrub your essays and personnel narratives to see how well you meet the needs of the Service. The good news is that I’ve found three ways to get you up to snuff in 30 days. First, you need to buy this book and study it.  Incorporate its lessons into your writing.  Those who know me, understand that I think journalists and writers have a leg up on everybody else in the Foreign Service.  Why?  Professional writers have to write clearly and quickly, both skills prized in the Foreign Service.

I had hoped to find an online course to help improve your writig.  But I failed.  I couldn’t find anything good.  Sure, there are plenty of courses for creative writing, screenwriting, novel writing, even poetry writing, but none on straightforward expository writing.  If you know of one, please let me know.

So I discovered the next best thing: a book.  A great book.  This book if you study its lessons will help you improve in time for the June test.

The author, Paula LaRocque, is a writing consultant, blogger and most recently a novelist. She has years of experience in training others how to write.  Her clients have ranged from reporters and editors at the Associated Press to academia, business and governments.  She has lectured and taught on writing in North America as well as overseas.  Equally important, Paula is a professional writer herself — not just a teacher — and worked as an Assistant Managing Editor and columnist for The Dallas Morning News.  She’s the real deal, and her book is an excellent resource to hone your own writing.  Yes, some of you swear by The Elements of Style, another excellent resource, but LaRocque’s book is meatier and offers better instruction.   (Full disclosure: I do make some money if you buy through the Amazon link above.  I use this to  defray the costs of the blog.  I appreciate your help)

Besides reading about writing, I think the best way for you to improve your drafting is by doing it.  With no online courses to offer, I am recommending a website that I use —  This is a free website created by one Buster Benson who wants you to write 750 words per day.  He thinks everyone should do it.   I think it gives FSO candidates an enormous opportunity to get ready for the Foreign Service Exam.  Take a look at it.  Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to boost your writing skills than by sitting down and writing yourself.  This site encourages you to write 750 words, roughly 3 pages, every day on your interests, as a journal, or just a record of your mood.  I think that you can start for the first few days writing whatever pops in your head.

Write Three Pages a Day

After writing about anything, you should start pulling stories out of the daily news and rewriting them in the form of a State Department cable.  The more you practice writing, the more your prose will improve.  It’s excellent practice not only for the FSOT, but also for your job or class.  Check it out and let me know what you think.  (Note: I  make no money from this site, and I’m not even sure that the Buster makes anything.  If I knew him, I’d ask…)

Okay, that’s my advice.  I really believe you can dramatically improve your writing with just these two aids — Paula and Buster…


Wait, I mentioned a third, compliments of the US Army, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.  Disgusting and treasonous, the release of tens of thousands of State Department cables (which to this day officials neither confirm or deny) offers you a treasure trove of Foreign Service writing.  Remember, however, when you pass the test and join the State Department frowns on staff accessing the Wikileaks files on the Internet at work.  In fact, I have never looked at them until a week ago, when I thought of Wikileaks as an opportunity for FSOT takers.  I have never looked at them, not even when they were first released — as many State colleagues had — so I don’t know if my own cables were released.  I hope not.

Meantime, all of you who enter the Foreign Service will bear the fallout of the Wikileaks disaster.  I can tell you that Wikileaks has meant our sources dried up.  Who wants to tell anything to an U.S. diplomat when their previous comments are out there for anyone to see.  Don’t underestimate our enemies and allies — they’ve pored over the cables.  As a result, foreign officials as well as private citizens were fired,  jailed, perhaps even executed.  At least one U.S. ambassador was kicked out of his country. A catastrophe.  Your efforts overseas to recruit sources and contacts will be much harder.  You may not want to look at the leaked cables, and I can understand.  But if you’re interested in State Department writing, good and bad, they are out there.  Just Google them.














Are You Too Old to Join the Foreign Service?

Absolutely Not!

A reader asked me earlier this week whether he was too old to enter the Foreign Service.  He’s 48, an international  lawyer, and has lived most of his career overseas, including stints in the Middle East and Europe.  He wanted to know if he was too old to join the Foreign Service.

No. The only regulation is that Foreign Service officers must retire at age 65.  Unlike the Civil Service, where staff members can work forever (and at least one I know is 85 and still going strong), FSOs have to hang up their tailcoats and top hats when they reach their mid-60s.

I have worked with many junior officers (JOs) in their 40s and 50s.   Most were skilled and professional.  Many joined the State Department as a second career.  They shared the wanderlust of the typical FSO and decided the opportunity to travel while doing interesting and important work would be ideal.  So don’t be surprised when you enter the service to meet “retired” teachers, lawyers, military officers, civil servants, and so forth. 

In my A-100 class, there was a 59-year-old former school teacher from the Pacific Northwest.  The youngest was 22 and fresh out of college.  The 59-year-old served 6 years and retired at 65.

One Thing to Consider

I did caution the lawyer with whom I spoke that joining the Foreign Service can be tough for second-career folks, especially those who’ve had successful and big careers before.  The Foreign Service generally doesn’t know or care what you did before, and assigns all entry level officers the same way, usually to a visa hell hole where you’re issuing and denying non-immigrant visas (NIVs).  Mostly denying.  So the middle-age entry level officers used to managing dozens or hundreds and making  $100m deals are going to be shocked at working some of the least attractive (aka crappiest) Foreign Service jobs during their first tour.

But most, if they can get over themselves and learn the ways of the Foreign Service, will adapt and likely flourish.  Their skills will be evident and used by the section chief or even the Ambassador who will include them in key meetings as notetakers or staff aides. 

Every ELO regardless of age is impatient to rise in rank and take on greater responsibilities.  Perhaps the inability to wait is even greater among older officers since they will likely have less time in the Foreign Service.  But don’t underestimate your bosses, they will see it and ask you to do more.  There’s always plenty of work.

This goes for younger officers, too.  If you have skills in a certain area — marketing, writing, management, computers, etc — offer up your services.   It’ll make the visa line bearable and you will get noticed.  had a background in journalism so second tour in Zambia I helped the economics section to report on wildlife management, HIV/AIDS, and other issues.