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

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 — 750words.com.  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.