(Deep Breath) Some Background: What is the FSOT?

Multiple Choice Test

The FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Test) is the first step to becoming a Foreign Service Officer. There are eight steps according to the State Department and completing them all could take 8 months at best; at worst, years.

1.) Choose a Career Track

We talked a little bit about this one in the last post. Career tracks are your areas of focus for your FSO career. While everyone does at least one tour as “Consular Officer,” once you pick your track – you can’t go back. Switching is extremely difficult once you’ve been selected to be an official FSO. You’d have to complete at least one year of your selected track before you could even begin to think about take-back-sies.

I’ve already chosen my career track based on the sound advice of the internet and a funny gut feeling my experience and interests in the various fields. It was a tough competition between Public Diplomacy and Political Officer, but I felt like I could make more positive changes in the world as a PO.

The Career Tracks:

  • Consular: adoptions, evacuations, passports, fraud prevention, fight human trafficking.Interesting, but not where my passions lie.
  • Economic: work with foreign governments on technology, science, trade, economic, environmental and energy issues. Write lots of reports.This one was pretty tempting as I find all these subjects fascinating, but my quantitative analysis skills are…. best left to calculators.
  • Management: responsible for all embassy operations, real estate, people, budget.This seemed like the most logical position given my most recent degree, but the advice I heard was to pick something you were passionate about. I think Management is nice, but it doesn’t light a fire under me.
  • Political: analyze host country political events, negotiate and communicate with foreign officials. Write lots of reports.I like learning how people work and why they make the decisions they do. I’m a news junky. I get to collect the information that will go on to form the basis of policy.
  • Public Diplomacy: influence local opinion leaders, engage local society, make America look great, work with the press, throw awesome parties.This sounded like a lot of fun, but like a lot of stress. Event planning is cool, but I think I’d always be looking at the PO’s with envy.

BOOM. First task done. What now FSOT? PO here I come.

2.) Register for the FSOT


You see, the FSOT test is only administered 3 times a year. The next window comes up in the end of January, beginning of February. I can select my seat at the testing center in Seoul as of December 15th. If that sounds simple, welcome to the recurring theme in the land of FSOT: you’re wrong.

The FSOT Registration can take up to TWO HOURS to complete. And baby, you’d better take all the time you need, because this registration is going to follow you around like shit on a stick  glue  a really bad haircut the important document that it is.

In fact, this information will be read by the Board of Examiners for your QEP – it’s often the first page in your packet. It could also be used in your Oral Assessment (see below) so the interviewers can ask you more detailed questions about past experience. They also double check to make sure you’re not lying or exaggerating. BIG NO NO. Do NOT overstate yourself here. Don’t be humble, but if you outright lie or exaggerate you could be fined ($53,000) or go to jail for up to 5 years. Don’t. Do. It.

Now then, before you even take this darn test, you’ll need to fill out the following info:

P.S. while the test is free to take, if you screw uppanic get caught in really, really awful traffic miss your test, you’ll have to pay $72.00 for the pleasure. If you have a legitimate emergency, you might have a bit of wiggle room, but don’t expect much.

3.) Take the FSOT

Oh number three, how simple you seem. Just waltz in and take the test, right? It’s free. It’s mostly harmless… It’s…. REAL HARD. Only 30% of people pass on their first time, and since you can only take the test once a year, it’s best to come prepared if you’re serious about this gig.

So how does the test work? Well, it’s administered  by Pearson VUE, which (thank GOD), has testing centers all over the world. I’ll be taking mine in Seoul, which is still about a 4 hour trip one-way, but is preferable to an int’l flight to Washington D.C.

The FSOT is broken down into four main sections. These are used to test knowledge areas deemed most important by current FSOs and the Big Wigs at the State Department. These areas are:

A. Job KnowledgeIt’s like Jeopardy and all my past anxiety dreams about my Political Science classes put together! This section includes the following topics: Mathematics, U.S. Society & Culture, U.S. History, Management, World History & Geography, Communication, Economy, Computer, and U.S. Government. The best way I’ve heard this described is “3 miles wide, 1/2 inch deep.”
60 multiple choice questions, 40 minutes

B. English ExpressionThe SAT has come back to haunt you! This is very similar to the SAT, in structure and questioning. Most people think they’ll be fine, but you’d be surprised how rusty you can get. Source: I was an English Teacher last year and I missed a few questions on the practice exam! This is a good area to prep for as it has concrete answers with simple study solutions.
65 multiple choice questions, 50 minutes


C. Biographical Information – Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see… This seems like the easiest part of the test, but believe it or not, people regularly fail this section. Yes, you’re answering questions about yourself. However, answering the multiple choice question and then writing examples limited to 200 characters that exemplify the 13 dimensions can be tricky in this amount of time.
75 multiple choice questions (w/ short answers), 40 minutes

C. Situational Judgement A pastor, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar… This section has the least information to study with. The State Department supplies just five sample questions in their updated study guide. You’ll need to decide what the “best” and “worst” actions are for a given scenario out of four possible answers.
28 Scenarios in 42 minutes

D. Essay Examination – Ah, the old 1-3-1, the 5-7-5, the… wait. How do I write one of these again? The essay portion of this test comes with three prompts. You need to pick one and write a succinct, yet compelling essay in three to five paragraphs. Points are awarded based on grammar, spelling, writing quality, idea development, and linguistics. P.S. While there is a 2,800 character limit, there’s no spell check.
1 essay, 7 minutes to read & select prompts, 25 minutes to write

The whole test takes 3-4 hours to complete and each section is timed independently. While you will be able to flag answers and go back to check them, you can only do so before you move on to a new section of the test. Translation: Once you get to the Essay, you can’t go back and fix something in English Expression section. After you complete your test, it will take up to 3 weeks to find out if you passed. If you’re one of the successful few, you’ll now be up for the Personal Narrative.

4.) Submit a Personal Narrative

Woo hoo! You passed! Now let’s move on to the next step of what is called QEP (Qualifications Evaluations Panel) where a group of experts will review your case, your history, and your test scores to see if you fit the bill for an in-person interview.

I’m going to keep this section (and the following ones) brief as I’ve yet to delve that far into the process yet, in terms of personal experience. However, suffice it to say that the PN is usually what gives FSO hopefuls the most anxiety. It’s like college admissions essays all over again.

You’ll need to write a personal essay in an online form. You only have three weeks from the time you receive the email to complete these essays. They need to show your leadership skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, management skills, intellectual skills, and understanding of the US government, culture, and foreign policy. Not to mention some knowledge of your own career track. If you’re smart, you’ve already practiced a lot of this for the Biographic Information section of the FSOT. You have a maximum of 1,300 characters per question. See Mom? Tweets were great practice!

5.) Take the Oral Assessment

If the QEP guys  like your Personal Narrative and your Test Scores, you may be invited to take the Oral Assessment. Unfortunately for hopefuls like me, this takes place in Washington D.C. almost exclusively. There are no assessment centers outside of the USA.

And I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more….

The Oral Assessment is broken into three sections and takes about a day to complete. The good thing is, at the end of that long day, you’ll know for sure whether you passed or failed. No pressure.

To get into the building, you’ll need your ID, Proof of Citizenship, DS-7601 Spousal Release Form (if you’ve got one of those), SF-86 (another version of your Bio information), and a DS-4017 Statement of Interest.

During the day you’ll be scored 1-7 over the course of the exercises. This scoring system allows for you to “fail” in one section and “make up points” in another. You need at least 5.25 by the end of the day to pass.

Group Exercise: Presentation, Advocacy, and Debrief. You’ll be in a group of other hopefuls (technically not your competitors as you can all pass if you all do well) and you’ll be assigned a project to present to the group. You get 30 minutes to prepare a 6 minute presentation. Once you’re prepared, you’ll do the presentation in the group of your peers and advocate for your imaginary project to be funded out of the resource pool.
The catch? There isn’t enough funding for everyone. You’ll need to explain why your project is best. HOWEVER. That doesn’t mean that you lose points if your project isn’t funded. The moderators just want to see how you work in a team and your negotiating skills. You don’t have to win, you just have to be good.
After advocating and unanimously picking the projects your group will fund, you’ll be put in a room with a fake ambassador and a moderator. They will quiz you about your choices and the pros/cons of the projects your team selected.


Structured Interview: Background and Motivation, Scenarios, and Past Experiences and Behavior. You’ll be in a room with a panel of 3-4 interviewers who will ask questions using a structured grading sheet. Background and Motivation questions give you a chance to showcase yourself and your passion. Scenarios will require you to know as much as you can about embassy protocols. Expect to find some Kobayashi Maru questions here – they want to test your mettle. Past Experiences and Behavior is where you can insert a few more of those 13 dimensions we mentioned earlier.


Case Management: 90 minutes to write a briefing memo on a fake case. This will test your analysis skills, your ability to make hard choices, and your communication style. Expect a LOT of paper, not all of which is important, not all of which you’ll even be able to read. Your memo needs to be professional and at least 2 pages in length.

If you pass, you’ll know right away. If you fail, you’ll know that too. What you won’t know is WHY you failed. Sadly, you can’t ask questions about your own performance, so as not to give an unfair advantage to repeat test takers.

For those that pass, you’ll need to sign an Immediate Conditional Offer of Employment (which doesn’t actually mean you have a job). You’ll also want to sign up for any foreign language tests so you can boost your Registry score (more about that in a later post).

6.) Medical & Security Clearances

Now that you’ve passed the hard parts, you’re well on your way to becoming an FSO. You’ll need to pass a Medical Clearance that will allow you to live and work in places that might not have access to medications or services you would normally use. Having preexisting medical conditions doesn’t always mean you can’t be in the service, but it should be some cause for concern. If you have family traveling with you (and especially kids) they will need to pass the Worldwide Medical Clearance check too. If not, you could end up on some posts solo.

After your initial medical clearance, you’ll still need to reapply for med clearance to every new posting you apply for. If you develop a condition down the road, it might mean you aren’t eligible for some postings. Same for your dependent family.

In addition to your Med Clearance, you’ll be needing Top Secret Security Clearance too. Sounds cool? WELL IT’S NOT.

Okay, yeah it is. But you’ll have to fill out a 127 page form to get it. Good luck with that! It’s going to ask about every teensy bit of your past. You’ll need to list family, friends, acquaintances, and that weird landlord you had years ago, to pass muster. Believe me, they WILL call each and every one of them. Pick wisely, but be honest. Stupid drug use in college, even minor criminal records, don’t automatically disqualify you, but lying does.

7.) Suitability Review Panel

Nearly there.

After the Medical and Security Clearances pass through, you get reviewed by the Suitability Panel who check into your overall history for things like:

  • Misconduct
  • Disloyalty
  • Irresponsibility (this can include mismanaged debt)
  • Poor Judgement

If you pass here, congratulations, you’re officially on THE REGISTER.

8.) The Register

Buuuuuuuut, you still don’t have a job yet. The Register is a tricky place, and will get its own post soon. Suffice it to say that this is a dynamic list where all FSO hopefuls end up. If the Fed is hiring, you could get off the list quickly with a high score. However, newbies with higher scores than you will be posted above you in the list. Kids these days…

In addition, your posting will expire in 18 months. If you don’t get selected to become a FSO and proceed to training (called A-100) and Flag Day (where your first posting is revealed), you’ll need to start the whoooooooole procedure over again. Fun!

With the threat of the Federal Hiring Freeze from our President-elect, the future of those on the Register and those (like me) looking to get there, is unsure. The best advice we’ve gotten is to stay the course until told otherwise. And that’s the plan. If I can make it through this first hurdle, we’ll see where that brings me. In the end, I suspect the entire process will be worth it, even if I don’t get a job as an FSO. It will take a long time to get through it all, and there are lots of opportunities to fail. But I hope you lovely readers will stick with me. I’ll keep posting.

Till next time.

P.S. – If anyone out there reading sees any errors in my information, PLEASE let me know! It’s a learning process.



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