A Traveler In The Foreign Service: 10 Tips On How To Get Into The Foreign Service

For those with incurably itchy feet and an interest in serving their country, the State Department’s Foreign Service is a great career option. As a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), you’ll spend the bulk of your career overseas, moving in 1-4 year increments and you’ll actually get paid to learn languages. You’re also signing up for worldwide availability and could be sent to a war zone without your family for a year, but that’s all part of the bargain.

With the next Foreign Service written exam window fast approaching (February 2-9, registration deadline is January 30, register here), I continue to get quite a few – got any tips on how I can join the Foreign Service – emails from FS hopefuls. Here are some tips from an ex-FSO on how to navigate the whole byzantine process.

10. Don’t Bother Cramming for the Written Exam

This isn’t the answer you wanted to hear is it? Everyone wants to cram for this test but it’s simply not possible. You can spend $29 on an official study guide but there is no real way to study for the multiple choice job knowledge section of the test because the questions are so varied. State wants to hire broadly informed, well-rounded people, so there are questions about computers and technology, management and economics, world and U.S. history, sports, music, basically you name it. (And if you need help deciding which cone to choose, buy Inside a U.S. Embassy to learn about what FSOs do, but bear in mind that many of the participants in those book chose to describe what their most interesting day was like rather than what a typical day is like, so bear that in mind as you read this book.)9. Set a Long Term Goal to be a Bit Less Clueless about Current Events

The State Department has a pretty good reading list but again, you can’t expect to cram. My best suggestion is to subscribe to The New York Times and the Economist for a good year at least, read them closely and you’ll be amazed by how much you learn. Even if you’re reading a story about what happened in the Congo last week, good reporters provide historical context to events, and that sort of background will help you on the exam.

8. Go Beyond Hola and Gracias

I know that if you’re reading this column you are probably hoping for quick and dirty suggestions, but here’s the best long term advice I can give you. If you can become proficient in a difficult language, say Russian, Mandarin, Arabic, Farsi, etc, you’ll have a huge leg-up on getting into the Foreign Service. These days, there are very few openings and too many candidates, so the extra points you can add to your score will likely push you off of the list of eligible hires and into A-100, which is the introductory class for new hires.

7. Don’t Try to be James Joyce on the Essay

The point of the essay isn’t to try to use big words or to write War & Peace. Try to make your argument short and to the point with concrete examples. Adding in a lot of fluff will cost you points. Read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” for tips on improving your writing skills.

6. Don’t Forget the Time you Mentored That Bolivian Exchange Student at Band Camp

In the biographic section, you’ll be asked to cite examples of how you’ve handled various situations and how much exposure you’ve had to foreign cultures and foreign nationals. Think about the jobs you’ve had and specific examples of your accomplishments and tricky situations you’ve handled. And if you’ve spent time overseas or have had significant contact with foreigners here in the U.S., be ready to write about it.

5. Boast but don’t be a Complete Lying Bastard

Since I went through the FS selection process, they’ve added a new step in between passing the written exam and being invited to the Oral Assessment – the personal narrative. The point of this exercise is to test your writing skills and to evaluate your work experience. You’ll be asked to brag about what you’ve done and will have to list someone who can verify your claims. I doubt that the reviewers have time to call all the verifiers, but believe me, the panelists have a good B.S. detector, so don’t try to claim that you invented a cure for cancer.

4. Try not to be Really Annoying at the Oral Assessment

I took the Oral Assessment twice before joining the FS and noticed that on both occasions the people who were very in-your-face aggressive didn’t make the cut. In the portion of the day when you’re interacting with your fellow FS hopefuls, be collegial and don’t act like you have to outshine them. There is no quota for who will pass each day – everyone can fail or everyone can pass, so don’t try to dominate the proceedings or make anyone else look bad – it will backfire. And keep in mind the 13 qualities/dimensions the State is looking for.

3. Stop Smoking Crack

If you make it this far, you’ll need to get through the medical and security clearances. During your background investigation, an investigator will interview you and others who may or may not know you well (neighbors, friends, colleagues, bosses) about your use of drugs and alcohol, among other things. A lot of candidates get nervous about this if they are or were recreational drug users and really, really nervous about this if they are or were junkies.

I told my investigator the truth – that I’d never taken any illegal drugs – and it seemed like he didn’t believe me. Having taken drugs, especially soft drugs in limited quantities in the past, isn’t a bar on getting a security clearance.

The key factors will be: when did you do it, what drugs did you take, how often and were there any adverse actions as a result – did you miss work, make an ill conceived pass at your boss, bludgeon someone with a rusty hatchet, that sort of thing. If you tell them that you are still taking drugs, especially hard ones, you are probably toast, so put down the crack pipe and everything else well before you start this process.

2. Bake Some Brownies for your Enemies

The investigator is also going to talk to current and former neighbors and bosses or colleagues where you’ve worked or studied. You’ll be asked to list contacts and you can hope and pray they won’t talk to the people who think you’re pond scum, but there’s no way to completely control the process. If you think they might run into a neighbor that was bitten by your pit bull or a colleague you stole a girlfriend from, now is the time for a charm offensive.

1. Join the Yahoo Group FSWE- Foreign Service Written Exam

Even if you make it through the Oral Assessment and the clearance procedure, you might languish on the list of eligible hires for a very long time. Remember that it’s very possible, and in some years it’s actually likely that you will remain on the list for 18 months, never get the job offer and have to go back to square one.

In order to maintain your sanity, join the FSWE Yahoo Group to become part of a community of likeminded people who share information and experiences. Aside from the message board, they also have some really useful tables that will help you put your scores in perspective and plenty of tips on how to navigate the whole process.

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[Photo credit: Brianholsclaw on Flickr]