In preparing for the Foreign Service Exam, most will rely on the Department of State’s FSO page for their guidance. However, as you will quickly learn, this site is very data-driven and really adds no real sustenance to how to pass the FSO exam or even score higher on the Foreign Service test.
Instead, you’ll receive a very bland upright approach and are left to fend for yourself; something that is very hard to do when we are talking about the test that has a pass rate less than 20%. Let that sink in for a bit.
The Foreign Service exam pass rate is a dismal 20%. That means that 4 out of every 5 are destined to fail in their first step to becoming an FSO.
So, to help you out, I’ve created my very own version of what the State Department won’t do…I’ll give you real information that you can use to help improve your chances of passing so that you can join the Foreign Service exam pass rate group, and not be among the failures.
In the following sections, I will not only give you a personal take on each facet of the FSOT test process but will also provide you with adequate resources to help improve your knowledge. Some will be external sites, and others might be more detailed discussions on this website.
So, let’s begin.
The Steps in the FSOT Test Process
Before we get into how to pass the FSO exam itself, I want to take you through each facet of the Foreign Service exam and give you a Foreign Service Officer’s take on each area. So, even if you read State’s version, you might want to check this out and not skip.
First things first, you’ll need to register. Here are a couple of things you should know about the process:
- FSOT Test registration will open up five weeks before the scheduled test
- Registration is done at http://www.pearsonvue.com/fsot/
- You have until three days before the test to cancel or change dates. After that, everything is final
- You must select your career path
- All things in your FSOT Test registration will be used in further steps of the FSO selection process
- If you fail, you must wait 1 YEAR before you can take it again
That may seem like a lot, and you definitely shouldn’t take it lightly. However, in my article on the FSOT registration process, I shared a tactic that I think most FSO candidates should consider taking. You can find it here at the bottom of the post.
FSOT Written Exam
The Foreign Service Officer written exam is a computer-based test that covers a broad range of information and was created to test your overall knowledge.
The FSOT test areas are:
Job Knowledge: Jeopardy-style questions in categories such as Math, Economics, US Government, World History, Geography, Technology, Management Techniques and even Pop Culture.
English Expression: Focuses on grammar rules and spelling. Think ACT and SAT English when you approach this section. To pass you'll need to look at sentences in a paragraph and choose which option is the correct grammar example.
Biographical Information: In this section, you'll be asked questions about yourself. But be careful, these can be tricky because the question might be posed in a different form later on in this section. Inconsistency can hurt.
FSOT Essay: In this section, you will be provided with some essay questions.
You'll need to answer those questions. However, they aren't exactly looking for your answers, but how you present your argument. This is basic Essay Writing 101. But it helps if you are up-to-date on current affairs because you are going to NEED some data to back up your point/hypothesis.
If you would like to know more about each of these different sections in the FSOT, make sure to check out my article on the test layout. In each section, I'll break down recommendations on how to prepare for each.
After completing the Foreign Service written exam, you’ll be asked to complete a personal narrative. This narrative will be sent to the Qualifications Evaluations Panel (QEP). Having been on the QEP myself, you will definitely want to check out my article on the things I've seen, and things you should avoid.
You can find my in-depth discussion on the QEP here.
However, regardless, you need to begin writing your Personal Narrative immediately and not wait until the last minute. You have no idea how many people seem to wait on it and don’t even give a good product in the end.
You need to dedicate time to it and look at getting as much help on it as possible before you submit it.
How to Study for the FSOT
Like I said in the beginning, the Foreign Service Exam pass rate is a dismal 30% - averaged over two decades. So, how does one really prepare for something that has so many different subjects, and creates such a low pass rate?
You’ll first want to start by getting as much experience as possible and calling in the pros.
Get Your Hands on an FSOT Study Guide
There aren’t that many FSOT Study Guides out there, but the ones that are can make a major difference. Check out my review of them and make sure you don’t pick up a dud – which there are a couple.
A good FSOT study guide should include top 3 FSOT Study Guides, and assist you in studying effectively and efficiently. It won’t teach you about economics or international relations – otherwise, it would be a giant encyclopedia set and not just one compact book. You’re going to have to read the recommended reading list to get that.
Here is my List of the best FSOT Study Guides. You can choose just one or go for all three of them. Either way, having a professional FSOT guide can help give you a competitive advantage and if don’t right, can save you a lot of time.
But to help you out with your selection, here are the top two...see, saving you some clicks:
The Complete FSOT Study Guide is the best study guide for preparing for the FSOT exam. It's not only written by an FSOT that takes a sort of casual discussion on what to expect but is filled with recommendations that cover ALL facets of the exam.
It prepares for the knowledge factors but also gives tips to help you prepare more effectively and efficiently in ways only a FSOT would have thought of.
Filled with a great practice test, and even tips for passing the FSOA, and even the medical exam (yes, because that is important), this is surely the best FSOT study guide on the market.
The Foreign Service Officer Test Study Guide is my personal favorite FSOT study guide on the market.
It holds a decent layout of the test and gives some solid recommendations. Its practice test is decent and adds to the list of practice tests below. My only negative against this FSOT test prep book is that it seems to dwell a little too much on information that can readily be found on the internet or on the official State Department's website.
Other than that though, it is solid and a great place to start for those potential FSO's looking to get ahead of their peers.
FSOT Practice Test
Another important step is getting as much experience answering FSOT type questions as possible. Although the FSOT can be tricky and cover a large number of questions, understand that the more you are used to facing those types of questions, the better you will be.
There are three things you should focus on when taking an FSOT practice test:
- Treat it like it's real. Don’t just take it, answer a couple of questions and come back to it. You need to train yourself to get used to the stress it might cause you. When you take the real FSOT, you’ll be thinking “oh, man…I absolutely bombed this.” And maybe you did. But its important that when you take a practice test, you get the whole experience…self-doubt and all.
- Don’t just look at your overall score. Your overall score should mean nothing to you. What you need to focus on is what section did you struggle the most on. We are all stronger in certain subjects and weaker on others. It’s important you identify which one you are weakest on and focus on improving that. That’s why the FSOT practice test on this site breaks all questions up into categories.
- The more, the merrier. The practice tests you take, the better. It’s more experience and it gives you a better sense of knowing where your weaknesses lie.
However, understand that not all FSOT practice tests are created equal. I assure you, having taken a look myself, there are many that are just plain wrong.
The good news is that even if you take these false practice exams, they won’t hurt you. That is why the only practice tests that I would trust are the following:
FSOT Prep Practice Test: sure I may be biased on this, but it was made with the intent of helping you and wasn’t just a regurgitation of jeopardy questions.
Official State FSOT Practice Test: Be advised that if/when you take this, you need to sit and take it in its entirety. This is a long test and should be taken seriously. Also, you can only take it once per email address...which are easy to come by 😉
PropProf's FSOT Online Quiz: A little rudimentary, but still serves as an extra set of questions to help you along your way.
Get in Touch With Your Local Diplomat In Resident (DIR)
A DIR is a Diplomat who has been assigned to a local area so as to best represent the Foreign Service and help potential FSO’s prepare and take the FSO process.
Think of them as paid guides.
If you are interested in contacting your local DIR, go here.
However, if you know an FSO personally, then I HIGHLY recommend you connect with them and take them out for coffee 😉 An FSO is the best source of information and can give you life stories that should not only help you to understand the process but also understand the life you are working towards living.
If you need more help with preparing for the FSOT, here is a list of resources that I think you should definitely check out and get familiar with:
- http://www.afsa.org/foreign-service-blogs: List of FSO Blogs so as to gain a better understanding from those in the field and those who have completed their service.
- https://twitter.com/doscareers: this is the Department of State’s career twitter page and serves to give pertinent data to those looking to join the ranks.
- http://careers.state.gov/connect/dir : this interactive map will allow you to find where the nearest Diplomat in Residence (DIR) is. DIRs are career FSO located throughout the nation so as to provide guidance on State careers, internships, and fellowships to those interested. A wonderful resource and I highly recommend you find yours and connect.