Monday, November 25, 2013

Language proficiency scales

Part of being a Foreign Service Officer is language ability and there's no way around it. Language skills are a must and you must be prepared to learn new languages if you don't know any already. While knowledge of a foreign language is not mandatory to become an officer, but it is helpful. Knowing a political language (what I define as a language with political currency at a international level), can net you between .17 and .38 points for the Register. The bonus may sound puny but this is pretty good.

If and when you pass the Oral Assessment, you are given a performance score out of 7. A minimum passing score is 5.3. You are then placed upon the Register, a list of candidates for A-100 within your cone. The Register is, in essence, synonymous with a performance rank. The higher the score you received during the OA, the higher your rank. Redditor TheSouthMouth got a 5.6 on the OA, which was sufficient for him to be ranked #15 of 94 in the Economic cone. He ranks among the top 20% on the Register, which is a very strong spot. Blogger Valdysses got a 5.3, which earned him #100 of 140 in the Public Diplomacy cone. So as you can see, every decimal point counts, and the bonus received from the language test can make the difference between 15 and 100.

Most languages listed by State require a level 3 speaking ability and will earn you .17 points.  To see what that is like, watch this.

Eight critical languages can be taken as well. A level 3 speaking ability in one of them will give you .38 points. A level 2 will give you .25 points. To see what a level 2 ability is like, watch this.

By the way, after Valdysses languished at #100 for more than a year. After he took and passed the Turkish language test, his rank went from #100 to #12 of 181 and he was hired in two weeks.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What is the typical State Department hiree?

What are the demographics of a the incoming State Department recruits? Details are few and far between but there are glimpses. From the 2013 Foreign Service Officer Test and Oral Assessment Study Guide, published by ADAR Review, on the 2000 orientation class.
  • Average age: 33
  • 64% male; 36% female
  • 57% married; 43% single
  • Youngest: 25; oldest: 55
  • 100% with a Bachelors degree; 60% with a Masters, an equivalent, or higher
  • 61% have worked overseas
  • 59% have studied abroad
  • Average candidate knew 1.7 languages
As reported in FY2011, the gender gap for the Foreign Service Generalists was...
  • 60.7% male; 39.3% female
I suspect that this gap will continue to diminish as the older, predominantly male, generation of diplomats retires. When I took the FSOT, I would say that very close to half of the people in the room were female, but maybe one or two more men. In my study group for the OA, half are female. Obviously neither anecdotes are statistically significant, but it may be a positive indication that the tide is (gradually) changing.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My favorite blogs...

There are a plethora of blogs about the Foreign Service. Here are some of my favorites:
  1. Future DiplomatPeace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. Just passed her OA on 24 October so stay tuned to see the details. Female. Knows Spanish. Young. Not sure what else.
  2. You Can Call Me Al – Early 30s Diplomat in Frankfurt, Germany. Previously Belize. Began blogging at the start of A-100. Former lawyer. His earliest posts are the most interesting.
  3. You Can't Get There From Here Goes by "Valdysses." Probably late 20s. Going to be in China. Took him over a year and a half to get into A-100. Began blogging before taking the FSOT. Really good info. Hasn't updated since 2012 however.
  4. Mission: Foreign Service – Brandee. Obsessed with Foreign Service. Made it to Register her first time, ranked 53/100 with a 5.3 on the OA but was never selected from the Register. When demands from family take precedence over her life, she eventually gives up on the dream. A blog with a sad ending.
  5. TumbleweedsDiplomat somehwere. Got a 5.6 which they described as "on the cusp." Unnamed but probably male. Discusses a lot of interesting myths and rumors about the FS and the FSOE.
  1. FSOT's page on the PNQs.
  2. Example PNQ essays The PNQ answers that got Valdysses past the QEP and into the OAs.
  3. PNQ and QEP under the microscope – An in-depth discussion of the QEP.
  4. Scores and Rank Valdysses' insightful post on a timeline of his test-taking and passing, as well as scores, notes, and Register rank. Note the tremendous rise in Register position after passing the Turkish test. Very good to compare yourself with him.
  5. How I passed the FSOA (series) – Very interesting series of posts that detail how Tumbleweeds raised their 4.6 to a 5.6.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) is not your worst nightmare, but it is a nightmare. This post will be concerned with my experience taking the test and with my scores. This post will not be concerned with how to study for the test, which may come some other day. The purpose of this post is to ready prospective test takers to the experience itself, as well as interpretation of their scores.

Before the test.

I signed up for the FSOT at the behest of others. I'm not precisely sure why I delayed taking the test for so long. Perhaps I always assumed I'd get wrapped up with another career one day and I'd forget all about this whim. One thing I wish I had done was study and worry less. I spent too much time anxious that I had not read every jot and tittle of preparation materials. I read every world news section of every issue of The Economist within the past 5 months (a good idea), I read the Constitution and its interpretations (a very good idea), and plenty of US History (a terrible idea).

At the testing center.

I showed up and realized just how insignificant I was. There was around 35 to 40 test takers that day. I would say the mean age was about 30 years, weighed down by a small cluster of Senior undergraduates. I spoke with one of those Seniors before the test began. "Did you study?" I asked. "No, I've taken this before," he replied. He seemed remarkably collected. I didn't ask him if he passed.

Taking the test. 

As it turned out, the US and World History questions were a joke. I know I did fine. I wish I had read more on the Constitution; the questions I received I had known once but sorta forgot. I wish I had brushed up on my math. The essay question was nuanced and demanded a complex answer (no easy black-and-white solutions here!) but it was simple enough for anyone experienced in the English language.

The wait.

Thus begins three weeks of waiting. At first, I was apathetic. I could always retake it again next year, right? I thought. But as time drew on, I became increasingly excited. I began to read blogs of people's careers in the Foreign Service. I lived vicariously through their adventures. I wanted what they had. The reason for my apathy was not because I did not want to become a diplomat. Quite the contrary. It was a way of lowering my expectations so as not to be too crushed when my scores arrived. But as I read more and more about other successful applicants, I caught the diplomacy fever.

Getting your scores.

I received a nondescript e-mail directing me to log into a special weblink to view my congratulatory/consolatory letter. I downloaded the letter and let it sit on my computer. I didn't read it. I went to Subway and got a sandwich. It was delicious. I went home and opened my letter:

Congratulations! The scores you achieved on your Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) qualify you for the next step of the Foreign Service Officer selection process...

I made it. I ate my cookie from Subway to celebrate.

Interpreting your scores.

This is easier said than done. Your scores are a T-Score, which is based on how you performed as a percentage of those who did worse than you. There is a hard cut-off at 60%, which is then scored at 154. If you did better than 60% of applicants, you get a 154 on the dot and you pass. Your essay is then scored out of 12 with the same theory; a six is passing.

I received a cumulative 168.01 with a 10 on the essay. I wasn't sure how to precisely calculate the percentage of applicants who did worse than a 168/10, but I estimated it at roughly 80-85% for the multiple choice and about 96-98% for the essay. I've always done better at the writing sections on tests.

Anyway, I was invited to submit my PNQs to the QEP which I did yesterday. The rollercoaster is climbing ever higher.

A Time for Introductions

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Patrick and I aspire to be a Foreign Service Officer.

Specifically, I hope to one day be a Political Officer. I suppose I have wanted this for roughly 7 years, which is relatively short. Many people I talk to have wanted to be a diplomat since they were kids. I won't bore you with personal details. For the purpose of general knowledge, let's talk about the steps to become a Foreign Service Officer:

  1. Select a "cone." There are five career tracks in the State Department: Political, Economic, Public Diplomacy, Management and Consular. What each of these means may be the subject of a later post one day. Selecting your cone occurs moments before you begin the FSOT. It will be the easiest part of your experience. 
  2. Take the Foreign Service Officer Exam (FSOE). The exam is a lengthy and miserable process. The pass rate is very low, usually maxing at 3%. Roughly 28,000 or more take the exam each year but only a few hundred or fewer receive a job offer at the end of the ordeal. The exam is broken into three sections taken over the course of the year:
    1. Pass the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). Pass Rate: 40%. This is where, as a total figure, most people trip up - though the section with the lowest pass rate as a percentage is the Oral Assessment. Of the ~30,000 exam takers, about 18,000 will not pass the FSOT and will have to restart the process the next year. If you do pass, you are invited to move on to the second section, held roughly one month later.
    2. Submit Personal Narratives (PNs) to the Qualification Evaluation Panel (QEP). Pass Rate: Variable. Those who pass the test are given six Personal Narrative Questions (PNQs). Five of which are opportunities for the exam-taker to give examples of leadership and innovation from their life; one is essentially a prompt for a cover letter. The answers are submitted to a panel of three diplomats who will weigh your resume, PNs, and FSOT score together to decide if you are the ideal candidate to continue on. The answer to "What makes an ideal candidate?" is notoriously opaque and many well-qualified individuals have been cut at this stage. Unlike the first and third sections of the FSOE, the PNQs have very wide pass rates.
    3. Pass the Oral Assessment (OA). Pass rate: 20%. If you have made it thus far, congratulations! You are one of the elite, but you are far from out of the woods. You do not need to worry about your FSOT scores any longer. You are in for a three-part, day-long test in Wasington, DC. You will be assigned a score. If your score is 5.3 or higher, you have passed the OA and have passed the FSOE!
  3. Pass the Medical and Security Clearances. You will need to receive a clean bill of health as well as a Top Secret security clearance.
  4. Enter the Register. The score you received during the OA will be used to mark you on the Register, a list of all people in your cone that have passed the FSOE. You will be ranked. I wish I could say that by passing the FSOE, your work is virtually done, but sadly, many people who make the Register are never selected.
  5. (Optional) Take a Language Exam. The score you receive from taking a language proficiency test can be used to boost the score you received during the OA. There is no penalty for failing the language exam, but high scores can improve your position on the Register.
  6. Get Selected from the Register. And, of course, accept the offer.
  7. Party. You made it! You're one of the sliver of the exam takers to become a diplomat.
At the urging of family and friends, I decided to take the Foreign Service Officer Exam (FSOE). I took the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) in October. I passed with a strong but not extraordinary score. I will go into the details of my scores and the FSOT experience in a later post.

As I write this, I have just submitted my PNQs to the QEP. As it is mid-to-late November, I now have two months of excruciating wait to discover if I passed. If I do, I will be invited to take the Oral Assessment in February. I keep my fingers crossed and breath held. Let me know if you have a spare rabbit's foot lying around.