Matamoros, Mexico: Washington, D.C.:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How I Got This Job, Part 2

Note: This post is the second in a two part posting describing how I ended up with a job as a Foreign Service Officer for the US State Department. If you haven't yet read the first part, I suggest you check it out before reading this one. Also, this post contains a lot of acronyms and abbreviations; I did my best to define them all. Sorry, but that seems to be my life these days. This post will be entirely too long... I apologize in advance.

Now, on to the nitty-gritty of becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). The very first thing you must do, before even registering to take the test, is choose which "cone" you wish to pursue while joining the FS. There are five cones - basically large departments or divisions - within an embassy. They are: Management, Political Affairs, Economic Affairs, Public Diplomacy, and Consular Affairs. For a detailed description of each cone, see the State Department's explanation. Suffice it to say that I decided that the Consular Affairs cone was the best fit for me...more on that later.

The process really begins by filling out an online application to take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), an exam quite similar to an ACT (In fact, the FSOT is administered by the ACT company). The application consists of some basic biographical information about yourself and a declaration of which cone you would like to pursue. They really want you to lock in early, and the selection you make certainly has an impact on if and/or how quickly you are hired. (There was recently a shortage of Consular Affairs applicants, for example. Conveniently enough, that's the cone I wanted to pursue.) What exactly does the FSOT consist of, you wonder? A whole heck of a lot. It's essentially a test to see how well-rounded and educated you are. Ironically enough, the only requirement to becoming a FSO is being a high school graduate, but I would certainly be impressed to meet someone who passed the FSOT that hadn't been to college. Of course... stranger things have happened (I mean, come on, I passed. That's pretty strange). In any case, the FSOT deals with topics ranging from US Foreign and Domestic Policy, US/World History, Business Administration and Management, Micro/Macro Economics, Journalism, Computer Technology, Geography, Psychology, and more. There's a pretty short eHow article on the FSOT that you could read for a slightly more detailed, though still not comprehensive, description of the test. Believe it or not, I was pretty surprised when I found out I had passed.

You see, I went into this whole process thinking I was just trying it out - getting my feet wet, so to speak. I never really thought I would pass on the first try, let alone actually be hired. I went in on test day not having studied too much (I had reviewed the official study guide once-through) and with pretty calm nerves. I just knew I was going in to take the test, get a feel for it, fail it that time, and try again later. I had assumed that most of the FSOs out there were middle-aged professionals who were looking for a little more excitement than their standard desk job and wanted some world travel thrown in, too. I stand corrected. Even a young, fresh-out-of-college-with-just-a-BA-in-Spanish-and-no-professional-experience can become a FSO as well!

Anyway, I took the test and passed it in October 2009. At the beginning of November, I was asked to write six short essays (250 words each, or roughly 1300 characters, I think?) called Personal Narratives (PNs). These PNs are basically little micro-stories that tell the Quality Evaluation Panel (QEP - a group of people who review applicants' test scores and PNs to determine whether or not they come for an Oral Assessment...more later) about six specific indicators in your personality, such as leadership and interpersonal skills. The entire list is worth checking out and is certainly more detailed. For three weeks, I languished over my little micro-stories to get every word just right. You have to make sure you give them enough detail to be interested and to convey a strong answer to the question, while not rambling or exceeding the word/character limit. You better believe that the majority of my answers hit that character limit within 5 characters or less! If the QEP likes your PNs and your test scores, then you move on to the next step: the "interview."

The Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA) was, by far, the most nerve-wracking part of the process for me, but I guess that's not saying much considering I never expected to make it that far in the first place. I studied up as much as I could for the FSOA, which is quite different from how I handled the FSOT. I read a lot of information on the public Yahoo group dedicated to folks taking/who have taken the FSOA and felt like I was as prepared as I could be. (To any of you out there getting ready for either the FSOT or FSOA, I strongly encourage you to check out those Yahoo groups for some encouragement, study tips, and information. Click here or here, respectively. My one tip to you: don't over study - meaning, don't get overwhelmed with studying how to do it the best as possible and forget to be yourself and just be confident in your abilities.) I flew up to DC on a Thursday afternoon, April 1st, in preparation for my 7AM appointment the next day. I woke up at 5:30am after a slightly restless night and walked from my hotel to the State Department annex building and joined the rest of the slightly nervous group in the lobby waiting to be escorted past the guards into our interview room. The FSOA consists of three major parts: the Group Exercise (GE), the Structured Interview (SI), and the hypothetical Case Management (CM) exercise.

During the GE, you are placed in a room with five other candidates and given a binder with information about fictional country. After reviewing the information (everybody's is slightly different and about a different project) silently and independently for thirty minutes, you then are watched by examiners for an hour as you discuss with your group the information that you each had and then work together to come up with a proposal for the fictional ambassador. There is a lot of teamwork involved, including some give and take and a lot of listening. The examiners are strictly timing you, and I was even cut off mid-sentence during one of my speaking opportunities because I went reached the time limit. I thought for sure I would fail the GE portion simply because of that, but I didn't.

After the GE comes the SI, which is the only part of the day that seems more like a regular job interview. You're alone in a room with two examiners who spend the better part of an hour asking you questions and then telling you to answer them faster and get more to the point (or perhaps that's just what they told me! haha). They ask you questions about your background and about the FS itself and then give you some more hypothetical situations to which you respond by describing how you would handle each of them. There's no right answer here, of course; they're simply trying to get an idea for your thought process and how you would think through a problem. (Tip for anyone about to take the FSOA: Communication is huge! Emphasize to the examiners that you would notify/seek advice from your direct superior on how to handle the situation.) Once the SI is finished, you spend a few minutes sitting in the waiting room before the next portion. The waiting was terrible - I spent most of those minutes going over how terrible each of my answers were and how I could have done better.

Up next is the CM exercise, during which you have an hour and a half to assimilate a binder full of hypothetical emails, charts, spreadsheets, and memos outlining a situation within an embassy. Your task is to type up a two page (maximum!) memo to your superior explaining the situation and providing the best possible solution. I finished with about ten minutes left, which was just enough time to proofread the entire thing and take a breath before the timer started beeping.

Then, more waiting. The examiners need time to read everybody's memos and make their final decisions, so there's about an hour long waiting period where everyone is sitting together in the lobby. The eleven other people who tested with me that day sat there attempting to make small talk, but it was obvious there was a tension in the room. Did we pass, or, just how badly did we fail? After what seemed like ages, we were all called into a room together, and one-by-one they called us out to deliver our fates. After the first six people had been called out, I heard my name. I stood up, buttoned my jacket and walked to what I knew was going to be the moment when I found out I had failed. I was sure of it. The door opened, and there were all four examiners standing in the room, showing no expression on their faces whatsoever. One of the examiners looked down at a piece of paper, looked back at me, cracked a smile and said "Congratulations! You passed!" I'm not really sure what happened next. A wave of excitement rushed over me, and I'm pretty sure I literally stumbled backward a few steps. The examiners began shaking my hand and congratulating me, and one of them said something to me I'll never forget. One of the older gentlemen, one of the two people who did my SI, walked up and said, "I've never heard of Samford University, but boy did they do a good job with you!" I was floored. Not only did I pass, but this guy, who I had thought wasn't impressed at all during the SI, was complimenting me! All but two of the examiners quickly exited, and the remaining couple began reading from a script (the entire day was scripted, actually, so as to provide the same fair experience to every candidate) with information about what was next for me. I was trying to pay attention to what she was reading, but, honestly, my mind was racing!

Minutes later, I was being finger printed by someone from Diplomatic Security. She scanned my passport, checked my Top Secret security application documents, and gave me some more information.

And with that, I was done.

As I walked back to my hotel, I called my mom and relayed the good news. She was thrilled, excited, and overwhelmed all at the same time. She told me that she had known all along I would pass (of course, a mother would think that.) But I knew that this must also be a bit of a bittersweet moment for her, too. Passing the FSOA is a pretty definite step in the application process, and by making it that far, she had to come to grips with the reality that I'll be living halfway around the world for the foreseeable future. She's excited, though, and quite proud of me (again.. what mother wouldn't be?), and I'm sure she's looking forward to visiting me in exciting places (she's hoping for tropical islands, I'm sure.)

The next part of the process flew by for me. My security interview was just three weeks after I passed the FSOA, and my clearance was granted within another three weeks, which is extremely rare. I've talked with some folks who spent an entire year or more just waiting for security clearance! Medical clearance was granted somewhere in between all that, and I hit the Consular register on May 20th. My entire application timeline can be found at the bottom of the About Andrew page. For those of you unfamiliar with the whole register thing, just think of it as a long, ranked list of people who are waiting to be officially hired. Every few months, they hire a few folks from each of the five registers to begin training about two months later.

If you're still reading this, I'm impressed. You now know the entire process I went through to land my dream career. I realize it's a lot to read and get through, so I applaud you for sure. I have about a month left before I move to DC to begin training, and there's much to do in the meantime. Until then, though, thanks for reading. Let me know if you have any questions or comments! I promise the next few posts will be more entertaining than this one!



  1. hey Andrew, just found your blog. It's Bridget from the boards and fellow Sept A100 obsessing. I have a blog, too- I'll link to you. I'm hoping for an Oct offer in the 2nd round, just like you! I can't believe how competitive Con has gotten- we thought Sept was just a fluke but it looks like Oct is following in its footsteps. I'll look forward to reading about A100 and your first post!

  2. Hey Bridget. How'd you find the blog? I don't think I've posted it on the yahoo groups.

    Good luck on the 2nd round of offers! Here's hoping!

  3. life after jerusalem linked to you- she usually lets you know, maybe she missed it?

  4. Oh, right. Yeah I emailed her recently and asked to be listed. Kind of a small online community out there, haha.

    Thanks again.

  5. Hey, love your posts!! I'm trying to get to the OA myself :-)

  6. Hi Andrew-

    I stumbled upon your blog searching for info for the FSOT. I just passed the written test, and am currently working on my PN. I applied for the Public Diplomacy section. Do you have any insights into the PN?



  7. Jessica,

    My best advice for the PNs are just be concise and make sure you answer the question. Don't fluff them up - you don't have enough space to do that anyway. Just write exactly what you need to answer the question. Avoid the passive voice at all costs, and make sure to put two spaces after every period (that's not a rule for the PNs, but it is something required when writing cables for the Department.)

    Other than that, just be yourself! Good luck.


  8. I am impressed with your security clearance timeline...It took 2 months to get mine started and now I am waiting...and waiting.

  9. I recently took the FSOA and went in with the same basic attitude and had a similar experience to what you described but didn't pass. The lack of feedback is the most frustrating part. I suppose I will try again next year. sigh...

  10. Great information!

    As a young, FS hopeful myself, I have to say your experience has assuaged some of my self-doubts.

  11. Thank you so much for posting this super-useful info. You really sound like a lovely person and I am proud that folks like you serve our country.

  12. Hi,
    Thank you for your post, it was really helpful - as I am about to take the Oral Assessment. The only part that I am really nervous about is the "Hypotheticals" portion of the Structured Interview. Would you say that is the hardest part? (I'm also fresh out of college and I feel with my lack of "professional" experience it might be challenging..) Thanks in advance!!

  13. Thanks Andrew,

    I took my writing FSOT recently and I feel ok with it. I tried out just like you and wanted to test the waters but I'm kinda freaking out now waiting for the results.

    To begin with, I'm foreign born citizen (naturalized) and multi-lingual and being in this country for 7 years I do not have a great grip of things on how to handle PN's or interviews.

    Thank you for your input and, yes, I read every paragraph and you should begin posting now about the life inside the embassy and the transition that you you went through.

    Thanks pal

  14. Great info! Thank you.

    Was wondering if anyone had any insights as to a "low" passing score on the FSOT and then subsequent chances to pass the PN phase. In other words, if someone "just passed" the FSOT, are their changes significantly lowered to pass the PN? Conversely, does a high score on the FSOT give you a much increased chance of passing the PN??

    thanks! And good luck to all trying to be a FSO!!

  15. Hi Andrew, I stumbled upon your blog while navigating FSOT study guides. I am a 24-year old (female) college graduate interested in taking the FSOT. Of the five "cones" I am definitely more interested in the economic and political career tracks.
    I do have a DUI on my record as of 2013. I was slightly over the limit, no altercations, paid my fine, did my classes, no other prior offenses (except for underage drinking tickets I suppose....)
    Having said that- are my chances of obtaining clearance slim to none? Or is there still hope for me to pursue this career choice?
    Thanks so much,