Sunday, January 31, 2010


Warning: Prepare to lose five weeks of your life in A-100. You will be one busy person.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Foreign Service Written Exam- How Well Do You Know English?

The English portion of the written exam is very similar to standardized tests in terms of testing grammar and sentence/paragraph structuring. If you were going to study for the written exam, I'd suggest doing it for this section. An SAT or GRE study book would probably suffice. Grammar rules are pretty straight forward and there's a finite amount of them which you could memorize (as opposed to trying to memorize the essentially infinite amount of information covered in the other section).


If you have trouble spotting errors, mouth the words of the sentence so you can hear the words in your mind. If something sounds funny or off, then you're probably good to eliminate the answer.

On the parts of the test that require you to rearrange parts of a sentence or delete/insert some, remember that you want sentences that are logical and clear to follow. Try to pick the answer that makes the most "sense."

Verb-Noun Agreements

We walk home. He walks home.

We = Plural; Walk = Plural

He = Singular; Walk = Singular

Noun-Pronoun Agreements.

Where did the girls buy their dresses?

Girls = plural; Their = plural

Remember that everybody, anybody, anyone, each, neither, nobody, someone, a person, etc. are singular.

If a student is late to class, he or she will get detention.


If a student is late to class, they will get detention.

Student = singular; They = plural

If grammar is not your strong point, then I suggest you get a book and brush up! Remember, you might not be able to cram in everything about geography/economics/history/management/etc. issues into your head---but you can definitely do it with English rules!

Friday, January 8, 2010

An Explanation

A comment from Diplopundit:

hannah said...
I happened to walk by the A-100 classroom today as one of the coordinators was crushing the blogging hopes and dreams of one of the new officers. It was sad to watch.

I was that new officer. One of our coordinators warned us of the perils of blogging and then quoted directly from this blog and I got shamed for talking about being tired. Then there was discussion of our “hallway reputation” and what blogging could do (essentially hurt our careers). I’m sure that’s the party line (and I can certainly see the thinking behind this) and so I don’t blame the coordinator for that speech, but having said that…

Digger wrote, “ Personally, I blog because I love serving this country and I want other good folks to join me, but with eyes wide open.”

Like Digger, those are the reasons I originally started doing this. There is nothing on this blog that I hadn’t already said in person to my classmates, that hadn’t been mentioned to me by multiple other people. Are there days of work when people are tired? Or bored? Or frustrated? Of course. I think there are those days at every job, and U.S. Government jobs are no different. I have heard similar comments about such days from Ambassadors to interns. Like Digger, I want people who are interested in this career to join with eyes wide open. Is the State Department a great place to work? Of course. Does it have its share of problems like everywhere else? Of course it does.

I don’t believe in sugarcoating everything for interested applicants. People should know what they’re getting themselves into, the good, the bad, and everything in between. It lets them make informed decisions and the Department gets people who are aware of how things work (instead of getting in, possibly hearing a “sugarcoated” version, and then having to figure out some issues on their own).

The State Department’s reputation has taken a hit in the last few years, I think not only in the public as a whole, but even within the government bubble. Personally, I think it’s good for people to know that the Department is not just some giant bureaucratic beheamoth. That even though Foreign Service Officers are sometimes called “elite,” that we are human. We have good days and we have bad days. That yes, there are days that are more exciting than other days. That the Department is not a large conservative entity with the same thinking (excluding policy here of course) on everything. We are a people organization and we need to be able to reach out to people and not be so naive as to believe they'll buy an only positive message.

So where do we go from here? I’m not sure. I’m considering a reboot. I had a couple more posts I had in the works about the exam and entering process, which I enjoyed working on. Maybe I’ll just stick to posting those for now. Or maybe I’ll send them to Digger so at least they’re posted somewhere for who are interested. I'll have to take some time to think about this.

I can't say that this experience hasn't affected my thinking about the State Department and Foreign Service. As for how exactly, that remains to be seen.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

You can guess what happened.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Foreign Service Written Exam- So What Do You Know?

So besides the essay, what's on the written exam?

  • So What Exactly Do You Know?
  • How Well Do You Know English?
  • Who Are You as a Person?
Ok, so these obviously aren't the titles of the sections. But you should know what the test covers already! If you don't, you're either 1. Going to pass regardless of reading this or 2. Going to fail, because you have no idea what's on the test.

So What Exactly Do You Know?

This is the section that most people think of when they hear about the foreign service written exam. It's like a jeopardy game covering U.S. government, culture, history, geography, management issues, economics, etc. What's important to realize here is that the exam tests breadth, but not depth. In other words, you're not going to need to know any one issue in great detail. What you will need to know is some generalized knowledge about a lot of issues. This usually works in your favor I think. Because the test covers so many things, there's no fear of completely failing the test just because you (for instance) completely suck at economics. You can always make up the points elsewhere. Obviously, you can't suck everywhere, but the test gives you some leeway.

I did not study for the written and I would not advise buying a study book for this test.

What I will recommend is that you read the newspaper. You don't need to be reading every article, but at least scan the headlines. Know what's going on in the world. Again though, breath and not depth. For instance, the test is unlikely to ask you why two countries are disagreeing over some topic. It's more likely that it'll just ask you which country is disagreeing over another country over this topic (something you could pick up just by glancing at a headline).

I can't emphasize reading the newspaper enough. Most people I know who passed the test didn't exactly study for it; they are however are voracious international affairs readers. Most are also some kind of history buff and have a good background (or at least strong memory of high school) for U.S. history.

Other tips

Know who's responsible for what! From the branches of the government to the committees of Congress to different departments/agencies. You'll be representing your country so it'd be good for you know what in your country is responsible for what!

Don't go memorizing maps. The time you spent trying to memorize every country and capital in the world won't be worth the one question that might pop up (remember breadth, so there won't be a hundred questions on geography). If you are going to study maps, I'd suggest just knowing large deserts, forests, oceans, etc. Just enough so that you know where the Gobi is vs. the Sahara.

If you really want to brush up on U.S. history, I'd suggest the Cliffs Notes version. You don't need to read a 300 page book of U.S. history, you want just the highlights. Know what others would consider important events in our U.S. history and what those events are. Know the important documents (Constitution, amendments, etc.) Essentially, just think about it as if you're going to go overseas as a U.S. representative, what should you be able to answer about the U.S.

I recommend the same Cliffs Notes strategy for any economic/management principles. I have zero background in management and my economics knowledge was pretty much nonexistent after high school. I pretty much had no idea what was going on in those questions, but there weren't many of them (breadth!) and the ones that were there were pretty general (at least for economics, I have no idea what was going on in the management ones).

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Foreign Service Written Exam- The Essay

Ok, so here we go. I'm not exactly going to cover in detail WHAT the test deals with for each section. There are plenty of other sources, including the official ones, which do that. I should also preface all of this with the fact that I do not actually grade the tests nor have I ever been an examiner for the orals. Everything I write is from my own perspective. I did however find the written exam for the foreign service fairly easy as did most of my classmates who took the test. I'm guessing that this is likely due to our recent familiarity with standardized testing and backgrounds. In any case, I've gone over why I thought the test was so easy and tried to pull out all the assorted tips that I think my classmates and I take for granted when it comes to testing.


I did SAT tutoring for a while and just like the SAT writing section, this essay tests the same concepts. It doesn't matter what you write, but how you write it. You'll be given a prompt and asked to argue one side of a discussion or to support one perspective. The graders don't care what you write, but whether or not you can articulate your thoughts convincingly.

In general, if you are recently out of school or have gone through any type of standardized testing, the grades you got and scores you received on the written part of the test should be a good indicator of how you'll do on this.


If you manage to nail the structure, you've got a good start going into the essay. The structure should essentially be introduction-->thesis sentence at the end of that introduction-->paragraph 1 that supports an aspect of your thesis and provides evidence for why that aspect is important/true-->paragraph 2 doing the same thing-->paragraph 3 if you have room-->conclusion-->concluding sentence that either rewords your thesis or is able to expand upon the bigger picture (aka why your thesis is important at all).

Your introduction should be relatively short (3-5 sentences). Your conclusion should be short (3-5 sentences). What's important here are the supporting paragraphs in the middle. It's in those paragraphs where you can tell if someone can write concisely, articulate their thoughts in a logical manner, and be convincing.


There are some tips that say to outline your thoughts on paper before starting the essay. This is a personal thing, but I would not use your time writing on paper unless you are much more comfortable doing so than on a computer. I outline briefly on the word document and then am able to copy+paste and move thoughts around as needed. Writing on a paper is valuable time and you'll still need to transfer those thoughts onto the computer.

Support whatever side you can come up with the most arguments for. This may not necessarily be the side you actually support. Remember, it doesn't matter what you write, but how you write it. I actually did this on my test.

For extra points, don't just support your argument, but refute the positions against it! For example, if your thesis is "dogs are better than cats," don't just write about how "dogs are better than cats." Try to include a section against cats. In other words, don't just avoid the other sides of the debate, actually write about why they're not as strong as the side you're arguing. This makes your own argument stronger.

Write from the middle of the essay first. Do this if you're not good at coming up with a thesis or introduction. In other words, don't spend valuable time trying to come up with a thesis if you're stumped. You want to write! Write! Write! Just start writing the supporting paragraphs supporting an argument. Since the paragraphs should cover one aspect of your argument, you can summarize the aspects you covered into a thesis. There's not a lot of time to spend staring at your computer. If you start writing and recording your thoughts, it's much more likely that your brain will be able to form connections and come up with a paper than if you just sit there.

Get in the whole structure! This is a tip from the SAT tutoring. If you just flat out run out of time, try not to just stop in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. Dash out a concluding sentence. Try to show the graders that at least you know what the structure of an essay should look like.

Time to review!! Depending on how fast you read, leave time to review your essay. This should go without saying, but grammar and spelling mistakes are a big no-no. To be on the safe side, move your lips when reading. When reading just in your head, our brains are apt to correct mistakes instantly so that you don't realize them.

Stay logical!! Explain your thinking. This essay (as well as portions of the oral) test whether or not people can follow your thoughts/how well you can explain to get from point A to point B. If the examiners can't understand how you got to your conclusion or why your second paragraph supports your thesis or even ties to it....then no good!

Remember, there's no tricks here. Stay simple and stay logical. If you've got a complicated idea, make sure you can explain it simply in a easy to follow manner. Otherwise, just go with the easiest arguments. Remember! It's all in how you say it!

As an aside, the State Department is a stickler for formating. There are all sorts of specific formats for different papers and how you should be writing. Not to say that the substance isn't important, but there's definitely an emphasis on the how.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Foreign Service Test

Ever since I passed the test, I've becoming a giant fountain of (supposed) knowledge for my classmates (several given the International Affairs focus of our program) who are taking the test. I'm even getting random emails from people who know mutual people. Plus the occassional facebook message from someone I haven't spoken to in 5 years asking for tips. Plus the dinner invitation in exchange for information. And so on. In any case, I just finished writing another lengthy email to a friend outlining the process and general tips. Since I'm a recent passer, I'm going to try to write up a few posts covering everything that I can remember which could be useful (without breaking the nondisclosure agreement obviously).

Personally, I think I got lucky with the Foreign Service Test, both written and oral, passing on the first go around for both. In any case, I recall frantically scouring the internet and googling for test taking tips before. Hopefully this helps others who were like me.

The Process:
The process is a waiting game which will likely drive you crazy. There's a written exam, a panel review called the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (which is also amazingly non-transparent, but more on this later), and then an all day oral exam. If you manage to reach the oral exam and pass, you'll go through medical and security clearances. After obtaining those, you then get put on a waiting list and ranked based on your oral exam score. This means that if you score higher on the oral exam than someone else, you can be ranked higher than him, even if he gets placed on the list first.

People are on the waiting list are then pulled off and given a training course (A-100) marking the start of your career as a Foreign Service Officer! For me, the process took exactly 11 months from when I took the written test to when I received my offer for A-100. Right now, in the spirit of increasing our Foreign Service, people are getting pulled off the waiting list extremely fast. A-100 classes are larger than what they have been in the past from what I hear and significantly shorter (at 5 weeks).

I've read that approximately 5% of people who take the written test ultimately make it through the whole process and pass the orals. This number could totally be a figment of my imagination though since I have no memory of where I got it from. Still, I hope some of the next few posts will cover some helpful ground for anyone interested in this!