Passing the FSOT

September 3, 2012

OK, so you insist on taking the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) instead of trying to by-pass it. Up to you. To minimize the amount of time you spend banging your head against the wall preparing for this test, here are my pointers for each section of the FSOT:

  1. Job knowledge – Go purchase the official study guide here. Take the practice test, find out where you’re weak, then go out and study the areas where you’re weak. For me, that meant memorizing the Constitution and becoming familiar with federal EEO policies. Then, read the New York Times front to back for the next three months until test day. If that doesn’t do it, then it probably wasn’t meant to be.
  2. Biographic questionnaire – Like the FSOA, you can’t really prepare for this section. You are who you are. If you don’t have any experience or you feel like you’re not a high-caliber applicant, then go out and find opportunities to show you can perform: volunteer at a soup kitchen, work for a community organization, take on a leadership role at work, etc.
  3. English expression test – This tests your reading comprehension and English grammar skills similar to SAT and GRE test questions. I’ll be proposing some resources in a later post.
  4. Written easy test – If your writing sucks, you better go start practicing. My quick advice: have a friend pick a hot topic at random from the presidential elections but not tell you the topic. Sit down with pen and paper, and have the friend reveal the issue to you and start the timer. Within 30 minutes, you’ve got write an essay in support or against the issue. Have a few friends critique the essay. Do this a few times until you feel comfortable knocking out an essay in 30 minutes. Again, I’ll cover possible strategies in a later post.

In sum, how to prepare is easy. Actually doing the hard work to prepare is very hard! So if you’re serious, you’ll actually do what I say, which isn’t easy, but it’ll do much to prepare you for the test.


Preparing for the FSOA

September 3, 2012

Most people who pass the Foreign Service Officer Written Assessment often ask me how to prepare for the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA).

Without breaking the law and telling them how I passed the FSOA and what exact questions they asked me, my advice to people taking the FSOA is pretty simple:

  1. Read the directions they send to you very carefully. 90% of all the information you need to succeed are in the instructions they give you.
  2. Be a team player.
  3. Don’t be an asshole.

That’s it. By the day of the oral assessment, you are who you are, there is no changing your personality to better fit the oral assessment. If you’re not a natural team player, there is nothing you can do to change that. So just relax and read the directions. On the day of the test, stay focused, be polite, be a team player, check your attitude at the door. After test day you can do back being your nasty self!

By-Pass the FSOT (Part 5): Civil Service to Foreign Service Hard-to-Fill Program

September 3, 2012

The HTF program, though driven by the Department’s needs to fill specific hard-to-fill foreign posts via one- to three-year tours, is acknowledged as a potential (and highly competitive) migration path for Civil Servants into the Foreign Service.

Typical Opportunities

An HTF posting might offer anywhere from a half-dozen to two dozen positions per State Department region: Africa (sub-Sahara), East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, Near East (North Africa and the Middle East), South and Central Asia, Western Hemisphere, UN and Other International Organizations

Recently listed vacancies included positions through a range of grade levels, including high-visibility, high-responsibility Regional Officers:

  • Administration—financial management, general service officer, human resources, management, office management specialist, facility manager
  • Information Technology—information management officer and specialist
  • Security—diplomatic courier, narcotics affairs officer, transnational crime affairs officer, regional computer security officer

Length of Tour

Most posts are for one- or two-year LNA positions. A few may be for as long as three years under certain restrictions. Extensions are possible, again under restrictive conditions.


For some positions, the Professional Associates Program allows for consideration of concurrent postings of eligible family members of Civil Service employees.


Apart from any allowances connected to a foreign posting, pay is based on a Civil Servant’s current pay grade, not any pay grade attached to the foreign job itself. Applicants are encouraged to apply for jobs with equivalent pay grades, and allowed to apply for jobs one grade higher or lower.


Civil Service applicants must be career employees:

  • With a tenure code of 21
  • Who have served in permanent positions in the Department for at least three years

Supervisory positions require prior completion of the one-year supervisory probation period, including experience writing employee and customer service evaluations.

LNAs with a current overseas assignment who want to apply for another have to meet certain timing and re-entry requirements:

  • Their current tour must end before any new one begins.
  • The extent of the new tour must fall within the dates of the original five-year LNA appointment.
  • For Information Resource Management (IRM) positions, LNA’s must get an extension of reemployment eligibility requirements.

IRM positions—Information Program Officers, Systems Officers, and Management Specialists—have a few more requirements:

  • Top secret clearance at time of application
  • Experience with LAN/WAN and the Department’s current end-user and server environments (as of this writing, Windows 2000/2003, Microsoft Exchange)

Requirements Upon Selection

Medical and security clearances may be specific to each assignment. HR/CDA assists with all necessary authorizations and clearances.

Applicants must have at least Secret security clearances. Clearances will be raised to Top Secret upon selection if needed. (As noted, IRM positions require Top Secret clearance at the time of application.) The clearance upgrade may take up to four months, and must be completed before arrival at the new post, which may consequently be delayed.


Certain skills required in foreign postings may not have been required or taught to stateside Civil Servants.

  • Applicants selected for such foreign specific jobs, such as consular or public diplomacy positions, will be trained as needed.
  • The Department may, if timing permits, provide up to six months of language training for positions listed as “language-designated”.

There is a limit of one year’s total training, during which the CS LNA remains on the payroll of their current bureau. The new LNA begins after completion of all training and clearance.

Re-employment Rights

All Civil Service applicants must obtain re-employment rights from their current bureau prior to application. The Executive Director of the lending (“releasing” or “losing”) bureau must guarantee placement back into a permanent Civil Service position upon return from a foreign tour, and a memorandum to that effect must be sent to the Director of HR/CDA.

The guarantee does not lock one into one’s old job. Civil servants on a foreign LNA may also apply for new Civil Service positions as the LNA runs out. Failing any such move, the default returns the employee to the releasing bureau.


Postings of available FS positions are distributed about three weeks before the deadline for application or “bidding”.

The application consists of an e-mailed one-page cover sheet listing…

  • Name, current post or bureau, position, grade, security clearance, career status, and confirmation of three years of Civil Service
  • Up to 15 positions being applied for
  • Language scores, if any positions are “language-designated”
  • A yes/no statement of supervisory probation completion

…and with the following attachments:

  • Most recent employee evaluation
  • An unclassified writing sample for positions requiring it
  • A copy of the re-employment memo or extension

Applicants simultaneously send bid lists to the regional or bureau office offering the desired appointment.

Foreign Service Entrée

Opportunities to join the Foreign Service from Civil Service typically become available after multiple “excursion tours”. “Conversion” is by no means guaranteed, and is extremely competitive. For that matter, a second or third LNA abroad might not be available, since:

  • The bottom line on the Department’s granting any LNA is its belief in the best fit of a candidate for the position
  • Civil Servants compete against career Foreign Service employees every step of the way

Still, what does a Civil Servant have to lose? Foreign LNAs—even a single one—offer intrinsic opportunities and satisfactions entirely apart from the question of entry into the Foreign Service, and the program has been designed to allow Department professionals to build variety and challenge into their careers without sacrificing stability.