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by Renee Earle

A senior active-duty Foreign Service Officer examines the process of entering the Foreign Service, from the Rogers Act of 1924 to the present. She looks at how the changing needs of the Foreign Service have affected the examination-entry process, especially in regard to the present emphasis on Transformational Diplomacy. This essay will be extremely useful for anyone considering joining the Foreign Service. – JEW

The United States Foreign Service is a career like no other. Challenge and change are inherent in a Foreign Service Officer’s professional life of service to his/her country. A diplomat can make a difference in the world. And, it’s a lot of fun. The path to becoming a diplomat, on the other hand, has rarely been described as fun. Mastering the several steps that lead to a commission as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) can be difficult, but it’s generally agreed, among newer and seasoned officers alike, that the personal and professional rewards of this unique career are incomparable.

Since the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, working with a staff of seven “clerks,” began officially looking after our relationships with other countries in 1789, the U.S. Department of State, now 50,000 people strong (Civil Service, Foreign Service, and Foreign Service National employees hired locally abroad), has been the lead agency for conducting our country’s international relations. Nevertheless, President Bush only recently designated the Department of State as a “National Security Agency,” and the responsibility of managing our international relations over the years has gone far beyond the exchange of diplomatic notes between governments to communication with broad audiences and the promotion of people-to-people contact with local leaders and civil society, entrepreneurs and NGOs. Diplomats implement crucial foreign assistance programs and work with colleagues in the military and other U.S. government agencies to coordinate our efforts to help build peace, stability, and prosperity around the globe.

Transformational Diplomacy
The world has changed, and our diplomacy with it. In addition to more robust inter-agency coordination, Secretary of State Rice has initiated significant Department of State restructuring and reallocation of resources, which is increasing our capacity for more active engagement around the world, dynamic diplomacy that is “transformational.” FSOs are working to integrate better the work of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and democratic and economic development to address the dangers of failed states. This engagement is about working with U.S. partners and friends on common goals and forging strong bonds of like values through increased mutual understanding.

Secretary Rice defined the objectives of Transformational Diplomacy in this way: “To work with our partners around the world to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.” She emphasized that the work is about partnership, not paternalism. Transformational Diplomacy, then, is the State Department’s response to the new global demands on our diplomacy.

It’s an exciting and challenging time to be in the Foreign Service. And the Foreign Service is seeking dynamic people from a broad range of backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and disciplines from all parts of the country to help make a difference in our relationships with the rest of the world. The five career orientations within the Foreign Service — Consular Affairs, Economic Affairs, Management, Political Affairs, and Public Diplomacy — are now called Career Tracks. They were previously known as “cones,” a term that informally remains the current jargon. A Foreign Service candidate must choose one of them at the time he/she registers for the exam. Once chosen, the Career Track stays the officer’s principal focus throughout his/her career.

There are interesting and enriching opportunities across the five tracks that candidates should explore in detail before choosing. A political science major, for example, might opt for the Political track, but could be equally interested in serving as a Consular Affairs Officer, who manages our services to Americans abroad and makes the difficult decisions about who will receive a visa to enter the United States to study, work, or travel. Officers in all five tracks are diplomats; all can become ambassadors.

As global economic changes affect the U.S. economy as well as the chances for prosperity in other countries, the Foreign Service needs experts in economics and development. Embassy operations must be managed effectively, a job that benefits from people with backgrounds in business administration. The United States needs to communicate more effectively and directly with people all over the world, and Foreign Service Officers with language skills, especially in languages that are less common for Americans, such as Arabic, Chinese, Persian, and other “critical languages,” will be able to have those conversations. Foreign Service recruiters are encouraging people with these skills to think of a career with the Department of State.

Today, increased numbers of Foreign Service officers have the opportunity to serve in new capacities and locations. In addition to 265 embassies and consulates, the State Department has created American Presence Posts in major cities around the world, outside the capitals, where a single American officer reaches out to local populations. Another way to expand the U.S. presence is through Virtual Presence Posts, where FSOs travel regularly, and use media outreach and new technology to engage with population centers where there are no permanent U.S. facilities. The State Department recently created virtual posts in Gaza, South Korea, and Venezuela, bringing the total number worldwide to more than 40.

Joining the Foreign Service
So, how does one join the Foreign Service today? For the most part, pretty much the same way as before. The door to membership in the Foreign Service Officer corps is the Foreign Service exam: the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) and Oral Assessment (OA). Foreign Service Officers have been selected through a merit-based testing process since the first test was administered after the Rogers Act created the modern Foreign Service in 1924, integrating for the first time the consular and diplomatic functions. While the components, contents, and length of the tests have varied over the years, the combination of a written examination to assess factual knowledge and English-language skills, including a written essay to demonstrate writing competency, and an oral assessment has remained constant. The FSOT also contains a Biographic Section which measures skills and qualities, including a candidate’s work style, manner of interacting and communicating with others, and his/her approach to other cultures. New components, such as a more in-depth registration process and an Evaluation Panel review were introduced in 2007. The new features allow the Department to look at the “total candidate,” taking into consideration the skills and experience that applicants bring with them to the Department.

Foreign Service Officer entering class, 1963
Foreign Service Officer entering class, 1963

Ed Williams, FSO-retired, recalls taking the written exam in 1953, after a year of graduate school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a Fulbright Scholarship in New Zealand. The exam lasted three and a half days, and was followed by another half day of language exams. Today, the written exam is three hours long. The general exam, says Williams, covered everything from astronomy to zoology! Today’s general knowledge section of the test (Job Knowledge) covers information that is relevant to the five Foreign Service Officer career tracks listed above – and probably won’t ask you to chart the planets.The Job Knowledge section measures broad knowledge in world and national affairs. The best preparation is a good education, ideally one that includes courses in U.S. and world history, U.S. government and politics, international relations, political science, international economics and trade, geography, literature, English, management, and public administration. Good familiarity with American society and culture is also important. The State Department’s website for career-related information,, provides an illustrative reading list from which a candidate might select topics in which he/she feels a particular deficiency.

The oral exam, by contrast, was shorter in 1953 than it is today. It consisted principally of an hour-long interview in front of six senior officers, which covered Williams’ thesis on New Zealand, the U.S. constitution, and other aspects of U.S. political history. The Oral Assessment has not changed much in more recent years, as it was judged a best practice in identifying the best suited Foreign Service Officers. But, in 1984, this author recalls the feeling of a deer in the headlights when a panel of three senior FSO testers asked her to speak for six minutes about Japanese-American relations since World War II!

Different somewhat in format even from the 1984 test, today’s Oral Assessment lasts most of a day and consists of a group exercise with other candidates, an interview, hypothetical situations to resolve, and a management case study, all geared to assess whether a candidate demonstrates 13 dimensions, or qualities, that have been judged essential to performing successfully as a career diplomat. The list of dimensions, such as leadership and judgment, like other detailed information about the exam, is also found at

The FSOT: Registration and Format
In 2007, for the first time, the FSOT was offered more than once a year. No more worry about missing that all-important once-a-year registration and test date. Candidates may now register online to take the FSOT during one of several test periods of one week each year. Each period has a limit of 5000 registrants. As before, however, a candidate may take the test only once in a 12-month period. The registration is rolling so that a candidate may begin registration in January, for example, but not test until a later testing period that year.

Older and very recent FSOT takers alike will remember walking into a large room with perhaps hundreds of test takers to take a seat, open the paper test booklet, and mark the multiple choice answers with a No. 2 pencil. Since 2007, a computer has replaced the pencil, and there are more than 230 test locations around the country where ACT administers the electronic tests. Test locations are given on the State Department website. Tests are still being administered abroad by our embassies, though not at all of them because of technical limitations. The FSOT essay is now typed with word processing, certainly an advantage for the readers — if not always for the candidate who does not type well.

Today’s testing, in fact, begins well before the day the candidate walks into the test site. It begins with the registration for the test. Along with a standard government job application form, the online FSOT application includes six Personal Narrative questions based on the six knowledge and skill categories in which a Foreign Service Officer is evaluated every year of his/her career: substantive knowledge, intellectual skills, communications skills, interpersonal skills, management, and leadership. The Personal Narrative questions seek a great deal of information in a limited space (200 words per question). Highlighting outstanding qualifications as they relate to the work of the Foreign Service in this part of the registration will be an important component of a person’s candidacy.

The Quality Evaluation Panel (QEP)
A major difference in the current assessment process for entry into the Foreign Service is that not everyone who passes the written exam is invited to sit for the Oral Assessment. In between, the FSOT passer’s file is reviewed by a Qualifications Evaluation Panel made up of trained senior Foreign Service Officers. The QEP assesses all of the qualifications of the candidate: education, experience outside the classroom, work experience, languages, challenges overcome — in short, the experience and qualifications of the “total candidate.” The Panel reviews the candidate’s entire file: written exam scores, the essay, the biographic information, application form, and — very important for a candidate to remember — the answers to the six Personal Narrative questions that are part of the registration process. This approach provides the State Department with more information about the individual and what he or she would bring to the Foreign Service than the written exam alone. Those candidates judged by the QEP to be leading candidates are invited to register for an Oral Assessment, which will be conducted in Washington and in a limited number of other major cities in the United States. Candidates are notified by email approximately 10-12 weeks after taking the FSOT whether or not they are advancing to the Oral Assessment stage.

Waiting for “The Call”
Another reason for revamping the Foreign Service intake process was to decrease the length of time between the FSOT and final placement on a register of eligibility for service with the State Department Foreign Service. The process today can still take several months to a year, but the waiting time between the written and oral tests has been reduced, with successful candidates invited to register for the Oral Assessment as early as one month following notification that they passed the FSOT and QEP. Candidates successful in the Oral Assessment are told immediately after the exam whether they received the required score to continue their candidacy. This has been practice for some years, and is an improvement over the earlier process whereby an Oral Assessment candidate checked his/her mailbox for weeks with stomach butterflies alternating between trepidation and hope.

The Registers
Candidates successful in the Oral Assessment, as in the past, must undergo a security clearance investigation and a medical examination that pronounces them fit for service anywhere in the world. Following a Final Review of the candidate’s total record to determine whether the candidate is indeed suitable to represent the United States abroad, the last step in the candidacy is the listing of successful candidates on a register of eligibility in the career track they chose. In earlier iterations of the test, a candidate could be on several registers, all those in which he/she received the minimum required score on the FSOT. Today, a candidate is listed only in his/her chosen career field, and, as the Department fills the classes of incoming Junior Officers, it begins at the top of the lists with invitations to join.

Foreign Service Officer entering class, 2005
Foreign Service Officer entering class, 2005

A candidate remains on the register for eighteen months. Williams recalls that he waited some weeks for the invitation to join the A-100 class of 1954. A recent candidate said she checked the register weekly during her eligibility period, when, to great relief and celebration, she received the invitation to join three months before her eligibility expired.Oral Assessment scores determine the rank order on the eligibility registers. Although no language is required for entry into the Foreign Service, a candidate can raise his/her ranking by passing an oral language examination by telephone at the level of proficiency required in that language. Veterans are also given additional points in the register placement.

The Whole World Is Waiting
Williams’ first post as a Junior Officer (JO) was London. “A hardship post nevertheless,” quips Ed. “Just look at the weather.” Ed retired from the Foreign Service in 1981 with a long list of experiences on three continents, and an even longer list of personal and diplomatic contributions to our relationships with the global community.

Today’s Foreign Service Officers will find themselves in hardship, greater hardship, and non-hardship assignments, as before. Some posts will be “unaccompanied,” where the officer must go without his or her family. There are more unaccompanied posts today than ever before. All officers are expected to do their “fair share” among the post categories, the “good” with the “bad.” But, there is an unexpected twist in these characterizations. Many officers, like yours truly, find their experiences in hardship posts to be among their most memorable and rewarding, and frequently ask to extend in those assignments beyond the required number of years. The “bad” becomes the “good.”

Contrary to concerns heard sometimes today, Junior Officers are not “immediately dispatched” to the most dangerous posts. Although their assignments are “directed” while they are Junior Officers (3-5 years, up to tenure), they are given the opportunity to rank their preferences among the posts available at the time they are to be assigned. One of those assignments will most likely be in Consular Affairs no matter what their chosen career track. Assignments are directed because Junior Officers need to acquire certain competencies, including language, before they can be tenured, or commissioned. It is the function of the directed assignments to give them those competencies.

So, for all veterans of the Foreign Service testing process — and I believe not one of us will ever forget it — it is reassuring that the new test’s basic ingredients are ones we recognize. Updates to the test’s format and timing keep the State Department competitive. As to the career, it remains what is has been — one of the most challenging and rewarding professional opportunities available. Learning, doing, and serving, the Foreign Service Officer is on the frontlines of the movements in our global society and has the ability and the mandate to be an agent of positive change around the world. One can’t let a little test stand in the way of that!







Renee M. Earle, a Foreign Service Officer since 1985, has been Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University since September 2006. She holds the rank of Minister-Counselor. Her previous assignment was Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs at the American Embassy in Paris. Other assignments included Deputy and Acting Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau at the Department of State, postings in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Czech Republic, and Chief of the Central Asia Division at the Voice of America. Her languages are French, Russian, Turkish, Czech, and German. She has received the State Department’s Superior Honor Award and other awards numerous times.


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