So you want to pass the Foreign Service Written Exam?

I’ve written about every other topic, so I guess it was high time for one of these. How did I pass the written exam? Well the first time I took the test, I didn’t pass. I failed miserably. So, don’t lose hope! There is always hope, and a little strategy. I am still not allowed to disclose information about my exam, but I can tell you what worked for me in preparing for the exam.

Step 1: Don’t wing it. Take the time to know how each part of the exam works, what is being tested, and what you need to focus on. You are only doing yourself a disservice by not preparing, especially since you can only take it once a year.

Step 2: ???

Step 3: Profit.

See, it’s easy! Alright, fine I’ll go back a few steps.

2. Do you know your resume like the back of your hand? No? Well, you are going to need to for each step along the Foreign Service Mt. Everest job climb. I highly suggest making a spreadsheet. (Please note that as a management officer, I feel like I am 100% compelled to say that for everything.) At the top, list out every job you’ve ever had, college, internships, volunteer work, or otherwise blank periods of your life that you did something. Now on the leftmost column list out all the 13 dimensions. Now start filling in the blanks. What did you do as a lifeguard in high school that demonstrated composure or judgement? Just do bullet points, think of short examples you can pull from.

This will help you in the personal experience section, the PNQs, and prepping for the Oral Assessment. Plus it is a nice self esteem boost.

3. For the “you need to know a little bit about everything under the sun” section, the only thing I can recommend is brushing up on your US history. I read the mental floss guide to US history, which was entertaining and informative. Knowing a thing or two about international organizations, treaties, and general management principles helps too. And when it doubt, it is multiple choice so go with your gut.

4. The essay portion should be treated with utmost love and affection. And by that I mean, stick to the 5 paragraph basic, simple essay. You’ve got one paragraph to start with your opening line and your thesis statement. You’ve got three paragraphs to make your points. And you get one paragraph to wrap it up. Stick to the high school/college essay format that you used for the ACT or SAT. That’s really all you need to do – stick to the format. And practice. Set a timer, get a topic, and go. Above all else doing a couple practice runs will help you with time management.

5. For the section about your personal experience, have bulleted examples ready for any number of questions. You shouldn’t waste time thinking and using all 200 some odd characters. It should come quickly since you made a list of all the awesome things you’ve done in your life. Don’t write out long sentences detailing what you did, just throw some concise bullets down. Just prove you did what you said you did.

6. English. I don’t think you realize how hard this section was for me. Well, if you have read my blog for a while, you will see that my command of the English language is, ummm, lacking. Well, maybe not lacking, but less than perfect. My grammar is right real Oklahoman. And it gets worse by the day thanks to German and Arabic telling me to do all sorts of things with my sentences. For a month straight, I did practice ACT English tests to prepare for this section. It’s probably better to just read up on English grammar from a ACT like prep test book. I do recommend doing a few practice exams though (look around online for some English section only tests) just to see what you should brush up on. For me, that was everything. This is the one section you can theoretically truly study for.

7. Don’t fret if you don’t pass the first time; it makes you all the more determined to succeed the next year.

Lastly, I get asked quite often about timing and the test with Peace Corps. If you are currently serving, take it during your first year. If nothing else, you can defer for Peace Corps service (at least on the register). Plus, if you take it in your first year then you can always test again. But figure out the timing, work backwards from your likely COS date. I COSed in November and knew that based on timing, the June test would allow me to take the Orals anytime until February. That way I wouldn’t have to fly back to the States for the Orals before my service was over. So, do the math backwards for your service.


Feel free to leave questions in the comments.

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