Becoming an FSO Part I: The FSOT

In the first post in my “Becoming an FSO” series, I will discuss the first step of a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) candidacy: registering for and passing the FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Test). Please note that the process for becoming a Foreign Service Specialist (FSS) is slightly different; I’ll be talking about Generalist candidacies here.

DISCLAIMER: These are my own observations about a process I began in 2011.  I’m writing this series to pay forward some of the great information and insights I found online during my own candidacy. But the posts will eventually contain out-of-date information, and thus interested applicants should consult official instructions and sources when pursuing their own candidacies.

(Edit: As of September 30, 2015, the procedure for the FSOT is changing. For more details, visit the official Pearson site:


In order to start a Foreign Service (FS) candidacy, on the day of your registration you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Be between the ages of 20 and 59
  • Be willing and available to serve worldwide
  • Not have sat for the test within the last 365 days

In addition, on the day successful candidates enter the FS, they must be no younger than 21 years of age and no older than 60 years of age. There is no limit to the number of times you can try (once per year), but the age limits are strict.


At this stage, our interested candidate (you!) would have visited and learned all about the FS, its assignments, where FSOs work and what kind of candidates are being sought after. You’ve decided that the FS would be a good fit, and have identified which of the five tracks (sometimes also referred to as “cones”) you are interested in: Management, Consular, Public Diplomacy, Economic or Political.

You can see an overview of the entire process of becoming an FSO here, including links to learn more about what a career in each of the five tracks entails:

Once you’ve initiated a candidacy on a particular track, it is not possible to go back and change it, so you’ll want to be sure of your decision. Any candidacy you initiate will require you to choose a track; you need not always choose the same track. I chose the Consular track because that is the one I truly wanted and could see myself working within.

You can also read the Department of State’s “Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process” here:


The first concrete step that initiates your candidacy is to register to take the FSOT (previously known as the Foreign Service Written Exam, or FSWE) and sometimes still referred to as “the written”. I believe that several years ago this test actually was administered via blue book, rather than on computers, hence the nickname. The current registration site is here:

When you register online for the FSOT, it will behoove you to be organized and gather the relevant materials that you would need for applying to any job, such as your resume, references, work history, and so forth. Make some time to sit down and concentrate on this important (and somewhat tedious) first step.

Very important: Note very carefully your username and password with which you create your account. It is this login you will use on your test day to take the FSOT. If you don’t know this information, no one will be able to tell it to you and you will forfeit your testing opportunity.

These days, the test is administered three times per year: in February, June and October, and is available both domestically and at U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. However, you can register at any time, and will be issued an invitation to actually schedule when the next testing window opens. Windows are only about eight days long, and usually include two Saturdays. For people who work regular business hours and have difficulty taking time off, or may need to travel some distance to their closest test center, this is key.

I recommend registering well in advance of the testing window, and deciding which of the test centers near you is the one you prefer. You will want to keep your eyes peeled for the emailed scheduling invitation, because all the candidates will jam onto the site right away and scoop up any Saturday test dates. If you aren’t quick, or don’t register until the testing window has already opened, you might have to settle for a date, time or location that you didn’t anticipate.

Note that each candidate is eligible to initiate a candidacy and test once per year. In other words, if you take the FSOT in February and a few weeks later receive your results that you did not pass, you will need to wait until the test is offered again in February of the following year to make another attempt. It need not be precisely 365 days later, but rather just within that winter offering.


I can’t stress this enough: READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS. You may receive instructions in your registration confirmation email, the email you receive confirming your test scheduling appointment, and any other communication from the test administrator. It’s the responsibility of the candidate to read anything and everything received, and to either respond or act accordingly.

Test-takers should plan to arrive at their designated test center prior to the test start time. If you forget ID, if you bring items to the test center which are not permitted, if you are late, or if you fail to follow any of the other instructions, your testing appointment might be cancelled. Don’t let this happen to you. Enough said. Again, be mindful of the login credentials with which you registered in order to take the test.

It sounds obvious, but actually do get enough sleep the night before. Don’t try anything new as far as medication, diet, or other habits that could create unforeseen variables on test day. Be hydrated, well-rested, calm and confident. I even did a dry run to the test center the day beforehand to make sure I knew precisely where I was going – being late and lost frazzles me too much to risk it. If you have a disability and require any special accommodations, don’t hesitate to let the testing center know in advance.

Also, a word to the wise: taking the FSOT is free, but when you register you will be required to enter your credit card details. If you don’t show up for your exam and haven’t cancelled 72 hours beforehand, you will be fined $50. Why? Because you just took up a seat that could have been someone else’s – and that someone else now has to wait months for the next testing window. Don’t be That Guy.

I can also say from my own experience that you will want to be comfortable while taking this exam. You’ll be sitting in a computer lab full of other testers, so if jeans and a tee-shirt are possible attire, don’t feel like you need to wear a suit! It’s not a job interview, and you will not be coming into contact with anyone from the Board of Examiners (BEX), just test administrators and other candidates. I also brought ear plugs, which I offered to share with the folks around me who may have soon been unnerved by my long acrylic nails banging on the keyboard (WINNING).

Prepare to be stumped by random questions you could not have anticipated. There’s no penalty for guessing. Don’t leave any blank answers – you can only get points for what you answer, so answer everything to the best of your ability. Don’t let it fray your nerves if you get a bunch of questions you are unsure how to answer. Just keep an eye on the time and keep plugging along.

And finally, a daunting statistic: only 2-3% of all those who register for and take the FSOT in a calendar year will receive a job offer and eventually become an FSO. When I heard this statistic, it was helpful in managing my expectations, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t spur me on even more.

At the end of the day, even if you’re not sure whether the FS is right for you, and you just want to take the test to see what it’s like, there’s no penalty or obligation – whether you pass or you don’t.


(Full disclosure: I took the FSOT when it was administered by ACT. Beginning in June 2014, the exam will now be administered by Pearson VUE. However, I haven’t seen any indication that any section of the test will be changed.)

The FSOT is a computer-based exam that has four components:

  1. Job Knowledge Test
  2. Biographic Questionnaire
  3. English Expression Test
  4. Written Essay Test

Each component of the test is timed separately and must be completed in order within the designated time limit. Each candidate will move through the test at his or her own pace. It’s not a race, and there are no bonus points for finishing “first”.

My advice would be to work steadily, carefully, at your own pace and using your own methods (i.e. you always go back to check your work, or you never do – you know best). Don’t be unnerved by other people and what they are doing, or not doing. Again, no matter how excellent of a candidate you are, if you don’t finish a section within the time limit or if you don’t answer the questions to the best of your ability, that’s all you’re giving the assessors to work with. Own this test, and walk out with the satisfaction of knowing you did your best.


The FSOT is regarded as a very difficult exam to prepare for due to the depth and breadth of topics it covers. However, there are some things you can do to familiarize yourself with the content of the exam and best position yourself for success.

The State Department recommends the following practice test site:

I concur, and also recommend the following preparation ideas, in no particular order (some of these I’ve partially cribbed from different online sources to remind myself what I did):

  • Buy the official FSOT Study Guide, which is enormously helpful in familiarizing you with the structure, format and content of the test. If this is the only thing you have time to do, along with the practice test, DO IT and do it under timed conditions to best simulate the actual test day:
  • Seriously consider joining the FSOT/FSOA Yahoo Groups, which are excellent resources for people preparing for both the written and the Oral Assessment. I can’t recommend this highly enough – pretend I just jumped on your desk right now and asked you to join: FSOT: and FSOA:
  • Because I live and work in Washington DC, I also attended a Foreign Policy Association briefing held by AFSA about the FS candidacy process. I think I paid around $65 for the session, and found it very informative. If you’re in this area and are curious about what AFSA has going on, check out their calendar here:
  • Stay on top of world news and events in the months prior to your test. Listen to NPR, read The Economist, read newspapers and foreign policy journals, and any other sources of news and information you find informative.
  • If you are not a strong writer, or if English is not your native language, practice writing short essays to a writing prompt. Work under a 30-minute timed condition, and focus on your thesis, 2-3 supporting arguments, and a strong conclusion/recommendations.
  • Prepare for the Biographic Questionnaire section, which heavily truncates the amount of information you can supply, by being not only intimately familiar with your own resume and qualifications, but also by being able to quickly outline them using the most perfunctory yet impactful language possible.
  • Read the Constitution. Make flashcards of the amendments until you know them all by heart.
  • Check out the State Department’s FSOT Suggested Reading List, and read 1-2 books from every topic area. Read more on the areas in which you are less familiar:
  • Read Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service, by Harry W. Kopp and Charles A. Gillespie. This is an insider’s guide that examines the FS as an institution, a profession, and a career.
  • Read Inside a U.S. Embassy. Published by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the book takes readers inside embassies and consulates in over 50 countries, providing detailed descriptions of FS jobs and first-hand accounts of diplomacy in action.
  • Read Realities of Foreign Service Life, which contains essays that cover topics ranging from children’s education overseas to embassy bombings.

The State Department notes that the following college courses should prepare a candidate for the content of the test:

  • English Composition/Rhetoric
  • American History
  • American Studies (including cultural and social history)
  • American Political Thought
  • United States Political System
  • American Economic History
  • Introduction to Economics (micro and macro)
  • World History (Western and non-Western)
  • World Geography
  • International Economics
  • World Religions
  • Introduction to Statistics
  • Introduction to Management Principles
  • Intercultural Communication
  • Mass Communication
  • Psychology

If you are unfamiliar with the basics in any of these subject matter areas, you will want to do some reading to give yourself the best possible chance of not being stumped too many times.


You can expect your results emailed within 3-5 weeks of sitting for the FSOT. If you are successful, you will move to the next step of the assessment process: submitting Personal Narratives (PNs) to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP). I will discuss the QEP in the next post in the “Becoming an FSO” series.


I took the FSOT three times, and passed all three attempts. My first attempt in October 2010 was really just out of curiosity. I did not continue my candidacy, as I’d just begun a position at Peace Corps HQ and wanted to focus on that. My second attempt in October 2011 was the candidacy on which I eventually received the job offer (941 days later!); the third test in February 2014 was my backup candidacy, which I initiated out of concern that my current candidacy would expire without an offer (more on that in a future post, but fortunately I did not need to proceed with my backup candidacy).

Just for fun, check out a little graph I made to compare the results I achieved on each of my three FSOTs. For your reference, a passing score is a 154, so although I passed each time I didn’t exactly blow it out of the water.

Test Date Job Knowledge Biographic Information English Expression TOTALS Improvement Essay (Passing Scale 6-12) RESULT
10/9/2010 52.09 47.6 59.62 159.31 N/A 7 PASS
10/8/2011 55.31 50.13 59.62 165.06 5.75 6 PASS
2/2/2014 58.56 51.69 61.38 171.63 6.57 8 PASS

Happy testing! If you have questions, please feel free to leave them below and I will respond.


  10 comments for “Becoming an FSO Part I: The FSOT

  1. girlfawkes
    May 26, 2014 at 15:49

    The yahoo groups are the reason why I passed both the FSOT and the FSOA. I mean, I had a part too, but the preparation and materials available through those groups are outstanding.

    I was out of grammar practice, so for me I studied English the most. I found some ACT English tests with answers and did timed practices. I also probably wrote 15 timed essays. I think doing at least 3 timed essay practice sessions is very important.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. May 26, 2014 at 19:56

    @girlfawkes – thanks! I agree – the Yahoo groups are outstanding indeed. I found my participation there to be essential. Why go in cold? 🙂


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Sarah W Gaer

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