Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How to become a Foreign Service Officer: Part II--how to prepare for the FSOT

Last night was every parent's worst nightmare. Around 3 am, we were woken up by some plaintive cries for "mama" from Son's room. Since I am such a great mom, I immediately woke up a very disoriented and disheveled Diplomat and told him to go into Son's room while he was gesticulating incoherently at me go to there instead. Finally, he went and appeared to be trying to procure water for the child. Then it sounded like he was taking him into the living room for no reason at all besides continuing to be very disoriented. Knowing that was a bad idea and will only serve to wake up Son more, I immediately got up and went to his room to find both of them sitting forlornly on Son's bed. All of a sudden, the Diplomat shrieked, "There is blood all over his face!!!" Freaked out, I grabbed the child who was indeed bleeding profusely from somewhere for no apparent reason. In the darkness, it appeared that his mouth was filled with blood but after some frantic search on his face, it turned out that his nose was gushing blood like a faucet.

In the ensuing circus, all family members took their due part--I was confusedly trying to figure out how to stop the bleeding, alternating between barking orders at the even more disoriented Diplomat, and cooing at the crying Son trying to stuff some cotton in his nostril while he was trying to take it out. The Diplomat was running back and forth between the kitchen, the bedroom and the bathrooms fetching cotton balls, paper towels, books on child rearing filled with super useful advice, water, ice packs, ice cubes without a plastic bag, ice cubes wrapped in saran wrap (???), more paper towels. Son kept on screaming clearly frightened by the blood running into his mouth. And finally, Fat Cat decided it would be in every one's best interest and well being if he just tried to sit in my lap along with the frantic Son and purr demurely. After 10 mins of pure chaos, we finally read what to do--here it is for your benefit:

How to stop a toddler (and assuming everyone else's) nose bleed:
1. Press both sides of the nose bridge with your fingers
2. Tilt the head forward so that the blood does not flow into the throat (but will drip happily onto the white polyester carpet never to be washed off again)
3. Try to apply ice (which the child will desperately try to get rid of)
4. Keep telling the child how great he is doing, what a hero he is, how tomorrow you will tell everybody how awesome he has been--anything to stop his crying as that will tend to increase the blood flow
5. Read a book for him or put him up to watch a movie--anything to keep him upright
6. Go crazy for the next two hours as he refuses to go back to sleep and demands more books to be read, more water to be drank and more mommy sleeping in his bed while he grins widely in your face all night long.
7. Collapse half-unconscious in your own bed at 5.30 am.
8. Go late to Bangla class.
We still don't know why his nose bled--whether he fell from the bed or something else. It was a really scary experience. He is 100% a-ok today.

Now, as promise, detailed information on How to prepare for the FSOT:

I was almost as scared when I took the FSOT as I was last night. The exam has 4 sections: so-called Job Knowledge, English reading comprehension and grammar, a behavioral interview equivalent and an essay.

1. Job Knowledge--this section tests your knowledge of American society, politics and political system, government, culture, health care system and some current events; world geography and history, economics and math and stats.
(a) The math and stats are really easy and I think all you need to do to prepare is revise how to do averages and percentages mostly.

(b) I spent a huge amount of time learning world history using the AP World History prep book. Big mistake. There were about 3 questions on the subject and none had anything to do with Alexander the Great or the Mogul Empire. Most of the them dealt with fairly recent (past 50-60 years) events. Know major world political events and currents and you will be fine.
(c) I found the American part the most difficult--it tended to ask obscure questions from all areas mentioned above. I strongly suggest knowing the Constitution including ALL amendments by heart, and read some commentary on its content. Use also the following books
American Government, Cliff's Notes, CLEP American Government, Barron's AP U.S. Government and Politics, and whatever else you find in you friendly Barnes and Noble. All of these books have practice tests in the back--take them all and time yourself! As far as American culture goes--well, you either know it or not! My test had questions on jazz, art and popular trivia even. Go figure...
(d) World geography--it is highly likely that a question in this category will be placed in a historical context (like, what is Siam?). Facebook has a cool application where it gives you world geography quizzes, which helps you learn some obscure capitals. Do this for fun while you cram the unpalatable chunks of American governmental system.

2. Biographical section. I cannot stress enough the importance of this section. People tend to overlook it. DON'T! Know your professional and educational history by heart; prepare numerous examples to standard behavioral questions. Practice writing them out under time pressure. Shocking amount of people fail this part of the test. Some of the questions are odd--think outside the proverbial box!

3. English. I found this section to be the easiest. I did not prepare at all for it as I felt that my command of the English language was stupendous (do NOT feel at liberty to post some snarky comments on this subject, please!). I actually thought I had aced the section, I thought it was really easy. I had not. I remain puzzled. For those who are less full of themselves, some suggestions for prep are: Barron's AP English Language and Composition, Cracking the AP English Language & Composition Exam and the like. Read only the reading comprehension part, and practice, practice, practice!

4. The Essay! Dreaded, feared, badly prepared for, underrated essay. The sad truth is that many conquer the rest of the test and fail miserably the essay for lack of proper prep. The essay will be on a random, although fairly relevant subject. Wiki FSOT had a great site for this section, which also gives you 18 sample topics for practice. It also recommends using the "Five paragraph essay" style, with which I wholeheartedly agree. The most important advice I can give you on the essay is PRACTICE UNDER TIME PRESSURE UNTIL YOU DROP UNCONSCIOUS. Time is the biggest enemy in this section and you can master it only if you practice for at least 2-3 weeks every day prior to the exam. Unless you are awesome, in which case more power to you. Thanks to practicing obsessively, I managed to finish with time to spare and managed to spellcheck. Please, keep in mind that sometimes ACT (who administers the test), will make you write two essays (who knows what they are experimenting with). Only one gets graded.

In conclusion, I can tell you that you can do this! Many people ask how much time one needs--clearly, it depends on your prior knowledge, commitment and attention span. For the average committed person, whose attention span is not that of a fruit-fly, I think 2-3 months of intensive study is good enough. Department of State sells a guide to the test for $2o, which you can download immediately in a PDF format. I strongly suggest buying it.
Also, sign up and be a part of the FSOT yahoo group, where you can bite your nails and have collective nervous breakdowns with a slew of other test takers.

Some logistics
You will be taking the test on a computer, where the spell checking programs will be turned off. There have been plenty of cases where the PC dies, loses info, what have you. Complain. Not sure what you can achieve that way but do complain. On the multplie choice sections (Job knowledge and English), you can go back and forth between questions within the respective section. So, if you are stumped, guess and move forward, then come back to it if you have time.

Stay tuned for the next installment, which will deal with the QEPs and interim SCNL testing. As usual, if you have questions, ask and I will modify the info accordingly.

40 comments:

  1. We've had more nosebleeds this winter in DC than anywhere... my doc recommends a humidifier. FWIW...

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  2. Hmmm, good point, Time to refill the humidifier. THANKS!

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  3. I used to have it in younger days. In a village which lacked basic facilities, my mother used to give a bit of fine cowdung piece( I am not joking) to keep on the nasal path for a while, keep the head up in upward slant to stop the gravitational flow, and after a few seconds it used to stop. The family physician who was a traditional herbal medical practitioner (practising for generations without any accreditation)used to tell that I suffered due to excessive heat around as well that generated within the body system perhaps due to hard reading habits and lack of heat reducing food intake, etc. this was 60 years back! India has progressed and me also to a little extent. Rightly guessed by your friend, excessive use of heater (due to extreme winter conditions outside) might have dried up the kid's nasal vessels and resulted in their busting and bleeding. anyhow, I am worried , because this will recur and u have to keep a close monitoring on his cool headedness and body systems particularly in the night. I used to have it when i went for active play in village streets, but all such things stopped when i migrated to chennai at the age of 14 to join the college.

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  4. (obviously not a parent...): wait, you're taking a Bangla class?! Who learns THAT?!

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  5. I took this test 2 years ago. I did pretty well. The hardest part for me was the grammar section, though there were some factoid questions in geography that stumped me, even though I think I am pretty good with world geography. Where my application went downhill was in the post written test essays. These essays seem heavily weighted on the decision to invite the applicant to Washington D.C. for the Oral Board. I think something valuable for this blog would be a run down on the types of experience/education a successful applicant might have. I know there are no required experiences, but some suggestions might be good. Obviously foreign languages and travl experience is highly prized. Anyways, good blog, but maybe more on the FSO stuff! Thanks.

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  6. Hi,
    I am currently pursuing a Bachelors in Business and then a MBA and plan to go back to get a degree in politics to get involved with the management branch of FSO. The bulk of work experience I have is as a district operations manager for a big box retailer but I am looking to leave to get experience to be able to qualify (although I know that no specific experience is required). With that being said, do you have any suggestions regarding what career move I should make to gain relevant experience?
    Thanks and I love your site!

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  7. Cameron - Nope, you sound like you are a person with a plan. There is not a single mold or pattern one needs to follow for the FS. Anything you do adds value so I would suggest that you do anything that you enjoy and then extract the useful tidbits from it once it is time to pursue your FS dream. Just one piece of advice - do NOT overdo the academic degrees. There is NO substitute for real life experience.

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  8. So, what college would I need?

    Can you select the county you would like to go to?
    Anywhere in Europe is fine with me.
    Asian countries as well.

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  9. Excuse me, I meant country* >_<

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  10. This is the guidance I was looking to find. Thanks!

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  12. Austinyar, the first two tours can be a bit of a crap shoot in all honesty. Don't decide that you are going into the service because you want to serve in Barcelona. There is a VERY slim chance of serving in Barcelona as a youngin'.

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  13. I completed the FSOT test on October 5, after I following your suggested areas of study. Your advice was on target. Thanks!

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  14. "after following" not "I following." Ugh.

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  15. That is awesome! You are awesome! Keep it up for the next rounds.

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  16. I've been interested in becoming an FSO for a while, however I am only 16 so it will be quite a few years before I join. What I plan to do is go to college, major in political science and minor in Russian. I do plan to study abroad in Russia for an entire school year, most likely my college junior year. After I graduate, I would like to join the Peace Corps and serve in Ukraine. Then finally the moment arrives! I hope to become a FSO after I return from Ukraine. Your blog is interesting, I enjoy the stories of diplomatic life. It also has a plethora of useful advice! Thanks.

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  17. I now know what i want to be. If you are willing would you please e-mail me any suggestions other then what you have already listed for the application process? Also roughly how long did it take from the day you took your test to a job offer? Have you encountered any single moms who work as an officer? My e-mail is lynettehansen@rocketmail.com; i did not check the date of your post so i am hopeful its current enough that you will indeed read my comment. Thank you! I hope i hear from you.

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  18. Hey, I will email you privately. BUt on the single parent issue, you inspired me to finally write something I have been meaning to for some time. Read the latest.

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  19. Just ready your blog on starting my research on becoming a FSO/Consular. You blog is all the inof i was looking for and could not find where to even begin with. I am mom of twins 4 year old. And think i want to appear next year for the exam. Can you please give me some more suggestions to start preparing with some books or websites. My Email is Bhawnavkumar@gmail.com

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  20. Thank you for doing this blog, it is so insightful! I am a current first year law student with plans to take the FSOT. I am having doubts about law school: I don't attend a highly-ranked school and I am worried about the high debt. Considering that I aim to work in government (hoping to be an FSO) would you recommend law school as a helpful skill/way to becoming an FSO? Thank you!

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  21. Shams, I am a former lawyer as we know, and honestly, I think it helps me a TON in this job. Then again, I am a consular officer, which has to do with a lot of legalese. On the other hand, knowing law will be priceless in your work as a pol or econ officer as well. Honestly, I think it is an asset.
    DOS offers a deal where you sign off your life to it for like 5 years and they give you a bunch of cash towards your debt every year. It's worth it.

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  22. Hi. I am so glad I discovered this blog. I've wrestled with the idea of becoming a Field Organizer. For the longest time, I knew that I wanted to be involved in International Relations. I majored in Political Science in college and studied abroad during my time there. I recently worked for a presidential campaign, but that's all the work experience I have a part from some other irrelevant work experience. I'd really like to start my preparation to become a foreign service officer. I just don't feel like I have a lot of experience...Should I still goo for it?

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  23. Dear Anonymous, sorry for the delayed answer. I have always been a proponent for more work experience. Sure, there are a few folks among us who are fresh out of college. But I do believe that having some work experience in the real bad world out there will prepare you to be a better contestant on the exam and a better officer in the end. Again, though, please, do NOT let this stop you from applying now - this is simply my own opinion.

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  24. Would serving in the peace corps count as appropriate experience for the job of FSO? I couldn't imagine it hurting, but just a question since it's something i'm currently considering.

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  25. Well, given that half of the FS is ex-Peace Corps, I'd say so :).

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  26. I really enjoy your Blog - I currently work for a US Govt funded NGO in Africa and have been here for 5+ years. The current US Ambassador to the country I live in recommended I take the FSO Exam. I do however have reservations about the character interviews. To be honest, I've smoke pot around 3 times total in life - illegally downloaded movies and music, but otherwise nothing worse than that. If they ask if I've done such things, I'll be honest. Question is - will that disqualify me? Will they ask such questions? I figure if our last three Presidents have experimented with drugs, it shouldn't be that big of a detriment, so long as your not a current user. Thoughts?

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  27. I am honestly not sure about this, to tell you the truth. So, can't give any advice, sorry :(. Damn pot!

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  28. I, too am a diplomatic mama, but not an FSO. I love reading all that you have put together, and wanted to say that it is very helpful to all of us aspiring to become FSOs. I haven't taken the FSOT yet, but am registered to take it next month on the 8th. I have been an FS spouse for 17 years now, lived in five different countries, and speak five foreign languages (not including my mother's tongue, which is Albanian). However, I am quite nervous about taking the test, and feel that perhaps I am aiming too high. The only standardized test I have taken before was the TOEFL, but this is much broader. I feel your points about drilling on writing are right on. At least that is where I need the most practice. I just wish I had some idea on the range of essay topics asked in the FSOT.
    I have one technical question: I tried to sign up for the Wiki FSOT and the site won't allow me access. It says that despite the account I need to ask permission from the site administrator. Is there a step I am missing?

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  29. I studied the questions in the FSOT guide one time a week before the test, and passed everything except the essay. I thought a traditional 5 paragraph format was too simple to be what they were grading for. I'm kicking myself now, so I'm at it again this year. My fingers are crossed.

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  30. It appears your link for wiki FSOT is no longer working. Bummer to, since that is where I need the most help!

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  31. Ha, the link does not work indeed. Will you look at that!

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  32. Could you elaborate on (or perhaps e-push me in the right direction to) what you mentioned in an earlier reply about DOS helping in student loan repayment? I've always heard rumors about this but never knew any specifics. Would love to find out more, as I'm a recent master's graduate and just passed the written exam. Thanks!

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  33. Yes, there is a loan forgiveness program. Google "foregin service" and "benefits" and you'll find it.

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  34. Hi - I've completed my Personal Narratives and I'm a few weeks away from hearing the results. One of my references said he was contacted by the State Department. He wasn't able to talk at that moment and he wasn't sure if they'd call back.

    Just wondering if this is a good thing, contacting references after Personal Narratives?

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  35. Thank you so much for posting this, and everything else! I am a freshman at NYU and considering becoming an FSO. I appreciate all the insight and tips!
    -Kathleen

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  37. Thank you so much for all your advice. I have been interested in the foreign services since I switched majors to International Studies. I graduated almost two years ago and have just recently decided I want to start studying to take the FSOT. I have been working as a legal assistant since graduation and I do not plan on going to graduate school. Is it a waste of my time to even try to get into the foreign services without obtaining a Master's Degree or without knowing a foreign language? Thank you again for your posts!

    Chelsea

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  38. Chelsea, no, there are people with bachelors only.

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  39. I just passed the exam with a 178. I can't tell if that's a good score or not. What (in your mind) is a good score? The minimum is 154, but how high have you heard of it going?

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    1. NO clue, really, but yours sounds pretty high, congratulations!! No one really shares that info so I have no basis to commpare. I don;t remember what I got but it was something like 168 I think.

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