How To Become A Foreign Service Officer

by Cathy Vandewater

Protect and serve? Turns out you don’t have to be a police officer or even a soldier to do just that. Foreign Services Office jobs (which can be in consular, economic, management, political, or public diplomacy capacities) all offer opportunities to maintain US citizens’ safety and security overseas, with a few added benefits–namely, travel and high profile hobnobbing with diplomats.

That’s not to say it’s a cushy job, though. Foreign services roles often require officers to take “hardship posts” which can mean doing your job in warzones, or places touched by crime, pollution, or civil unrest. But with the extra danger comes “danger differential,” ie. extra pay—so if you’re an adrenaline junkie, your thrill seeking nature can really pay off.

Still reading? Then you’ll want to pin down your career track. A quick overview of your title options:

1. Consular officers are the “good guys” abroad, protecting US citizens, facilitating adoptions, fighting fraud, and helping in the case of evacuations or medical emergencies. To do the job, you’ll need to know local laws, culture, and politics to make the necessary judgment calls.

2. Economics officers spend less time with traditional quant books than they do members of the government, trade, and business communities. They’re responsible for promoting US commercial and economic interests abroad, so analyzing information should be a strong suit.

3. Management officers are the power players: organizing and executing daily operations in US embassies (sometimes with creative solutions) is their daily grind. They’re responsible for keeping personnel and high profile visitors safe and secure, should be prepared to be on call at all times. After all, with great power…

4. Political officers better be comfortable with the spotlight: some are promoted to ambassadors, which is on the more glamorous end of the foreign services officer job spectrum. A potential PO should also be a “people person” as this social butterfly-friendly job requiring networking and socializing at receptions, and keeping up with community events. Time at the embassy is mostly spent analyzing legal, human rights, and political issues.

5. Public diplomacy officers are the US’s PR team overseas, working to shape public opinion of the States and easing cultural exchanges with the host country. So it’s key that a PDO should be well-spoken: communicating US values and policies so that they’re viewed in a posit­­ive light by the host’s media and government is the name of the game.

Think you’ve found your calling? Then the next order of business is passing your FSOT with flying colors (a necessary step in the very selective application process).

The test consists of three parts: written exam, personal narrative, and oral assessment.

The written exam will analyze your general knowledge (such as geography), biographical information, and your ability to express complex ideas through the written word. To help you prepare, the test will give you a list of recommended reading ahead of time, but you should also stay abreast of current events, especially international ones.

The personal narrative, should you pass your written exam, is a series of questions meant to size up your leadership, interpersonal, communication, and management skills, through discussions of your experiences. Though you won’t have acces to the questions ahead of time, you can prepare by thinking critically about your life and work experiences, and how they’ve shown you to be a good team member, decision-maker, etc.

Finally, the last, most interactive part of the exam is the oral assessment. The all-day affair is a series of challenges designed show how well you think on your feet, including a group exercise and personal interview. Your testers will be looking for poise under pressure, adaptability, strong communication skills, and more (you can learn about the essential 13 dimensions the exam is checking for on the internationalrelations.com blog).

Though it’s a tough, selective process, you should remember that there are no specific experience or education requirements. All you really need is a quick mind, good memory, and an ability to size up new situations–that, and the willpower to do a little studying. Aside from the reading list and maybe a biography or two of foreign diplomats, you’ll want to read the paper. As one foreign officer we spoke with tells us, much of what you need to know for the test can be found in “The Economist and one large daily each day, i.e. The Washington PostNYT, or The International Herald Tribune…” (You can read more of her thoughts on making the career change to foreign services in her “Day in the Life of a Foreign Services Officer” blog).

To learn more about the job and how to break in, check out our full guide to becoming a Foreign Service Officer at internationalrelationsonline.com.

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