Sunday, September 25, 2011

How Did I get Here, Again? (or: Every Last Little Bit You Wanted To Know But Never Found Twenty Minutes To Sit Down And Read All At Once.)

***Fair Warning, this post is long, detailed, and likely tedious for those not interested or involved in this story. It’s around 2000 words, or 6-7 pages of text. It is intended to explain my entire Foreign Service Journey, from application for the written test to the first day of A-100. I write it because this is what I know well, and because I read every one of these I could find while applying***


In 2007, my wife and I lived in Ankara, Turkey and taught English at a University there. We enjoyed living abroad, and liked the excitement and challenges it brought us, but we didn’t love the job. While there, we met a U.S. Diplomat and his partner who had recently moved to Ankara from a post in Malta. Over dinner we discussed life in the Foreign Service and what sort of experience, temperament and goals an ideal Foreign Service Officer would exhibit. I decided right there that this was the job for me, and the more I’ve learned about the U.S. Diplomatic Corps the more my suspicions have been confirmed.

The Foreign Service is a branch of the U.S. State Department tasked with exercising American interests abroad. An Ambassador is a Diplomat who serves with the Foreign Service, but there are many important jobs outside of the Ambassador. A new Foreign Service Officer (FSO) is asked, before they even begin the long application process, to choose which of 5 areas they wish to specialize in: Management, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Economics, or Consular. I chose Public Diplomacy (PD) because it focuses largely on the positive influence of American culture abroad, and I am a true believer in the importance of “Soft Power” in foreign relations. I wrote my Masters Thesis on the subject, and I would love to spend my career exploring its implications in theory and in practice. Plus, PD officers get paid to go to jazz festivals in Kathmandu and gallery openings in Dubai. Sign me up.

The first step of the process is the register for the written test, or FSWE. I registered for the test on September 6th, 2009. I was 25 years old, I lived in a rickety apartment in a rickety town, and I honestly had no idea what lay in store for me. 2 years later I’m still wrestling with the implications of that decision, though I can happily say I’m at the end of this long road.

The Written Test

In October of 2009 I took the written test along with 5 other folks in complete silence at a testing center adjacent to an airplane hangar in Denver, CO. Every year, over 30,000 people around the world take the FSWE, and fewer than 2% of them secure a position with the Foreign Service. It’s more selective than any University I know, though less selective than American Idol. Take that for what you will.

The written test consists of four parts whose specifics are governed by an NDA: English Expression, Biographical Information, Job Knowledge, and a timed essay. The Job Knowledge section of the test has become somewhat famous, but I feel most folks on this board would have little trouble with it. Some American history, some political theory, some economics, and a smattering of truly random knowledge to ensure folks don’t just study from a guide and sneak by. I felt good about the test, and rightfully so. Three weeks after completing it, I received an email informing me that I had passed.

Passing the FSWE moved you to the next step, wherein you submit to the Quality Evaluation Panel (QEP) written answers of 750 words or less to five biographical questions they provide. This is a famously cloudy process, and the guidelines for what constitute an acceptable answer are viciously unclear. Thankfully, questions and answers aren’t governed by an NDA, and I had a chance to read many passing answers I found online to help guide me. Those resources clearly helped, as two months after I submitted my answers I got word that they had been accepted, and I was shuffled along to the next step. Of the 10 people I studied with in the Denver area, I was the only passer. It surprised no one more than me, as I had little more than enthusiasm and excitement to recommend me.

The Oral Assessment

The third and final examination in the process is called the Oral Assessment, or OA. While the written test is held at centers all over the world, and the QEP is submitted online, the Oral Assessment (OA) is held only in the State Department annex in Washington D.C., and candidates are expected to arrange for their own travel and accommodations. My wife an I booked tickets, got an incredibly nice room at the Mandarin Oriental (to calm my nerves), ironed my best suit and got ready for the last and hardest step. I got maybe three hours of sleep the night before, but I was so wired on caffeine, adrenaline and presciption amphetamines the day of that I could barely feel my own fingers, let alone feel tired. I had spent hours a day for months preparing for the OA -- reading management books, writing practice memos, studying with an international group of test-takers on Skype -- and I had 8 hours to prove I was worth it.

The test has three sections: Case Management, Group Exercise, and Structured Interview. Since I present and speak well, I did well on the group exercise and the structured interview. Unfortunately, I did not pass the case management section, largely due to my lack of managerial experience. Fortunately, my score was still high enough that I, along with 4 other people from the 20 or so who took the test that day, passed the test. I was pleased that two of my fellow passers were individuals I had studied with on Skype, confirming that my decision to kill myself preparing was a good one.

The test is scored out of 7 points, with a 5.3 being the minimum passing score. No one to my knowledge has ever scored a 7.0, and even a 6.0 is exceedingly rare. I eked by with a 5.3, shook some hands, and thrummed like a plucked string all evening.

After passing the test, a candidate undergoes additional review to ensure that their background, character and constitution are in line with the requirements of the foreign service. A medical review ensures that you’re healthy enough to serve anywhere in the world, including places with limited access to refrigeration and power, a security review ensures that you’re suitable for the required Top Secret clearance, and a “Final Suitability” review makes sure that nothing was missed during the 6 month process of testing. One candidate famously sailed through all sections, only to be stymied and eventually declined by the suitability review panel for large gambling debts. He cleared up the problem, tried again the next year, and did not pass. I, however, did pass. On June 24th, 2010, I joined 145 other names on “The Register”. I was #146.

The Register

Here’s the interesting part of this whole story: From September 2009 to June 2010, all of the above transpired. I went from no one of interest, to someone who was cleared and proved eligible for a job with the U.S. Foreign Service. The problem was, I would never actually get the job with my score.

The FS, being a division of the U.S. Department of State, is bound by a Federal Budget. We have not passed a Federal Budget in 2 years, so hiring is severely constrained. Of those 30,000+ who took the test, State only has resources to train maybe 600 a year. Those 600 will be drawn equally from all 5 cones (Diplomacy, Political, etc.) so every cone sees about 120 applicants a year who get a job. That’s 10 applicants per month. State tests candidates 5 days a week, and even though the test is famously difficult, more than 10 like minded people a month pass. Ergo, the register sorts the wheat from the chaff.

For months, I watched my 5.3 wallow at the bottom of the list. New testers with a 5.3 were placed below me, but new testers with a 5.4 or above leapfrogged me, since the list is ordered by both score and date added. The list grew and grew, from 140 to 160 to 200 to 250. Every class they called the top 20 or so off the list, and between classes the list would grow by 30 or 40 names. I started at #145, and six months later I’d actually moved down about 20 spots.

No one since 2003 has gotten a job offer with my score that I could find, which was a depressing thought. Even more depressing is the thought that, in order to keep the registers from stretching into the thousands, State has capped the amount of time you can wait for an offer at 18 months. That means that, no matter your score, after 18 months of waiting for an offer and not receiving one you are removed from the list and asked to start over from the very beginning. That’s two years of work, gone in the ticking of a box. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid that fate.

The Language Points

Extra points are awarded to military veterans, depending on the length of their service, and to speakers of certain languages. Veterans preference was out of the picture for me, and my Spanish was at a roughly “Taco Bell” level of fluency, but hey! Look at all the points the give you for Turkish!

To the State Department, languages come in three flavors: World, Critical Need, and Super Critical Need. World languages like French, Spanish, Japanese and Swahili earn a candidate .17 extra points, and are either commonly spoken by Americans, commonly learned alongside English by natives, or useful for communicating with only a small group of people. Critical Need languages like Russian, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi and Persian/Dari are worth .4, and are generally more difficult, more obscure, and critical for communication with a larger group. Currently only Mandarin and Modern Standard Arabic qualify as “Super Critical”, though they award a hefty bonus of .5.

In March of 2011, after 6 months of self-guided study, Skype tutoring lessons, and every available Rosetta Stone course, I tested in Turkish. I failed. No reason was given as to why, I was simply informed that I had not made the cutoff. This was a surprise to me, as I had worked very hard, and lived in Turkey for a whole year. I wasn’t advanced, but I truly felt I spoke well enough to satisfy State’s requirements. Well tough shit, they disagreed, and they won.

With my expiration date 9 months away, and my next available language testing date 6 months away, I enrolled in a Turkish immersion course in Madison, WI and plowed ahead. Well, that’s kind of a lie. First I got a little choked up, I bargained with God, I drank a little too much and I rather made a fool of myself storming around like a spoiled child forced to sit through someone else's birthday party. That lasted for three or four days, then I pulled myself together and did the stuff I just said.

More Skype lessons, more study, and two unpleasant months in the Wisconsin swamps speaking to only 6 other souls all day later, I registered to take the test again. This time, I passed. My meager 5.3 became a mighty 5.7, and I snagged spot #12 of #184 on he Public Diplomacy register. So long as the government pulled itself together between now and Christmas I'd be a made man. Nothing much happens in Washington in November, right? What's that, everyone hates each other and won't show up to work until after November? Hell.

The Call

Lack of a firm Federal Budget has rather put hiring into a tailspin, and State has finite training resources as is. I needed to get an offer before Christmas Eve, or I would be the sucker who landed on the wrong "chutes and ladders" square -- the one near the end that takes you all the way back to the beginning. Since offers are made two months out, that meant I needed a November class (which everyone agreed was cancelled), a January class (which was 4 months away, enough time for other candidates to get ahead of me), or a February class (which I don't think exists). Imagine my surprise, then, when I got an offer to join the November 7th Foreign Service Junior Officer Class. I felt as happy as puppies look.

I sent emails to study partners, called relatives, lost all interest in my new apartment, and wrote this increasingly self absorbed missive. Then I linked the hell out of it to drive some traffic to my now-relevant blog, and hopefully give folks a handy way of keeping up with what will no doubt be fun developments. And here you are.

The Prestige

The journey here has taught me a lot about myself. It’s been the most challenging experience of my life, and it’s forced me to work harder than I imagined possible and wait longer than I imagined reasonable. I got a Masters Degree, learned a foreign language, made friends all over the world, and proved I had at least two years worth of patience in me. I don't honestly know what challenges and hardships the job will hold for my wife and I, but the journey has been illustrative.

The coming weeks and months will thrust me into a world I only understand academically. Formal business attire in 100 degree heat, parties populated by people who know more than me about everything, countries where nodding your head means no, posts where cereal is only available in warm months and then it's twenty bucks a box ... the list goes on. I hope only that I can approach it with fresh eyes, an open mind, sound judgment, and a sense of aplomb.

The world holds many wonderful things, and this is how I intend to see them and share them with you. If you keep reading, I'll keep writing. I just won't write another one of these.


Margaret said...

I have a question I hope you can answer. I am interested in the Critical Language Program but according to the website, it says you must be enrolled in school. I've already completed my Master's degree,so I have no plans to go back to school. Is there any way to become eligible to take these courses or are there other options avaiable to those who want to learn a second language? Thanks!

Valdysses said...


That is a very good question. So far as I can tell, there is no way to apply for the CLS Fellowship if you're not a currently-enrolled student. I had already defended my thesis when I studied my language as well, and the best option I could find was to pay for it out of pocket.

Of the 60+ people I studied with, none of those who had graduated had any sort of funding, unless it came from the military. I'm afraid there might not be many options for non-students apart from self financed learning.

Which language are you interested in learning?

Luke Martin said...

Loved reading your story. Damn, that's perseverance. Looking forward to soon seeing you up the road...

Margaret said...

I've tried writing back several times, but it just wont post. Anyway, I'm trying again...I want to learn Hindi. I'm willing to pay for the class but just dont know where to find what I'm looking for. I would prefer an accelerated course if possible. Any suggestions?

Valdysses said...

I know UPenn has an excellent program, Margaret -- you can find it here:

Are you looking to study in India, or would you prefer to learn in the U.S.? My alma mater (the University of Colorado at Boulder) has an excellent Hindi program, but I don't believe we offer immersion.

If you want to take classes online, I'm sure that's also an option, but you'll most likely spend a good portion of your time on Skype, either conversing or covering material you finished on your won.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I don't know if you can answer this because of a NDA, but how was the format of the test? I studied Arabic for three years but I haven't spoken it in quite a few months. Is the test conducted entirely in the foreign language? Did you answer basic interview questions in Turkish or were you asked to translate? Thanks!

Valdysses said...

There's no NDA covering the format of the test, only specific topics and questions. I can tell you that there are three sections to most in-person tests. The first is a kind of chit-chat, where you talk about whatever subjects the tester chooses in the target language. This lasts a little while, and is mostly based on your expository ability. Think of it like talking to a stranger while waiting at a bus stop.

Next, you have a translation section. You will ask your tester a question in the target language, and they'll answer you until you cut them off. You'll repeat their answer back to them, only in English.

Then you're given a few topics in English, and asked to give a short presentation on them. You're given a few minutes to prepare notes, then should be able to speak for about 5 minutes on the topic you've chosen. The topics are varied, and my questions are under NDA, but assume that they will be somewhat academic, and that you'll not be able to anticipate them.

Finally, you have a reading section. You're given a sheet with various snippets of text, and asked to read them and explain all of them in English. These snippets range from reading level 0 to 5, so you're not expected to understand them all. Based on what you do understand, you're given larger articles to choose from. You select one, spend a few minutes reading it and making notes, then explain it to the tester in as much detail as you can.

That's effectively a 90 minute process, after which your testers will confer for up to 30 minutes. You get your score on the spot.

The phone test is much more basic -- the time I took it, it appeared to be much like the first "chit chat" section of the full test. It was conducted entirely in the target language, and the only English was explaining the rules and saying "thanks" at the end. Under the current rules, the Arabic phone exam awards .17 points, and makes you eligible for the in-person test at FSI in Arlington. The scoring for the full test is more complicated. Quoting from the current regs:

"Those who achieve a minimum score of 3 speaking and 2 reading (S3/R2) will be eligible to receive a total of .38 bonus points. Candidates who receive a rating of at least 2 speaking and 1 reading (S2/R1) but less than 3 speaking and 2 reading (S3/R2) will be eligible to receive a total of .25 bonus points."

Keep in mind, though, that if you don't get you 2/1, you're not even eligible for the .17 you already had!

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