Studying for the FSOT (how I did it)

I recently convinced a friend to take the Foreign Service Exam – she registered for the last day of the October round.  I really hope she makes it – she’d be an excellent FSO (good luck Carmel!).   As we were talking about the examination process, I realized that I’ve never written about how I studied for the exam.  I believe, despite Hankk’s last comment that studying DOES help. I didn’t pass the first time I took the test, so I increased my preparation efforts and passed the second time around. Here’s what I think.

Use the links I have over the left for the Foreign Service Exam. The Yahoo groups and Wiki are much more comprehensive and valuable as a study guide. Know them, love them, get the daily digest. Everything below

For the General Knowledge Section:
1. Buy, then take the practice test. Enlist someone (husband’s are handy) to proctor and grade your test – try and make it as real as possible. Star or otherwise mark the questions you guessed on. Take a look at the questions you missed and stared and work on that subject matter. For me, I needed to brush up on management theory and basic statistics.

2. Know your world geography. There may not be a whole bunch questions about geography on your test, but don’t throw away points because you can’t pick out Mauritania on a map. Sheppard Software has some great geography quizzes, take them regularly!

3. Know about America. The book that really helped me was The Words We Live By, Your Annotated Guide to the US Constitution. It goes in depth about each article and amendment in the Constitution (and there might be a question or two specifically about the Constitution), which is very helpful in and of itself. However, the other benefit of this book is that it also looks at how milestones in American history affected or were affected by the US Constitution. So you get an added history benefit!

4. Read. For news, I prefer The Economist. You can also take a look at State’s recommended reading list

For the English Expression Section:
1. Take the practice test. If you ace it, spend your time studying doing something else. If you don’t, prepare as though you were studying for the English language section of the SAT. The Internet has many resources to help. :)

For the Biographical Section:
I have no idea how this section works, is graded, or what they’re looking for. It’s my weakest section and ummmm….I can’t help you. Best bit of advice I have: be honest and do well on the other sections!

Essay Tips (FYI if you don’t pass the other sections, your essay will not be scored)
1. All you need to pass is a standard 5 paragraph essay. This means:

Introduction w/thesis
Supporting paragraph 1
Supporting paragraph 2
Supporting paragraph 3

2. Practice makes perfect. Write daily if you need to, but get to the point where you can write (and edit) a decent 5 paragraph essay in 20 minutes. On test day, you’ll have no trouble with nerves on this section.
3. Don’t pick ‘easy’ topics. You will need to make an argument one way or the other. If you don’t feel strongly either way, then just fake it.
4. State doesn’t read your essays, a grader from ACT does. They don’t care about content, they just want to see if you can write.
5. After your intro, write a couple lines for a conclusion just in case you run out of time. Since you’re typing, copy/paste isn’t an issue.

So, that’s what I did to prepare/study for the Foreign Service Officer Test. It all seems so long ago! For a quick recap, here were my (passing!) scores:
Job Knowledge: 60.63
Biographic Info: 46.58
English Expression: 59.74
Total: 166.95
Essay: 8

Would anyone else out there care to contribute their tricks/tips/ideas/methods?

12 thoughts on “Studying for the FSOT (how I did it)

  1. Barry

    Good job on the blog, and good luck with your clearances. Yours is one of 7 or 8 blogs I’ve followed since passing my written exam earlier this year. I’m now pending medical and security clearances.

    On the bio: (1) Do not be humble. What you might see as a trivial experience might well be responsive to some of the questions. Don’t discount your own life experiences! Planned a rafting trip? That shows planning, organization, communication, etc. Established a financial budget for your amateur sports team? That shows quantitative skills, planning, written communication, etc. (2) Don’t stress about what you write in the blanks. Remember, this portion of the exam is graded automatically by a computer. Get it?

    On the English Expression section, read grammar and style books. If you have strong grammar skills already, don’t stress about this section. The curve is so tight that any improvement you gain through studying will not result in a significantly higher score.

    On the essay, 98% of folks who take the test have no problem writing a passing essay. The trick is to write it in 30 minutes, which many can’t do without practice. So make sure your practice essays are performed under strict time controls. None of of this “I did it in 30 minutes, except I gave myself an extra 5 minutes because I got a phone call” business. Set your timer for 30 minutes (or better yet, 25 minutes) and stick to it. Rinse, repeat every week or so, and you’ll be fine.

  2. Bruce

    I agree with Melissa and Barry – if you can do well on the English Expression section on a practice test, spend your time studying something else. If you need to work on it, focus on EE since it’s the largest portion of the test. With respect to the essay, don’t worry about writing something brilliant or particularly well – it’s all about showing that you can write a logical essay, no matter how dry or lame your speed-writing is – the hardest part is doing it within 30 minutes.

  3. Jenna

    I agree with Barry. The Bio section was the section I scored the highest and all I did was brag about my trivial “accomplishments.”

  4. Jennifer

    I tested yesterday and FINISHED MY ESSAY! YES!!! :-) I have no problems writing, do so for a living…it’s the time limit that concerned me.

    I had tested once before, several years ago (the last time it was offered under the old system) Back then, the essay was scored first. If you didn’t pass the essay, didn’t matter how well you did on the rest. They were oh-so-kind to send all of the scores, though. Heartbreaking to see how well I’d done…and know it didn’t matter because I hadn’t paced (and therefore passed) the essay. I didn’t finish the fourth para, let alone give it a conclusion. Aaargh.

    Ah well, in 3-5 weeks I hope to return with good news to share re: this g-round. Consider it my thanks for offering such good advice (above)!

  5. Christine

    Hi Melissa, My name’s Christine, I am a recent college grad that is searching for options as far as career paths. I, too, took the FSOT just a few months ago. (I found your site while looking for how the FSOT was scored)Unfortunatly I didnt pass and was pretty bummed about it. I have a feeling it might have something to do with the Biographical Info section, i started writing way to much in the beginning trying to explain my experience in detail only to find out I lost track of time and barely finished little over half of that section. Anyways thanks for your insight about how you spent your time studying. I think another thing is just trying to figure out and narrow down WHAT exactly to study. Its encouraging to hear that you did in fact wait a whole nother year to re-take the exam. I am contemplating that too but let’s see. Its far from now. Anyways, thanks for posting your inisights. Goodluck with your FSO career!

  6. Anthea

    Hi Melissa,
    I just got my results and I missed passing the test by 2.5 points! So close!! I really struggled with the management theory questions and I was wondering if you had any suggestions for good study material on that subject.
    Happy Holidays,

  7. melissa Post author

    Hi Anthea,

    Ouch! I know how that feels! I missed passing my first time by less than two points and I was very unhappy with myself. As far as finding good study material, this is how I found the books I read to brush up on things like management theory, stats and human resources. I went to and read a LOT of reviews for books that would give me general information. Then I checked to see which ones were at our library and went through those. You’ll need a broad scope one these sorts of subjects, so don’t get anything too specialized.

    Good luck on your next try!

  8. Cullen Stewart


    While I have yet to take the test, in studying for the test I have found that a large degree of the questions for the management section of the JK are Human Resource’ oriented. I recently graduated with a degree in Management, and I had expected to see more about operations and strategy, but the largest portion, of the practice test I have taken, are the HR issues that cause problems for managers. So, try finding an HR book, at my school we used Human Resource Management: A managerial tool for competitive advantage by Kleiman. All of that said, I would focus most on governmental regulations-especially EEOC Guidelines and Labor Laws-, and if you have the time also try reading up on motivational theories and errors associated with evaluations; e.g. Halo Effect, Leniency Errors, et. al. Hope this helps, and also I think Melissa’s #1, from above, is excellent advice. I hope it proves to be effective for myself.

  9. Jake

    I’m about to take the written test in about 2 weeks and I’m starting to get really nervous. I am particularly worried about any math questions they have considering I haven’t been in a math class in 3 years. I was wondering though, are most people who take the test and go through the whole process already professionals in their career? When I saw the testimonials on the .gov site it seemed that everyone was older and said that they had joined after several years of being an attourney or running their own business, etc. I’m just an undergrad, is it not likely that it’ll work out if i’m still in my early twenties?

  10. Anuradha Shastry (@runneranu)

    Melissa, Hope this you will see this as the last comment is about 1 1/2 years old
    useful advice – thank you
    I am stuck as to how one ‘begins’ to study for the FSOT. I am fairly well versed with current events – should i just begin by buying the books mentioned?
    appreciate your help.

    thanks, a

  11. Jules

    How long did you study for the test that you passed? I just registered for my first test and only have about 4 weeks to prepare! Am kind of stressing out but I took a practice test off the Dept. of State website without any studying and got 75 on job knowledge and 89 on English… hopefully that bodes well but don’t want to get my hopes up!!! :(


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