Foreign Policy Blogs

A Critique of the Revamped Foreign Serivce Test

An article published in Foreign Policy magazine this week discusses the Foreign Service's newly reformulated examination process for new hires.

First, here's something I didn't know:
“In a 2007 survey, American undergraduates rated the State Department the fourth-most desirable employer in the country, just behind the private-sector dream team of Google, Disney, and Apple. (The Central Intelligence Agency ranked sixth, after the Peace Corps.) In 2006, more than 17,000 people took the FSOT. Just 10 percent passed the written exam, and a fifth of those made it through the daylong oral assessment that follows. In the end, less than 3 percent of all applicants were offered a job in 2006. That's an acceptance rate significantly lower than that of Harvard Business School.”

The article's author discusses how the test to join the service has been revamped:
“As part of State's recruiting and hiring push, a new FSOT was unveiled last fall. The test and hiring process was designed with expert help from management consultant McKinsey & Compan… When State sat down with McKinsey in 2006 to explore revamping the test, the consultants recommended some major changes. After a year of behind-the-scenes tinkering, the Foreign Service Officer Test was officially relaunched in September 2007. Some parts, like the oral assessment, remain the same. Others are completely different. The four-part written test is now offered exclusively online, multiple times per year in hundreds of different locations around the world. And following McKinsey's advice, for the first time in decades the selection process pays close attention to a candidate's background and résumé.

In looking harder at the "whole candidate," the new test represents a deep philosophical shift State hopes will help attract a broader, more diverse group of Foreign Service officers. The new test is designed to attract "as broad a cross section of America as possible," Marianne Myles, former director of State's Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment and now the ambassador to Cape Verde, told me. "You don't have to be a political science major. We hire people who run the whole gamut."

The author goes on to describe how his experiences taking the old test in 2002 and the new and improved test this year differed. I as surprised to read this:

“As I clicked through the questions, I was surprised to see a large number‚ probably one sixth of the total‚ read like a pastiche of management-consultant jargon. I clicked through puzzlers about motivating employees, corporate restructuring, and organizational conflict management. A sample captures the feel: "A work group that has high performance norms and low cohesiveness will most likely have which of the following levels of performance: (A) Very high (B) High (C) Moderate (D) Low…”

The author concludes: “As I left the consulate, I couldn't help but wonder at the way the written test was structured. This was the one opportunity the State Department had to really plumb my knowledge of America and the rest of the world, and they spent most of it asking me about things like sentence structure, how to be a better boss, and whether I had experience using a phone.

Later, I asked Myles, the recruiting chief, about the management questions I had encountered. (I interviewed Myles several months after taking the test and didn't inform anyone at the State Department I intended to write about the exam before I took it.) "Foreign Service officers have to have management skills early in their career," she explained. "An entry-level hire could have significant-size staff to deal with in a given embassy."

Yes, but: Setting aside the question of how nailing six or seven multiple-choice questions proves I'm ready to manage employees, should diplomats be selected for their management skills, or for their ability to craft and implement effective foreign policy? Does it make sense to use the same test to hire managers as public diplomacy officers?”

Both Myles and the author have a point. What's your take?

Now may or may not be a good time to mention that Harry Kopp's new A to Z guide to the Foreign Service, Career Diplomacy, has hit bookstores. You can read more about it here:



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.