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Want to Work Abroad? Join the Foreign Service

Want to Work Abroad? Join the Foreign Service

Nina Segal /

Does the idea of working abroad in a US embassy appeal to you? You might be a political officer, analyzing current affairs and reporting relevant happenings back to the US. You could analyze commercial and trade policy and help to ease market restrictions for US goods abroad. Or you could be a human resources or financial officer in Namibia, Panama or Denmark. But no matter which job description and what country are most alluring to you, you’ll begin by taking the Foreign Service Written Exam (FSWE).

The FSWE is now called the Foreign Service Officer Test. The shorter, computer-based test is offered multiple times throughout the year at testing stations all over the country.

The Foreign Service Written Exam

The FSWE measures many areas of knowledge, clearly laid out on the State Department’s Web site. Foreign Service officers are representatives of the US both overseas and domestically, and they are expected to have a strong grounding in domestic government and policy, international affairs, economics, US culture and geography.

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The test is comprised of three sections. A Job Knowledge section measures a candidate’s mastery in 13 subject areas that include the aforementioned topics, while an English Expression Section tests writing and grammar, and a Biographical Data section gathers information about the candidate’s skills, interests, and academic, professional and extracurricular experiences.

The exam also includes a 30-minute written essay, which evaluates a candidate’s analytic and writing abilities; topics vary and can include a wide range of US or global policy issues.

The Oral Assessment

If you pass the FSWE exam, the next step is a day-long oral assessment. These exercises are based on a job and skills analysis of Foreign Service work. There are three main parts of the day: a group exercise, an individual oral presentation and a written exercise.

As part of its recruitment outreach, the State Department will be hosting oral assessment prep sessions around the country. Log on to its Web site for more information.

Tips for Preparing for the Foreign Service Exam

According to Niels Marquardt, former director of the agency’s diplomatic task force, one can prepare for the exam, but he warns that it is “not an exam that lends itself to cramming.” A composition or writing course is helpful for the English expression and essay sections of the written exam. For the general knowledge section, it is helpful to stay current on world events through regular reading of quality news publications like the Economist and the New York Times.

Benjamin Garcia, senior HR officer in the US embassy in Brasilia, Brazil, agrees. "I used to and still love to read the New York Times,” he says. “So I have always scored well in current events or world geography tests.”

An attorney who successfully passed the exam had this take on the test: “The most challenging part of the exam is that it encompasses so many different areas, e.g., geography, history, economics, political science, law and others. I found the most effective study aides to be a world atlas, as it is a tremendous source for information, and the international section of the newspaper, which kept my knowledge updated on current events while providing background regarding those events.”

For More Information

Foreign Service Specialists aren’t required to take the Foreign Service Exam. Specialists are needed in 19 categories, including diplomatic security, information technology and nursing.

Check out the FSWE Study Guide and how to register for the exam.

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