Foreign Service Officer Selection Process

By Amanda Covaleski and Experts - Dec. 8, 2020

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Are you passionate about making connections with people across the world? Do you keep up with all of the latest news from the United Nations? Do you love the idea of traveling abroad and representing the United States? Have you ever considered becoming a diplomat or foreign service officer?

Working in foreign service can be a rewarding career for anyone, not just people passionate about politics or foreign affairs. With over 270 embassies, consulates, and other outposts across the world and opportunities for administrative management, consular services, political or economic reporting/analysis, and public diplomacy, many people can find fruitful careers in the field.

To become a foreign service officer, you’ll need to do a few things. Though it may seem like a daunting to-do list, you’ll find that the process isn’t too hard, and you’ll be able to enter the world of foreign relations.

We’re going to walk you through the process of applying to be a foreign service officer, the test you’ll have to pass, and what to expect once you’ve met all of the qualifications.

Are You Eligible to Apply?

There are some strict qualifications you need to fulfill in order to apply to be a foreign service officer. You can read all about them in-depth on the U.S. Department of State’s website, but here’s the rundown of basic requirements.

  • You must be a U.S. citizen when you apply

  • You must be between 20 and 59 years old when you apply

  • You must be between 21 and 60 years old when you become a foreign service officer

  • You must be available for a position anywhere in the world

On top of these requirements, the State Department also offers extra qualifications that can improve your chances of being selected. They’re not necessary to get a job, but they can help you look more impressive and give you a better chance at being picked. Here are some extra abilities you can highlight to help you land the job:

  • Be multilingual.If you can speak two or more languages, it can help you become a foreign service officer. You don’t have to be multilingual, but it helps in the selection process if you highlight your language skills.

  • Personality match.The State Department looks for candidates that are “capable, healthy and dedicated” when they go through the selection process. It’s a good idea to highlight these qualities in your application and share how you embody them. You don’t have to stretch the truth to fit these characteristics, but if you feel like they apply to you, go ahead and emphasize them.

  • Align your goals.The main objective of the State Department is to “promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.” You’ll want to share the same mission as them if you apply to be a foreign service officer.

The State Department also looks for people who meet their 13 dimensions of foreign service officer qualifications. These 13 characteristics align with the work you’ll need to do as a diplomat, so see if you can fulfill them. It’s also a good idea to check and make sure these skills are something you’d like to do in a job. As much as the 13 dimensions guide the State Department when selecting candidates, they can be a great way to judge whether or not foreign service jobs would be good for you.

  1. Composure

  2. Cultural adaptability

  3. Experience and motivation

  4. Information integration and analysis

  5. Initiative and leadership

  6. Judgment

  7. Objectivity/integrity

  8. Oral communication

  9. Planning and organizing

  10. Resourcefulness

  11. Working with others

  12. Written communication

  13. Quantitative analysis

An Overview of the Foreign Service Officer Application Process

The State Department outlines eight steps to becoming an FSO, and the process will last a few months. While this is a more rigorous application process than a typical job, both you and the State Department will want to make sure you’re a good fit for the position. This is as much an opportunity for you to explore the career as it is a chance for the government to evaluate you. Let’s take a look at the eight steps in the foreign service officer application process.

  1. Picking a career track. The State Department highlights five areas that you can specialize in for your diplomatic career: consular, economic, management, political, and public diplomacy. Each track covers specific career opportunities, skills, and responsibilities, and you can’t change your track once you submit your FSO application. You can learn more about the tracks from the State Department before you apply, so you choose the best option for you.

  2. Register for the Foreign Service Officer Test. Once you pick your career track, you need to register and study for the Foreign Service Officer Test (or FSOT). The test isn’t meant to trick you or test a specific area of knowledge, but it does give a fair assessment of your skills and abilities. This test can determine if you’ll be a successful foreign service officer, and it’s a big part of your FSO application. There are a few ways to prepare and study for the test, so check out the State Department’s guide.

  3. Take the Foreign Service Officer Test. When you’re registered, and you’ve had the chance to practice, it’s time to take the FSOT. The test covers job knowledge, English expression, and situational judgment, and you can take it in various locations in the US and abroad at designated test centers. Before you take it, make sure you’re familiar with the format and what will be asked of you so you can do your best. There’s a practice test available from the State Department you should get familiar with.

  4. Have your qualifications evaluated. After you take the test, your scores and registration information will be sent to a panel for a holistic review. There are several components that the panel will review, including your FSOT and essay score, education and work history, your Personal Narrative responses, and language skills. You’ll get a total score based on those pieces, which will rank your position in relation to the other candidates.

  5. Take the oral assessment. If you do well during the panel assessment, you’ll be invited to do an oral assessment. You can treat the oral assessment like an in-depth job interview and expect to show your knowledge and command of the 13 dimensions mentioned earlier. If you make it to this step, it’s a chance to convince your interviewer that you have all the skills they’re looking for in a foreign service officer, so make sure to review and prepare for this competitive step.

  6. Get your clearances. After the oral assessment, you may be offered conditional employment, and you’ll need to get medical and security clearances. These clearances are just to make sure that you’re healthy enough to serve overseas where access to medical care may be limited and that you pass the background check to work for the government. If you have any ties to another country (like dual citizenship or a foreign family member), your security clearance might be more rigorous and take more time to complete.

  7. Get evaluated by the Suitability Review Panel. This is the final hurdle you need to jump in order to be eligible for employment with the government. The Suitability Review Panel will review all of your files and any previous history to ensure that you’ll be a good representative of the US abroad and at home. You can treat this like a background check and expect the panel to review any employment history or criminal activity.

  8. Join the Register. If you pass every step before this, then you’re added to the Register. This means that your name is on an ever-changing list of people eligible to be hired by the government for foreign service. Your position on the list is determined by the score that the panel in step four gave you. As people are added and removed from the list, your rank will move around too since it’s determined by your score and not chronological order. Your name will be on the Register for 18 months, and if you’re not hired in that time, you’ll need to apply again.

The Hiring Process

To get hired as an FSO, you need to complete all of the above eight steps. If you pass all of them and your name is at the top of the list when the government has a position to fill, you’ll be offered a job.

Many candidates need to undergo this process multiple times before they get a job offer, so keep that in mind as you move through the process. Though it’s a long process, you can improve your application each time you apply and hopefully boost your score. You won’t get penalized for applying multiple times.

One thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t a standard hiring process for a regular job. It’s more demanding, and you’ll be evaluated by a larger group of people. Instead of just getting approval from a hiring manager or a supervisor, you need to pass evaluations from panels of people, so it’s better to treat this process as something separate from an ordinary job application.

What to Expect if You Pass

If you are offered a job with the State Department, you can either accept the offer or decline. You don’t get much say in what position you’re offered, so it might not be a job you want. If that’s the case, you’re allowed to decline your first offer, but your name will be removed from the Register if you decline a second offer.

If you accept either your first or second offer, you’ll be expected to attend a six-week orientation program to familiarize you with the State Department and your new job. The orientation is more of a learning experience than an orientation, so you need to be ready to put your knowledge and skills to the test.

After this orientation (also known as the A-100 course), you’ll be given your first assignment and expected to complete further training. This additional training can take between six and nine months and cover topics like consular affairs, political-economic tradecraft, public diplomacy, and resource management.

Once you complete additional training, you’ll be ready to take up your post and begin your work as a foreign service officer. In total, it takes about a year between getting your job offer and actually starting your job.

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Amanda Covaleski

Amanda is a writer with experience in various industries, including travel, real estate, and career advice. After taking on internships and entry-level jobs, she is familiar with the job search process and landing that crucial first job. Included in her experience is work at an employer/intern matching startup where she marketed an intern database to employers and supported college interns looking for work experience.


Matt Warzel, CPRW, CIR

Matt Warzel a President of a resume writing firm (MJW Careers, LLC) with 15+ years of recruitment, outplacement, career coaching and resume writing experience. Matt is also a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) and Certified Internet Recruiter (CIR) with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (Marketing Focus) from John Carroll University.

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