For many of you, this may be the first you’ve heard of the Foreign Service, so I thought it might be a good idea to give you a brief introduction to the service and how I got here.
The Foreign Service is the United State’s diplomatic corps. Unlike many countries, the U.S. doesn’t require its diplomats to be “professionals” with degrees in diplomacy or international relations. Rather, the State Department allows [pretty much] any American citizen between the ages of 21 and 59 to apply via a set of rigorous assessments beginning with a standardized written exam.
Once an applicant passes the written exam, they are invited to write a set of personal narrative essays. I had to write 5 essays, but I think now there is a 6th essay required. The essays are capped at around 250 words and I found it surprisingly difficult to give a detailed, thoughtful answer to the essay prompts in so few words. If you speak a Super Critical Needs language, during the essay round you are given the opportunity to take a phone exam which, if you pass, is supposed to give your file extra consideration when it comes across the assessors’ desks. Passing a SCNL exam also comes in handy once you’ve passed the final part of the exam, but more on that later.
If you pass the essay round you are invited to take the oral assessment, a day-long mostly non-traditional interview. The oral assessment is made up of 3 parts: a group exercise, a 2-on-1 interview, and a case management exercise. During all 3 exercises you are monitored by assessors who score you according to a set of pre-determined criteria. If you pass, you are immediately given a conditional offer of employment but your journey is not yet complete.
In order to get in position to receive an actual offer of employment, you must obtain a medical clearance and a top-secret security clearance. The medical clearance mostly involves making sure you don’t have any medical conditions that require constant medical care, although they evaluate everyone on a case-by-case basis. If you are married or you have children, your spouse and children all have to get medical clearances too so they can travel with you. If they do not obtain the top level of medical clearances they will not be able to accompany you to some posts, which means you may be separated during one or more tours.
Once you get your medical and security clearances, your file goes through a final suitability review and if you’re found suitable you are added to the “register” of available candidates and ranked according to your score on the oral assessment. Because there are sometimes hundreds of candidates on the registers and a finite number of positions open in any given year, it is to your advantage to have a high score. Unfortunately, there are only 2 ways to boost your score once you hit the register. The first is to be a veteran with vet preference points. As I am not a vet, I don’t really know much about that other than it exists.
The other way to boost your score is to pass a language exam. If you passed an SCNL exam during the essay round, you don’t have to re-take the exam, you just have to accept the bonus points and the service agreement that comes with them. For SCNL and CNLs, accepting the bonus points means you are willing to serve in a country where that language is spoken at least twice in your career, once in your first two tours and once when you hit mid-career. The bonus points for SCNLs and CNLs often make the difference between getting hired and not getting hired (they did for me!) so many people choose to take the exam and accept the points. If you speak another language not on the SCNL or CNL list, you may also take an exam for that language and get bonus points, although you receive fewer points for so-called “world languages.”
Once you are on the register you have 18 months to get an offer of employment or you expire off the register and have to start all over again with the written exam. Yep. It is entirely possible that you could go through the entire process and then expire off the register and have to start all over again. I am really, really grateful that I only had to take the written twice and the orals once before I passed and got hired.
Now that I’m hired, the next step is for me to attend a 6 week diplomacy boot camp, referred to as A-100. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be learning during this course, but I’m excited to meet my fellow officers and get started. It’s going to be an eventful 6 weeks and I am really looking forward to getting this show on the road.