my courtship of the state department: a timeline

Spring 2005 – During my senior year of college, I take the Foreign Service Officer Test with my friend Brett. She passes (and is currently a Foreign Service Officer in the Dominican Republic), but I fail.  I go on to graduate school and then spend a few years working. I don’t think much about the Foreign Service, until…

January 2009 – My friend Anne somehow gets the idea that I should take the exam again. I tell her no. She tells me yes. I tell her no. (And so forth.) Finally, she convinces me to take it in Philadelphia as an excuse to visit her. I give in, even though I hold out little hope of passing. Only about 40% of candidates do, and they’re the sort of people who rock at Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy, which I, well, don’t. On the other hand, the test has been computerized since I first took it, so at least my horrible handwriting will no longer come into play…

February 14, 2009 — I have a Valentine’s Day date with the FSOT at a community college in Philly. It’s three hours long and — because I’m a nerd — I find it fun. How do I do? I have no idea.

March 2009 — I learn I passed and am invited to submit five short personal narrative essays. These will be evaluated along with my exam score and background information to determine whether I’m one of the approximately 40% of remaining candidates invited to the take the Oral Assessment. Seeing as how I spent two years and tens of thousands of dollars in graduate school learning to write personal narrative essays, I better pass this section.

May 2009 — I do, and I’m invited to take the Oral Assessment. It’s an intense all-day event that some of the smartest people I know haven’t passed. Only about 20% of those who have gotten this far make the cut, which is about 3% of all candidates. Not good odds. Knowing I have little hope if I go in blind, I connect with a local study group and begin doing what I can to prepare.

Summer 2009 — I spend a big chunk of my free time with study groups.

September 28, 2009 — I pass! (I also happen to break my computer. I fell asleep watching The West Wing for inspiration — hey, whatever works — and woke up to find it on the floor. Oops.) Fortunately, I receive a high enough score that I’m pretty much guaranteed to get hired; not everyone is, sadly. More about that later.

October and November 2009 — More? Yes, there’s still more. I have a conditional offer of employment — the condition being that I’m granted medical and security clearances. I squeeze in a number of doctors appointments and spend a lot of time tracking down information for my investigator, who is also meeting with pretty much everyone I know. Awkward.

December 2009 and January 2010 — Waiting. Worrying. Speculating. Dreaming up crazy scenarios in which I’m denied clearances for things I can’t even recall doing.

January 11, 2010 — I receive my medical clearance! And then, a few hours later, I receive my security clearance! So, am I done? Nope, not yet. Now my whole file has to pass through a Final Suitability panel for one last look. What kind of things cause a person to fail Final Suitability? Well, for instance, being arrested 17 times for streaking. (No joke.) This may not be a security threat, but it’s not exactly suitable behavior, at least according to the Department of State.

January 14, 2010 — I pass Final Suitability and am placed on the Register! What’s the Register, you ask? Well, despite making it all this way, I’m still not guaranteed a job. My name is merely placed on a list of eligible hires that State draws from when they start each new A-100 class, which is the name for Foreign Service Officer training. Fortunately for me, the list is ranked based on Oral Assessment score, and mine was high enough that I’ll be called for the next class. So making it to the Register was the tough part. Now, I can relax. (However, I have great sympathy for others who make it this far only to languish on the Register month after month, unsure if they’ll ever get the call. If it doesn’t come within 18  months, they’re off the list and have to start the whole process from scratch. Not fun.)

January 19, 2010 — I’m offered (and immediately accept) a spot in the March 29 A-100.

January to March, 2010 — Paperwork galore. Tie things up at my current job. Midwest road trip. Prepare for the move to DC.

March 27, 2010 — We will arrive in DC.

March 29, 2010 — More than a year after taking the FSOT, I will begin A-100 and officially be a Foreign Service Officer. Whew.

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11 Responses to my courtship of the state department: a timeline

  1. christine says:

    Congratulations, well deserved!
    And thanks for the wise posts on our boards. ; -)

  2. Alex says:

    Thanks Christine!

  3. Paul Baxter says:

    Congrats on your success thus far. I hope to join you in the dept. in the future. Anyhow, I had to laugh at this:

    “Seeing as how I spent two years and tens of thousands of dollars in graduate school learning to writing personal narrative essays, I better pass this section.”

    There’s some law about how one cannot brag about one’s writing ability without making a grammatical error. I do it myself.

  4. Alex says:

    Ha, funny! And the sad thing is that it took me reading that sentence three times to spot the typo. =) Happens to the best of us!

  5. Leah says:

    Great summary–I was one who was on the list but expired on it. I’m going to take the orals for the 4th time in April, and am hoping for an outcome like yours! Best of luck!

  6. Greta says:

    Hi Alex. I followed this over from a Yahoo posting. I’ll be there in March too. Congratulations.

  7. Alex says:

    Hi Greta — Looking forward to meeting you in a month!

  8. Digger says:

    You will be in A-100 with an A-100 classmate of mine who left the service and decided he missed it enough to go through the whole process again! He’s a great guy!

  9. D says:

    Hello.. Congrats to you!!!

    Just a quick question, do you know where I can get help for the PNQs?


  10. Alex says:

    D —

    Are you a member of the Yahoo FSWE and FSOA boards (see links on the right)? Those are good resources.

    Here is another link to check out:

    However, the best source is State itself:

    Remember that they’re looking for you to demonstrate the 13 Dimensions:

    And remember to answer the question! I hear that some people go wrong by trying to slip in lots of impressive information rather than focusing on answering the exact question asked.

    Good luck!

  11. Missy says:

    I got my security and medical clearances in March of this year, and supposedly my file is still in suitability review (since 3/30/10). I’m stressing about pretty much everything I can think of right now, wondering if that one boss talked smack about me, etc…any ideas on how long the suitability process usually takes? Clearly yours was fast — just a few days! — which makes me even more nervous.

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