Tips to Prepare for a Career in the Foreign Service

Usha Pitts is the Diplomat in Residence for the New York Metro Region. She is based in the City College of New York and serves communities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Usha is dedicated to supporting professionals and students pursuing opportunities with the U.S. Department of State. Usha has served for 19 years as a Foreign Service Officer, in the Political Affairs career track, at posts in Vienna, Rome, Havana, Moscow, Panama City, and Washington, DC.

The first step in the process is to take the Foreign Service Officers Test, offered three times a year.  Even if you don’t think you’re ready to take this test or embark on this career, take it anyway.  It’s free.  You can register at careers.state.gov.

If you pass, great!  And if you don’t, well, now you know what to study for next time.  Many of us need to review our high school history and study our maps, and most of us don’t get in until we are in our late twenties or early thirties.

In the interim, there are habits you can develop and activities you can do to prepare for the written exam.  In particular, I recommend you follow my recipe of READ-WRITE-DO.  Please note that the below tips reflect my personal opinion, and should not be viewed as guidance from the State Department.

  1. Read the paper every day, including at least one meaty editorial from The Washington Post or similar. You can substitute the editorial with an article from The Economist or Foreign Affairs.  If you want a more conservative approach, stick with The Weekly Standard or The National Review.
    Also get used to listening to shows like The World, Morning Edition, Meet the Press, Nightly Business Report, BBC World News, Face the Nation, Washington Week, The PBS News Hour, and GPS with Fareed Zakaria.  All these shows are available on iTunes, YouTube or their own websites, so you can listen while exercising, commuting, or cooking dinner.
  2. Write something (anything) at least once a week. Writing is like any other skill and it takes practice to get good and stay limber.  Your piece for the week can be a letter, editorial, journal entry, or essay.  Write to your congressional representative or your grandmother, but make it a thoughtful piece.  Rewrite it twice so you can get used to editing your own work.
    As an alternative, get a daily journal that forces you to sit down and compose three or four good sentences describing your day.  After all, if you played your guitar for ten minutes a day, you’d get pretty good at it.Also, if you don’t know how to touch type, learn now.  Typing allows you to compose and communicate your thoughts faster, thus improving your efficiency.  There are many free, on-line programs.
  3. Do activities every year that challenge you and build life experience – travel, volunteer, teach, work for a politician, join the Peace Corps, do a Fulbright, whatever. Many young people find they can’t pass the FSOT because they just don’t have enough life experience under their belt, so go out and get some.  Here’s a quote to live by throughout your twenties:  “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

A quick note on advanced degrees: Getting an advanced degree isn’t required to join the Foreign Service, but may help you build the knowledge and writing skills you will need to pass the test.  In any case, furthering your education should not be seen as a substitute for challenging yourself in other ways.  Resist the temptation to go straight from undergrad to graduate school – you are depriving yourself of valuable field experience.

Further to that point, make sure you get field experience outside of your ethnic or cultural background.  A Latina who speaks Spanish has potential, but a Latina who speaks Spanish and Arabic and has traveled in the Middle East is setting herself up for an international career.

All these things take time, but they are cumulative!  As the weeks pass, those incremental steps you take to improve yourself will start to build up.  Believe me, your boss will notice.  You may even find it increasingly difficult to hang out with people who are not well informed and don’t care about what’s going on in the world.  Much like compound interest, the more you invest in yourself over time, the greater the reward. Working incrementally will leave you better prepared to succeed in the Foreign Service (or any international career).

And always remember… Netflix is your enemy!