Becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO)

It was in December 2013 during the Christmas holidays, when I first learned about the Foreign Service Officer Examination (FSOE). My Ate (older sister) sent me a message with the link for the exams and she said, “You might want to consider this. Deadline of applications is until February next year.” I looked at her message, smiled and thought “Why not?”

That year, I was at a crossroads. I was in a career that I loved—teaching, but certain developments at that time made me question it. I thought about my options. I considered going abroad for employment, hoping that a teaching job in an international school would be more financially rewarding. I also applied in two government institutions, thinking that a job in the civil service would offer a more stable employment than in the academia.

I filed my application for the FSOE in the first quarter of 2014, a week before the deadline. The FSOE consists of 5 levels of examinations, namely: (1) the qualifying exam, (2) the preliminary interview, (3) the written exams, (4) the psychological exams, and (5) the oral exams. The whole series of exams last for a year, with the applicant advancing to the next level after passing the prior one. I eagerly awaited the schedule of the first exam.

The first level, the qualifying exam, is likened to the civil service eligibility exam, or perhaps a college entrance exam. It contained the usual question categories—Math and English, reading comprehension, plus several items on management. I did not find it too difficult, maybe because I have been conducting college entrance exam review classes as one of the lecturers then of Diliman Access (an educational testing service institution). Also, I am familiar with grammar rules and vocabulary exercises being an English teacher, and I still recall basic Mathematics formulas somehow (because I actually like Math). I was happy to find out later that I cleared this level.

The second level, the preliminary interview, took only about 15 minutes. For this part, I was asked what was my reason for taking the exam and my opinion on some issues. It was an individual interview, with me seated in the middle of the room and the panelists (4-5) seated at one end. Looking back, I think the interview was just designed to know the applicant’s personality, level of confidence, and basic knowledge of some current events. This was the part that didn’t take a long waiting time; I received the results several days later.

The third level, the dreaded written exams, is a three-day ordeal. The exams cover English and Filipino grammar and comprehension; Philippine politics, economy, society and culture; world history; domestic, regional and international current affairs; and a foreign language (applicant’s choice) exam. The language exam is composed of objective and essay type questions. All the other topics, on the other hand, require answers in essay format.

Prior to the exam, I read up some blogs and websites about the FSOE and learned that although there is no way one can fully prepare for the exams (since the essay questions come from all fields of learning), there are some questions that regularly pop up. These include the National Artists in the Philippines, the history of the Philippines, historical periods and events in world history (renaissance, industrialization age, events leading to WWI, WWII, etc.), and the current domestic and global political issues. So I made sure I was familiar with the biography of two national artists, found time to read the news even for a few minutes every day, and revisited the Philippine history, taking notes of important dates and milestones. I jotted brief notes on a journal solely for review purposes. For the current events, I only emphasized the main issues. There were also some books that I read (in the past), which were not directly related to history, politics and culture, but I still recalled their titles and wrote down two to three main points for each. I even memorized a few exceptional quotes from great people, thinking that I might be able to use them in my essay to start an idea or to reinforce a point. Lastly, the foreign language exam—I took French—was basic and could be aced by someone fluent in the language but basic knowledge can somehow get you by. 

At the same time that I decided to try the FSOE, I also sent my application to an international school in Saudi Arabia, which was successful. But by the time I needed to process my work visa in the 3rd quarter of 2014, I was already awaiting the results of the written exams (level 3) of the FSOE. The teaching job would start by September and I was thinking, “What should I do? The job abroad is certain but passing the exam is not. If I choose the exam, I might not pass and will lose the great job offer, too. And if I pass, but I’m already in Saudi Arabia, I cannot come home to continue the exams and all my efforts will be in vain.” After much thought and discussions with my Ate, I chose to wait for the exam results.

I passed level 3! The visa application to Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, was having problems. It was the right decision to wait.  

But there were still two more levels to clear for the FSOE, the psychological exam (level 4) and the three-part oral exams (level 5). The whole day psychological exam required analytical skills, abstract thinking skills, and writing skills. There were a lot of personal questions and many items that required introspection. There was also an interview as the last part.  I think that the exam didn’t really require one to be intelligent, only to have consistent answers, be genuine in answering the questions, and be adept in making analysis. I learned that I passed level 4 through my co-teacher. It was a surprise because I didn’t really tell anyone at work (except for a friend). When they knew, they wished me good luck.

Then came the oral exams (level 5). By that time, I already was feeling, “Oh, my gosh! This is getting real!” What started as just one of my options for a better career was getting more real as the days passed by. When I took the qualifying exam (level 1), my thought was, “Let’s see what rating I’ll get.” In the personal interview (level 2), my first time to meet people from the Department of Foreign Affairs (excluding the time I submitted my application forms at the BFSA), it was, “How are the people there like?” and “What types of questions will they ask me?” In the written exams (level 3), my thought was “Oh my, some questions are okay but some are not! Will I pass? I might get the lowest score and it would be really embarrassing.”

Level 5 consists of a panel interview, group debate and an impromptu speech (and formal dinner). In a big room, with the row of panelists at one end, I sat on a chair in the middle of the room. The first question was: “You’re a single mom, right? Don’t you think it will be a concern for you should you join the world of foreign service?” Then questions about my stand in some current events were asked, and then after about 20 minutes, it was over. In the group debate, we were formed into teams and we just met our teammates when we were inside the room. For each session, two teams were in the room, the topic was given only then, and the affirmative and negative sides were decided. Then each side was given the chance to defend its position. In the last oral exam, the impromptu speaking activity, we picked a number, then by turns we went to the stage. I got a number almost towards the end, 40+. This meant I wasn’t able to really savor the dinner, which we applicants had to eat with grace and poise, as we conversed with the Ambassadors seated with us while listening to the speech of the FSO aspirants on the stage and praying that we wouldn’t pick a topic that we knew very little of.

When it was nearing my turn, I walked to the stage telling myself, “This is it!” As the applicant before me started to speak, I was requested to pick my topic. I barely remembered what the previous applicant said (compared to all the other 40 speakers) as I could hear my heart pounding and as I struggled to compose a coherent message while on the seat nearest the stage, and seeing the big crowd. I am no stranger to big crowds. I have been a teacher for many years and I had joined Toastmasters International three years prior, where I had the opportunity to join speaking competitions. But that time was different. By the time three minutes was up, I had only thought of the first two opening sentences (Good evening plus another one) and three phrases for the content of the body of my speech. These were “thank you, ability to lead, heart to lead.” I just told myself, “Don’t worry, the words will come.” And oh, I also had to think of a suitable name for the pretend-subject of my speech.

My topic, like all the other topics during that exam (I heard other batches had a different style), was a scenario. I was a Consul who was invited to a celebratory ball of a newly-elected mayor, a Filipino-American, in a city in the United States. And so I began my speech. I thought of my co-teacher in the university and added an American sounding surname to his Filipino name. I imagined the audience were attendees to the ball. I greeted them, congratulated the mayor, told him that he deserved to win because he has the heart and the ability to lead, then I mentioned how his knowledge of the city for having stayed there for many years would be a great advantage, and how fortunate the Filipino community was because of his win. I think I ended with “Once again, congratulations, and to everyone, enjoy the night.”

I wouldn’t say my speech was marvelous. Far from it. But I was just too happy not to speak below or beyond the allotted time and that I made it from my seat to the stage, and from the stage to my seat without any embarrassing incident. I also appreciated the audience for cooperating when I said, “Let’s clap our hands for the new mayor,” and they did clap with me. Haha!

The waiting period for the exam took several months. I waited for it with great anticipation. I was praying that I pass but at the same time, I was preparing my heart for whatever the result would be. I knew that the passing rate of the FSOE has been notoriously low and I’d be lucky if I got in.

I received the good news that I passed the FSOE through a text message all the way from the UK, from my Ate, while I was in the library in the university where I was teaching. It was nearing the end of the semester and I was reading books and preparing some paper works. I wanted to jump around and hug people in the library, but I had to restrain myself. Haha!

I then awaited notice for our (my batchmates and me) appointment papers as Foreign Service Officer (FSO) IV to be signed by the President of the Republic. In 2016, I took my oath as an FSO and started my work in the Department of Foreign Affairs. A new chapter in my life began…

If you wish to know more information about the application process, here are some useful links:

https://dfa.gov.ph/faqs

https://dfa.gov.ph/what-is-an-fso-and-fsoe

See also my tips for passing the FSOE. 🙂

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