Some Tips for Passing the Foreign Service Officer Exam (FSOE)

So, you want to have a challenging career? To travel around the world? To meet and work with people from different countries? To be part of the country’s endeavors in the international community?

Well, to be a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) could be one of your great career options!

How do you become one?

The first step is to take the Foreign Service Officer Exam (FSOE). The Foreign Service Officer Exam (FSOE) consists of five levels of exams. These are the following: (1) the qualifying exam; (2) the preliminary interview; (3) the three-day written exams; (4) the psychological exams; and (5) the three-part oral exams and formal dinner. The applicants advance to the next level after passing the prior one. The exam period (including waiting time for results) takes more than a year.

A college graduate of any degree program may take the exam provided that he/she has at least two-year work experience already, or has taken at least two years of graduate studies. At present, there is no more age limit to anyone who would like to take the test. This new policy took effect in 2017. When I applied in 2014, the cut-off age for non-government employees was still 35.

FSO aspirants may review on their own (especially for the written exams), or they may enroll in institutions offering FSOE review. However, there is no review center officially endorsed by the DFA.

The FSOE has been touted as one of the most difficult examinations in the country. As a process that aims to select the best and the brightest to represent the country, only a small percentage of applicants per year pass the exam to eventually become foreign service officers. In 2011 for example, out of 628 applicants only 9 passed. In 2014, the year I took the FSOE, 38 of us passed out of the many who took it. My batch FSO Batch XXIII – Silang is composed of individuals coming from different academic backgrounds—Economics, Political Science, International Relations, Nursing, Psychology, Philosophy, Creative Writing, Mass Communication, English and Speech Communication, etc. We also had varied careers before deciding to take the FSOE. So if you ask me what is the best degree program to study to prepare to be an FSO, there is none in particular. Also, aside from two or three people in my batch who had really dreamed of becoming a diplomat even before studying for a degree, most of us came to this decision in the course of our different careers.

How does one prepare for the FSOE then? What is the best way? There is no magic formula, but these five approaches/attitudes are invaluable in preparing for the exam. First, cultivate a habit of reading and learning new things. The written examinations part of the FSOE covers, well, practically everything—all facets of political, economic, social and cultural life in the domestic, regional and international levels from past to present. Second, develop your communication skills, both in writing and speaking. Learn to write essays. Train in public speaking. Know how to voice an intelligent opinion and defend it.  Third, do retain a working knowledge of grammar rules of both English and Filipino languages as well as basic Math concepts and formulas. The ability to communicate well in English, the premier language of international interactions, as well as in our national language is, of course, a skill that is important—nay, crucial—in many kinds of profession in the country, not just as FSO. The same can be said for proficiency in basic Math. Fourth, learn/revisit a foreign language (or two, or more, if you are so inclined) aside from English. Do aim to have basic writing and speaking skills in the foreign language by learning its basic grammar and vocabulary. Improve your writing and conversational skills in the foreign language later on. Lastly, have a genuine desire to serve and represent the country, and to do so to the best of your ability. These five approaches/attitudes will also serve you well later on when you are carrying out the responsibilities of an FSO.

For each level of the FSOE, do remember the following:  

  • Have enough sleep the night before to be mentally alert on the day of the exams.
  • Bring the required documents and pencils/pen. Please note that FSO aspirants are required to submit revised CVs to the BFSA, after passing each level. This requires patience, eye for details and some introspection.
  • Be on time always.
  • Follow the dress code (if there is one). Dress smartly but comfortably.
  • Bring a snack (if allowed).
All set for the FSO Level 5 exams.

Level 1: The Qualifying Exam

The exam has a similar content to college entrance exams and civil service eligibility exams. If you have taken one or the other, or both, then you have an idea how it is. Basically, the exam contained Math and English questions/items, reading comprehension items, plus there were questions on management. For those who still recall their English grammar rules, reading comprehension strategies, and basic Math concepts and formulas, you wouldn’t find it too difficult and will have a very good chance of passing.

Remember to answer the exam fast. There are too many exam items so lingering on one difficult question is not worth it. A good strategy is to answer all the easy items first, then make your best guess on items you’re unfamiliar with.

Level 2: The Preliminary Interview

This part does not require much technical preparation. You just need to be yourself, answer questions genuinely, be polite and be enthusiastic in answering questions. It would help if you have a general knowledge of some current events because you will probably be asked about your opinion on selected issues. Be ready to answer the question, “Why do you want to be a FSO?” Or, your reason for venturing in the FSOE process should be clear to you at least.

Wear business attire that you’re comfortable in.

Level 3: The Written Exams

The Written Exams are conducted over the course of three days. Read up on current domestic and international events. Know the milestones of the Philippine history and world history. Learn as much information as you can in varied fields of study.

All the questions, except for some portions of the English and Filipino exams, will require you to write an essay. Make your essays organized and coherent, by having a clear answer to the main question, with two or three supporting points. Have a readable handwriting.

Review the basic grammar and vocabulary of the foreign language of your choice.

Manage your time well to avoid missing some exam items.

Level 4: The Psychological Exams

This is a day-long exam consisting of a series of tests. It would help if you spent some time of reflection and introspection prior to the exam, since majority of the questions are about yourself. Be genuine and consistent in your answers.

Introspective moment before leaving the house for the FSO oral exams.

Level 5: The Oral Exams

Level 5 consists of a panel interview, group debate, and impromptu speech and formal dinner. By this time, you must have a clear reason and conviction that you want to be a FSO. The panelists will be looking for the confidence and the “drive” you have within you when you’re answering the interview questions.

Have a good teamwork attitude in the group debate. Think of convincing arguments pro or against the topic.

Despite nervousness, try to enjoy the formal dinner. Wear a nice Filipiniana outfit. Be calm and show poise and grace. Review your knowledge of how to use formal silverware beforehand. Don’t forget to chat with the panelists/Ambassadors/dignitaries seated beside you.

In the impromptu speech, be yourself. Project your voice, and speak about your topic in an organized manner.

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