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 17 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 DFA Board of Foreign Service Examination (BFSE), after passing each level. Preparing the documents 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. Do not 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.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Isa says:

    Hi Ms. Emi! So glad I found your blog! I also dream to be a diplomat like you! Planning to take the FSOE after I finish my masters! You’re an inspiration. Thank you so much! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. emi_f says:

      Dear Isa, thank you for your wonderful words. I wish you the best in your studies and your plans to be a diplomat. I look forward to welcoming you in the foreign service in the future. ❤


  2. Hi Ms. Emi! I am so happy to have found your blog! I am also an aspiring diplomat, but still have to get my law degree and pass the Bar exam first before pursuing the FSOE. Do you think I can or should take the FSOE while still in law school? I am planning to give it a try next year.


    1. Emi_F says:

      Hi, Rein. 🙂 The FSOE will take a year and when you pass, I think you only have a year to defer your job after receiving your papers as an FSO IV. (Still best to verify with the BFSA). Thus, it might not be ideal to take it when you have just started law school. But if you only have a year or two left before you graduate, then go ahead. ^_^ I wish you the best in your plans. See you in the DFA! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Isla says:

    Hi. Thanks for the informative article. Just wondering, if an FSO is already married, is he/she also allowed to bring his/her parents to his/her foreign post? What’s the rule as of 2023?


    1. Emi_F says:

      Hi. It depends on the Foreign Service Post. Some countries are very strict with regard to bringing dependents (family members). And if allowed by the host country, the FSO should still submit documentary requirements and seek official approval from HRMO.


  4. Isla says:

    Thank you for your previous reply, Ms. Emi. I’m actually in my mid-40s and contemplating on taking the exam, but my age is giving me doubts. Do you think I’m too old for a career change, not to mention the physical rigors of the job, if any? You can be completely honest with me; I wouldn’t mind. At least I’ll know what I’m getting myself into.


    1. Emi_F says:

      No. You’re not too old for a career change. Any day is a good day to begin. Take the first step. Apply for and pass the FSO Exam. 😉
      The 35 y/o maximum age requirement for entering the Philippine foreign service has been removed. So, your age is just ok. You’ll still have about 2 decades opportunity in the FS. Take it.


      1. Isla says:

        I actually passed the written test when I was in my 30s but failed the oral exams (I was waaaay too nervous!). I didn’t retake anymore because of the age requirement at the time. So I basically shelved my FSO dreams after that. It was only recently that I learned that the age requirement has been lifted. Maybe I’ll give the exams another shot, Ms. Emi. Maybe not. I’ll pray for guidance. Good luck on all your endeavors, and who knows, maybe I’ll meet you one day soon at DFA. 🙂


      2. Emi_F says:

        Yes. I hope that your prayers will lead you to your life’s path. All the best! 🙂


  5. Y_Mak says:

    Ms. Emi, Thank you po for sharing. Not sure if the answer to my question is posted in your other blogs but I’ll ask anyway as I have not yet finished reading all your blogs. 😀
    If someone gets lucky enough to be appointed as a foreign service, class IV, can they serve in their regional consular offices? or are they required to transfer to Manila/central office?
    Thanks po ulit Ms. Emi!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Emi_F says:

      Hi, Mak. Thank you for your question. I cannot answer with certainty, as it is the Human Resources Management Office(HRMO) that handles the assignment.
      But based on my observation (and own experience) junior officers are assigned at the Home Office (in Manila) for their 6-month cadetship, then 2-3 yrs. OJT before they are posted abroad. I have not heard of anyone who requested to be posted in an RCO right after passing the examinations. This query may be referred to the Department’s HRMO.
      I hope this helps.


      1. Y_MAK says:

        Awwe this helps a lot. Thank you so much Ms. Emi sa pagsagot. 🙂
        Reason why I asked is because I was actually contemplating whether I should already buy a house (through pag-ibig) since I’m not getting any younger na din. I have been renting since college kasi I’m originally from the province but currently working in one of the big cities in the Visayas.
        Since Manila po pala ang first few years, then I guess it would make sense if we just continue renting muna for now until such time na ma confirm if makakapasok nga ba ako sa FSO. Hehehe
        Thank you po ulit for sharing. This puts into perspective the decision that I have to make. God bless po. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Emi_F says:

        You’re welcome, Mak. I grew up in the province too. And yes, we rented for so long too until I got a house na towards the end of my first posting.
        I wish you the best. 🙂


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