FSOT Score and Advice

Just got my scores back from ACT and thought I’d post a quick reaction for those about to embark. As always seems to be the case, the thing I tried to prepare for the most — job knowledge — was least successful.  Thankfully, that score was offset by much higher-than-expected for bio and essay.  Here are some thoughts on what I did for each section and how it turned out.

Job Knowledge

I’m yet another transitioning lawyer in my early 40s (sounds like there are many of us) so my prep focus was on all those things that I knew much better when I was in college. I have always read the Times and listened to NPR religiously. On advice from the Yahoo! FSOT board, I subscribed to the Economist, re-read the Constitution, and reviewed a bunch of miscellaneous sources including Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a summary of management-speak, the online geography quiz (http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/Geography.htm), and some historical atlases. I also did a bunch of practice tests from State’s FSOTpractice guide and an old ARCO guide that I bought used. The tests were helpful, but I felt they were actually harder than the real thing.

I ended up with a 57.75 which I guess is good enough for a pass (if you multiply by 3, it is higher than the 154 total score required), but I thought I’d done better based on how it felt at the time. I didn’t see anything on the job knowledge part that was wholly unexpected from the prep materials.

Biographic Experience

To prepare, I put together a chronology of experiences that might come in handy for quick reference. I’ve been practicing law for 15 years with an international focus over the past 4 so I have some stories that I thought would work for short answers. When taking the test, I felt my answers were VERY repetitive and superficial. This cannot be
avoided because of how much time and how little space is allowed to answer. I was not modest or boastful just honestly answered each question (think more boastful than modest). Having some recent experiences in mind really helped as I spent most of the allotted time making sure the answers read well rather than trying to think of
something to describe. I came out having absolutely no idea how I did on that section and was quite surprised to see it scored as a 67.67.

English Expression

I was pretty confident of my writing and editing skills so I didn’t spend any time studying for this part, although Elements of Style and Elements of Grammar are probably all you need if you have concerns. I took the practice test sections from State’s FSOT guide which gave me comfort that this would not be the section that would be my undoing.
Be sure to time yourself when you take the practice exam as this part was challenging under the time constraints (particularly if, like me, you read slowly). The actual exam was very comparable to the practice guide so if you do well on those, you’ll do fine. I ended up with a 61.68 which looks to be a pretty common score from the Database
sampling of the November results.


I confess I fully intended to do some practice essays. I read the sample prompts on the FSOT board and thought about how I’d respond. I read the summaries of doing the 5-paragraph essay and other material on this site. I did not, however, do any timed practice essays. The actual test was as expected and, although I used every second to edit
and revise, finished without too much of a sweat. I’d recommend that you start typing as soon as possible. Think it through, but get words on the screen. It is much easier to edit sentences already written, than to write the whole thing in 10 minutes after thinking it through for 20. I did not think I did great on it at the time, but also didn’t think I failed either. I ended up with a 10 which, upon reflection, was better than I thought. (As others have said, this is a pass/fail so getting more than a 6 doesn’t really matter).


14 thoughts on “FSOT Score and Advice

  1. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been doing practice questions for the October FSOT and wondering exactly what my score meant in the scheme of things. This entry helped me to put it into perspective.
    Congrats on the new post! That’s exciting!
    – Amy

  2. You’re a lawyer (WERE a lawyer, I mean!), and you read slowly? Holy crap, how’d you get through law school! 😉

    Thanks for this. I’ve been reading the Economist online (thank goodness, my wife has a print subscription) and have done the FSOT book’s practice job knowledge (not so good right now: missed 15 out of 50). Now I know I need to work on more Econ and treaties.

    I looked at state’s recommended reading list; interesting that besides the Economist and the Dict of Cult Literacy, nothing else you’ve mentioned is on that list.

    I’ve been checking out Amazon and half.com for the cultural dictionary and the ARCO FSO test book used. Good to know it will be useful.

    Do you have another post or a place to suggest that explains these scores? I’ve looked around, but can’t find anything. In fact, your post here is the first time I’ve seen anything about a minimum (154), or was that just for your testing cycle?!??

    Again, thanks for writing up your experiences…hopefully in a year I can do the same.

    1. Slow is relative, I suppose. I’ve known people (my son included) who can just flash through a couple hundred pages in no time without any loss of comprehension or retention. I tend to master material by manipulating it. Thus, in law school (and now in ConGen), I summarize the detailed material into very long outlines. It takes longer than just reading with a highlighter, but the material stays with me.

      With regard to the FSOT, remember there is only one section of the three that you can improve through in-depth study of outside material. I suppose there are reference books on grammar that might help that section, but honestly, if you’ve done any writing, the test is pretty straight-forward. Don’t obsess too much about it. Of the hurdles, the FSOT is the easiest and should be no problem for you if you’re reading the Economist and keeping current on things.

      One tip that will help for both the bio section of the FSOT and the oral exam is to start cataloging experiences from your life, work, etc. I can’t give you more specifics without getting too close to the non-disclosure issues, but it will help. Good luck!

  3. Thanks for all the insights and detail! Do you have any specific tips for the PN? I just passed the written test in Oct, and am currently writing my PNs. I applied to work in Public Diplomacy.

    Thansk in advance for any tips!


  4. Congratulations on passing the written. I had to go back and take a look at the personal narratives as it’s been a couple of years and, in my class, we had to write the personal narratives as part of the initial application so it didn’t really feel like a separate step. We did have that nervous wait, culminating with an email notification.

    As is the case with the oral exam, the key is reading the questions carefully and following directions. There are no tricks and the personal narrative responses are not lengthy. Don’t be repetitive and make sure every paragraph has a point and reason for inclusion.

    Unlike the oral exam writing tasks, there is no time constraint here. Thus, I would imagine we get very little sympathy for typos, poor grammar, or awkward phrasing. I’ve always told my kids that the best way to proof, after you think you have the final draft, is to read it out loud. I’ve always found another couple of things to change.

    As is the case with the oral exam interview, good stories make the best answers. The personal narratives are a good exercise because you can use the same stories in the oral exam (those judges have not seen your personal narratives).

    Good luck!

  5. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I’m finding the hard part is picking the best 5 stories! I suppose that’s a better problem, however, than not having enough to choose from.

    I’m wondering if you just wrote the narratives, or if you included how your learning experience would contribute to success in your chosen Foreign Service career track? I’m running out of room for that last part, so I’m wondering if they really expect that or if it is evident through the narratives that your abilities are/will be relevant to the FSO work?

    Thanks again in advance!


  6. Quoting from above: “(As others have said, this is a pass/fail so getting more than a 6 doesn’t really matter).”

    I just learned that I passed the WE today. But I got a 6 on the essays. Wah wah. It would be comforting to confirm that the quoted statement is true–how do we know this?

    Congratulations. Good luck in Lahore, if that’s still where you’re headed.


  7. First of all congratulations!

    I am interested in taking the FSOT as well. I am very new to the process so I hope you will excuse my dumb questions.

    I am a recent law school graduate myself. I spent the previous summer studying for the bar exam. I was wondering if, as a fellow lawyer, whether or not you noticed any similarities between the two exams.

    I realize that the results are done using a t-score system and you can not tell exactly what your score is going to be based on the practice tests. Even so, I am not sure what is a good % to shoot for on these practice exams. Is this the sort of exam where you are expected to get 85%, 90%, etc. of the job questions right, or is this more like the bar exam where there is just too much information to know and the %s of questions correct are lower? Basically, I plan on studying my butt off but I do not even know what my goal should be while studying.

    Thank you.

    – Corey

    1. Best of luck with the studying. Not much comparison between the bar and the FS exams. During the orals, there is a section that is similar to the practical day of the California bar (too much to read in too short a period of time and the requirement to distill and analyze), but otherwise, they test different skills and knowledge. I don’t have any knowledge of the % required to pass — it does vary. Follow the directions is the best advice I can give. Those that do particularly poorly simply fail to follow the directions. Don’t try to figure out what they want, just give them what they ask.

      good luck.

  8. Daniel,

    Thanks for the response and sorry for the delay. I was out of the country for a little while. I guess my biggest question at this point is when did you feel relatively comfortable with your studying? I’m reading through some of the recommended reading list but I honestly don’t know if I’d be close to posting a good score or if there is a lot more I should be doing.

    1. There really isn’t any threshold moment, I’m afraid. Do what you can and go through the process with the expectation that it will take you two times to make it through all the stages. Take some pressure off and treat the first time through as a practice round. If it you make it through, great. If not, you now have a baseline on where you are and what you need to focus on the next time. Good luck!

  9. now that you’re a FO, do you get to choose we you go. How do you find that process once you’re in?

    Is it hard to get one of your top 3 choices?

    Also you could only suggest one book or one source only to study for the JK section, which would it be?

    Thank you very much for your time 🙂

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