How to take the Foreign Service Officer exam

For those planning to take the Foreign Service Officer exam (FSOE):

“Define realpolitik and describe how this principle is evident in the strategies of Otto Von Bismarck and Camillo di Cavour.”

This is one of the questions in the world history portion of the FSOE written test.

I’ve heard people say that the FSOE is the most grueling government exam because the Department of Foreign Affairs is, they say, the most elite office in the government. Some even dare say that the exam is more difficult than the bar. I really wouldn’t know but one thing’s for sure: the mortality rate is definitely higher in the FSOE. Out of 628 examinees in 2011, only 9 passed. That's 1.4%. I heard there was even a year when no one passed.

I'm one of the lucky 9 who made it. And so to help future examinees prepare for the FSOE, I thought of writing down and sharing my experience. This is my own small way to thank and show appreciation for the people who supported me and helped me make it through.

The exam is difficult because it’s the type of exam which you can’t really study for. The scope covers everything under the sun, and, actually, none of the topics I studied for was asked. The exam proctor told my batch that the best time to review for the FSOE is in college, which is a little bit too late by now, right?

So the best tip I can give is simply to make reading a habit. Try committing yourself to read for at least 30 minutes every day and you’ll have a pretty strong fighting chance. What to read? The local news, Inquirer and Star editorials, The Economist, the International Herald Tribune, you get the idea.

Aside from reading, discuss what you’ve read with friends so you’ll develop a deeper appreciation for the material. If your friend isn’t familiar with what you’re talking about, explain it in simple terms. The best way to learn something is to teach it, right? Discussing with friends will also help you practice making an argument based on what you’ve read which is essential, particularly in the written test. Tip: these topics come out every year – ASEAN, PH-China relations (e.g., PH’s claim on the West PH Sea), and current programs of the government. Sure points!

To prepare, I camped in coffee shops to read up on world history. I read "A History of the World" by Perry, Davis, Harris, Von Laue, and Warren. It is the textbook I used in high school history class. (You probably used this too.) I also read briefing papers submitted by DFA to the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) – this is where I work, by the way. To break the monotony of reading, I went to museums – National Museum, Ayala Museum, BenCab Museum in Baguio – and watched movies and documentaries with a historical backdrop like The Downfall (Der Untergang), The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher), Bagong Buwan, etc.

1. Qualifying Test. (At Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, 8 am to 12 nn.)

This exam is pretty much like a college entrance exam. It covers basic high school knowledge (logic, grammar, math) but the time limit is so tight that it seems the test was not designed to be completed. You’ll just have one minute to answer each question so budget your time well. In my case, I shotgunned about 30 questions! (Take your pick – C is the key or A is the way.) Skim through the whole exam and answer the easy questions first. For the reading comprehension section, read the questions first so you’ll know what to look for when you read the selection. I think you know these already.

People say this exam is a more sophisticated version of the Civil Service Exam (CSE) which, I heard, is a no-brainer. But, of course, don’t underestimate it! I used the CSE reviewers sold in National Bookstore and MSA reviewers I borrowed from a friend. Familiarize yourself with the test types to save time in answering them. Just keep on answering the reviewers and you’ll be fine. Also, be sure to sleep early the night before. This can make or break you.

2. Preliminary Interview (At DFA, 20 minutes.)

Three panelists will conduct the interview. Best tip: be honest. The examiners won’t check whether you know the GDP growth rate for the first semester 2012 or the population of Brunei so no need to review that much on facts and figures. They’ll most likely ask you to explain what you do in your current job or what you think a Foreign Service Officer does. Cliché, but you just really have to be yourself. If you don’t know the answer, say so! Don’t pretend you know everything because they won’t expect that you do. When they sense that you’re giving them crap, they’ll pick on you even more. Be direct and precise with your answers. What’s important is that you can explain yourself and prove your point in a clear and organized manner. Be confident but not cocky.

To give you a better sense of how the interview is, here’s a list of what they asked me:

a. What do you do in the Presidential Management Staff?

b. What can you contribute to the DFA? How?

c. What can be done to ensure a professional merit-based DFA? (I talked about President Aquino’s appointment of about 20 career ambassadors.)

d. You seem to have contradicted yourself – you said that the President’s appointment of career ambassadors will ensure meritocracy in the DFA but the President appointed Secretary Del Rosario, who is a political appointee. Please reconcile.

Memorize the Three Pillars of PH Foreign Policy and relevant examples for each. This will serve as a useful framework and you can’t go wrong if you link your answers to the pillars. Also, read up on recent news on the DFA so you’re updated and you’ll have a war chest of examples which you can use to impress the panelists.

3. Written Test (At DFA, 3 days, 8 am to 4 pm, depending on how fast you finish.)

This is a 3-day essay-type test. Make sure to construct your answers in a structured and organized manner. Begin by giving a categorical answer then proceed with supporting statements in order of significance. You won’t go wrong with answers in 3-part theme style which I’m sure you learned in high school. A professor of mine said that the examiners put more premium on the justifications you lay down than the categorical answer. So just take a stand then build your argument and supplement it with examples.

To give you a better sense of the level of questions, here’s a list of some of the questions they asked us:

a. English (20%).

- A Filipino citizen was sentenced to receive the death penalty in China for acting as a drug-mule. As Secretary of Foreign Affairs, propose a plan, which outlines the courses of action the President may undertake.

b. Filipino (5%).

- Towards the end of El Filibusterismo, a priest in the novel discussed the idea of freedom. Describe what the priest said and relate it to how Philippine society understands freedom today.

c. PH Political, Economic and Cultural Conditions (30%).

- Give five examples of the government’s proposed Public-Private Partnership (PPP) projects and give a brief explanation for each.

- Explain how the Conditional Cash Transfer program will alleviate poverty.

- Name a National Artist and describe the significance of his/her works.

d. International Affiars (20%)

- What are the benefits of forging an ASEAN Economic Community in 2015?

e. World History (20%).

- Compare and contrast the Spanish colonization experience of Latin America and the Philippines.

f. Foreign Language (5%).

- I took Japanese. They asked for the meaning of basic greetings and expressions and to identify the correct particle needed to complete the sentence. Note that the whole test, even the instructions, was written in Japanese.

To prepare for this test, I compiled sample questions from blog entries on the FSOE. I only actually studied for the World History section, my weakest area, and focused on Asian and Western history but none of these came out!

4. Psychological Test (Philippine Mental Health Association, 8 am to 3 pm)

I don’t think you can actually prepare for this. You’ll be asked to answer a battery of psychological tests like identifying patterns, sentence completion and “draw a person” which I’m pretty sure you’ve encountered previously. In the last section, they will ask you to write down a narration which highlights high and low points in your life then you’ll have a one-on-one discussion with a shrink about it.

Though this test might seem trivial, don’t mess this up. In my batch, 50% (12 out of 24 examinees) got axed after this test. Answer carefully and thoroughly, especially during the one-on-one discussion. When you discuss your autobiography, underscore experiences, conversations or anecdotes which make you believe that you’re psychologically equipped to handle the life of an FSO.

5. Oral Test (At DFA and Diamond Hotel, one and half days)

Day 1 was for the 20-minute panel interview (after which you’re free to go). The panel of about 10 people was composed of members of the academe, senior ambassadors, and the heads of the Board of Foreign Service Examiners. Before the interview, DFA will send you a personal data questionnaire but with questions on your greatest achievement, your weaknesses, etc. Review your answers because the panelists will ask you about them. It would be embarrassing if you forget what you answered.

This panel interview is a more intimidating version of the preliminary interview. They will challenge and disprove your points to see if you can defend yourself. Don’t be arrogant when answering them. Maintain your cool and remain level-headed even if they challenge your personal opinions. Like in the preliminary interview, they can ask you anything. I heard they even asked an examinee whether he was gay or not (not that there’s anything wrong with being gay).

To give you a better sense of how the interview is, here’s a list of what they asked me:

a. Will you really join the DFA if you pass the FSOE? Will your boss allow you?

b. Do you have a girlfriend?

c. How come the President does not seem to know about the existing National Security Plan? He referred to creating one in the speech he delivered last month. Please explain.

d. (Referring to the questionnaire) You mentioned here that you consider traveling as an achievement. Please expound.

e. What do you think about the President’s appointment of Domingo Lee as ambassador to China?

f. Name one challenge to ASEAN economic integration.

As for the attire, I played it safe by wearing a white office barong. I heard that examinees should stay away from pointy shoes because they look too casual. For the ladies, business attire is safe. The formal dinner is a different story – I wore a coat and tie and the ladies wore a formal dress.

Day 2 was for the debate/group dynamics and the formal dinner at Diamond Hotel. The proctor divided our group into the affirmative and negative sides for the debate. Our batch was cordial and polite during the debate but apparently, the panel was looking for a real debate. In their words, they wanted to see fireworks. Don’t be afraid to contradict and attack each other’s points; it’s a debate after all.

During the formal dinner, the panel will check if you know how to use your silver. Just google this and you’ll be fine. Also, chat up the panelist who will be seated beside you. You’ll get by with the usual dinner banter.

At the end of the dinner, the (in)famous impromptu speech segment will begin. You’ll be given one minute to read and prepare for the topic of your speech. Afterwards, the host will call you to deliver a 3-minute speech. I was lucky because I was familiar with the topic I got: “You are the ambassador of the PH to Japan and you are about to address the business community in Tokyo regarding issues surrounding JPEPA.”

You’ll have the liberty to say anything but be conscious about the persona you are taking and your audience. Here’s what I did: I began the speech with a greeting in Japanese and then I talked about how strong PH-Japan relations were. I cited that Japan is the PH’s largest bilateral aid donor and narrated the successful State Visit of President Aquino in 2011. I addressed the issue head-on and said that the ongoing review of JPEPA will be done in a few months’ time and that I was confident that its results will lead to an improvement of JPEPA and PH-Japan relations in general. Of course, to close, I said thank you to the audience for taking time to listen to my short speech.

When you finish, you’ll finally be able relax and enjoy the champagne served for the final toast.

Good Luck!


Rafael Ignacio is a Director in the Presidential Management Staff. He passed the Foreign Service Officers Exam in June 2012 and will take his cadetship in 2014.

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