So you want to join the Foreign Service? Chapter I: Demistifying the Philippine Foreign Service Officer Exam

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are mine alone.

I began taking the five-part Philippine Foreign Service Officer Exam (“FSOE”) in August 2015. The results came out in November 2016 – 29 of us passed. While preparing for the exam, I realized that resources available to examinees are scant, and so I vowed that should my application be successful I would write something to contribute, in my small way, to the existing literature.

Coming Full Circle: My story

I had actually planned to take FSOE at much a earlier date – in 2009, to be exact. It was early 2009 when I thought about taking the exam. At that time, I had just finished writing the 2008 Bar exam and was working as an underbar associate at a local law firm. Since I was not aware of any FSOE review classes, I turned to the Internet for tips. I stumbled upon a blog owned by an FSO that gave useful tips, elucidating the entire FSOE process. It was a popular blog and attracted a ton of traffic from many FSO hopefuls.

One such “hopeful” was in a pinch: in the comments section of the blog, she revealed that she had passed the notoriously difficult FSO Written Test, but unfortunately may not be able to proceed to the Oral Test portion due to accepting a job offer to work for an international law firm overseas. That piqued my curiosity and stirred my wanderlust. Using the scant description I read in her comment, I made a quick Google search and easily located the website of the law firm in question. Although there were no advertised job openings at that time, I tried my luck and sent my resume and a cover letter by e-mail. You know, just in case.

It turns out there was an unadvertised opening at the firm, and two months later I was offered a job. Six months later, I left the Philippines to start my 6-year sojourn overseas. (Oh and yes, that FSOE “hopeful” and I eventually became colleagues and good friends.) After working for a couple of years, I moved to Europe to study. In between, I travelled as much as I could to learn about the world and myself, before deciding it was time to return to the Philippines for good.

When I returned, inspired by my life and travels overseas (and unofficially becoming a “Philippine ambassador” to those I’ve met during those 6 years), I decided to finally have a go at the FSOE.

Understanding the FSOE: What is the DFA looking for?

First things first: What is the FSOE?

The FSOE is a five-part exam, spread out over a period of generally one year, in order to “recruit candidates for appointment to the position of Foreign Service Officer, Class IV”. Unlike most government exams where passing gets you a license to practice a profession, passing the FSOE actually gets you a job, (nay, career) to work as a Foreign Service Officer (colloquially referred to as “career diplomat”) for our government’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

What kind of candidates is the DFA exactly looking for? According to their website, they are looking for applicants:

  1. Who are knowledgeable on the economic, political and social conditions of the Philippines.
  2. Who possess facility in oral and written communications.
  3. Who possess personality traits essential to the performance of the duties of Foreign Service Officers.
  4. Who are willing and able to accept assignments to any post where their services may be required.

To determine the best-suited candidates, they will test for:

  1. Knowledge befitting the role: general/IQ, of the Philippines, and of the world.
  2. Ability to communicate in written and verbal form as befitting the role.
  3. Personality traits as befitting the role. This includes determining the candidate’s leadership abilities (as an FSO IV will enter the Foreign Service mid-career level, i.e. as a manager), as well as determining whether the candidate is able to withstand staying abroad for long periods of time.

As to what exactly is “befitting the role” of a career diplomat, one can deduce this from the “duties of an FSO” as described in the DFA website, such as:

  • Drafting diplomatic notes / preparing briefing papers and other foreign policy papers
  • Assisting in the preparation of international conferences
  • Managing and supervising staff
  • Working to promote Philippine interests abroad
  • Undertaking negotiations
  • Assisting Filipinos abroad and protecting their rights
  • Promoting Philippine culture and trade
  • Bringing in foreign investments and promoting tourism to the Philippines

To determine a candidate’s suitability, a five-part test is employed:

  • Qualifying Test
  • Preliminary Interview
  • Written Test
  • Pyschological Test
  • Oral Test

(I will discuss each of these parts in detail in the next chapter of this article.)

Is it tougher than the Bar?

The FSOE is notorious for being the toughest government exam, dubbed as even “tougher than the Bar”. But is it really?

Having taken both exams, I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is “tougher” than the other: both are difficult but demand different skills to succeed.

The Bar relies heavily on memorization and application of law to facts, as well as on one’s ability to write logically and persuasively. Put it simply, it’s either you know the relevant law, or you don’t. The Bar candidate will need to cull from 4 years of law school studies and 6 months of Bar review, and apply them on 8 Bar subject exams, spread over the course of four Sundays of a month.

The Bar review process is pretty tough, not only due to the mental and physical strains brought about by a rigid 6-month-long review, but also because of the fear of possibility of failing. The thought of failing the exam – of having to repeat the entire process again the following year, and of enduring shame and disappointment from one’s self, family and friends – is terrifying. Not retaking is not usually an option; otherwise the years one has spent studying the law would have been all for naught. The amount of pressure the Bar candidate endures during the Bar review process makes it “tough”.

In contrast, there is little stigma attached to failing the FSOE — that is, if anyone even knows that one is taking it at all. It’s difficult to determine anyway if a candidate has really failed the exam, or has simply dropped out of the running due to the lengthy exam process (which requires you to be in Manila for all stages of the exam, save for the first/Qualifying Test). And in case the FSOE candidate is unsuccessful, said candidate could simply continue with life as if nothing had happened. Since the passing rate is expectedly low and the exam process lengthy, it is not advisable to quit one’s job or school and simply depend on successfully hurdling the FSOE. Besides, due to the nature of the FSOE, no lengthy review/preparation is needed — at least, the kind that necessitates candidates to quit their jobs. If a candidate wishes to retake the FSOE, the candidate may do so for as many times as the she or he wishes, granted that said candidate is within the age limit of “not more than 35 years old on the day of the Qualifying Test”.

Lower passing rates don’t necessarily mean “tougher”

There is one thing the FSOE has the Bar beat: the passing rate.

Many consider the FSOE to be the “most elite government exam” because the passing rate each year has always been ridiculously low. The FSOE is usually given once a year, with a passing rate typically ranging from 1-3%. You have some years where there are only 3, 9, or 12 successful candidates.

When you compare it to the Bar exam, with a passing rate averaging 20-30%, it’s easy to see why many people proclaim the FSOE to be “tougher than the Bar”. In order to be able to compare the two exams fairly, though, we need to define what it means to be “tougher”. If a “tougher” exam means one that has a “lower passing rate”, then certainly the FSOE beats the Bar hands down. However, if a “tougher” exam means one that is “more difficult”, it will be impracticable to compare the two, as their natures and purposes are, well, different.

The Bar is a series of exams that one could pass by studying effectively. The coverage, although wide, is set. The breadth and depth of one’s preparation, as well as one’s ability to retain and apply knowledge, has a direct correlation to one’s grade. The Bar ultimately tests one thing: knowledge of the law. Not whether one’s personality is a fit for the job of a lawyer or whether one’s oral skill meets the standard. This is because the purpose of the Bar exam is simply to assess whether the examinee possesses the minimum knowledge to practice law.

On the other hand, the FSOE is not something that one could just study for and be assured of passing. This is because the purpose of the FSOE is not simply to assess whether the examinee possesses the minimum knowledge to be a career diplomat. It tests for more than that. The entire FSOE process is in essence a job application, and its purpose is to find for the DFA the most-suitable candidates for the job. As such, there is no set coverage of materials to review, unlike the Bar exam. It tests for some things (e.g. personality, common sense) that one cannot study for. There are things one could do, though, to improve one’s chances of passing some of the portions of the FSOE — these will be discussed in the next chapter.

Joining the ranks of the Foreign Service around the world

The FSOE vetting process must necessarily be stringent because of the peculiarities of the role of a career diplomat, who bears the privilege and the burden of representing the Philippine government to the world. Moreover, an FSO will be working, dealing and negotiating side-by-side with FSOs representing other countries. These FSOs are some of their countries’ best and brightest. To level the playing field, our Foreign Service must necessarily admit only the best – and best-suited – into its fold. It cannot lower its standards.

It is interesting to note that employing stringent methods to vet FSO hopefuls is not unique to our Foreign Service. I asked classmates and friends from other countries to describe their own FSO selection process, and it appears to be the norm to have a rigorous and long (i.e., lasting at least a year) FSO selection process.

India: In India, candidates are called to the Foreign Service after taking the nationwide Civil Service Examination, said to be one of the most competitive and prestigious exams in the country. According to this Wall Street Journal article, out of 400,000 people who took the exams in 2016, only about 1,000 people, or 0.02%, passed. From among those who passed, successful candidates to the Indian Foreign Service must generally be at the top of the ranking order. The recruitment and training process takes around three years to complete.

United States: I have no figures and percentages, but according the US State Department’s website, the US Foreign Service is “more selective than Harvard University”. (Update: According to a friend, 39 out of 10,000 people were admitted into the US Foreign Service during his year.)

A successful candidate must pass the Foreign Service Exam, which consists of i) a written exam (known as the Foreign Service Officer Test), ii) a personal narrative portion (where a candidate is asked a number of questions regarding his or her life experiences), and iii) and an oral assessment portion, consisting of an oral interview and a negotiating exercise. The candidate must choose a career-track (e.g. consular, economic, political) at the start of the application process.

After passing said exams, the candidate needs to undergo a medical checkup and extensive security clearance. After passing those, as well as receiving a nod from the Suitability Review Panel, the candidate’s name will be put on a list called the Register, which is rank-ordered based on candidates’ marks in the oral assessment portion of the exam. Once an orientation class opens, successful candidates are invited to join, starting from the top-ranked candidate down until the class becomes full. According to a friend, a successful US FSO candidate currently awaiting such a class invite, the entire process “could take years”.

Norway: Norwegian lawyer Marianne Barstad describes how to enter the Norwegian Foreign Service:

“Norway has a three-year trainee program for aspiring Foreign Service Workers. This is a very popular program, with 400-500 applicants each year, but usually only 10-15 people are accepted. To apply there is first a written application. Qualified candidates then take an aptitude test. A selection of candidates (roughly 80) are chosen to sit another written test. Less than half of the candidates (roughly 35) are then selected for the final round, where they take a second aptitude tests, knowledge test, language tests and then have an interview. Previous tests are available online on the Ministry’s homepage, so applicants can prepare.

If you pass, you are accepted into the trainee program. For the first two years you stay in Oslo. After an introduction course, you spend 10 months at one department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Afterwards you have six months of classes, then 5 more months at the Ministry in a new department. The last year is spent at a foreign service station somewhere in the world. On completion of the third year, candidates are given jobs as foreign service employees.

Normally, you stay at your trainee station for two more years, and then 3 years at another station. Then you return to Oslo, until your next station.”

(To be continued…)

Next chapter: The 5 Stages of the FSOE, and Strategies for Passing Each Stage.

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One thought on “So you want to join the Foreign Service? Chapter I: Demistifying the Philippine Foreign Service Officer Exam

  1. Hi, i want to ask you sine i am also planning to take the exam. Is there somewhat a choice where you get assigned? Or do they at least take your preference into consideration? I mean i fear that if i become an FSO that I might be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan….

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