Sunday, December 17, 2006

Foreign Service Examination a Tough Nut to Crack

Today's Week in Review section over at the New York Times has an interesting article on the Foreign Service examination. The exam's tough, and most who attempt it fail. The State Department has proposed some revisions to make the exam less quantifiable. Check it out:

THE path to the Foreign Service has always been straight and narrow: the first step is the written test, perhaps the nation’s leading smarty-pants exam. Since 1932, hundreds of thousands of applicants have grappled with a half-day of questions on geography, English usage, history, math, economics, culture and more.

“It’s like being on a golf course,” said Justin Norton, a 26-year-old who flunked the test this year and last, but wants to take it again. “You’ve got all the sand traps, the water hazards. I remember I didn’t understand the question about economies of scale. I remember something about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. And sometimes even when I knew it, like a question about George Kennan and containment policy, I got it wrong anyway.”

It is not an easy exam to study for. The State Department suggests reading a good daily newspaper for a year. There are prep books, and at places with lots of applicants, like the Fletcher School at
Tufts University, maybe even a study group. But mostly, people prepare on their own, looking through a world atlas, the Constitution or the word problems they did on the SAT.

Still, the exam gets rid of most applicants. More than three-quarters of the 17,000 to 20,000 who take the exam each year flunk. Even those who pass often remember for years the lacunae in their general knowledge exposed by the test. Where, exactly, are the pampas? What countries neighbor Tunisia?

The test is more about breadth than depth. So for a question about Etruscan vases, the applicant might need to know that the Etruscans preceded the Romans in Italy, but nothing more.

Those who pass the exam go on to an oral interview, where they are hammered with questions and situations by several Foreign Service officers, and the best performer gets the job.

But now, the State Department wants to try a new approach, a bit less quantifiable. At the suggestion of McKinsey & Company, the management consultants, it plans to revamp the process to evaluate what it calls “the Total Candidate,” The Washington Post disclosed last week. The written exam will stay largely the same, although streamlined and given by computer, instead of bubble-sheet and bluebook. Online, the exam will be given more often, to speed the recruitment process, one of the State Department’s main goals.

As applicants register for the exam, they will submit an online “structured résumé” describing their work experience, foreign residence, leadership experience and language abilities, among other things. Then, on the basis of the test results and résumé, combined in some undisclosed metric, a screening committee will decide who goes on to the oral assessment.

Some Foreign Service officers, past and present, applaud the new approach:

“Testing people on their general knowledge, their ability to parse questions, is a poor standard for bringing people into the Foreign Service,” said Mark Van Fleet, who was posted in Thailand for five years. “You get people who are well educated, and understand the relationship of inflation and interest rates. But the test doesn’t measure more important things, like good judgment.”

Be sure to take the article's sample quiz reflecting typical questions from the real Foreign Service exam (I scored five out of six, missing question #1).

Critics of the reforms note that the nonpartisan rationale in State Department hiring will be weakened, opening the doors to more political appointments, or to those simply less qualified.

My Dad was always encouraging me to take the Foreign Service exam. Dad worked for
the Army Civilian Service Corps in the 1960s, and a few of his friends were Foreign Service Officers. When I attended Fresno State I got copies of the State Department's practice exam, plus information on exam dates and locations (back then the exam was offered only twice a year, and one had to travel to San Francisco to take it).

I studied international relations with a State Department career in mind. Utimately, I became more interesting in pursuing a Ph.D. in political science, and a career as a professor. Today, in my American government classes I discuss the federal government's hiring process with students, and I relate to them this story on my interest in taking the Foreign Service exam. In my World Politics course in 2001, I had a State Department recruitment officer -- a career diplomat -- visit the class and explain the nature of the job. At least one of my students went on to take exam.

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