Tuesday, January 25


It’s time for Jose Melendez’s KEYS TO THE FOREIGN SERVICE EXAM.

1. One of Jose’s little known hobbies is attempting to get in to the U.S. Foreign Service. Every year he tries, and every year he fails. (Note: By every year, he means two years.) It’s not that Jose is looking to leave his job, he likes his job, it’s just that the examination process takes so long that, he has to get started just in case he decides not to like his job at a future date. This year Jose failed in December, and he’s been meaning to write about it for some time, but, as you know, things came up, the Red Sox signed ER, the WWF introduced a questionable Arab-American stereotype…important issues that could not wait. Also, Jose had to deal with some legal issue before writing about the Foreign Service Exam. Apparently, the "non-disclosure agreement" he signed was "legally binding." Who knew? Needless to say, Jose doesn’t want Condi Rice kicking in his front door. She may be anorexic, but she might still kick Jose’s ass. So Jose will stick scrupulously to the already public information, and honor his agreement completely. Nope, Jose won’t say a thing about the swordsmanship test. Though he does wonder why he had to be naked for it?

2. The Foreign Service Exam is basically divided into two completely separate parts, months apart designed to test one’s fitness for diplomacy, or more likely, whether one conforms strictly to a type. The first part is a written exam taken by about 30,000 people per year. The written exam consists of four sections. There are two essays where one must write a quick commentary in response to a question like "Should children be allowed to carry guns to school?" or "Some say the designated hitter makes baseball more exciting, others say it is a war crime. Pick a side and argue persuasively using good logic and grammar." Nothing too exciting.

The next section is a biographical section where candidates are asked questions like "How many books on foreign cultures have you read in the last year? Name them." Is sounds easy doesn’t it? Bu then there is the little disclaimer that all claims are subject to FBI verification. While this disclaimer is made substantially less frightening by the revelation that the FBI is conducting investigations using old Commodore 64 computers, it still makes one think carefully about whether one read "Coming of Age in Samoa" 12 months ago or 13 months ago before writing it down. (Note: And you know that under the Patriot Act the FBI can get your library records to confirm the date you returned the book. So don’t think they’ll never find out.) The third section is a basic test of English grammar, wherein they give candidates a text with blanks in it and ask which of four options would best fill the blank. For example:

The U.S. and Canada have the world’s longest demilitarized border. This is due to the fact that the two countries _______________ and have extensive trading relations.

share strategic interests
Cher strategic interests
share Stratego interests
share strategic unrest,

Fairly straightforward isn’t it? Jose uses process of elimination to solve questions like this. He knows B is wrong because Celine Dionne is Canada’s diva, not Cher. He know C is wrong because the pieces for Stratego, a military board game, do not have a maple leaf on them. Finally, he knows A is wrong because, as any elementary school student knows, sharing a hat, a comb or strategic interests can all lead to head lice transmission. So by process of elimination, the answer is D "share strategic unrest."

The final section of the written exam is what Jose like to think of as the cocktail party examination or the Trivial Pursuit examination. (Note: Though lamentably no cocktails or plastic pieces of pie, either real or plastic, are provided.) In this section, the State Department asks simple questions about all manner of human endeavor. Some questions are about the U.S. Constitution, others are about geography, management philosophies or world history, and there seems to always be at least one questions about bebop jazz. Needless, to say, as a master of the unimportant, Jose dominates this segment.

It appears to be one of those tests that either one is very good at or very bad at. Jose has passed it twice, and is fairly sure that he could pass it every time if he took it every day for the rest of his life. Other people Jose knows, very bright people, very educated people don’t seem to be able to pass it. But if you can pass it, you are the sort of person the State Department is looking for, and the test seems to know. Jose knows a story of one person who smoked far too much weed and took the written exam every year on the theory that the year he failed the Foreign Service Exam would be the year that he had done enough damage to his brain and would have to quit drugs.

3. The lucky 3,000 or so who pass the written exam receive the honor of going to exotic locales like Washington D.C. or Stamford Connecticut AT THEIR OWN EXPENSE to take the oral examination. This is where Jose has a problem. The Oral exam kicks his ass. The first time he took the test, Jose failed all three sections. Yes, it was perhaps, the biggest whoopin’ of Jose’s life. Jose is use to barely failing to make the grade, not missing by a mile; it was a disorienting experience. This year he was able to pass two of the three sections and come close to passing the test. But here is the trick – passing the test does not secure one a job. No, no! If one barely passes the test, one will almost certainly not get a job. Passing merely gets one on the civil service list. One must score significantly better than the bare minimum passing grade to actually get a job. Let’s put it this way, if Jose takes the Oral exam again, and improves as much from the second to the third time as he did from the first to the second he still wouldn’t get a job. Like Jose said, this test kicks his ass.

But what is the Oral exam? Well, it comes in three sections all designed to identify whether candidates posses the "12 dimensions" of a Foreign Service Officer. The dimensions are characteristics like integrity, composure and written communication and despite their name "dimensions," they have little, if anything, to do with string theory. The first section is a group exercise wherein four or five candidates are brought into a room and each is given a dossier of information on a fictional country like Latveria or Freedonia. Each candidate is given a project in that country and a stack of memos arguing for and against it. Each candidate then presents on his project for five minutes before the group must decide on what projects to fund. Lamentably the projects always seem to have something to do with things like fire engines, jackelope refuges or "food" for the "hungry." Rarely, if ever, do they have anything to do with CIA backed coups or battling Goldfinger.

The second exercise is an administrative exercise wherein one receives the inbox of a new staffer in the same fictional country as in the group exercise. The inbox reveals a whole host of problems to be managed that, frankly, make Jose a little worried about the state of our diplomatic corps. If this exercise is to be believed, every embassy is awash petty rivalries, huge egos and termites…lots and lots of termites.

The final exercise is a structured interview. The interview is divided into two parts. In the first, the two examiners pose hypothetical questions and ask how the candidate would react. Theoretically, the candidate is not actually required to know how an embassy operates. Jose always found this disconcerting. When the questions is something like "Everyone more senior is away on a fact finding mission to a local hog farm, when a tribe of pygmies takes over the government of your host country. What do you do?" Jose always wants to answer, "Well, if Jose had advanced to this level, he likes to think that he would have, you know, TRAINING OF SOME KIND!!!"

The other portion of the structured interview consists of the examiners giving the candidate several of the dimensions and asking him to give examples of times when he has exhibited these characteristics. When they asked Jose how he had exhibited composure in the past, he longed to say "Well, Jose made it through the entire World Series without a single drink without his head exploding. How’s that for composure?" But he resisted. Perhaps he should have gone with his gut, as the structured interview was the only section he failed.

(Note to Condi Rice: See Condi, nothing that violated the agreement there. So please don’t disqualify Jose from future consideration. And if you must, remember you have to buy a copy of the KEYS BOOK to learn Jose’s real name. Umm…not that Jose’ real name isn’t Jose Melendez)

I’m Jose Melendez, and those are my KEYS TO THE FOREIGN SERVICE EXAM.


Anonymous said...

Utterly off-topic but I wanted to make sure Jose was aware that the new Sox acquisition, minor-leaguer Ian Bladergroen, almost has an umlaut issue like Bill Mueller, except for the fact that Bladergroen is a Dutch name and apparently the Dutch language doesn't bother with silly little umlauts. Standing alone, the "groen" part of it does translate directly to "green" in Dutch and, as Jose undoubtedly knows because of his demonstrated proficiency in German, would translate to "Grün" in German. Talk about a close call!

I also thought I'd take the opportunity to note that as per the Dutch-to-English translator at http://www.altavista.com, "bladergroen" means "booklet of the greenness." This can mean only one thing: Ian Bladergroen actually is Jose Melendez, whose outstanding debut book does in fact have a green cover!!! (Such skill at covert operations ought to put Jose in good stead in his potential quest to join the US Foreign Service, except for the fact that he was exposed so easily.) One catch though is that the English-to-Dutch translator at http://www.altavista.com says that "booklet of the greenness" translates in het Nederlands not to "bladergroen" but "boekje van de groenheid." Another little catch is that in the Dutch-to-English translator at http://www.altavista.com "boekje van de groenheid" translates in English to "notebook of greenness." Furthermore, the English-to-Dutch translator at http://www.altavista.com says "notebook of greenness" translates in het Nederlands not to "bladergroen" but "notitieboekje van groenheid." Fortunately, the translation of "notitieboekje van groenheid" back to English is where this sorry little odyssey finally draws to a close, except for the hyphen in "note-book of greenness," but I won't mention that.

If and when the day comes that Ian Bladergroen is promoted to the Boston Red Sox, it is my sincere hope that my research effort will help inspire a nickname for him that has nothing to do with groaning bladders.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jose,
You described the FSE very well; however, here's the new twist they pull. In the old days (1970s-1980s), they 'curbed' the testing results so more women & minorities could pass the written exam & enter the FS. After the State Dept was exposed for this 'adjusting' the test scores(i.e. cheating) during the Clinton administration, they changed the way to eliminate White males by leaving the test scores alone and using the all-day, oral interviews to weed out the White males candidates. Otherwise, how can anyone explain that I failed the written exam for years & and then, after the test curbing was exposed, I just walked in and passed the written test --but subsequently failed the interview stage because I was deemed "not aggressive enough" for the Foreign Service. What a mess!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

it's quite a good description of the FSE. But as mentionned, the test has nothing to do with race but with proven skills that have to be shown. It's important to be well prepared. People who have work experience with government before may find it easier to answer some questions. Once again, you need to show your skills and how they will help do your job efficiently. If are unable to do it, then you won't be chosen no matter what color you are.

Anonymous said...


As I write this, I'm in the SFO airport, waiting to catch my final flight home to Portland. I took the oral assessment (I wish they'd change the name of that) and, like you, got my ass kicked. Unlike you, once was enough.

Jokes aside, the people who took the exam with me were freakishly qualified. I don't begrudge the ones who made it. They take the work and the preparation seriously. One of the guys I took the test with was polished, brilliant—and took the test in Baghdad wearing body armor, because he was an Army captain at the time.

If you passed two of the three the second time, by all means, keep preparing and try again. You'll probably make it.

Or, face fiery destruction.

Up to you.

Anonymous said...


As I write this, I'm in the SFO airport, waiting to catch my final flight home to Portland. I took the oral assessment (I wish they'd change the name of that) this week, and, like you, got my ass kicked. Unlike you, once was enough.

Jokes aside, the people who took the assessment with me were freakishly qualified. I don't begrudge the ones who made it. They take the work and the preparation seriously. One of the guys I took the test with was polished, brilliant—and also had taken the written test in Baghdad wearing body armor, because he was an Army captain at the time.

If you passed two of the three the second time, by all means, keep preparing and try again. You'll probably make it.

Or, face another round of fiery destruction.

Up to you.