Yesterday I proctored the Foreign Service Written Exam (FSWE) in Seoul. The testing site was the only one in Korea, and Americans came from all over the country to take the exam. The exam, held once a year each April, is the first step one takes to become a Foreign Service officer, or diplomat, working for the U.S. Department of State. Reader Editfish, an aspiring diplomat, thoroughly details the FSWE on his excellent blog, Tumbleweeds. He sat for the exam in the U.S. yesterday and is hopefully well on his way to joining the Foreign Service. (Editfish, let me know how it went!) I wish him and everyone who took the exam yesterday success. Editfish should find out in July whether he passed the exam and will go on the next step, the Oral Assessment (FSOA). The FSOA is not just an interview–it includes a group exercise, a structured interview, and a case analysis. Once a Foreign Service candidate has passed the FSWE, FSOA, and received both medical and security clearances, he or she is ranked according to their FSOA score, and their name is added to a job register. Then, they wait until they’re offered a position as an FSO. Joining the Foreign Service is a competitive and frequently arduous process. Of the 31,500 applicants who applied to join the Foreign Service in 2003, just 500 entered the Foreign Service. It can be heart-breaking for many who don’t make it, because once they are eliminated from contention, they have to start all over and take the FSWE again. The FSWE is held once a year at various locations around the world. If you are interested in the Foreign Service and missed your chance this year, plan ahead for 2007 and study for the exam and register for the 2007 FSWE early next year. To be eligible, you must be an American citizen between 21 and 59.5 years of age. Other than that, there are no other conditions–you can be a truck driver, lawyers, domestic engineer, you name it. You’re only limited by your interest and ability to pass a series of high hurdles required to enter the Foreign Service.
I digress. Several years ago I took the FSWE and passed. I remember taking the exam in a big lecture hall on the University of Washington campus. The testing conditions then were far better than what test takers faced yesterday in Seoul. I felt so bad for them! I hope they pass the exam despite the challenging testing conditions. Most of the test-takers took the test in a garage. I am not kidding! A garage. The most hilarious moment of the day was when I saw two signs next to each other. One read:
Foreign Service Written Exam site
Vehicle Maintenance and Repair Shop
Very inauspicious, indeed. Imagine taking an exam in a garage. Makeshift wooden desks with folding chairs sat amidst automobile service equipment. After entering through the garage door, you’re bombarded by the odor of tires and grease. If that wasn’t enough, you then found yourself breathing in yellow sand from the Gobi Desert seeping into the garage. Yesterday was one of the worst days of yellow sand on record. It was absolutely terrible, and the exam takers were subjected to fumes and yellow sand throughout the exam. The garage was also cold because, well, most garages are not heated.
Why did they have to take the exam in a garage? The Embassy in Seoul has limited space to host a large number of FSWE test takers. Despite the less-than-ideal testing conditions, I think that many of the applicants will pass the exam and move on to the FSOA. The testing conditions reminded me of an oft-heard phrase in the Foreign Service–"Suck it up." In spite of how bad things are, just go ahead and do it. In this case, the test takers–and the proctors–literally had to suck it up. Yellow sand and fumes, that is. Things could have been worse.