The Test

The Foreign Service Exam, that portal into the exciting world of international diplomacy, is given once a year, in the spring, on the same day in thousands of locations across the country. Results of the test arrive in the mailboxes of test-takers in the fall. For some, these are not pretty.

There are four parts: multiple-choice General Knowledge, short-answer Biographical Information, an essay on a Controversial Topic, and an English Usage section. All sound benign and easy. Which is part of the plan.

Nationally, about ten thousand people take the exam. After the exam and a rigorous oral assessment, 150 to 200 people are actually chosen to be foreign service officers. The average age of an incoming foreign service officer is 28.5 years; seventy-five percent have a master’s degree. An entry-level officer can expect to earn between $29,000 and $49,000 per year—or about as much as a full-time bagger at Kowalski’s.

The exam lasts six hours, with twenty minutes reserved for lunch/self-doubt, though the emotional scarring can require up to six months of cocktail therapy. Allowed items include: two number-two pencils, a black ink pen, and a photo ID. Restricted items include: calculators, reference guides of any sort, artillery, egg salad sandwiches, and dignity. Because I compulsively put myself in awkward places, I chose to take the exam. Locally, it was administered in a lecture hall on the East Bank of the University of Minnesota, which contained 116 other candidates. Seats at the tiered tables were spaced to discourage viewing your neighbor’s answer sheet, and numbered. I was at number forty-nine, which was in the back row of the room, allowing me to observe everyone else feverishly filling up their answer sheet with general knowledge and international smarts.

Needless to say, I went down in flames. My failure of this exam set a new standard for lack of mastery, and I felt pretty bad about it. It’s true, I did not purchase the study guide. I don’t like people who buy study guides, so naturally I could not toss out my code of ethics in an instance of this importance. Instead I relied on my decades-long history of involvement in life and good standing with the public library to get me through.

General Knowledge implies the sort of pragmatic stuff that keeps a person from needing a bib—black is slimming, don’t ask if she’s had the baby yet, bloodstains come out with cold water, and blotting, blotting, blotting. I saw Hotel Rwanda.

I was shaken when it became clear I had no general knowledge. But honestly, in service in Libya, how relevant will it be to know whether it requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate or a simple majority of the House to fill the vice president’s position should he or she die in office? Anyone with more than a thimbleful of brain cells would see this section as hazing, the U.S. government way. The insidious, condescending tenor and creepy colonial overtones were carried doggedly through more than one hundred questions. At first I was troubled by being so knowledge-free, but this gave way to a ghastly parting of the veil: If this is what passes for knowledge, it’s no wonder “Death to Americans” is the national anthem of so many nations.

I was a bit fragile at the outset of Biographical Information, but how hard could it be? There were no wrong answers, but I never imagined there would be so many wrong questions. Example: “How many times in the past year have you volunteered for an unpleasant task such as cleaning up after an office party? Please describe the occasions and your tasks in the following two-inch by two-inch space.” Choices ranged from “never” to “four or more times.” Of course, “never” comes closest to the truth (if it’s truly unpleasant, I.T. does it), but how shirksome does that sound? Also, it’s general knowledge that anyone in the Foreign Service who volunteers for more than four unpleasant tasks per year is gathering more than used cups—and selling it to North Korea. First, the question practically demands a lie, and then asks you to document the perjury in detail. On and on, the same questions with minute variations. How many times in the past five years? How many times outside of work? How many times with a goat, on a train … These festering wounds were interspersed with “Did you do it?”

My will to live drained out through the number-two pencil. By the time I got to the one question I could ace—“List the names of books you’ve read in the past year dealing with other cultures”—I could not name the book I’d put down only hours earlier. In fact, I couldn’t remember any title. I searched the barren smoking plains of my mind and found zero entries under the concept “book.” And I didn’t care.

Effectively lobotomized halfway through, I was glad I’d gridded my name by darkening the appropriate ovals before the procedure. Assuming all of our foreign service officers have passed this exam, as well as the oral assessment and a spanking machine, it’s perfectly understandable that you will rot in Turkish prison over a traffic ticket.