Preparing for the Foreign Service (without studying)

So you want to be a Foreign Service Officer? You’ve read the news, you’ve learned a foreign language, you’ve purchased FSOT study guides? Great! You’re heading in the right direction. But being in the foreign service is much more than just a matter of perfecting your writing abilities and mastering your interview answers: the foreign service is a lifestyle. Those who are serious about joining should extend their preparations beyond the professional world; they should prepare their personal lives as well.

How do you do that? I’m here to tell you a few salient things I’ve picked up from the almost two year journey of joining the foreign service.1. Embrace minimalism: Since taking the FSOT, I have moved three times: Okinawa to Dallas, Dallas to Cambridge, Cambridge to Arlington. This has been a blessing in disguise, as each time I’ve been forced to confront every item I own and decide whether or not it is worth taking on the next leg of the journey. As I got progressively closer to an FS offer, I got more and more brutal. For the past year, I have kept track of every item of clothing I own. If I have put it on and taken it off twice without wearing it (exceptions made for weather and level of formality), it went in a bag to donate. Over the last year I have donated 6 paper grocery bags worth of clothing. That’s 6 bags of things that I didn’t need anymore that I no longer need to haul around the world with me.

If you haven’t read Kondo Marie’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying-Up, don’t worry, neither have I. But it’s on my to-read list, as I think it should be for every FSO. One of her key premises is that everything you own should bring you joy. I’ve adapted this and have my own mantra. Every time I consider buying something, I ask myself two questions. 1) Is this something that I want to have to move across the world every two years? and 2) Is this something that I want to take up some portion of my government approved 18,000 lbs of stuff? If I have questions about either of these, I pass.

2. Up your social media game: You’re going to be far away. Even if you’re in Mexico or Canada, your work schedule will keep you busy and you’ll be experiencing a new culture, which means that your life will be remarkably different than that of your loved ones back in the U.S. You’re the one who chose to leave, so the brunt of the burden of staying in touch should fall on you. Luckily, there are now a myriad of ways to do this. Learn about the social media options out there, and figure out what’s going to work best for the people you want to stay close to. Note, I didn’t say what’s best for you. I personally love snapchat, but my grandmother won’t do that; she gets emails. My best friend and I communicate with facebook messenger. Grad school friends are on group.me.

Once you’ve figured out the best ways for you to communicate with everyone, make a point of doing so regularly. Set a goal for yourself, and make sure you stick with it. And don’t just send pictures of your adventures abroad. Remember, you’re goal isn’t to become an instagram “it-girl” (or boy), but to strengthen and maintain your relationships. So share the small things from your everyday life! What does your grocery store look like abroad? What does your dog think about your new house? What do you eat for lunch? These are the things that will help your loved ones, no matter how far away they are, feel close to you. After all, you’re showing them your life, unfiltered, like they were there with you.

3. Master following directions: “Wait, didn’t I do that in kindergarten?” you may be asking yourself. But here’s the thing: there are directions, and then there are directions. The former are things like, “get in a single-file line.” The latter is much, much more specific and requires basically ninja-level bureaucratic document interpreting ability. At the State Department, we pride ourselves on our foreign language skills. In order to have a successful career as a FSO, you need to speak more than one language. But, I’d argue that in addition to our proficiency on various international languages, we all need to speak government as well. Luckily, the entire FSO application process does a pretty good job of preparing you for this! Just make sure you read and follow all the directions extremely carefully every step of the way, and ensure that doing so doesn’t bother you. If you become an FSO, you’re starting an amazing career. Following directions is just one small (but crucial) part of it.

 

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