Finding Tomorrow's Diplomats

By Stephen Barr
Monday, July 30, 2007

It has been an annual ritual for decades -- a seven-hour written exam, offered once a year, taken by about 18,000 U.S. citizens with yearnings to serve their country as diplomats.

But, starting in September, the State Department will change how Foreign Service officers are selected and hired. The new approach is called "total candidate" -- an effort to make the department more competitive in targeting and recruiting smart and skilled Americans.

With the change, the written test gets shorter, taking about three hours. Answers will be entered into a computer, instead of on paper. The test also will be given 32 times a year, instead of once.

While the test will be shorter, getting into the Foreign Service will remain something of a long shot. Only a few hundred applicants each year usually make it through the hiring process, and officials promise that the department's merit-based, rigorous approach will not be diluted.

"We're confident that people who do well on the test are people who have high potential to be effective Foreign Service officers," said Marianne Myles, director of recruitment, examination and employment for the State Department.

The change in the department's hiring approach comes as the Foreign Service strains to fill hardship posts abroad, recruit Arabic, Chinese and Farsi speakers, and keep up with demand for passports and consular services.

An estimate by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service shows that State will need to hire close to 1,400 Foreign Service employees during the next two years to offset retirements and cope with increased workloads. The department only has about 7,000 diplomats and any increase would have to win congressional approval.

But the new hiring approach at State should make it easier to ramp up Foreign Service hiring. Instead of taking an average of 14 months to hire for the Foreign Service, Myles said the new approach should cut hiring times by half, to within seven months.

The new process retains the day-long oral examination aimed at checking out how well applicants can think on their feet, offer speedy solutions and know when to assert their leadership skills and when to blend in as team players.

But getting an invitation to the oral assessment has dramatically changed.

As part of a new online registration process, diplomatic hopefuls will fill out a basic application form and write a "personal narrative" that lays out their work and life experiences.

The narrative requires responses to questions designed to allow applicants to write about what opportunities they have had to show leadership, their opportunities to interact with people from another culture and under what circumstances, and other work and life experiences.


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