They show up at 7 a.m. for introductions and to fill out paperwork. By 8:15, they are reading a book and have 30 minutes to prepare a briefing. They get six minutes to make their case. Then, as a group, they spend about an hour finding a consensus approach to dealing with the issues at hand.

That's not all. There's a 90-minute exercise -- writing a memo for the boss -- and there's the interview, a chance to explain their motivations while answering a series of questions. They are out the door by 6 p.m.

The latest reality TV show? No, it's the Foreign Service oral exam.

From Labor Day through May, would-be diplomats appear before State Department examiners in Washington and four other cities to be graded on their persuasive skills, grammar, reasoning and analysis, and how well they work with others. It helps to have a handle on math and to speak a foreign language or two, as well.

Applicants for the Foreign Service undergo some of the most rigorous testing used in federal government hiring. In a typical year, only one in five makes it through the process.

"We're looking for qualities that make for successful Foreign Service officers, in the early years and the later years of their careers," said Nancy M. Serpa, director of the State Department's office of recruitment, examination and employment.

John Limbert, president of the American Foreign Service Association, who became a Foreign Service officer in 1973, quipped, "I'm not sure I could get in today."

The process begins with a written exam, usually given in April. Applicants must be U.S. citizens, at least 20 years old and willing to serve at a State Department post anywhere in the world.

Before taking the written exam, Limbert said, applicants should ask themselves obvious questions: Am I interested in public service? Can I forgo creature comforts? Can I write well and fast? Do I pick up foreign languages easily? Do I have a sense of adventure?

"Some of the places that we serve in can get pretty nasty and dangerous at times," Limbert said. "You need that spirit of adventure to sustain you."

State Department data also suggest that you have to be smart and savvy to make it through the screening.

About 19,100 people took the written exam this year, and 4,400 passed. State Department officials expect about 3,900 of them to show up for oral exams. They predict that from 600 to 750 will pass that round of testing.

The last class of Foreign Service officers ranged in age from 22 to 56, and the average age of new hires is about 30. It helps to be healthy and to have a good credit rating, no record of substance abuse and a willingness to pick up and move quickly.

Applicants who survive the testing also must obtain medical and security clearances. That typically whittles the number of job contenders to about 400 to 500, who are placed on a register for hiring. Applicants are ranked on the register according to their score on the oral exam, but people who are proficient in Arabic, Chinese, Russian and other languages deemed "critical" can get bonus points and move closer to the top of the register.

To help applicants understand the hiring process, the State Department has created a special Web presentation (www.careers.state.gov). Applicants looking for tips also can turn to unofficial sources, such as the Foreign Service Written Exam Yahoo! Group (groups.yahoo.com/group/fswe).

The test and clearance process can take a year. And some applicants who make the register but have the lowest scores may never get a job offer.

As daunting as the Foreign Service exams may be, it's worth noting that the odds of getting hired have improved since the mid-1990s, when the recruitment of Foreign Service officers did not keep pace with retirements and resignations.

The department hopes to hire more than 400 Foreign Service officers annually for the next few years, prompted in part by post-9/11 demands and by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's "diplomatic readiness initiative."

By the way, the salary of a Foreign Service officer with a bachelor's degree starts at $37,900. If you are a K Street lawyer with 10 years' experience, you probably qualify for $68,300. Once overseas, Foreign Service officers receive housing and other benefits, which can range from a decent house and cost-of-living allowance in Rome to a trailer in Baghdad and danger pay.

There seems to be no shortage of adventurers. Last year, only 13 people turned down Foreign Service job offers.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com