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The Foreign Service Exam – Finding a More Diverse FSO

The process to become a Foreign Service Officer is long and grueling. If you successfully pass the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) multiple choice and essay questions, you then are asked to submit a personal narrative to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP), which will determine if you will be invited to take the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), a day-long assessment comprising a written assessment, structured oral interview, and a structured group exercise. It is extremely competitive — of the approximately 20,000 people who take the FSOT each year, only about 500-700 are actually offered positions in the Foreign Service, about 2-3%.

Previous versions of the exam had their share of critics, however, and were determined to have been biased. In 1976, Alison Palmer filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of State for violating the Civil Rights Act after failing to get several higher ranked positions in the Foreign Service.

After several years of litigation, a 1989 court order found that the Department had discriminated against women in the written portion of the Foreign Service Officer Test. The State Department was then restricted in administering written exams that had adverse impacts on women. The Palmer case has significantly shaped the hiring process and bureaucracy within the Department of State and Foreign Service, not just for women but for minorities.

In addition, the 1980 Foreign Service Act states that the diplomatic service should represent the American people in all aspects. While considerable progress has been made in this regard, there are still issues. As former ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Edward Perkins noted in a 2015 Washington Post op-ed, according to the latest statistics, 82 percent of Foreign Service officers are white, while only seven percent are Asian American, 5.4 percent are African American, and 5 percent are Latino.

William Morgan, a member of the Board of Examiners (or BEX in State Department parlance) from 1973-74, discusses the efforts made to increase diversity in the Service; he was first interviewed by Lester Elliot Sadlow in 1995. Leonardo Neher served as Staff Director of the Board of Examiners from 1979–81, and notes the challenges of getting more diversity in the Foreign Service and how they addressed that by putting more emphasis on the English and general background sections over the job knowledge portions. Margaret Dean was the Director of the Board served in 2007; both were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy.

Read this companion piece on redesigning the FSOT. Check out these Moments on the changing role of women in the Foreign Servicewomen FSO’s in the 1950s and 60s, and being black in a “lily white” State Department.” You can also view this PBS special on diversity. 


“We had one, overriding rule — ‘Don’t hire in your own image'”

William D. Morgan, Board of Examiners, 1973 – 1974

MORGAN: The Board of Examiners…is the body which administers the oral examination to all candidates who wish to come into the Foreign Service as Foreign Service Officers. It also is responsible for screening and recruiting clerical staff employees, such as secretaries, for Security Officers, and for other specialists.

However, the biggest chunk of the job I was in — not in terms of numbers of people but in terms of effort — was the administration of the FSO oral exams. With the exception of certain, special programs,… all candidates had to take a written exam. When I came into the Foreign Service, it was a three-day exam. When I was on the Board of Examiners, it was a one-day exam. As I recall it, roughly 200,000 people took the written exam, and 20,000 passed it and 200 pass the oral.

I would have to reject out of hand the suggestion that we were looking for any particular candidates, from the demographic point of view. We saw young people right out of university and older ones as well. After all, they were people who had signed up for the oral exam, so they weren’t going to come at us in an aggressive way….

We had people right out of university and an awful lot of candidates from the Peace Corps. There were a lot of people from the military who had had, perhaps, a tour in Germany for five years, or whatever. There were a lot of candidates from teaching positions at the universities.

We had a man — a very distinguished gentleman 52 years old. He had run the space program at Cape Kennedy, as it was called then; now it’s again called Cape Canaveral. It was mind boggling. He was a man who was a GS-17, or at least a very senior Civil Service employee. He was coming in to be a junior officer in the State Department!…

The applicant had to be of a qualifying age, which was 21 to 55, to take the written exam. If he passed the written and the oral and was still under 55, we had to appoint him. We couldn’t say, “You’re going to have a terrible time as a junior officer” and make this a basis for refusal…..

We wanted truly competitive, good officers….We had one, overriding rule. We had a psychiatrist available who advised us, trained us, and worked with us all the time. He helped us tremendously. The rule was, “Don’t hire in your own image.”

What he meant by that was that it is only natural to identify somebody in front of you as a candidate who is in your own image — somebody who thinks, acts, and looks like you, is a male like you, is white like you, and is all of those other things. We were all very conscious of that.

“We were very conscious that we did not have a proportionate number of women and, above all, a proportionate number of minorities”

Also, we were very conscious that we did not have a proportionate number of women and, above all, a proportionate number of minorities, especially blacks. We had a few Asians, and the same was true with Hispanics.

However, there were very, very few African Americans. They didn’t come to us. They either felt that the Foreign Service wasn’t for them or their own backgrounds led them to more lucrative opportunities.

So, yes, when we had a Black or female candidate, without tilting or varying the score, or anything else, we did our best to make sure that the questions we put to them took into consideration the fact that they weren’t white, male, Anglo-Saxon, and from an Ivy League school.

You might ask, “How do you do that?” Well, you don’t do it under instructions from higher authorities in the State Department. There were no — and I understand that, as of very recently, there still are no — “instructions” on what to do with “ethnic” or female candidates.

However, if you’re trying to follow the general guidance of the Secretary of State and the United States Government, which encourages “opening up” and “diversity” and we found somebody from North Dakota, we were cheered to see him or her.

Now, do you “tilt” the examination? No. Do you recognize that maybe that person hasn’t been exposed to some of the things involved in foreign affairs which somebody from Massachusetts has been exposed to?

The highest scores which I ever gave in my life were to two applicants from South Dakota, who had graduated from a college with an unpronounceable name. But they knew a former Foreign Service Officer who had retired, resigned, or whatever, and was heading the Department of Foreign Affairs in their college. He had turned out classes that were incredible. These people were brilliant, I inferred from the candidates in front of us.

They had developed minds, personalities, and so forth. If I remember the panel scores correctly — the oral game was given in Chicago — we gave them 100%. This had never been done before. But they were just mind boggling. Were we influenced by the fact that they came from South Dakota? Maybe subconsciously. Maybe we were just very pleased to see two wonderfully turned out people from a place from which no one had ever entered the Foreign Service, except Secretary of State Warren Christopher. I think that he’s from South Dakota.

Leonardo Neher, Staff  Director, Board of Examiners, 1979 – 1981

NEHER:  If you give this examination to anybody who walks into an examination anywhere across the country, you always have virtually the same passing ratio among your candidates. I’m speaking, of course, about my own time at the Board.

Let’s say you have a certain pass rate for minorities. For women, all women, you have twice that pass rate. For all men, you have twice the women’s pass rate. It’s a 1-2-4 ratio, and you cannot seem to change it no matter how you try in the selection of questions or what objective standards you set in the process. If you have the questions that are based on the job description, that exam, you’re going to get a 1-2-4 pass rate.

The problem is that today we cannot accept such a discriminatory rate. We cannot hire at a 1-2-4 rate. You can’t do it that way. So you have to start looking for modifications, how to get a fair share of women and minorities? The first question you ask is, why do you have this kind of distribution?

And it turns out that, in fact, the people who score high on the exam are people who have been interested in foreign affairs, have developed pertinent skills, have studied hard in good colleges. They have subscribed to magazines. They belong to associations. It’s the ones who have had the most rigorous educations and who are very much involved who get the high scores.

For example, I was just recently over at the Board of Examiners. I was thinking of doing something for the Foreign Service Journal, or for State Magazine or whatever, on that examination process and the dilemma they have now where that might lead them to abandon the written exam. And I noticed that most of the universities and colleges in the country had pass rates that were very low. In fact, most of them had a zero percent pass rate on the 1987 written exam, the last one I looked at.

“[Men are] not smarter than the women or the minorities, but they’ve had more relevant studies, perhaps more rigor”

College — you go down the line and start looking at colleges. Take a whole lot of colleges and most of the colleges have a zero percent pass rate. That is, of all the people who graduate from those colleges, none of them pass.

Because I was interested in the question of pass rates for women and men on this exam and at educational backgrounds, I looked at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Smith, Bryn Mawr and Vassar, and everyone had around a 60 percent pass rate.

People who had been educated in these schools passed the exam at a 60 percent rate, compared to zero percent for those from most other schools. You have to say, “Why do you have 60 percent of the women from Bryn Mawr pass, and 60 percent of the men from Princeton, and yet your national ratio is a 1-2-4?”

It tells you, first, who’s showing up for the exam. The people who are coming in to sit for the written exam, especially the women all across the country, are less qualified by formal education. It’s either a choice of academic concentration or a lack of rigor in the systems through which they have come. They apparently have shown less interest and have less experience than the men in relevant activities.

More of the men have had this kind of background. They’re not smarter than the women, or the minorities, but they’ve had more relevant studies, perhaps more rigor, and they’ve been interested in these things.

I was at BEX during the Carter administration, which was very strongly committed, philosophically and politically, to more balance of gender and ethnicity in the Foreign Service. And if you’re committed to the examination process, as I had to be as Staff Director of BEX, you’ve got to ask, “How do we get a pass rate on the examination that is approximately equal for men and women, and how do we get enough minorities through a system based on an examination?”

That’s a dilemma, and the pressures on the Board of Examiners, on me in particular, were enormous. I won’t mention who it was, but one of the senior people involved actually had to go to the toilet and vomit. I mean repeatedly. The pressures were that intense. I didn’t have that reaction, but there were some people who couldn’t take that kind of pressure.

Here’s an example of the kind of problem we faced. We had a very attractive young black woman who missed the oral exam by one point. She had been recommended and coached by a high official of the Department of State, who was determined to see that she passed the examination and entered the Foreign Service. She would no doubt have made a good officer, but she hadn’t passed the exam. And as defender of the integrity of the exam, you have to say “no.” And you’ve have to say “no” against pressures from almost the very top of the State Department. Terrible pressures, but you have to say “no.”….

They have to have an examination structured so that that they pass at the same rate as men do. And I believe that’s what the court has ordered, that the rate of passing must be the same, without weighting.

What we did there — and it worked effectively for a number of years that we did it all the time I was there for the men and women ratio — is that we had the examination scored on the English expression test, and the general background test, and then the for the four separate cones:  political, economic, consular and administrative.

The first year that I came to the Board, and it was too late to make any changes in the examination that was going to be given in December, was that there were 100 questions on the English expression, and 100 on the general background. Then there were a number of questions on each of the cones, but these were not scored as pass-fail. It was only the first two, and you could actually get an even pass rate of men and women by setting the cut scores of those two scored exams.

The higher you raised the cut score — the cut score is the raw score that you choose to convert to seventy, the minimum passing grade — the higher you raised it on the English expression, the greater proportion of women passed, and the lower you moved it on the general background, the higher percentage of women you got through the part.

So if you’re going to have a 2-to-1 men-to-women raw pass rate, which is the normal for this exam — say that 30 percent of the men would pass and only 15 percent of the women, you raise your cut score on one, and lower your cut score on the other and you get 20-20. You get 20 percent pass rate for women. Twenty percent of all the women who took the exam passed it. Twenty percent of all the men who took the exam passed it. You have equal pass rates.

“The FSOT is the single place in the selection process where the adverse impact takes place”

Margaret M. Dean , Staff  Director, Board of Examiners, 2007

DEAN: We worked with our industrial psychologist to set the lowest cut score that we could have and still defend the FSOT as generating the quality we needed. (Go here to read her account on redesigning the FSOT.)

The cut score for the overall T-score [used to tell individuals how far their score is from the mean] for the combined three elements (English Expression, Job Knowledge and the Biographic section) was 154.

The cut score for each of the individual components of the test was set at a T-score of 50 percentile, meaning that if half the applicants scored below 94 (on a 100-point scale) and half scored 95 and above, we would only invite the top 50%.

Actually a candidate could score below 50 on an individual test component, but the combined score of the three multiple choice components has to be more than 154. Only those candidates who score 154 have their essay graded. The selection process is explained in greater detail on our website at

And the reason we set the cut score just above the half-way mark was because the FSOT (and its predecessor, the FSWE [Foreign Service Written Exam]) is the single place in the selection process where the adverse impact takes place. The bio information, the psycho babble part of the questionnaire, actually helps women a little bit and it was put in there as a result of the women’s class action suit.

The English grammar part doesn’t cause women any special problems. Subsequent data analysis shows that this system does generate a different, and more diverse, cadre of candidates to invite to the interview….

That’s perhaps true. It is the job knowledge part that sinks the boat for minority candidates in particular. I remember the statistics for Black candidates:  if Black candidates are nine percent of the applicant pool, they come through FSWE at about four percent. So they pass at about a 45% rate. If white men are passing at a rate of over 55% there is statistical adverse impact. In the stats we have kept over the last years our adverse impact situation has improved considerably.

Blacks go through the total candidate review, the QEP (Qualifications Evaluation Panel), at a steady rate. They come through the oral assessment (FSOA) at a steady rate. So there’s really only one part of the selection process that generates adverse impact. By setting the cut score on the FSWE slightly above average we ensured that we had the largest, qualified, diverse group of candidates possible.

As the new second step we introduced a file review where three assessors review the candidate’s job application with its education and work history and read six mini-essays (300 words or so) responding to questions based on the promotion precepts. For example, tell us about a time when you showed your leadership skills. This second step is called the Qualifications Evaluation Process (QEP).

In this section every applicant in a specific career track is rank ordered and those above the cut score are invited to the Oral Assessment (FSOA). The criteria for setting the cut score uses a similar algorithm to the one mentioned above, just now the control valve is at the QEP stage instead of at the FSOT stage.

Then the third and last step (the Oral Assessment) remains the same:  the group exercise, the personal interview and the case management writing exercise.

In addition we have targeted hiring programs, like the Pickering and Rangel [Fellowship] programs, but these people must succeed in passing the Oral Assessment.

Minority candidates. Well, The programs are not allowed in their selection process to discriminate on the basis of race and national origin. There is an economic need-based criterion and 20 or 30 percent of those in the programs actually are poor white and a mix of other minorities….

The focus has been on African-Americans for us because they are in fact the group that is the lowest ranking. Other minorities do better. What we compare our rates against are Department of Labor standards:  we look at the minority’s percentage of the population; we look at the percent of their college graduate population in the country’s college graduate population.

We compare those figures to the percentage that we are hiring. We look at the professional population for that minority. We compare the percentage of people who are working in professional level jobs with the percentage of the minority of that population that we hire. So if Hispanics are 10 percent of the professional population in the U.S., we aim for more.

“That was the ultimate criterion:  Would the candidate after five years stand a chance of competing with all FSOs at that grade level?”

MORGAN:  I also was chairman of our Equal Opportunity program geared to appointment to the FSO corps if you were a qualified minority. The Equal Opportunity Office in the Department of State referred cases to us. These applicants were screened by them and us for academic credentials and other considerations.

If they were found eligible by the Equal Opportunity Office in the Department and BEX, we gave them an oral exam — the same oral exam that we gave to all other candidates.

However, there is where we did “filter in” their differences of background. I will never, ever, forget the case of an absolutely charming young woman. I think that she was in graduate school, an African American from Howard University or maybe she was from Georgetown.

She was so charming and energetic and so wanted to pass the exam, which lasted for two or three hours. In this event we couldn’t find her competitive. We all just sat there, absolutely silent. I was the chairman of the panel, and it included a Black FSO examiner.

Finally, I said, “We’ve got to decide. Let’s do it on paper.” Sometimes, we handled cases like this orally, or by nodding our heads, because it was so obvious that it was a “failure” or a “pass.” Then we negotiated the numbers on various parts of the exam. You wrote those numbers on separate pieces of paper.

The three examiners would write down their evaluation: 70, 72, or 73. Then we would average them. If one evaluation was 90 and another was 70, then we had a discussion of a difference that great. Failure was 69. You didn’t have to go any lower.

I think that, in this case, the three of us sat there. We wanted to cry. We said, “She tried so hard, but she just doesn’t have it. She is not competitive. She hasn’t demonstrated the skills today that, even with special training and good leadership, she will within five years be competitive with the non-minority entrants. That was the ultimate criterion:  Would the candidate after five years stand a chance of competing with all FSOs at that grade level?

Remember, what we were doing in passing a person, we were putting them in direct competition for the rest of their career with people who often were far more qualified. Above all, in a society which is not fair and is not just in many ways. Therefore, they need to have a special set of equipment to succeed.

We didn’t want to send them into turmoil, or at least be a party to that. Obviously, society was responsible, the system was responsible. This was not necessarily well done, in terms of on the line supervisors who knew how to handle this kind of case. They weren’t trained to do this. We looked very carefully, and with considerable compassion and understanding, at such applicants.