How I Studied for the FSOT

I have been getting a lot of questions from friends and people on the Yahoo! groups about how I studied for the FSOT. Some people will tell you that you cannot study for the test because it is too broad, but I disagree. I scored a 188 on the multiple choice section and a 10 on the essay, but there is no way I would have done nearly as well if I had not studied. I believe people who do not improve their score are just studying the wrong material or focusing on the wrong aspects of the test. We can always improve ourselves, and your score on this test is a direct commentary on you as a person (just kidding, it’s just a test, and the same person could fail one year but pass with a great score the next, then fail the year after). So here is my advice.

Step 1: Study the Test Itself

The most important aspect of studying is knowing how the test works. I give the same advice to my friends asking for advice on the bar exam. You need to understand how the test works. How many questions in each section? How many answers per question? How much time do you have for each section? How is it scored? What types of questions will be asked? Answers to all of these can be found on the Yahoo! FSWE group (it is called FSWE because that is what the FSOT used to be called) or on the State Department website. I’m not just providing you the answers because reading through the documents on each of those websites is very valuable, and it may lead to answers/questions that I had not thought of in advance for you. Read blogs (hey look at you, already started on that advice and I’m not even on step 2 yet), read stories on the Yahoo! group, and Google stuff. Really. That’s my advice. Google stuff.

Step 2: Identify Your Weakness

People often make the mistake of studying what they already know because it feels good to get the practice questions right. I took the practice test in the official study guide and missed one English Expression question due to misreading the answers. So how much time did I spend studying the EE section? None! However, it was clear that I knew nothing about economics or management, so I focused on that. It was also clear that my understanding of history was nowhere near where I thought it was.

Step 3: Do a lot of Practice Questions

This is very very important. You get a feel for what is asked. You’ll notice themes. There are a lot of questions on certain areas of geography, of certain people in history, of certain types of economic or management theories, etc.

Practice questions can be found on the State Department’s app on iPhone and Android. These questions are very useful; however, they are also very very hard. Do not get down when you miss half of them. I know that I only got 1/3 of them right at first in some sections. The important thing is to be familiar with the keywords and phrases in the questions so you can recognize them later.

There are also websites with good practice questions. This one and this one were the most helpful. Just do as many questions as you can. It is all about familiarity. The Job Knowledge section seems so broad, but there are only so many monumental things they can expect you to know, so you can feel confident at least some will be covered in practice questions.

Step 4: Know Thyself (for the Bio section giveth and taketh like your high school sweetheart)

Know thyself is more than existential life advice. This is vital for your score on the FSOT. As you know after step 1, the test has three parts of multiple choice questions: job knowledge, Bio, and English Expression. Browsing through the Yahoo! group messages and looking at the Google spreadsheet of past results, you’ll notice a lot of people did well on the JK section but bombed the Bio section. This is because they didn’t know their own resume as well as they thought they did. If I could advise you to study for one single part of the test, this is it. The study guide has practice questions. Prepare 4-5 answers for each question. DO NOT be overly humble, but be honest at all times. Your goal should be to give as many answers to each question as possible.

For example, if it asks “how many meetings have you led that were attended by 5 or more people in the last year? 0, 1-2, 3-4, 5 or more” then you need to aim for 5 or more. You will at first think, geez, I don’t even have meetings at work. I just dip the fries in the oil, take them out, salt them, and serve them (or in my case, I just do what the judge tells me to do when he tells me to do it). But you need to expand your understanding of the word “meeting.” Do you give a lesson at church? That’s a meeting! Did you gather your family to plan a vacation? Meeting! Did you place two pieces of beef on that sesame seed bun? That’s a meating. Doesn’t count for the question, but I’m sure it was delicious.

Another example. How many times have you held a supervisory position in the last 5 years? You may be at the bottom of the totem poll at work. But what about in school? Were you the president of a club or organization where you handed out responsibilities? Captain of a sports team? Internship? Group project? Think about every time you supervised something or somebody, not just for a career. But again, keep it honest. The questions are generally vague to allow you to use all of your experience, but you need to be able to easily defend the position as a legitimate supervisory one (I would count sports captain, but I wouldn’t count leading a clash of clans group).

Another important point for this section is to read the directions. There will be a blank box where you have to (very quickly, time is short) type answers expounding on your experience. The study guide may say “how many friends live abroad? 0, 1-2, 3-4, 5+” then ask you to “list the friends.” But the test may say “list the countries” instead of list the friends. PAY ATTENTION. Do not rush, but go quickly.

Step 5: Study What You Don’t Know

Step 2 said to find out what you are weakest in. The practice questions will help you catch up on some topics. I put the Bio study before this because you can improve it easier. But this is also important.

Here is a list of resources I used. Some will be easier to study if you are in America. Some will be harder to get without an American library, if you were studying in Thailand, for example.

  • ACT/AP study books. I checked these out from the library. I used History and Geography. They were great.
  • The Presidents series by History Channel. These were AMAZING and fun because I like the History Channel. It was on YouTube at one point, but now you might have to look for it. I see it on the History Channel app sometimes with my cable login. It covers important events in American history and gives you a frame of reference for all presidential actions.
  • Yahoo! FSWE group files. These are great. Go to the “files” section and just thumb through some of them on your smartphone or tablet while you are lying in bed. Don’t have a smartphone or tablet? Well, print them on paper with a printer or whatever it is that people do these days to get words to not be on a screen.
  • The Elements of Style. I didn’t study for the English Expression section. If you need to, it may be hard to learn all you need re: grammar and writing from a book, but this is THE book you need if you are weak on the EE section. High grades for its points on grammar and writing, low grades for teaching you how to match your tie to your shirt.
  • Cliffnotes. These were helpful for economics and management. I didn’t have time to read all of the ACT books (only studied for two weeks before I took the FSOT), but I covered each Cliffnote and did well.
  • Official “suggested reading” list. I didn’t have a lot of time, but I read Rise to Globalism. I firmly believe it was instrumental in me passing the test, and it was more interesting than it looks.
  • Geography Quiz apps on iPhone/Android. Same goes for presidents, capitals, flags, whatever will help you get familiar with the world. I didn’t travel a lot internationally. If you have extensive experience abroad, you have a definite leg up on me.
  • Landmark US cases. Oh the embarrassment when I didn’t know what Plessy v. Ferguson was about just 2 short months after starting my career as a lawyer.
  • Learn how to do multiplication on paper if you forgot. The math is easy, but you need to know how to do it. If you watch sports, you may do a lot of it in your head already. I’m always figuring free throw percentages, odds, etc. in my head when I’m watching sports. If you can plan a budget in your head, figure out how much to tip the waitress, or find the average weight of three people, you will do fine on the math.

It is also important to read a newspaper every day. I got a subscription to NY Times (the crosswords helped a lot too), and created an international news board on flipboard. I would flip through it on the couch, between meetings at work, and at church while my wife nudged me with her passive-aggressively pointy elbows.

Lastly, something that helped me was to look through various history timelines online and identify 10 important events in the last 1-4 years. I then read the wiki page on each of them. For those studying for October, I’d recommend the Arab Spring, Ukraine, Venezuela, and other similar events.

Step 6: The Essay

I put this here because it will be hard to quickly improve your grade on the essay. When I took the FSOT just 9 months ago, it was administered by ACT. This made the essay part easy because the ACT has extensive rubrics and advice on their high school essay. With Pearson Vue now running the test, I can’t give a lot of good advice on it. The only study I did for the essay was to review the grading rubric from ACT.

Be mindful of the time. I type quickly (about 100-120 WPM, depending on temperature, humidity, air speed of the A/C unit, tensile strength of the keyboard springs, and how many Dr. Peppers I have downed that day), but I finished with only 2-3 minutes remaining. I felt chewed up about it, and honestly wondered if I did enough to pass (need a 6/12, graded 1-6 by two graders). I got a 10, which is fairly rare, and immediately felt insulted that I didn’t get a 12, despite hoping for just a 7 or 8 moments before.

Remember KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. Go back to high school. Five paragraphs. Thesis, three bodies, conclusion. Each body paragraph has an intro, three supporting sentences using relevant facts and ideas, and a conclusion. The conclusion paragraph sums it all up. After you do that, go back and write a dissenting opinion in each body between your last supporting sentence and the conclusion. Explain why the dissenting opinion is wrong, but give merit to good arguments. Don’t worry if you do not know a lot about the topic. You are graded on how well you organize and present your arguments, not how much you know about free speech, police brutality, what breed of dog is the best, or whatever else they may ask you to write about. Be concise, check your grammar, answer the question that is asked.

Finishing Up

Make sure you know where the test is, what time it is, etc. Go the day before to be familiar with your route. Get some sleep. Eat some breakfast. You might be nervous, and that is normal. Preparation always makes me feel better, and I felt prepared, though I had no idea how I would do since I had never taken the test before.

Remember to tailor this to your needs. Don’t follow my path just because it worked for me. Study what you don’t know, but don’t worry about getting too deep in it. You don’t need to know the intricacies of inflation of the Euro (I honestly don’t know if that sentence even makes sense). You just need to know basic tenements of economics.

Lastly, if you miss a question, move on. Take it one question at a time, but be mindful of the timer on the screen. Answer every question. Don’t get bogged down on one hard one. Good test takers can ignore missing 3 or 4 or 5 questions in a row and not let it affect the next 20 that you otherwise would have known had you not been shell-shocked from being asked to name the king of England in 1777 (George? CRAP, THERE ARE FOUR GEORGES ON HERE) or to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.

I hope this helps you to pass the test. If you have more specific questions, feel free to comment or message me.

108 responses to “How I Studied for the FSOT

  1. Hi Scott
    I am a stay at home mom with only a high school degree and vocational education under my belt. Is higher education a requirement to pursue a career shift?


  2. Ok. I can’t breath. There’s a lot to study…even the bio part needs studying?!
    I’m freaking out a little. Taking the early October test….for the first time ever.
    Don’t expect to pass…but want to study to do good. I’ll definitely check out the links you posted.
    Question: are there courses or workshops (in the DC area) that prepare you for the FSOT? Not sre where to look or how to find them.


  3. Hey Scott, can you elaborate on what you mean by this? The link doesn´t seem to be working
    Cliffnotes. These were helpful for economics and management. I didn’t have time to read all of the ACT books (only studied for two weeks before I took the FSOT), but I covered each Cliffnote and did well.


  4. Hey Scott,
    I just graduated college this year with a psychology degree and I don’t have any work experience. Do you think I can still take the test?


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