Monday, October 26, 2009

This is a (sort of) public service announcement

I recently saw the news that 19 people passed the Foreign Service Officer Examinations of the Department of Foreign Affairs this year. I congratulate them for hurdling over all the obstacles that the punishing examination process put up.

Entering the Foreign Service is really going to change the way a person's life goes. I'll be honest here. If you were used to a nice big paycheck, prepare to earn government employee wages. If you were used to having plenty of time off given by your regular day job, learn to accept the possibility of having to work late into the night (and sometimes to the next day) and on weekends and holidays. And if you knew before where you would be 5 and 10 years from now, once you're an FSO, guessing is futile.

A little less than 5 years ago, I certainly didn't think I would be in the country where I am now doing what I do. The thought of it would never have come to me. Even though I took up political science in college, I never really gave much thought about how Philippine foreign relations worked. How I ended up a Foreign Service Officer was just an amazing case of serendipity.

Let me describe the FSO Exams for those who might stumble into this blog and be interested in taking it. It's an exam that can cover any field or subject, from the most serious to the most mundane, from the most academic to the most jologs. Whoever takes the exam will realize that it's not something he/ she can study for by just learning about a single field or focusing on a certain subject. It's not something you could prepare for in a matter of weeks or months. You will be using the all of your life's knowledge. Maraming titimbangin at maraming lalabas na kulang. There were about 1,250 people who took the qualifying exams on the same year I took it. To fast forward the story, there were only 12 of us that were sworn in that year as FSO IVs. The passing rate can really be less than 1%. There was even a year when only two FSOs made it (3 actually, but the President wouldn't sign her daughter's appointment).

I must admit, I never knew about the Philippine Foreign Service until a few months before I took the FSO Exams. Some people have planned their whole lives to become diplomats and have taken the exams so many times but just couldn't get through. This shows, everybody has a fair shot at passing the exam. Walang llamado. I guess it worked in my favor that the subjects being tackled in the exams are those that I have interest in and have studied since I was a kid, and I really had no problem writing my thoughts down. The exams don't really look at what you are but at the culmination of all your studies both in and out of school.

Yes, there are schools that offer review courses, and some of my batchmates took them. But I must add that those batchmates of mine were already very smart to begin with. The review courses can give examinees an idea of what the exams are like and can provide you a good confidence boost, but that's it. Let me put it this way, even if I can get Freddie Roach to train me, I'm still not Manny Pacquiao. Even if I can get Gregg Popovich to coach me, that doesn't make me Tim Duncan.

The qualifying exams play more to your minor subjects in college. It will test what you learned in such subjects as English, Math, Social Science, Psychology, and Logic. Be careful when taking this exam. A lot of examinees are already thinking ahead to the written and oral exams and get careless with the qualifying test. Big mistake for them as this is where over 90% of examinees trip up. People are too worried about the bump in the road that they miss the speeding truck heading towards them. I have no tips on how to pass this part of the exams. I just hope you listened well to your professors. Kung puro cutting class ka, heto na ang karma mo.

The written exams are the most dreaded of the three. This is a ridiculously hard test that will really stretch your brain to its limits for three days. The subjects you will to be tested on are:

1. English- 20%
2. Filipino- 5%
3. Philippine Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Conditions - Philippine history, culture, foreign policy, geography, government, development issues and goals- 30%
4. International Affairs - Theory and practice of international economics and trade, international politics, international law and treaties- 20%
5. World History- 20%
6. Foreign Language - Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, or Spanish- 5%
7. Audience Impact- 0%

Questions can range from the history and effects of political and economic theories to the cultural impact of Wowowee and Pinoy Big Brother. There is nothing too high nor too low that it can't be asked here. Anything under the sun can be brought up in the exams. A topic like interfaith dialogue can have as much a chance of showing up in your questionnaire as the videos of Hayden Kho. Remember, the exam is also trying to see how well you can deliver your points on paper, not just what you know in your head. Now aren't you glad you downloaded those videos of Katrina Halili and Maricar Reyes?

My advice for this exam is to read, read, and read. And if possible, read some more. Get a copy of Newsweek and Time magazines every week. Read the Philippine Star and the Philippine Daily Inquirer everyday. Look for your old history books and purchase newer ones as well. Read both fiction and non-fiction books, tumambay ka sa Fully Booked at PowerBooks kung gusto mo, libre basa doon. Heck, read FHM and Maxim if you want, whether for the articles or not.

For the foreign language test, you're lucky if you can already speak a foreign language fluently. In my case, I had to take a crash course in Spanish. I was so successful in my crash course that I think I also crashed in my exam.

Important reminder: do not be late. The DFA is very strict with this. Not a second of lateness is allowed, even if you just went through the granddaddy of all traffic jams or there is a storm raging outside. Several examinees get disqualified for being late every year.

The oral exams will test your speaking skills in a single setting (panel interview), a group setting (group debate), and how fast you think on your feet (impromptu speech). Like the written exam, this test not only tries to see what you know but also how to can say it for the world to hear. Get yourself a nice Filipiniana outfit and learn how to eat in a formal dinner setting. And learn to relax while in a stressful situation. Talk about what you know, don't make a fool of yourself by trying hard to talk about things you don't. If what you know about is the Dingdong-Marian love team, go ahead and talk about it. Don't talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict if you only have a thin grasp of it.

Did I say there were 3 exams you had to take to be an FSO? Well, there's a bit of a twist in the end. You also have to take the psychological exam. Just don't act crazy and you'll do fine. The DFA isn't just trying to see if you're loco, it's also checking whether you have the mental toughness for the job. The job can be so stressful that there are some officers who are already one lab accident away from becoming supervillains. I guess the exams will also tell whether you have the tendency to become Lex Luthor, the Joker, or Darth Vader. After the tests show that you're not coocoo for cocoa puffs, then congratulations! You're in.

One important piece of advice I can offer interested examinees is this: don't quit your day job. As I wrote, the passing rate can be less that 1%. Don't be foolish enough to leave a stable job just so you can take the exam and wait for the results. Stay with your current work and just work the examinations and preparations into your regular schedule. If you quit and then fail, that's lost revenue for you. Even if you flunk but still have a job, you go back to the normal flow of things immediately. Anyway, you can take the exams as many time as you want, provided you're not 36 years old yet.

Now if you just read through everything I wrote and you're still willing to know more about the Foreign Service, then I seriously doubt you'll pass the psych exam. Kidding. I was going to say here's what happens next.

For all your troubles, the President will then sign your appointment papers and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs will swear you in, together with your batchmates, as the newest FSOs in the land. The new diplomats on the block.

What does an FSO do? According to the DFA website, this is what FSOs do.

If you pass the exams, you will go through a cadetship program at the Foreign Service Institute for 6 months. Cadets will be trained in the art of diplomacy. Among the subjects to be taught include political diplomacy, economic diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, Philippine culture and arts, administration, negotiation, conference management, public relations, and bilateral and multilateral relations. You will be taught how to speak, write, dress, eat, dance, and breathe like a diplomat. It's like Extreme Makeover: Diplomatic Edition.

You will travel around the Philippines to see what's so great about the country and to understand more about the people you will be speaking for (enjoy the trips, btw). The cadetship program will also provide you an opportunity to learn from the best and the brightest that the government and the academe has to offer.

During our cadetship, my batch already got a chance to work on our conference management skills as we were assigned work during the Philippines' hosting of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. Imagine letting loose the Chikiting Patrol in the United Nations.

After your cadetship, you will be assigned to either a geographic office, an administrative office, or other offices that handle things like international economic relations and migrant workers' affairs.

I was assigned to a geographic office, the Office of Middle East and African Affairs. I was given the task of handling RP's bilateral relations with Middle East countries. Geographic offices also provide opportunities for travel to the countries you are handling. (uyyy, nagiisip na 'yan)

Then after about 3 years of being in the home office, you will be assigned to either an embassy, a consulate, or a mission. You're designation will now be third secretary (your diplomatic rank) and vice consul (your consular rank). You're actual duties will depend on the size of the embassy you get assigned to and its staffing pattern.

Your tour of duty in a foreign post will be for 6 years, with an option of getting cross-posted to another post after 3 years (depending on the opening in other posts and the needs of your current one). You will then go back to the home office for 2 years and then be posted again for another 6 years, and this will go on and on until you retire from the service. The goal, in terms of your career advancement, is to become an ambassador someday, as this is the foreign service after all.

There's much more to tell about life in the Philippine Foreign Service, but first, you have to get through the FSO Exams, For more information on the FSO Exams and FSO life, I suggest you check this website out. It has well written pieces providing info about the exams. Be polite and respectful if you want to leave the blogger a message. She's a very nice lady. And a lawyer, too, so beware. And for the pros and cons of diplomatic life, see this post and this post. They're written by an FSO from the U.S. State Department, but you'll get a good idea of diplomatic life nonetheless.

For those interested, go ahead, take the plunge like you're in a Nestea commercial. Take the FSO Exams and experience one hell of a wild, wooly, wacky, and weird ride of a lifetime.


  1. LOL at nice lady... and to beware. :)

    Someone should make a reality show about the FSO exams. Para talaga siyang American Idol. :)

  2. I remember someone telling me that since there was already a telenovela about young military officers (Tayong Dalawa), maybe it's time to have a TV series about young FSOs. From the exams to cadetship to posting and beyond.

    I laughed.

  3. I am currently preparing for the 2013 FSO Qualifying Exam. Your blog scared me. It made me thinking twice now. Hahaha.. :D But I'll take it as a challenge. Thanks GOD I came accross to this site and Thanks to you.

  4. whoa, i got inspired with your post but intimidated at the same time. To be a FSO is not my dream but the idea of it is my ideal future career. My professor in economics gave me this idea to take FOSE in the near future. Well, thanks to her I feel like there's already a "clear" way to what I really want in life. hehehe :D and thanks to this post. I realized that I should indeed "study" hard. hihi

  5. i am currently waiting for the results of the FSOE Qualifying Exams results... in the letter they said tentative prelim interview is on April 6... it's already April 1!

    thanks for the insights!

  6. yow man, thinking of taking the blasted exam myself. hehe. by the way you got a cool blog in here. hoping you'd post some new experience/s in the next few days.

    peace out!

  7. may i know what was your day job?

  8. What can you say about the culture in the DFA? I have a lot of love for my country and am willing to work my ass off for it. I am gay, however, and I don't know how this will play into my application, provided I hurdle all the exams. I know the DFA has an idea of what life abroad is like, and the importance of open-mindedness in foreign policy -- but in the end it's still a Philippine government office, so I am hesitant to apply, being who I am. I am not willing to "pass" as a straight guy, and comply with heteronormativity. What are your thoughts? Thank you.