My Road to the Foreign Service: It's All Fun and Games Til Someone Loses an Eye

Last week I got a job offer with the Foreign Service. Don't be too impressed; it took me four tries and ten years to finally get past all the tests. In some ways, my experiences with the hiring process are interesting reflections of the technological changes of the past decade.

Right after Shannon and I got married, we moved into one of those apartment complexes that are for single people, but in the summer time the wealthy landed gentry struggle to fill the apartments with singles, so they open the places up to married folk. In practice, this means that these complexes are jammed with newlyweds.

"Don't worry Dad. If you don't get a job, we can live under here."
Newlyweds are possibly the most annoying subgroup of society to ever emerge in the 14 billion year history of the cosmos. This is not because newlyweds are bad or dumb; we all have to be newlywed at some point, and movie/pop stars have to be newlywed at several points. Newlyweds are unwittingly annoying because they just love each other so much that they can't do normal things like be in the same room with one another without cooing and smiling at each other. In this way, newlyweds are like babies. They are also like babies in that they rarely get out of bed, and they cry when the one they love leaves the room.

Although being a newlywed was nice, I have all sorts of awkward memories about our equally newlywed neighbors from that first summer in that apartment complex that positively dripped with pheromones. But it was also a fortuitous summer, as our upstairs neighbor introduced me to the Foreign Service. "What?" I said after he'd explained it. "You get paid to travel and learn languages?" And I started attending all BYU's Foreign Service Student Association events and trying to dress classy, discarding my visor and flip flops for Banana Republic slacks and sweaters. Dressing classy only lasted for a month, because I looked stupid in Banana Republic stuff, and also I'm not very good at combing my hair.

Now back to the last decade's interesting technological changes. I took the Foreign Service written exam for the first time in the spring of 2003, joining hundreds of other international affairs geeks at the Provo Marriott. It was like taking the SAT: long tables filled a vast, high-ceilinged conference room. The tables were so long that if you sat at one end and gazed down the length, I swear the table's far end disappeared behind the earth's curvature. They passed out test packets, you tore them open when the guy with the stopwatch shouted to start, and you filled in little dots with pencils. Lost relics of a bygone era. The test took five or six hours. I failed. Because the sun got in my eyes.

I tried again the next year, sitting for the written exam with three or four other people at the U.S. embassy in Damascus, Syria. I thought maybe they'd give us bonus points for fearlessly tempting death by voluntarily going inside an American embassy in a Middle Eastern state, just like real diplomats. Despite my bravery and matchless intelligence, I failed again. Because the test cheated.

Then life took me in other, less Foreign Service-ly directions. I found other gainful employment. I learned to like asparagus and tomatoes (finely diced, please). Then, after I enrolled in law school, endured a round of exams, and discovered I suck at law, I thought I'd sit for the Foreign Service written exam again, six years after my first try. It was pretty different this time around. I took it in Pocatello. They administered the test on these funny boxes called "computers," so you didn't have to use pencils anymore, since there's always the chance you might poke yourself in the eye with a pencil, like the Joker accidentally did to his friend on The Dark Knight. Plus, test-takers now test at their own pace, with the option to blitz through all four parts as quickly as possible or take long breaks between each portion.

I flew to Washington, DC for the oral examination, which I failed. The next year, however, I hurdled the written exam again, then eked out a passing score on the oral exam. Although my law degree has yet to prove all that useful, knowing Arabic continues to save my family from mowing lawns for a living; my oral exam score got a healthy boost when I passed a State Department-administered Arabic exam. It was enough to get me hired. And reading that tome I just wrote is enough to get you tired. Go ahead, treat yourself to a pencil-free nap.