If a life of travel and adventure appeals to you, acceptance into the foreign service may be the ‘passport’ to your dream career (bad pun intended). For the purpose of this article, “foreign service” means a position in the U.S. Department of State’s diplomatic corps. Its worth noting, however, that several other federal agencies also operate foreign service corps. This includes the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Commerce Department’s Foreign Commercial Service, and the Agricultural Foreign Service – all of whom offer great opportunities abroad for the wanderlust.

State Department Foreign Service

But back to the State Department, where the application process for foreign service positions is notoriously competitive. The Department advertises an eight-step process which commences with registration for a written test and submission of six personal narrative statements. The test itself is comprised of both multiple choice and written components designed to assess areas of competency like job knowledge, English expression, and situational judgment. A passing score on the multiple-choice component results in the evaluation of one’s essay component and personal narrative statements by a panel of current Foreign Service Officers. Applicants selected by the panel to move forward in the process are then invited to participate in a day-long oral assessment designed to evaluate the candidate on “13 dimensions that are essential to the successful performance of foreign service work.”

Candidates who emerge victorious from this gladiator-like competition must then clear medical and security screenings, and secure a favorable determination of suitability from an obscure entity known as the Board of Examiners for the Foreign Service. Most foreign service applicants I encounter are fixated on whether or not they can secure the necessary security clearance. That’s perhaps entirely natural. After all, “suitability” is a vague term, and almost everywhere else in government the security clearance process serves as a far more formidable barrier to entry. Unfortunately, the foreign service is an entirely different animal and the Board of Examiners’ is where many otherwise-successful applicants run into a buzz saw.

Appealing a Rejection

Rejection on suitability grounds by the Board of Examiners carriers a particularly harsh sting because it comes at the very last stage of a lengthy process – with the light at the end of the tunnel in sight. The decisions sometimes appear arbitrary; they’re delivered in caustic terms (“notoriously disgraceful conduct” is one reason often cited for relatively minor transgressions); and the appeals process is opaque at best.

Among the appeals process’s oddities are that the applicant is not entitled to see the investigative report and documents upon which the decision was based prior to submitting his or her response and that the applicant is limited to submitting only information that would demonstrate the Board’s decision was based on inaccurate or incomplete information. This is considerably less robust than the administrative due process provided during the security clearance process. That process requires the applicant be provided, upon request, with all documents upon which the denial decision was based prior to the time set for the applicant’s written reply and affords the applicant the ability to present a “whole person” case in mitigation of the government’s concerns.

Many applicants are dismayed by the limitations placed upon their ability to appeal the Board’s decisions, not to mention the seemingly harsh nature of the decisions themselves. But all of this underscores the competitive nature of the process. Unlike a security clearance determination, in which the Applicant already holds or has been hired for a specific position, even successful foreign service applicants are not guaranteed a job. Instead, they are placed on a register and ranked by cumulative evaluation scores much like Darwin’s infamous “survival of the fittest” theory. In other words, an applicant who is denied suitability by the Board of Examiners is being effectively weighed against numerous other applicants who may have similar overall scores but who don’t carry the same baggage. It can be a bitter reality for those who make it through the lengthy hiring process only to falter at the very end.

Look Before You Leap

The lesson? Seek out frank, unvarnished opinions of your background and the viability of your candidacy before you invest a year or more of your life in the foreign service application odyssey. Those opinions can come from current Foreign Service Officers, if you’re fortunate enough to know any, or from an attorney or other professionals well-versed in the application process. Either way, applicants should also take the opportunity to review the criteria against which they will be assessed well in advance. Those criteria can be found in the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual available here.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://www.berrylegal.com/.