Studying for the FSOT: Three Tips for Passing the English Expression & Essay Section

The part of the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) that I fear the most is the English Expression and Written Essay section. I just took the test TODAY and I have three tips that helped turned my fear into excitement.

Tip 1: Take a course on grammar and composition

Anyone with a quiet environment, Internet access, and the proper motivation can learn English grammar and essay writing. You may be surprised to know that you’ll need to know about as much English as a high school senior to pass the FSOT.

Pop quiz! How many verb forms or sub-tenses are there in the English language? Up to thirteen. Don’t worry, you don’t need to name them, but you need to know how to use them. If you’re a native English speaker, you’re ahead of the game. The verb form may just ‘sound right’. However, if you’re a bilingual speaker, you may have learned them the wrong way. If it’s any consolation, a bilingual speaker may be awarded bonus points for knowing a foreign language.

I’ve written before about what MOOC’s are and how they compare to traditional education. Here is an example of a free online course I recommend that will help you pass the English Expression and Written Essay section.

Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade (Fundamental English Writing) | Mt. San Jacinto College | Coursera

If the above course is not available, please see the “Grammar and Punctuation” course, taught by an instructor from University of California, Irvine, which is part of a 5-course series on the academic English writing specialization. In addition, see what Kahn Academy and edX have to offer.

Tip 2: Practice identifying sentence errors & writing essays for extended periods of time

So, you know how to correct sentence errors and how to write an essay. Now, try doing it for an hour and a half. The challenge didn’t lie in the questions complexity, but quantity and duration. I was beginning to feel like the test was wearing me down after a few hours.

Let’s review the test schedule:

Job Knowledge (60 questions / 40 minutes)
Biographic Questionaire (77 questions / 42 minutes)
English Expression (65 questions / 50 minutes)
Written Essay (1 question / 30 minutes)

Note: You’ll get several minutes to read the directions before completing each section. The test will take about 180 minutes.

I tried to write an essay a day every day before the exam by using an English expression test simulator. Also, I got used to fixing bad copy by taking an SAT Writing course on identifying sentence errors. As long as you’re going to spend hours honing your sentence correction skills, I encourage you to join a Coursera writing course that includes peer review. You’ll be helping out fellow students from around the world and prepare for the test.

Tip 3: Know your weaknesses

If you took the practice test and know that your English writing ability is outstanding, move on to history, economics, or a subject that you’re weak in. Take a general practice test like this one or that one. Don’t study a subject you’re good at just because you’ll feel good about succeeding.



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