Every Foreign Service candidate currently sitting for the entrance exam will now be evaluated by an IBM software program that helps determine who moves forward in the hiring process due to an update in where the exam scores are factored in.

In late April, the State Department announced that the Foreign Service Officer Test would no longer serve as a mechanism to cull the ranks of applicants, but rather everyone taking the exam would progress onto the Qualifications Evaluation Panel and their test score would be factored into the evaluation.

The score an applicant earns on the FSOT will be combined with the score they receive on the Preliminary-QEP, the first of two stages, according to a State Department spokesperson. During the preliminary stage, an automated deep text analysis tool made by IBM evaluates the personal narratives which an applicant submits prior to taking the FSOT.

“This state-of-the-art analysis tool is a fast and powerful solution used in numerous industries including education, market research, healthcare, and government,” the spokesperson said. “[It] has been thoroughly validated by industrial and organizational psychologists specializing in qualifications assessment.”

The software has been in use since 2015.

Under the new system, an applicant’s FSOT score is added to the score awarded by the software. This combination is used to rank order every applicant and a percentage of the top applicants are invited to move onto the second part of the QEP. The specific percentage varies based off the predicted hiring needs of the service.

The Preliminary-QEP is the last stage in the hiring process where the FSOT score is factored in.

“Combining the FSOT scores with the preliminary QEP scores offers [the Board of Examiners] a more holistic view of a candidate,” the spokesperson said.

With this updated process, no more or less candidates will advance beyond the Preliminary-QEP stage to human assessors than in previous years under the old FSOT system, allaying concerns about a slowdown of the application process due to the influx of candidates moving forward. Every applicant is now progressing beyond the FSOT which previously served as a pass/fail gateway.

Instead of having two culling points before applicants are evaluated by a human assessor, there is now only a single point at the Preliminary-QEP. So while every applicant will now get to the preliminary stage, roughly the same number, comparable to previous cycles, will move past it.

Those applicants that do progress are then evaluated by the Assessor-Led-QEP, which is a panel of current and retired Foreign Service Officers. These assessors only receive the applicant’s personnel narratives, essay and application packet to evaluate.

“QEP panel members do not have access to any information about the candidates – not their FSOT score, not their preliminary-QEP score, not their racial or ethnic identifiers, if provided by the candidates,” the spokesperson said. “Assessors base their judgments solely off the personal narratives provided by the candidates as scored against the 13 dimensions.”

The assessors utilize numerical rubrics drawn from the “13 Dimensions” that have been designed by organizational and industrial psychologists with expertise in assessments to score the personal narratives, according to the spokesperson.

The manner in which each step in the process is scored has not changed due to the FSOT update.

“This reform supports the Secretary’s efforts to modernize American diplomacy and win the competition for talent,” the spokesperson said.

Ryan White is a reporting intern at Sightline Media. He is currently a senior at The University of Maryland, College Park studying journalism.

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