Country Spotlight: The Philippines

The Republic of the Philippines gains the honor of being the first country to get the spotlight on Where Monica Goes. From its more than seven thousand idyllic islands, clear turquoise waters, world-class diving sites, diverse wildlife, rich culture, friendly and hospitable locals, to delicious food, the Pearl of the Orient Seas can offer so much that one cannot help but to fall in love with it. As a Filipina myself, I can proudly say that I love my country and will always encourage others to come and visit this jewel in Asia. After reading this post, please let me know if I have convinced you to travel to the Philippines!

With a total land area of 300 000 square kilometers, the archipelago lies in Southeast Asia with Taiwan directly in the north, Vietnam in the west, Brunei and Indonesia in the south, and the Pacific Ocean in the east. It is situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire and has many active volcanoes, which contribute to seismic and volcanic activities as well as abundance of mineral deposits – gold (estimated to be second largest in the world after South Africa) copper, nickel and zinc. As for its wildlife, the Philippines is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna within its numerous rainforests and marine habitat.

The Philippine culture is a beautiful combination of Eastern and Western influences. Values, beliefs, languages and other aspects are similar to its Asian neighbors, but also exhibit traces of Spanish and American conquests. Being an archipelago with thousands of islands, the country is home to 186 individual languages. The official languages are Filipino and English. Travelers have easy communication with any local as more than 90% of the population can speak and understand the lingua franca of the world. For religion, it is predominantly Christian with 82.9% of the population Catholics while Islam is the second largest with 5%.

BASIC FACTS ABOUT PHILIPPINES

Capital: Manila
Population: 100+ million
Official languages: Filipino and English
Government: Presidential Republic
Currency: Philippine Peso
Climate: Tropical
Average temperature: 26 degrees Celsius
Time zone: UTC+8
Driving: Right
Electricity: 220V/60hz

GETTING AROUND THE PHILIPPINES

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Photo from Justin James Wright: http://www.jjwrightfineart.com/philippine-street-life-in-color/

Jeepney – king of the road; runs within Manila and provinces

Metro – LRT1, LRT2, and MRT3 run within the capital

Bus – ordinary and air-conditioned run within and outside Manila

Van – locally known as FX Taxi; more comfortable than bus but cheaper than taxi

Tricycle – local auto rickshaws that are common public transportation

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Photo from Justin James Wright: http://www.jjwrightfineart.com/philippine-street-life-in-color/

Plane – with more than 7100 islands scattered in the archipelago, flying is the fastest way to get from one point to another

Boat – locally known as Bangka; best mode of transportation when island hopping

Taxi – both ordinary and cab hailing companies such as Grab and Uber cars.

Kalesa – horse drawn carriage introduced during Spanish occupation; common around Manila and Vigan

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Image Source

BEST TIME TO VISIT

The Philippines have three seasons – hot dry (March to May), rainy (June to November) and cool dry (December to February). The coolest month is January while May is the hottest. To avoid strong typhoons from July to August, traveling can be between October to May.

High season is December to April (coolest and hottest months when locals usually take holiday trips) and low season is June to September (typhoon season).

WHERE TO VISIT

To give you a glimpse of the Philippines, here are some wonderful places that I have visited around my country. These will also be featured separately here in Where Monica Goes soon, each with detailed itinerary and travel tips and guides.

I. MANILA

The Capital. Culturally and historically rich. Bustling, skyscraper-smothered city where you can eat, drink, and shop almost 24/7.

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Manila skyline. Image Source

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II. PALAWAN

The paradise of the Philippines. Home of the most beautiful island in the world according to Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader Choice Awards.

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Coron, Palawan
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El Nido, Palawan
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Kayangan lake, Palawan

III. Cebu

Queen City of the South. One-hour plane ride from Manila. Home of the whale sharks, white sand beaches, turquoise waterfalls, spectacular diving sites, among others.

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Whaleshark encounter, Oslob, Cebu. 
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Sardine run, Moalboal, Cebu. Image Source
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Kawasan Falls, Badian, Cebu. Image Source

IV. Bohol

One-hour plane ride from Manila. A short ferry-ride from Cebu. Home of the majestic Chocolate Hills, world’s smallest, bug-eyed primate called Tarsier, pristine sandy beaches, world class diving sites.

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Chocolate Hills, Bohol. Image Source
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Tarsier. Image Source
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Diving in Panglao, Bohol. Photo courtesy of Agoda.com

V. Banaue

Hidden gem in the north. Home of the 2000-year-old rice terraces carved into the mountains.

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Banaue Rice Terraces. Image Source
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Image Source

VI. Bicol

The very active, perfect cone-shaped volcano. Beautiful, surfing-friendly beaches.

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Mayon Volcano. Image Source
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Caramoan islands. Image Source

VII. Boracay

Flagship tourist destination. World-famous white, powdery sand beach. Romantic sunset.

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Boracay island. Image Source 
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Boracay sunset. Image Source 

Aside from the seven mentioned above, there are still seven thousand islands left worth mentioning and exploring. The Philippines really has varied beautiful places and activities to offer that one should simply take and enjoy.

If you are planning for your next trip, will you consider the Philippines as your next destination? If you have already traveled here, which is your most favorite part of the country? What is your most memorable experience? Let Where Monica Goes know!

 

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10 Tips on Preparing for your Student Exchange Program

Preparing to join a student exchange program can be pretty exciting, especially after you have received those admission and invitation letters from your host university. However, when the initial excitement finally went down, the images of tasks ahead can be overwhelming and exhausting. It requires a lot of researching and meticulous planning especially if it is your first long-term trip away from home. Also, it usually comes with long lists of required documents, appointments, and tests to be done and passed. I hope that with determination to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, these administrative and bureaucratic requirements would not deter you from reaching your dream.

As a current exchange student myself, I would like to share stories and experiences while I am on this journey. This post would be a part of a regular series where past, current, and would-be exchange students can read and learn from each other various survival tips as we leave the familiar back home and plunge to the exciting unknown.

To aid you on having a smooth transition to your new life, I am providing some tips on how to prepare for your student exchange program adventure. The list seems basic, but you would be surprised to know how many students and even seasoned travellers forget one or some of these. It won’t hurt to have a guide, right? All in all, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to be in a foreign country merely because you overlooked a simple requirement.

10TIPS_4

So without further ado, let me present my Ten Tips on Preparing for your Student Exchange Program. Do note though that these tips are only for those who have already passed the admission requirements by their partner/host educational institutions.

1. Prepare, double-check, reproduce, and bring your documents. We still live in a paper-based society where not everything can easily be scanned through smartphones, so yes, paper documents are necessary. I highly recommend to duplicate or triplicate all your documents, so you would always have a copy with you, at home, and your new accommodation.

  • Check whether your passport is still valid and have several required remaining pages. More often than not, your passport should be valid more than six months before you travel. If yours would be expiring soon, better have it renewed while you are still in your country.
  • Get valid visas. Your host country (and the countries you might be traveling to while studying) might require visas, so do check this as well and prepare the necessary requirements.
  • Make several copies of your letter of admission and matriculation for safekeeping purposes. Also, there are instances when these need to be translated in your native language, so please bear this tip in mind.
  • Bring your language proficiency test results if you have any.
  • Take note of your embassy’s contact information for emergency purposes.

2. Visit your physician before leaving. Health is important, but it is always sad to know that many travellers take this for granted. In a foreign land, it is recommended to be prepared for all emergencies that may arise.

  • Get a certificate attesting to your good health and a copy of your medical record.
  • List down all of your known allergies and bring required prescription drugs, as you will never know if your host country has them. It would also be helpful if you have the translated versions of this.
  • Take the required shots and bring your immunization records when you travel.

3. Be insured. No one knows what may happen and it is wise to be always covered by insurance policy. There are already a lot of international travel and health insurance providers out there, but choosing what is best for your situation requires careful research.

  • Check if your insurance policy is recognized in your host country. You can just look up at the embassy page or send an email to your coordinator in the partner university to inquire this.
  • If required to get a new insurance coverage, research which offers the best and worth the money.

4. Book your tickets in advance. Whether through plane, train, or ship, it is always best to get your reservations ahead of time when prices are cheap and good seats are still available. The longer you wait, the more expensive the price can get.

  • To get the most out of your bookings, do not forget to use your frequent flyer information. Sometimes, typing these little details can get you free business class upgrade for instance.
  • If you are traveling by train, always use your discount cards. In Europe, DB (German), ÖBB (Austrian), and SBB (Swiss) have train cards that can give you up to 50% discount of the original fare.

5. Know how you can access your money abroad. There are banks that require you to have your account unlocked so you can use it outside of the country. Know this ahead of time and better contact your bank if you have no idea whether your cards are eligible to use overseas or not.

  • If you haven’t one yet, create an online banking account so you can easily monitor transactions you make while abroad.

6. Study or refresh foreign language skills. Chances are you would be spending your semester abroad in a country, which does not speak your native tongue, so I recommend studying the appropriate foreign language prior to your departure. Although most beneficial, you do not have to get to a formal class for this. Just hit on the Internet for most common and useful words and expressions so you will not feel at lost as soon as you arrived at the airport. Watching films and TV shows, listening to songs, and buying a pocket dictionary can help in overcoming those first few days while you are still adjusting.

7. Know the culture. Be aware of what are acceptable and not in your host country. Slurping while eating your noodle soup is normal and okay back home but does not automatically mean you won’t be frowned upon when you do this abroad. Read and research. You do not want to make a fauxpas on your first day.

8. Stay in touch. Don’t be a stranger to your family and friends as soon as you left your home country. Of course you want everyone to know every wonderful moment you are enjoying in your amazing student exchange program.

  • If required, have your phone unlocked then get a local SIM card from your host country. Research the best local network provider. You should look for those affordable bundles like 200 local calls and texts plus 750 MB for several Euros.
  • Create a Skype account and/or other messaging platforms that offer free voice and video calls. Family and friend chat groups are also good.
  • Set up social media accounts if you don’t have anything yet for easy updates from you to your friends and family.

9. Pack light. I wish I could highlight this more. I know many exchange students who bring their entire home with them (me included)! If your program has a suggested packing list, stick to it. If there is none, do your research or ask current students in the university. Please check the weather and temperature of your destination, as packing thin clothes for Europe in February is just plain silly. Leave things you can easily buy in your host country e.g., shampoo, body wash, etc. Take your chargers, travel adapters, and gadgets. Bring several photos and other mementos with you to help cope those homesickness moments.

10. Be mentally prepared. Saying goodbye to your family and friends, albeit temporary, can still be tough. However, this is part of the experience. When you are finally in your host country, expect the unexpected! You will be out of your comfort zone and the world will be your one giant classroom. You will meet people from around the world who have different customs and perspectives from yours and you should be open-minded and not judgmental about this. The same differences will later enrich your student exchange experience and understanding of various culture and people.

Alexander Graham Bell once said that preparation is the key to success and I strongly believe in that. To have a successful and enjoyable student exchange program, being prepared is necessary. I hope that these tips can help you achieve that. All the planning and preparation can be overwhelming and nerve-wracking at first, but believe me that all of these would be worth it. Just imagine yourself being here!

Are you an upcoming exchange student? Already have an experience spending a semester abroad? Share your thoughts and questions. 

My 2016 Travel Bucket List

This year, I am very excited to achieve more of the things I have only dreamed of before. As I travel more and get addicted to moving from one place to another, I become bolder with my ever growing to-dos and must list. Without further ado, here is my 2016 travel bucket list.

Go in a tripoint and be in three countries at once.

There is something novel in standing in a place where the borders of three countries lie. Though most of the tripoints I have seen are really not so spectacular, even some are in the middle of lakes or rivers, I think it would be fun to put each foot and a hand in three different countries. Just imagine the idea!

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Austria, Slovakia and Hungary tripoint. Photo credit to Corinna Back.

Go skiing in the Alps.

My first experience in the Alps will always stay with me, but now I am upping the ante. I am most likely the least sporty person you could ever meet and I know nothing next to skiing, but this sounds fun!

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Salzburg, Austria. Photo credit to skiingthealps.

Ride a hot air balloon in Turkey.

I once watched a TV series where the characters went to Turkey and witnessed the sun set while up in the sky in a hot air balloon. Since then, it has stayed in my mind.

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Hot air balloon in Cappadocia, Turkey. Photo credit to Meanwhile in Rotterdam

 Visit ten countries.

I was able to achieve this last 2015 and plan to do so again this year.

travel around
Photo credit to NoGarlicNoOnion

See the northern lights.

It is in my list for years now and I hope to be able to see the auroras this 2016.

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Reykjanes peninsula, Iceland. Photo credit to discover the world uk.

Attend a traditional festival in a foreign country.

The last time I was able to attend was in 2009 in Japan and I would like to witness and participate in one again. I feel more attached when I celebrate a festival along the locals – it makes me feel like I’m one of them.

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Lantern Festival, Thailand. Photo credit to Justin Ng.

Walk along roads lined with cherry blossom trees during Spring.

My homeland does not have these trees and I do not have the opportunity to gaze up and admire these beautiful blooms.

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Photo Credit to Dallas Nagata White.

Try to be a guest of a Couchsurfer.

I am a member of Couchsurfing for two years now yet I haven’t tried being hosted. It was only in mid-January when I had my first guest and I hope I can avail the hospitality of others when I travel around and be hosted.

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Couchsurfing. Photo credit to welovewonderlust

Go backpacking abroad.

I am known by my friends as the overpacker and suitcase girl. I used to prepare at least two days’ worth of emergency clothes and pack my full skincare regimen. However, I somehow broke this routine and had tried traveling to some provinces in my country for three days with only a backpack! It was a very unique and freeing experience that I would like to do again.

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These are my travel bucket list this 2016. I hope to accomplish at least half of it. How about you? What are you looking forward to do this year?

Schengen Tourist Visa for Filipinos: Preparation and Application Process

Visa Application Series:
How to Apply for Schengen Tourist Visa in Austrian Embassy for Filipinos Part I

 

Have you ever dreamed of flying to Europe, breathing the European air while you casually eat Sachertorte in a traditional and world famous kaffeehaus (coffee house) in Albertinaplatz, Vienna with musical notes of Mozart playing sweetly in the background? Have you ever fancied yourself walking along the Tuileries then later climbing up the Arc du Triomphe to have the best view of Paris and Tour Eiffel at night? If yes, I am sure you have more vivid pictures in your head where you want to go once you landed in Europe. But first thing first. If you are a Filipino regular passport holder, you have to apply for a Schengen tourist visa to be able to enter the European Union.

Who wants to go to Europe? Raise your hands!

It was the last day of June in the current year when I first applied for a Schengen visa. Unlike my previous travels where agencies and organizations processed my application and the entire preparation for my trip, it took personal effort and appearance in applying for my Schengen visa. When people learned that I managed to get my visa approved in just two days, I began to receive inquiries on how I did it. Hence, this post. For reference to my fellow Filipino visa applicants, here is my post on how to apply for Schengen tourist visa in Austrian Embassy and how you may also get it in two days.

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Enter a caption
WHAT IS A SCHENGEN TOURIST VISA?

In a nutshell, it is a 90-day tourist visa valid to 26 countries in the Schengen zone. Countries included are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. This visa provides free and borderless travel within the Schengen region.

WHEN TO APPLY FOR SCHENGEN TOURIST VISA?

You can already apply for a Schengen visa as early as three months before your desired departure date. If you are already certain of going, I highly recommend that you start processing your application as early as you can. Most, if not all, Schengen embassies require an appointment for visa application and interview, and believe me when I say that the schedule really gets filled very fast. Better secure an appointment as early as you can so you will not feel rushed. Furthermore, once you get your approved visa, you can book cheaper flights because there is still ample time prior your departure.

WHERE TO APPLY FOR SCHENGEN TOURIST VISA?

You can apply to any of the 26 embassies of the countries in the Schengen region. If you are visiting several Schengen countries, you must apply only to the country you will spend most of your time in. In some cases, I have read others applied to the country they entered first.

Is there a higher chance of getting your visa approved if you apply to certain embassies? Some told me that some embassies are friendlier and more lenient than others. Well, I cannot really tell from my experience since I have only applied to one as of now. However, I believe that when a Filipino applicant fully prepared all the necessary and supporting documents for his/her Schengen visa application and have answered clearly and truthfully the interview questions, then the chance of receiving a passport with a visa stamp will be high.

WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS FOR SCHENGEN TOURIST VISA APPLICATION?

Even though some countries have unique additional requirements, most embassies require the following for a Schengen visa application:

PRIOR SCHENGEN VISA APPLICATION

  • A completely filled out application form. You can download it from any Schengen embassy website or you can also find it here.
  • Two recent passport-size, full-face photo with a white background must be attached to the form. Photo must be taken within three months of application.
  • Original passport valid for at least six months with at least two blank pages. Copies of previous visas can also be attached.

BASIC REQUIREMENTS FOR SCHENGEN VISA APPLICATION

  • Proof of travel: copy of round-trip airline reservation with passenger registration number and itinerary
  • Proof of financial means: bank certificates, bank books, bank statements, credit card statements
  • Proof of occupation and will to return: copy of employment contract, ITR, DTI registration of business, copy of real estate property titles
  • Proof of family ties (if traveling with spouse/children: marriage contract and birth certificate from NSO)
  • Proof of accommodation: hotel accommodation, detailed day-to-day itinerary of the planned trip, invitation letter (if any)
  • Proof of sponsorship (if any): proof of relationship with the sponsor, letter of guarantee, invitation letter, copy of the bio page of the sponsor’s passport
  • All-risk travel medical insurance policy covering up to 30, 000 Euros, the sum depending on the number of days you are staying in the Schengen region + 15 days
  • For students (since I still belong to this category): proof of enrollment, certificate of leave of absence, copy of academic calendar, proof of economic means of parents or guardians, proof of occupation (if any)
  • Schengen visa fee of 60 EUR for short-term (90 days) visa

Too many requirements, right? Feel like giving up? Don’t! Just imagine yourself being here.

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Tour Eiffel, Paris, France

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Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna, Austria

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lunch with my student colleagues in Vienna, Austria

It seems fun taking my summer school in Europe, but getting there was no easy cake. I spent an entire week busy, stressed, and blaming myself for procrastinating too much. You will soon find out why.

HOW TO APPLY FOR SCHENGEN VISA AT THE AUSTRIAN EMBASSY

Since the purpose of my travel is to attend a short summer course in Vienna, it follows that I would be spending most of my trip in Austria. Therefore, I applied for my Schengen tourist visa to the Austrian embassy in Makati:

Austrian Embassy Manila
8th floor, One Orion Building
11th Avenue corner 38th street
Bonifacio Global City
Taguig

Telephone: (+63/2) 8179191
Fax: (+63/2) 8134238
e-mail: manila-ob(at)bmeia.gv.at

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TIPS IN APPLYING SCHENGEN VISA AT AUSTRIAN EMBASSY MANILA

  • Make a reservation in the embassy ahead of time. Slots can easily get filled up, so the earlier you apply, the better.
  • Bring all your required and necessary documents. Incomplete application would result to a slow process, frequent trips to the embassy, or worse, getting your visa denied.
  • Arrange your documents in order. When you arrived in the embassy floor, another guard will approach you and give a slip of paper with the correct sequence for your documents. Be sure to follow them accordingly.
  • When something is unclear, do not hesitate to ask questions.
  • Bring exact amount of money for visa fee. In many Schengen embassies in Manila, they require exact and full payment in peso equivalent to 60 euros. They do not give change. Imagine my surprise when the Austrian embassy do give change! They are totally cool.

THE TOURIST VISA APPLICATION PROCESS

Once you have finished arranging your documents in order, wait for your name to be called. You will be summoned to a window and an Austrian consul will receive your application. She will ask basic stuff regarding your trip and be sure your answers are consistent to what you have written in your application.

You will pay the 60 euros visa fee then she will ask you to place your fingers and get your prints digitally. Next, she will ask you to go back to your seat and wait for your name to be called for an interview.

The second part of the Schengen Tourist Visa Application Series will soon be posted on this blog. Please go back to gongjumonica.com and read the interview session and timeline of my entire application. Or better, subscribe via email and get blog updates straight to your inbox.

Do you also dream to travel to Europe? Where would you like to go?

Dreaming of becoming a Foreign Service Officer

Few weeks ago, I celebrated my 11th year of being twelve. There will only be two years left for me to prepare for the Philippine Foreign Service Officer Exam. Graduated with a degree in International Relations, I dream to be a diplomat in the future. Since I entered the halls of my university to learn about international affairs, I knew that the path I’d like to take would not be easy. In fact, the road to being a diplomat was seldom taken by others due to its nature.

I am not sure with other countries’ FSO exam, but in here the test takes almost a year to finish. For the past years, it was reported to have a 1% passing rate. Just last year, 9 out of 534 passed the five-level, elimination tests. There was even a year that no one passed. Some said it is the most grueling government exam and others even went as far as to say that it is harder than the bar. From blogs and testimonies of those who attempted to be a career diplomat, I assumed that being included in the most elite department in the government will take a lot of guts and effort.

DFA

The FSO Exam: An intellectual version of Survivor reality game

I. Qualifying test. According to DFA and from previous examinees, this is like a college entrance test with logic, grammar, and math. The questions are pretty easy, but time-pressured. Others say this is a degree higher than Civil Service Examination. Good thing I passed the professional level of CSE three years ago!

II. Preliminary Interview. This seems like a job interview. Three panelists will be there to question the examinee about his current work, his plans of joining DFA, etc. The main tip is to be honest and clear of your goal. I got an advice to link my answers to the three main pillars of Philippines’ foreign policy and to always cite examples and cases to support my statements.

III. Written Test. Alas. This is the make or break point of the entire exam. 600 examinees can be easily put down to 20 because of this. It is a three-day essay type test. I found sample questions from a blogger and new FSO IV on this level. Please check his examples below:

 

  • English (20%)

A Filipino citizen was sentenced to receive the death penalty in China for acting as a drug-mule. As Secretary of Foreign Affairs, propose a plan which outlines the courses of action the President may undertake.

  • Filipino (5%)

Towards the end of El Filibusterismo, a priest in the novel discussed the idea of freedom. Describe what the priest said and relate it to how Philippine society understands freedom today.

  • Philippine Political, Economic, and Cultural Conditions (30%)

Give five examples of the government’s proposed Public-Private Partnership (PPP)projects and give explanation for each.

Explain how the Conditional Cash Transfer program will alleviate poverty.

Name a National Artist and describe the significance of his/her work.

  • International Affairs (20%)

What are the benefits of forging an ASEAN Economic Community in 2015?

  • World History (20%)

Compare and contrast the Spanish colonization experience of Latin America and the Philippines

  • Foreign Language (5%)

You can choose from Mandarin, Japanese, French, Spanish, and Arabic. The entire test will be in the selected language and questions include basic greetings and expressions as well as grammar.

credits to: Rafael Ignacio, FSOE passer

IV. Psychological Test. One must be proud after passing the third level. However, this test must also not be taken for granted. A series of questions plus an interview with a shrink will assess one’s mental capability of working in the Foreign Service.

V. Oral Test. This level has two sessions. The first day is a 20-minute panel interview consisting of ten people from the academe and DFA. Like the preliminary interview, they might ask anything under the sun. One example of a question I found is: What do you think about the President’s appointment of Domingo Lee as the ambassador to China?

The second day is a debate/group dynamics and formal dinner. In the debate, just freely express your opinion on the subject matter. For the dinner, ensure that you know or have read about proper dining etiquette. Then later, there will be an impromptu speech where examinees will only have a minute to prepare for his/her three-minute speech.

After that last hurdle, there will be few months to kill and when you are lucky, you will be notified as one of the passers of the FSO Exam!

Thoughts

I hope that after a few more years, I will be able to pass those five tests. In the end, I would see myself applying what I’ve learned in my university’s simulation test/diplomatic dinner in my senior year. It was such a good practice to be able to dine and chat with real diplomats. I remember the experience. Fancy location, delectable food, intelligent people, good atmosphere, and gorgeous clothes!