Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Foreign Service Oral (Part I: The Day)

On Monday I took the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), an all-day test of mental feats and psychological endurance designed to bring the most self-assured world-traveling foreign policy guru to his or her knees. And before I get too far I will save you the suspense and let you know that I passed, comfortably over the just-barely mark.

So, back to the test. There are three parts, a group exercise, an interview, and a memo writing portion. For legal and ethical reasons I can’t go into any specifics about these, but I can provide a general overview from my perspective. I arrived at about 6:40am to the testing center in D.C., and already there were a number of nervous looking candidates milling about the lobby. We were shortly escorted up the to the actual testing rooms, where we were left to get to know each other and stare at the walls while they prepared for our tests. It was immediately apparent that the candidates who make it this far represent the best of the best, and it was hard for me to fathom that at the end of the day the vast majority of these folks would be sent packing. There were 4 other Presidential Management Fellows (PMFs), all from my year (2009) and one of whom I had actually met during my orientation 2 years ago. There were a few lawyers, several people fluent in Mandarin or Arabic, and many candidates that had worked in Embassies already through details, internships, or through other programs. I tried to keep my confidence up as best I could.

Finally, around 8am we are given our instructions for the day, a schedule of where we were to be and when, and were split into two groups. My group of 6 was put in a nice corner office, with windows and everything, and we commenced our group exercise. The basic idea is that you are given a bunch of information about a fake country and projects that your embassy "task force" will be considering. Everyone has a different project and the goal at the end is to come to consensus on what will be funded and what will not, because of course money is tight. You have time to present individually (about 5 mins each) and then 20-30 mins to come to agreement on what to fund given your budget. Our group got along great, and our discussion was easy, logical, and organized. I felt I had done well on this, but no better than anyone else, even though in the end my project had the most support (maybe I’m a better negotiator than I give myself credit for J).  One down, two to go.

Part two was the writing exercise. You have an hour and a half to process a ton of information, provided to you in a binder, and respond in writing to a specific request, usually from the Ambassador or some other official. It’s designed to test your quantitative skills as well as your writing, so there are plenty of spreadsheets/numbers, and you have to make it all make sense. This is where I knew I would have the best chance to score really high, since my graduate program, thankfully, puts all students through a memo writing bootcamp and insists that we all know how to figure out a budget spreadsheet. Seriously, thank you Evans School Public Management courses! I completed the memo with a few minutes to spare, so I made some nice headings to make it an easier read (formatting is an under-appreciated art in my opinion).

I was given a short lunch break where I tried to eat something (yeah right) and returned back for the last part, my interview. It’s only an hour, but you have to get through a lot of information, including responding to hypothetical situations. Overall, I thought I did alright on this, but I wasn’t as organized as I’d hoped and ended up stumbling a couple of times. I came out feeling okay, but figured this might be the section that brings my score down a little.

Then comes the worst part, the waiting. My schedule had my longest break in the afternoon, so after the interview I had about 2 hours before they would start doing exit interviews. I wandered over the Museum of the American Indian, tried to drink some water, and called my mom. I was exhausted, but at least I was done. Once I killed as much time as I could, I went back to the center to join the other nervous candidates in the lobby. We joked about how it was possible that we could all pass, each knowing that only 2 or 3 at most would get a win. Finally, they put us in the computer lab where we had taken our writing exercise and then the torture began. One by one they opened the door and called people out. I kept imagining Top Chef's "stew kitchen", because that is exactly what it felt like. 

Based on reading blogs and online forums, it seems that the last ones standing are the winners, so each time that door opened I was praying that it wasn’t me to be called. Slowly, the room thinned out, and finally there were just three of us for quite a while. Then two. And then just me. For the longest 10 minutes of my life. I assumed this was good, but maybe they had changed it up? Maybe they read the blogs too and didn’t want us knowing the pattern? Maybe they forgot about me? At last the door opened and one of my interviewers called me back to the room where I had started the day in my group exercise. There were 4 other assessors standing there, and before I could put my stuff down, they read me my letter of congratulations. I had no control over my emotions at that point, so I very undiplomatically burst into tears. I pulled it together pretty quickly, shook hands with everyone and sat down to get my first briefing as a conditionally accepted Foreign Service Officer (FSO). 

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