Buckle up – this is going to be quite the ride.
I told myself that if I ever ended up passing the FSOA I would start blogging. So here I am.
A fun fact about myself: I’ve wanted to join the Foreign Service since I was 17 years old. In fact, reading about the Oral Assessment in college made me so nervous I wanted to vomit. I basically sat on the floor of my apartment telling myself I would never be good enough to pass. Hooray.
In May 2016 I learned that I passed the mythical PNQ/QEP process and was invited to take the OA. Of course I chose the last possible date available, giving me the maximum amount of time to simultaneously study and freak out. Interestingly enough that date happened to be my 26th birthday – October 27th 2016.
For three months I immersed myself in study guides, study groups, flash cards, and books. (If you want to know what to study, check out the FSOA Yahoo Group and also find yourself a kickass study group). I told everyone that I would be taking the OA. In hindsight, I have no idea why I told every living soul who would listen – because it would have been a tiny bit embarrassing to tell them all if/when I failed miserably.
For the next three months I stopped studying altogether. Why, you might ask? I have no idea. I was so burnt out from probably over 10-15 Group Exercise sessions that I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I told myself that the examiners would like me as I am or not at all. That worked for a bit – in the weeks leading up to the OA I was calm, confident, and ready. My fellow study group members were passing en masse. Surely I would be the next to join their ranks.
That worked well – until 24 hours before the exam. If you looked at me on October 26th you might have wondered why I looked like I had seen a ghost or maybe you wondered if at any moment, would I burst out into tears and fly off in a flurry of anxiety? The answer is probably yes. I was so mad at myself for not studying for the past three months. I completely ignored two sections (out of three) of the test! Literally, I didn’t study Case Management (CM) or Structured Interview (SI) once, at all. I didn’t deserve to pass, I told myself. I was a complete mess, crying into a bowl of pho while trying to practice interview questions. I was even more upset at the thought of having to tell my family, friends, bosses, coworkers, and random hairdressers, that I failed at the one thing I’ve always wanted. This was a real high point for me… clearly.
Then… I put on my big girl pajama pants and got over it. I told myself that I could do this and that even if I failed, I would have fun, be myself, and encourage others to do their best. If the Foreign Service didn’t want me at my worst, they didn’t deserve me at my best ::hair flip:: (just kidding). I told myself that I would be myself through and through, I would be honest, and I would just make it through tomorrow.
On October 27th 2016 I woke up at about 4:30am and put on suit dress, suit jacket, spanx that made everything okay in the world, and some killer high heels. Note on confidence: if you do one thing to prepare for the OA – get yourself an outfit that makes you feel good. You want to look yourself in the mirror at random points during the exam and think to yourself, “…well even if I’m going down in a ball of flames, I look damn good doing it”. No seriously, there is a bunch of internet advice out there that recommends dark charcoal suits, minimal makeup, hair tied back, and conservative shoes. Sure – if that works for you and makes you feel confident, go for it! But if you want to wear a light gray suit with bright red lipstick and your hair in cascading curls – work it (you too guys – you do you…)
OA Day Recap
I arrived at the testing center at 6:00am and waited around for about 45 minutes because of course I was worried that I would get a flat tire, or go to the wrong building (even though I walk by it every day), or that some other terrible fate would befall me. At 6:30 I went into the building lobby and met up with my fellow test takers. There were six generalist candidates in total – two political, two economic, two management. Our backgrounds were extremely varied, but we mostly all had some sort of international experience. Surprisingly, I thought we were a very young group. I don’t think any of us were over 30, with a majority of us being just out of graduate school.
Many times throughout the day, but especially before we got started, I remember thinking to myself, “I can’t believe this is the moment that I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”
The program assistant led us up to the testing center and we did a bit of waiting. The whole day is comprised of a lot of waiting. I think waiting is the fourth section of the test and I’m only half kidding. After passing out our schedules, and doing a bit more waiting – it was time to start! The Group Exercise was first, as always. As we stood up, I wished everyone good luck and then I added “break a leg” in case either one was bad luck – you can never be too sure.
The six of us sat down at a small table in a small room. I mention this for anyone picturing a big cavernous dungeon with an examiner in each corner. The space was tight and I had to be careful to not encroach on anyone else’s territory. The room was bright and comfortable, no dungeons to speak of.
In the GE each member of the group has a binder of information, half of which is country information which is the same for everyone and the other half of which is person-specific project information. The goal of the exercise is to reach consensus on how the group’s limited resources should be spent.
The examiners instructed us that we had 30 minutes to read through our binder of information and create a presentation (no longer than six minutes) on our project, which we would present in the next section.
I had studied the GE probably over 10 times, I knew it like the back of my hand so I was confident and calm going in to this. When the 30 minutes began, I flipped straight to my project information. Tip: skip the country information, your goal is to present on your project – in my opinion, there is never going to be anything worth wasting your precious time over in the country information, if there is – address it at another time.
I used a modified quadrant method to construct my presentation (you can find more information regarding the quadrant method on the FSOA Yahoo Group). However, instead of just using the quadrant method, I wrote out much of my presentation speech as well. This may make you sound rehearsed but it’s better than babbling and fumbling over your words.
After the initial preparation phase was up, the examiners instructed us to begin the presentations in whatever order we preferred. Unlike my many practice sessions, no one volunteered to go first. The silence seemed deafening, so against my better judgment I said, “I’d be happy to start us off, and then we can go around the table, if that’s alright with everyone” (a very rehearsed sentence as anyone in my study group can attest to).
I obviously can’t go in to the details of my presentation or anyone else’s but here are my general thoughts:
- INTRODUCE YOURSELF. Please for the love of god introduce yourself. I’m sure it won’t make the difference between passing and failing but how awkward is it to just dive headfirst into your project costs without even saying good morning!?
- Follow a structure. Ideally in your preparation phase you have outlined what you are going to talk about (which must include positives and negatives of the proposal, costs, and the US objectives met by your project).
- Be sure to make others understand why your project is important. It’s all well and good to present on the bare minimum requirements but it would be silly to present on say, teapot production in Florida and not explain WHY teapot production in Florida is important. In short, what need does your project fulfill?
- SPEAK SLOWLY – this is for all of us millennials out there. Speak slower than you think you have to, speak so slow you think it sounds weird. Take pauses and look up from your notes. Repeat relevant information if it makes sense to do so. Summarize your presentation at the very end. For example, “In short, the Teapot Production Proposal aims to increase teapot production in Florida in three ways, over X amount of years, for X amount of dollars. With that, I’d be happy to take any questions you may have.”
- Leave time for questions. Your presentation SHOULD NOT go over the time limit. I have no idea whether or not going over the time limit will hurt you score-wise, but in my opinion you are given a set amount of time for a reason and you should be monitoring it, you should not go over it. If you leave time for questions, your presentation will already be complete by the time the examiner calls time.
- If someone asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, do not make up an answer. Simply say something along the lines of “I don’t have that information at this time but I’d be happy to find out and get back to you later.”
- As should be obvious from the instructions – do not make up any information, do not pull in information from the outside world, for example “I’m from Florida, so I know that teapot production hit 50% in 1988”. Do not advocate for your project at this stage.
- While others are presenting, sit up straight, actively listen, and take notes. Avoid any behavior that would distract someone presenting. In one practice session, someone actively made faces of disagreement while I was speaking – don’t be that person. I would aim to ask at least one question during someone else’s presentation.
After the presentations were finished the examiners placed a memo on the table and instructed the group that our next task was to advocate for our projects and to reach consensus. Once the clock started I asked if someone would be willing to write the memo and if someone else would be willing to take time. Another group member then suggested that we establish a set of criteria by which to evaluate our projects. While I like this strategy and usually use it in practice – it got a bit out of hand when the group wanted to keep adding criteria. Try to keep it to three points or else it’s going to get out of hand.
I advocated heavily (at first) for my project. I blatantly used the word “advocate” several times. I evaluated my own project against our decided upon criteria and I suggested projects other than my own and stated why they also deserved funding – to show that I was listening to others.
The group initially started to coalesce around my project but in the end decided to fully fund another. This was fine with me, because the goal is not to get your project funded – the only goal (after advocating) is to COME TO CONSENSUS. As soon as the group decided to move on from my project, I vocally threw my support behind the other project and stated why. In final countdown the group came to consensus although I think some people had a hard time giving up their project even though it was obvious that the group was not in support- again, don’t be that person.
We had about two minutes left at the end of the exercise so I suggested that we use the time to review our decisions, explaining that we would be briefing the Ambassador once the exercise came to an end. Even if there is no time to do this – I think it’s a smart thing to mention/attempt.
I won’t go over the Ambassador Debrief in detail as to not violate the NDA. Suffice it to say that you should understand how and why the group came to consensus.
Once we were back in the waiting room I mentioned to the group that we all did a great job and that we were one step closer to the end of the day! I tried to stay positive, although I wonder if any one got annoyed by my optimism by hour six.
After another hour of waiting I was called to do my Structured Interview (SI). I was most worried about this section because I figured I didn’t have a snowballs chance of passing the Case Management, so to me – it all hinged on SI.
I sat in a cozy room and waited for the two assessors. When they entered, I stood up and shook their hands. I made sure to smile and seem enthusiastic (I was). Many people will tell you that the assessors are not allowed to smile, joke, react, show emotion (they’re not) but despite this, I didn’t think that they came off cold or uninviting – they’re just doing their job and following a script. I tried to remember that they’re normal people with a life outside of the testing center.
We went through the three sections of the SI (experience and motivation, hypotheticals, and past behavior). Nothing strikes me as being surprising during this. It was all very straightforward. It was like a job interview. I acted as I normally would have. I cracked a joke, which obviously they didn’t laugh at, but I would have done the same thing in a normal interview so I didn’t mind – my goal was just to be my everyday self. I answered each question honestly and with conviction. I didn’t embellish but I sure as hell made it clear that I believe I would be a great addition to the Foreign Service. Don’t sell yourself short.
I should mention that I was not at all long-winded. Once I answered the question, I stopped. I didn’t add extraneous details. I didn’t try to string out my answers. At no point was I interrupted by an assessor, as many people report. Working at State teaches you to get to the point in both writing and speaking and I couldn’t shake the habit during the interview. I felt like I was flying through my answers and I worried that perhaps it was going to hurt my score – but I pressed on.
I ended the SI portion with 5ish minutes to spare in the allotted hour.
I had an hour for lunch and then another hour before my Case Management began. The breaks are useful to get some air, walk around, and text friends for last minute anxiety help.
As I mentioned before, I didn’t think I had any chance of passing the Case Management (CM). There is a vague internet rumor that says only 10% of OA takers pass this section. So I told myself I’d just have fun with it and continue to try to be myself.
When I was called in to the computer room I chose a computer close to the windows and far away from anything else. I sat down and immediately tried to change everything around on the desk. I hate those computer/mouse trays so I tried to change the set-up. Once I realized it was going to be too time consuming I just decided to deal with the discomfort.
Once the exercise began, I immediately copied the memo heading from the introductory memo and set up my own memo sub-headings. I committed to the suggested time structure of 30 minutes to read, 45 minutes to write, and 15 minutes to edit. I stuck to this like glue – there are many stories of test takers having no time to review. Once my 30 minutes of reading time was up – I moved on to writing, even if I wasn’t done reading. Once my 45 minutes of writing time was up – I moved on to proofing, even if I wasn’t done writing.
During my 30 minutes of reading, I made sure I understood what was being asked of me in the original memo and I aimed to answer those questions completely. I basically ignored any other issues mentioned in the documents. For example, if you’re asked to address an upcoming party, a problem with the embassy elevator, and a staffing issue in the consular section – feel free to ignore any mention of any other problem – even if that problem has huge implications for the embassy – you’re not being asked to address it! Ignore it! I skimmed through all of the documents and physically removed any that mentioned anything other than the problems I was asked to solve.
When I moved on to writing I remembered a tip that my friend told me (which is probably pretty obvious): you’re memo should be mostly recommendations. The summary should be minimal. The person you are writing to understands the problem already – they wan’t you to solve it! My memo ended up being probably 1/4 summary and 3/4 recommendations. Another thing that I think may have helped me – I offered ONE suggestion per problem, only. In my head, if my boss were to ask me for a solution to a problem I would give him one strong, simple solution. I wouldn’t give him a wishy-washy, creative, “different” suggestion. I would keep it simple! This is the real world! This is the government! Believe in your recommendations, stand by them.
I was finished with the CM by 2:30 and thus began the two hour wait to get my results. The entire group was exhausted. We sat around, sometimes in silence, sometimes chatting, sometimes pacing, sometimes bashing our heads against the wall as CNN pundits waxed poetic on Donald Trump for another hour.
At around 4:00, a fellow test taker and I started playing cards in the hopes that maybe it would help the time move a bit more quickly. At 4:15 two examiners came in to the waiting room and called another test taker and I into separate rooms.
Note: there is NO rhyme or reason to the order in which you are called – don’t drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what the order means.
As I was walking down the hall with the examiner, he turned to me and said, “I hope you didn’t have any money on that card game” as he turned back around and chuckled to himself. In that moment, a huge wave of relief washed over me. In that moment, I knew I had passed. I told myself there was no way in hell this guy would be trying to crack a joke with me if he was about to tell me I failed. As soon as I walked in the room, another examiner started with, “Before you sit down, on behalf of the Foreign Service, let me congratulate you…” I don’t really even remember if that’s exactly what she said. I don’t remember any of what she said because I let out a huge laugh, cry, sigh all in one. I passed! The remaining moments in that room were a complete blur, they handed me a packet and instructed me to go to another “holding room” to wait for the other passers. As I shook one examiner’s hand, she said something along the lines of “exceptional showing today”. Another huge swell of relief passed over me – maybe I got a competitive score!
Here’s the thing. Even if you pass the OA (the cutoff score is 5.3) most of the career tracks are so competitive that you need at least a 5.5 to get an offer to join the entry level training class, called A-100. In fact, my track, political, is rumored to be the most competitive and I would assume that one needs to get at least a 5.6 or 5.7 to get an offer. I had always planned to just try and pass the OA and then take it again in a year to try and improve my score.
So I walked down the hall to the holding room, joined by my fellow test taker. When we were left alone, I couldn’t resist and I gave him a huge hug. I was so happy for him and us. Then I sat down and opened that big yellow envelope to learn my score. I got a 5.9 and passed all three sections of the assessment. I was floored. I still am floored. Barring any clearance, suitability problems, or hiring freezes (look at that anxiety kicking back up) a 5.9 basically guarantees me a spot in A-100. I’m a happy camper right now, and so thankful – most of all to my friends, family, and coworkers who believed in me and pushed me to believe in myself.
Random Thoughts on OA Day:
- Confidence is key. I think being confident is the reason I passed with the score I did. I listened to my favorite girl power songs all week before the exam. I did power poses in the coat closet (seriously).
- If you’re crashing and burning, keep it to yourself, or at least don’t constantly degrade your performance. No one wants their vibe killed because you think you’re failing.
- Be nice and make friends, it’s an overwhelming day. I told everyone it was my birthday and because of that we were all going to have a great day. After the GE I told everyone that they rocked it and that we should all be proud, for example.
- Be gracious and appreciative to those administering the test. It’s a long day for everyone and they do this multiple times per week. Even if they can’t smile and talk with you, there is no reason that you can’t say please and thank you to the Program Assistants or even the examiners. Don’t be fake, though.
Take this with you:
- There is an old adage that says the Foreign Service is “Yale, Male, and Pale”. The FS is actively working on shedding that image but it can be hard to overcome the thought that you don’t “fit” into the mold. Throughout my career I’ve criticized myself and my ability to get in to the FS for silly reasons like, “I’m a terrible writer, I didn’t go to an Ivy League, I don’t speak another language, I’m so unprofessional, I don’t know every single fact about international treaty negotiation (what?).” I’m here to tell you that none of that matters. If you have a dream, if you work hard and believe in yourself – you can achieve it. You don’t need to be anyone else in the Foreign Service, you just need to be you.