Why is the FSOT So Hard?

Is it, really? Is it tougher than say the MCAT or GRE?

I think it is for a variety of reasons: exams stretch over two days, require you to submit a personal narrative, overcome hurdles that can knock you out of the running.  Also many of you have been dreaming about becoming a Foreign Service officer for years. The emotional pressure is huge

The tests themselves also stretch you in so many ways from multiple choice on a range of subjects (Econ, history, computers, literature, grammar, etc) to writing two or three essays on varying topics. And, yes, the time pressure is intense.

Back in the old days, you’d look around you to see hundreds of others competing for the maybe 2000 slots for the Oral Assessment. And at the Oral Assessment you wonder which of the applicants sitting at the round-table exercise were going to cross all the hurdles to make the cohort of 200 or so who will be put on registrars. You know too that recent Washington buzzwords like sequestration and 0% budgeting mean that there could be even fewer slots open.

Similarly, for the past 10+ years there has been a huge push to hire more minorities, especially Hispanics and Asian Americans who are woefully underrepresented as ELOs and Senior Foreign Service officers. African Americans continue to be underrepresented, but not as much. Women have nearly caught up with men in entering classes, but lag under the Senior Foreign Service glass ceiling.  These hiring goals will affect hiring and promotion; some will be helped, others hurt.

The FSOT is a strange test, I can’t deny that, and there are so many things that come together to decide whether you’ll get on a register and whether you’ll get hired.

 

 

Pointers on the Oral Exam (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, I know a lot about African Big Men and State Department policymaking, but Word Press at times leaves me stumped.   I’m sorry that this post originally went up unfinished on the website.  I’ve figured how to avoid that in the future.  Please bear with me.

 

I have promised a post on the Oral Assessment for months, and after talking to some friends who took their Orals last year I’m re-energized to write about it.

A couple of things I’ve learned and confirmed with my friends are that:

  • The Oral Assessment portion of the Foreign Service Exam has changed very little since I took it 1985;
  • Most of the examiners are probably on their last tours in the Department, and they’re looking for their high-three salaries to bump up their annuities.  Some are bitter and others are curmudgeons who will always be curmudgeons, but most/most are decent folks who in their last assignment with State, on the Board of Examiners (BEX), genuinely wish to make sure the incoming FSOs will be the best possible.                             

The Oral Assessment is a grueling ordeal.

The exam lasts a full day and includes a writing test, a Q&A period with you and two FSOs and a group session that has been alternately described as a minefield and a policy wonk scrum.  To top it off, Careers.State.Gov says, the “[oral] assessment measures your ability to demonstrate the 13 dimensions … essential to the successful performance of Foreign Service work.”   That last part is debatable, but it makes the HR gurus feel better, I suppose.

On the positive side, test takers get their results back the same day.  When you show up for the Oral Assessment, you will likely get the “Case Management Writing Exercise” — modeled on a memo or email at a typical embassy.  It’s given early so it can be graded before the end of the day. I don’t know who reviews these writing assignment, but I understand that it may they are not graded by Foreign Service Officers.  I will try to find more information about these mystery graders.

Recommendations for Case Management Writing Exercise

Write in clear, succinct English and avoid “academese.” Although FSOs may not be grading your papers (see para above), nearly all successful test takers have told me that they wrote like a journalist or a State Department reporting officer/desk officer.  In other words, be clear, straightforward and to the point.  One successful candidate said he wrote “the way a reporter would write – short and  punchy.”

Another critical pointer — you will likely be writing about an embassy issue, like the Ambassador’s Small-Scale Self-Help Development Fund, the Regional Security Officer’s new security restrictions or the Housing Board’s decision on housing assignments.  There could be other issues, but the common theme is that you will be writing an information memo having to do with an embassy or mission (In State-speak, mission includes other agencies at post) discussion.

My key advice is don’t feel you must answer or decide the issue.  Let me repeat that because it’s important – don’t feel you need to make the decision or render a conclusion.  It’s an information memo.  You glean the information that you can, and you write your memo accordingly.

You will likely be drafting this memo describing the meeting to a superior, say the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) or the Ambassador. As an entry level officer, you will not be making decisions on inter-agency board meetings.  You are there to report what happened, highlighting the disagreements or outbursts (seriously!) so the DCM or Ambassador know that the USAID Mission Director is in a tizzy because his deputy’s housing is “inadequate” for representational purposes or some other agency’s complaints or State’s General Service Officer’s (GSO, typically in charge of the Mission housing pool) inflexibility.  Frame the major issues and highlight the agreements and disagreements.  In the exercise, if you’re asked follow-up questions from the DCM or Ambassador, answer honestly and if you don’t know the answer, simply say that you don’t know the answer and why not – the subject never came up at the meeting, the issue was pushed off to the next meeting, etc.  

Finally, remember the whole Oral Assessment is based on the 13 dimensions.  You don’t mention them in your response, but read them so you have the right mindset for the exercise.  I see the following four as most relevant to this exercise:

  • Written Communication. To write concise, well organized, grammatically correct, effective and persuasive English in a limited amount of time.
  • Objectivity and Integrity. To be fair and honest; to avoid deceit, favoritism, and discrimination; to present issues frankly and fully, without injecting subjective bias; to work without letting personal bias prejudice actions.
  • Judgment. To discern what is appropriate, practical, and realistic in a given situation; to weigh relative merits of competing demands.
  • Information Integration and Analysis. To absorb and retain complex information drawn from a variety of sources; to draw reasoned conclusions from analysis and synthesis of available information; to evaluate the importance, reliability, and usefulness of information; to remember details of a meeting or event without the benefit of notes. 

Stay tuned for my tips on handling the Group Exercise and how to negotiate the interview with two FSOs.  

 

 

My Test-Taking Strategy and Time Management Tips

 

Some of you will take the test in Ottawa

U.S. Embassy entrance in Ottawa

Good luck to those taking the FSOT over the next week.  Don’t be nervous, don’t cram (it’s too late for that!), just try to relax and do your best. I remember sitting for the Foreign Service Exam at the Hotel Talleyrand, formerly the U.S. Consulate and Public Affairs annex in Paris.  The year was 1985 — yes, I know, in the olden times.  We were writing in test books, there were no essays, and none of us knew yet our career tracks (cones).  You had four hours to complete the exam, I think, but I tore through it and walked out of the room after three. I’m not boasting.  I finished quickly not because the FSOT was easy, but because I was afraid.   I felt that if I dwelled too much on the questions, especially in the English Expression section, I’d second guess myself and change my answers.  I still believe — at least for me — that on tests like the FSOT my first answer is my best answer.  I also found that treating test like a game of Trivial Pursuit helped me not get hung up on questions where I was guessing.  Everyone’s test-taking strategies are different.  I had taken the exam once before in Chicago, and did okay on the General Knowledge questions but tanked on the English Expression section.  I learned that second-guessing myself was pointless, so I went into the Paris Exam knowing that I just had to trust my first hunches. Answer all the questions: as with my Foreign Service Exam, the new FSOT throws some research questions into the mix.  They are not scored and are apparently designed to help ACT.  You can’t tell the research from the regular questions SO answer all of the questions, even the ones you’re guessing at. TIME MANAGEMENT While strategies differ, test takers may wish to follow these Time Management tactics: What you know already: The test will last three hours, divided up in four sections.  Three sections are multiple-choice and focus on “general job knowledge, English expression and a biographic section.”  The fourth section, which lasts 30 minutes, is one or two essays on “assigned topic[s].  I understand from recent test takers the order of the FSOT is, as follows: —      Job Knowledge —      Bio —      English Expression —      Essay(s).  Yes, they may give you two essay instead of one. Tactics: 1.      Don’t race through the bio and essay sections.  Take the allotted time for these two so you can make your best efforts.  You can always improve your draft on second reading. 2.      Take advantage of the frequent breaks — 5-6 minutes — before the bio and especially the essay portions.  Go to the bathroom, splash water on your face and do some jumping jacks to get your blood flowing.     Remember: If you mess up, it’s not the end of the world.  You can take the test again in 11 months.  No worries, no stress. Good luck!

Deadlines for the October Exam

Here are the deadlines for the upcoming written Foreign Service Exam:

 

SEPTEMBER 17, 2012, 9:00 AM (U.S. CENTRAL TIME)

Deadline for candidates intending to test overseas to submit completed Registration.

SEPTEMBER 21, 2012, 9:00 AM (U.S. CENTRAL DAYLIGHT TIME)

Deadline for candidates intending to test overseas to schedule a test seat.

SEPTEMBER 26, 2012, 9:00 AM (U.S. CENTRAL DAYLIGHT TIME)

Deadline for candidates intending to test in the U.S. to submit completed Registration.

48 hours before start of your test:  Deadline for candidates intending to test in the U.S. to schedule a test seat—provided seats are still available.

 

Ninety percent of life is just showing up. ~Woody Allen

Foreign Service Exam – Don’t Psych Yourself Out

I’ll be the first to say that the written portion of Foreign Service Exam is a different sort of test. Part-Trivial Pursuit, part-college core, the test is designed to assess your abilities across a huge swath of knowledge – history, humanities, management, economics, culture, IT, etc. It will force you into a deep dive of what you’ve picked up at school and also what you’ve gathered growing up in the United States. After you take it, you’ll walk out of the exam hall feeling dull, achy and a little scattered. You’ll want to decompress for a few hours with a glass of wine or cup of coffee or both.

But it is only a test and your first hurdle into joining the Foreign Service – the best career in the U.S. Government.

Can you prepare for the Foreign Service Exam? While I was a Foreign Service Officer, I was emphatic that you had to just know the material. I remember taking it for the second time (yes, it took me two tries to pass the written test.) and waiting to enter the exam room, there were applicants reading history books, econ texts and other reference materials, furiously cramming before the Exam. I thought it was crazy. I felt if you read a good newspaper everyday (e.g., NYT, Washington Post, LA Times, etc) and a good news magazine every week (e.g. The Economist) with a college degree would get you through to the next round, the Oral Exam.

You Can Prepare for the Foreign Service Exam

But now after a 24-year career in the Foreign Service, I’ve revised my thinking and believe you can (and need to)  prepare for the exam. You won’t get there with flash cards or a scattershot approach with textbooks. No, that’s just a way to get you frustrated and angry. Also, cramming minutes before the Exam is a waste of time. It’s too late.  No, you need a good strategy.

Strategy

First, you have to be honest with yourself. Where are your shortcomings? In what subjects are you the weakest? Economics, Management, American History, Modern or Ancient Thinkers, Project Management, English Grammar, Computer Skills, etc. Second, how long do you have before the Exam. As I write this, you have about 2+ months to prepare for the October test. Is that enough time? Yes, I believe it is more than enough time to get you up to speed on what you need to know. In my next posts, I’ll describe how to get prepared through a sensible, logical strategy.

For now, keep reading the good daily newspaper and The Economist. They will remain the foundation for passing the exam. Trust yourself, work hard and good luck.