Becoming an FSO Part III: The FSOA

The Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA) is probably the most anticipated, and some would say the most dreaded part of the candidacy to become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). I would argue that whether or not you dread the orals, they are certainly the most challenging and high-performance part of the candidacy.

DISCLAIMER: These are my own observations about a process I began in 2011.  I’m writing this series to pay forward some of the great information and insights I found online during my own candidacy. But the posts will eventually contain out-of-date information, and thus interested applicants should consult official instructions and sources when pursuing their own candidacies.

I will refer to this part of the assessment by the interchangeable terms FSOA, OA and orals.

If you reach this stage of the assessment process, I highly, highly encourage you to join the FSOA Yahoo Group that I mentioned in my previous post about strategies for passing the FSOT. You can join here: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/fsoa/info

Seriously, join.

(Have you joined yet?)

OK. Even if you’re not a “joiner”, do you really want to be at a disadvantage by going it alone? Normally I myself would say yes! But not in this case. Don’t walk in cold – have the blue screen moments with new friends first!

One of the reasons that the Yahoo group is so great is because it provides an opportunity to connect with people in your FSOT testing cohort who are also preparing for their orals. The orals go on continuously for most of the year, so there is always someone looking to prepare. It is the place where I met the superb folks in my two different study groups – a big shout-out to KH, LR, AK, KL, and OM! It is partly because of their help and camaraderie that I had the opportunity to practice all three sections of the OA, access lots of practice materials from “the braintrust” and gain a lot of confidence.

After 3.5 months of preparation with my study mates, I passed my first attempt at the oral assessment on Friday, May 18, 2012 – one of my happiest days ever!

WHAT I HAD TO BRING

Note that the items below are what I needed to bring to my OA 2+ years ago. If you are invited to an OA, please read your materials carefully to make sure that you’re aware of everything you’ve been instructed to bring for your particular situation. If you’re a Pickering Fellow or married to a non-U.S. citizen, for example, you will have different and/or additional documents.

  • Completed DS-4017 Statement of Interest (SOI). The SOI is a one-page blank document that carries the alarmingly simple instruction: “Please use the space below to describe why you want to become a Foreign Service Officer.” I definitely recommend writing many, many drafts and getting feedback from a wide variety of folks, including, of course, your study group. My study group met more than once on just this topic alone.
  • Valid U.S. state or federal government-issued photo identification (like your passport, or driver’s license) to gain access to the assessment center.
  • Your completed DS-7601 Spousal Release form if you are engaged, married or cohabiting with someone who is a U.S. citizen (the form must also be signed by this partner).
  • Valid U.S. passport, U.S. birth certificate, or certificate of naturalization to show citizenship (for passers only).
  • Printout of SF-86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions (completed via E-QIP online; save without submitting) (for passers only)

WHAT TO EXPECT

When you pass the QEP, you will be notified of your scheduling window (the timeframe in which you should log in and select your assessment date) and your assessment window (the three month period during which your cohort members are guaranteed an assessment date). Obviously, select the date and location that are most appropriate for your needs. I selected a Friday at State Department Annex 44, located in southwest Washington DC. I was hoping there would be a bit of Friday “in the air” on my test date, and whether there was or not, at least I had the weekend to recover from this major brain drain. I also highly recommend a dry run over to the location to make sure you aren’t late and lost the day of. If you’re late, you will forfeit your assessment.

Upon arriving at the test center (at approximately 06:45 am), you can expect to receive some paperwork outlining the schedule for your day. You will also sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement and an agreement that if you are accepted into the Foreign Service, you will serve worldwide according to the needs of the service, which are, of course, paramount.

Each OA consists of a Group Exercise (GE), Case Management (CM), and a Structured Interview (SI). You can expect to have a lunch break, and at least a short break between each portion of the day. You should plan to remain at the testing center until between 16:00 and 18:00 that afternoon – if you pass, you get out on the later end. If you’re flying into your assessment location, don’t plan a flight at 17:00. Take it easy on yourself.

The great thing about the OA is that you find out the same day whether you passed. When you walk out the door, you’re going to know whether you passed or failed, and what’s in store next.

I won’t go too much further into these areas, partly because of the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and partly because each portion of the day will be outlined in the official materials you will have access to once you are invited to the orals. The best thing I can probably share is the below, excerpts from my “OA Recap” that I posted to the Yahoo FSOA group a few days after passing.

Enjoy!

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM MY RECAP FOR THE YAHOO FSOA GROUP

(originally written on Monday, May 21, 2012)

I’ve had a few days now to celebrate and process passing the OA last Friday, and I wanted to send out my recap while it’s still fresh in my mind. I have received so much information and guidance here since I passed the PNs in January, and I feel compelled to pay it forward. I
also confess to reading every recap that’s been posted here…ever. If you can relate to that level of obsession and anguish in hoping to pass and see what’s behind the curtain, I wrote this post for YOU! It’s also for all of those who have posted study exercises and tips, or who have tested and haven’t passed, and are still hoping. Don’t give up!

In order to be compliant with the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), I will keep my comments to things about me – the strategies that resonated with me, my preparation and my thoughts the day of. Everything else has been said much better, many times over by other passers.

***************

This was my first attempt at the orals. There were 9 candidates on that day at Annex 44. Only 2 (myself in Consular and one other in Management) passed that I am aware of. If this is incorrect and you were there – feel free to jump in. [*I later learned that the total number of passers on my test day was 4. It was difficult for me to determine, as we were split into two groups towards the end and I never saw the other half of the group afterwards.*]

Score

5.5 – passed GE and SI, did not pass CM

Preparation

Books read – Inside a U.S. Embassy, Embassies Under Siege, Career Diplomacy, Getting to Yes, The EQ Edge, Getting Past No (I recommend especially the first four)

Study Groups – Approximately 10-15 in-person and Skype meetings between early February and mid-May, especially to practice GE and CM and work on SOIs

Individual – Many, many hours of work on my SF-86 and SOI, and tons of introspective reflection on my life and career for stories related to the 13 Dimensions. Probably should have done more “out loud” SI work but didn’t want to be too rehearsed. No one knows your stories better than you do, and all the talking out loud in the world won’t help you if you haven’t thought it through yourself first (my introverted opinion – your mileage may vary, so prepare how you feel comfortable). I also attended a “Diplomat-in-Residence” session here in DC, and around the culmination of my preparation I put together “one-pagers” with key takeaways for each section – things I had learned, and tips/tricks I did not want to forget. Highly recommend.

How I Felt That Morning

I woke up before my alarm, both relieved and filled with dread that the day had finally arrived. I’d come to a zen place with my nervousness a couple of weeks before, and was relatively calm, trusting in my five months of preparation. The day before I had laid out my clothes and packed my bag with all the necessary paperwork, so I showered, put on my best suit and headed to the metro station. (Note to women: Hair up, conservative makeup and comfortable but buttoned-up conservative attire is a good idea. Feel professional and competent and you will behave as such. I wore my hair in a twist, a pale skirt suit with pearls and lovely, soft gray shoes. I tried to channel powerful and composed women I have had the privilege of working for!)

As my fiancé and I rode the metro towards L’Enfant Plaza from Alexandria, it seemed like the train was traveling at about 180 mph. As we pulled into the station, my nerves started getting the better of me and I had my last (and worst) severe bout of nervousness. For a moment I wanted to run away and go home. I even said it out loud, twice, as my mind was blanking out and my throat was closing. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine even speaking with anyone else, let alone carrying out these exercises. I desperately wanted to be “off” for a little while.

Luckily with some encouragement from my fiancé, I remembered what I was trying to do and pulled my act together. I never would have forgiven myself had I bailed on this opportunity. I took a deep breath, relaxed and went in to the lobby with one other tester, and we introduced ourselves to everyone. Within seconds I was in my usual form, getting to know everyone and reaching out to the quiet folks. I probably seemed totally confident and at ease, and in a weird way, after my brief blue screen moment, I kind of was.

Everyone seemed nervous but ready to get the show on the road. I think meeting the other candidates, trying to remember their names and cones, and treating them like new friends was a good strategy. As we were led through security and upstairs to begin the day, during all the times we could talk, a few of us were chatting up a storm. It was probably nervous energy, but there may have been an element of social “warming up” and excitement that the day was finally underway.

Group Exercise

Interestingly, I think the GE was my strongest showing this day, and I did pass it. Here are some of the things that I think I did right:

  • Quickly switching gears when needed and preparing my presentation in a way that worked for me. Speak up right away during the discussion period – don’t set yourself up to join “someone else’s” conversation.
  • Giving the assessors my full and courteous attention whenever they spoke to us.
  • During any presentation, it’s good common sense and professionalism to say good morning, introduce yourself, and give your colleagues a brief outline of what you will say to make their note-taking more comprehensive and easier. Speak loudly enough, be confident and well-informed. Make good eye contact and don’t read off your notes. All of this holds true here too. There is something about doing it for real with the assessors’ eyes on you that kind of kicks you into high gear! I was sometimes reticent in study group practices, but when I was on stage at last I was all business.
  • Be proactive and build consensus. Take ownership of the process rather than the projects. They likely all have merit – focus on advancement of U.S. strategic interests if that is what you are asked to do.
  • The best overall advice I could give is to stay composed, look confident, speak clearly and be collegial, FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS to the letter, don’t get drawn in by people who don’t follow instructions and mitigate the damage they cause by being professional and on point yourself, give your colleagues an opportunity to speak and bring the quiet ones in. I was also the timekeeper.

Structured Interview

I also passed the SI, although the first three minutes were so rough I contemplated apologizing to my assessors and just fleeing from the room. (I think I did actually say, “I’m sorry,” but the next part, the “I can’t do this right now,” died on my lips as I again reigned in my nerves.) I will probably have daymares about that for some time. It was simply just surreal, like some kind of out-of-body experience. I was thinking, “THIS IS IT” and yet the words were just not coming out right. I started repeating myself and stuttering as if I’d never practiced – sheesh. Luckily I regained my focus and did well after the first few minutes.

My advice would be to be thoughtful, take your time, and if you get flustered, take a deep breath, focus, and show them that you can “come back”. Don’t psych yourself out. It’s OK to say, “Hmm, let me consider that for a moment,” and then take 20 seconds of silence before responding. It will feel like forever, but it’s not – and it’s crucial. You’ve been to a job interview and done well before, anyway, right? Luckily I acknowledged my nervousness, and the assessors saw through it to the patriotic rock star I am beneath. Right?! DoS invited you because they think you have what it takes. Show them.

Case Management

I thought this was my strength, but weirdly I didn’t pass it. I am surprised, because I followed instructions to the letter, including doing the analysis and addressing all problems. Guess I’ll be happy anyway! I may have made some quantitative analysis error, although I doubt it. Or maybe I threw in the kitchen sink, and didn’t cull my recommendations enough for the level of person I was addressing. I’d be interested to find out, not even in the context of the OA but moreover about how I could improve my cables and briefings in the future.

Bringing earplugs helped, and I offered to share some with other testers.

Also make sure that when you sit down the first time you pick a comfortable workstation (I still have a bruise on the top of my thigh from the slide-out keyboard hitting me!). I also immediately took charge of my time and mapped it out the way it works best for me – this is important to manage because the time will FLY.

The End

Although the day was difficult, in some regards it was not as difficult and scary as I expected. The hard part (in my opinion) is having your inadequacies exposed and trying to respond in a professional way. Also if you have control issues, the number of uncontrollable variables will freak you out. Chill out and prepare for this. Trust needs to not be so much a function of the day going how you expect it to, but a function of how much you trust yourself to handle whatever comes your way.

I brought my toothbrush and toothpaste and brushed my teeth like 3 times throughout the day! That made me feel GREAT. I was able to access my bag and snacks between each section. I never felt as though it were a hostile or unpleasant day, except for the brain damage of all the thinking and nerves. For the most part I was feeling good, and didn’t beat myself up between exercises for the mistakes I made. I just kept going, trying to stay in a good head space. You don’t have to pass each section in order to pass the day – so don’t let perceived goof-ups ruin your mood or concentration.

If you find that you are a person who easily absorbs others’ nervous or negative energy, you may need to make an extra effort to stay focused and positive. At the end of the day, as people were called out one by one, we clapped for them and wished them well, until it was just me and one other guy left. We chatted serenely about his work in Senegal, and I hate to say it, but because of his unbelievable calm and composure rubbing off on me, for a few moments I almost forgot where I was. Almost. At last I heard my name and was called out.

My assessor seemed to be subtly smiling, so my heart soared as he led me to the end of the hall. It seemed to me that his eyes were sparkling a little bit, and he kind of be-bopped down the corridor. I was hoping it wasn’t just because it was about to be Friday night! I knew for sure when I entered the room to two more smiling assessors, and heard the fourth assessor behind me in the hallway calling the other candidate out of the computer room; I suspected that if I hadn’t passed they wouldn’t be about to share that news with me in front of another candidate.

The other candidate came into the room and was asked to stand next to me as all four of assessors assembled themselves across the room from us. I had a passing thought as they asked us to put our backs against the wall that I was going in front of a firing squad…except they were beaming and relaxed, as me and the other guy stood, barely daring to breathe.

Then one of the assessors spoke up and began to read off a paper: “On behalf of the United States Government, we are pleased to inform you…” I think I just kept saying “Wow” and “Thank you so much” over and over. It was like I was totally dumbstruck. I couldn’t stop grinning. Finally, all of the recaps I read about were coming true, but it was me standing there.

As that was happening I could see the Voice of America, where I worked for the first four years of my federal career, through the big windows beyond where the assessors stood. I thought I might cry, but no tears came. All the satellite dishes on the roof of VOA were turned in different directions, and I imagined them somehow applauding me, like parents would a child at graduation. I thought, what a perfect moment. My gratitude almost totally overwhelmed me. I shook hands with the assessors and the other passer, and settled in for another hour or two of listening (which I hardly comprehended for a few long stunned minutes) and paperwork.

When I finally walked out of the building, the very elderly DS agent who had fingerprinted me smiled as I wished him a great weekend. He replied, “Have a great career,” as the elevator doors closed in front of me. In that moment I was again overwhelmed with emotion – respect and admiration for what I imagined was his lifetime of service to our great nation.

When I walked out of the building, I turned on my phone for the first time since 06:30, called my family and my fiancé, emailed my study group the news, texted a few friends and updated my Facebook status. For the next few hours through celebrations and dinner at Lauriol Plaza my phone commenced to EXPLODE. One of the best days of my life. What an incredible honor and privilege. It almost brings me to tears right now just to think about it!

Here’s to what’s next, for all of us, whatever that may be and wherever life takes us. I hope that if this is your dream, it happens for you.

Good luck!

Celebrating afterwards!
Celebrating afterwards!
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5 thoughts on “Becoming an FSO Part III: The FSOA

  1. girlfawkes

    I also did Skype/Google Hangouts practice sessions. They made such a huge difference in my attitude, confidence, and performance. The morning of the OA, I was on Cloud 9. I had practiced for four months and was ready to finally do it. I was smiling and probably the most calm I’ve been in my life. And I stayed that way throughout the day.

    I practiced the SI outloud, over and over again, to my window. Only ever to a window though, no mirrors. Odd, but I was prepared for every question they hit at me during the SI. I think I had prepared stories for over 100 possible questions, maybe more. At one point though, I accidentally let slip something that I had told myself “don’t use this.” I made sure to prepare something to say at the end of my SI as well, my final pitch. What I wanted them to remember me by.

    I loved the CM portion of my test. It was pretty clear afterwards, that I was the only one. It helped solidify to me though that the management track was the right choice. I knew halfway through CM that I nailed it. I took all my pages out of the binder though and my desk looked like a hot mess. I had practiced enough to have my time management down. I also knew to sit near the stopwatch.

    I agree wholeheartedly that one of the most important things you can do through the day is follow directions.

    It’s funny you should mention the VOA portion. I started my path towards Foreign Service in the very building where the OA is held. I had walked down the halls of SA-44 many times as a DOS intern. I even remembered some of the security guards in the lobby. It felt like coming full circle. I can’t wait to have a chance to visit my old colleagues again!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that preparing a final statement to leave the assessors with at the end of your SI is a very good idea, indeed. It seems like they expected something, and luckily I had something very handy. One of the assessors also noticed I was wearing a lapel pin with an American flag and a Macedonian flag joined together, and asked me about it. Winning!

    I have very good feelings about Annex 44. I felt so comfortable having my OA there because I’d been there a million times, knew where to eat in the area, the shortcut to the Holiday Inn and the 21st Amendment Bar (for afterwards!!), etc. I’ve also been banking the last 7.5 years with the State Department Federal Credit Union at their SW branch in that building. A few months ago I went there to get something notarized and I felt the good post-OA vibes still washing over me. 🙂 Ah, so glad I never have to do that again though.

    Liked by 1 person

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