Starting Over

Well, I didn’t pass the Foreign Service Oral Assessment.

I’ve waited several weeks since taking the assessment to get to a point in my life that I am ready to write about it and share just a little with all of you. I’ll be as open as I can be, and as much as I can to keep to the NDA. I’ll also say that unlike my other posts, I am just free writing this one.

The grammar, prose, style of writing will not be the best English, so do be warned.

However, before we continue. I won’t write anything more concerning my 2018 oral assessment than what I write below (at least not for the foreseeable future). This is done for two reasons. First, I know I will get emails asking for specifics that are outside of this post. I won’t answer them. Mostly to make sure I keep to the NDA, but more importantly for the second reason. The second reason is that I don’t want to continue rehashing it to others. Not that I am against sharing, just that I have talked about it a lot already (outside of this post to friends, family, others from the blog who contacted me before this) and I would like to take a breather from it.

Lead Up

I spent the better part of a month and a half studying for this assessment. The Yahoo FSOA Group has some fantastic resources to help you prepare, and I wholeheartedly suggest that you take advantage of it when you are invited to the oral assessment.

For those that don’t know, the oral assessment, in brief, is made up of four parts (parts 3 and 4 can change order):

  1. A written statement: you must write ahead of the assessment on why you want to join the Foreign Service. It is only a few paragraphs long. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, nobody knows how much weight this statement of interest has on your candidacy.
  2. Group exercise: You and 3-5 others, depending on the how many people are at the assessment on your test day, are members of an embassy task force who are tasked with allocating limited embassy resources to a specific project or projects. You are given shared country documents and you each receive an individual plan. You have a limited time to synthesize the information, then you are each given a few minutes to present your project, and finally within 20 or so minutes y’all must agree to use your limited resources towards one or more projects. It all depends on the prompt.
  3. Interview: There are three parts to it. The first focuses on your experience and motivation (i.e., why do you want the job), the second is when the assessors pose a number of hypothetical questions to you, and you must answer with your best approach (e.g., you’re the economic officer in Jamaica and are currently standing outside of the embassy when an earthquake happens, damaging the building, what do you do?), and third is the past behavioral questions (e.g., tell us about a time that you did XYZ).
  4. Case management: In 90 minutes you must synthesize a bunch of info on something or some things that are taking place, and then write up a memo based on the prompts.

Outside of purchasing a house, prepping for a wedding, work, and other life events. These four items that make up the oral assessment were my life. Before you go there, yes I had a lot going on. But I also have a great, understanding, and supportive partner who I was able to divvy tasks with during this time, which immensely helped.

Leading up to my test date, I devoured as much information on the assessment as I could. Blog posts, Yahoo groups, Reddit group, DIRs, webinars, other people, State Department resources, etc. Whatever I could get my hands on I read with excitement. I found it all really helpful, and I do think it prepared me for the day (I’ll put it all into FSO Compass).

I reached out to the Yahoo, Facebook, and pFS communities to see if there were applicants who made it to the oral assessment and were interested in practicing together. I was able to put together a great group from across the world. I was also very fortunate to find two applicants in the greater Seattle area, who I was able to meet in-person with to practice and do many more online meetings with.

I recommend this very much. Study groups are an immense help, and I strongly suggest reaching out to the community to practice with others.

For practice materials, we used a lot of the content found on the Yahoo group. I recommend all look in there as well when you start practicing.

That said, do take it with a grain of salt. The material is helpful to help get your feet wet and have a general idea of what to expect. However, the content provided during the testing day is generally longer than what you find in the Yahoo group. I prepared for this, so I was always in time for the assignments I submitted, but I did hear from others who did not, and were surprised by the vast difference in the quantity of material.

Leading to test day

I flew to Washington, D.C. a couple of days before my assessment. Coming from the NW, I wanted to make sure I had a buffer, in case of travel issues, and to help me get over jet lag.

The night before I met with a fellow applicant, who I had met online in a practice session, for dinner with her brother. We learned during our online meetings that we were taking the test on the same day, and thus decided to meet. It was great to meet with her and her brother, an FSO, the night before. We had dinner at Founding Farmers, who make some of the best chicken and waffles (IMO), and had a good time chatting. I left feeling more calm about the next day.

Note: the official rule when it comes to testing the same day as someone you know or have practiced with is to notify the assessors as soon as you arrive, which we both did the following morning. We learned of this rule after listening to a webinar hosted by a DIR, which was already after having practiced a couple of times together.

Unfortunately, the rest of the evening was not so great. I was staying with a buddy whose roommate decided to get drunk on a Thursday night, come back to the house around 2a, and make a ton of noise playing some video game. Needless to say, I think I only got three hours of sleep that night. Though pissed, I kept positive the next morning, put on my suit, took a cab to a coffee shop near the testing center for a drink and breakfast, and then walked to my fate.

Looking back, there are a lot of “what ifs” that just naturally get asked. The main one for me has been, what if I had gotten a full night’s sleep. Would I have done differently? I think so. My reaction time was not quick, I know I wasn’t my usual witty self, and I know I had trouble comprehending some things that were said or that I read. I do think with more sleep things could have been different. But now I know that if I have this opportunity again, I am getting a hotel room, putting in earplugs, and perhaps taking something to put me to sleep. To be fair, I definitely had nerves the night before, because I was thinking about the test non-stop. But I also know I was asleep, and then woke up because of the noise…

Test day

I was met with two surprises on test day. The first, there were just four of us taking the assessment. I fully expected 6-8 people at least. The second, the other three were in their 40s, while I am 31. Given the averages that I had read online, I was expecting more 30 somethings. But no matter. The three others were great (not that they wouldn’t be).

After filling all the paperwork, notifying the admin team there that I did know one of the applicant’s, and stashing our belongings in a room, I was left to wait. We all were. Waiting makes up the majority of your time for this day. Before, between, and after the different parts of the test. There was some reading material, and the news was on, but for the most part, there was a lot of small chit chat. Oddly enough, we all had strange and random connections in our pasts to one another. For example, two of the applicants when to the same school in India when they were younger, but 4-5 years apart.

When we were called to take the GE, the process was exactly as described in the State brochure (and as briefly described above).

Unfortunately, by the end of the GE, I knew I wasn’t going to pass the Orals.

During the GE, for some reason, I did not do what I practiced, and instead, I felt like I was trying to do too many things (lack of sleep maybe? Ok, last time going to mention it). For my report out, I went to time. I did say everything I wanted, but I didn’t leave time for questions. Something that had never happened during all my practice sessions. I know I was nervous, which slowed my speech. During the discussion phase, I just didn’t do well. I made mistakes, and there were areas I know I should have gone into, which I did not. It’s a shame, because in the lead up to the oral assessment, this part of the test is where I felt the strongest, and this is why I knew I wasn’t going to pass the Orals. I knew that my case management writing was not strong, and without the GE to buffer the CM, I wasn’t going to make it.

When that ended, it was off to another break before being called to take the CM. There is not much I can say here that is outside of the description above, to keep to the NDA, but I can say that the material provided is a greater quantity then what you find in the Yahoo group. I do suggest that instead of writing notes on the given paper, that you write them directly into the computer as this will save you time.

Side note: if any assessor is reading this, is there any possibility of providing a memo to applicants of what a good memo looks like?

At the end of the writing, I honestly thought I did decently. But alas, did not pass.

More waiting.

Finally, the interview. Two assessors and me in a room for an hour answering questions, and boy did this time go by fast. I passed this section, but by how much I don’t know.

More waiting.

At the end of the day, it was time to find out how we did. We were called away one by one, I was called third. Part of me thought being called third might be a good sign, perhaps it meant that they were telling the first called that they didn’t make it, and would then tell the ones at the end that they did.

I was half right.

I would learn later, a week or two later, that only one person passed on my testing day, the fourth person called.

When I was told I didn’t pass I wasn’t surprised. There was still the hope, don’t get me wrong, but I am a realist as well. The two assessors in the room gave me the scripted speel, they have to, and then they asked if I had any questions that they are allowed to answer, which cannot be about my assessment. This may have been a cheeky question to ask them, but I asked, “what can I ask”. They must have gotten this one before because they told me, quite quickly, that I would have to ask to find out. Oh well.

I did ask the assessor who escorted me out of the building (standard practice) how long he had been in the role of assessor. He told me four years, which was my third surprise. I really thought these were one, maybe two, year stints. Perhaps I’ll see him again next year…

In not passing I decided to go to one of my favorite local bars from my time living in Bloomingdale, D.C., for a drink, or two, or three… I don’t remember. My fiance met up with me there, she flew in because we were going to a wedding that weekend, and we went to the apartment to change. We then finished the evening going to a live performance of Trevor Noah, which was awesome!

Lessons learned

The day before I took the oral assessment, I promised myself that pass or not, I would step away having gone through a learning experience. It most certainly was. So here are three lessons that I am taking away:

1. Arranging study groups is essential and critical to success, but so is being a participant. In organizing a lot of the study groups, I became the de facto leader. Other applicants looked to me for guidance, leadership, and knowledge. For the most part, this worked out well. But in looking back, I do wonder if the de facto leadership worked against me.

You see, for the GE component of the exam, it was very easy for me to be the facilitator of the group, and “lead”, which is a dimension of being an FSO. However, during the actual assessment, I was not the “de facto” leader, even if I didn’t want to be, and as such, when someone else took a leadership role, I did not fully know what to do and thus “stumbled” in the beginning. That said, the one who took more of a leadership role did not pass that day either. Soooo…

Lesson learned: when practicing for the test make sure to join other groups, and not just arrange your own study groups. Test yourself in different capacities.

2. A month, month and a half, was an appropriate amount of time to study for me. This is all part of knowing yourself. I know that I will not do a good job practicing for an assessment six months out. This is one of the reasons I took one of the first assessments provided to the June cohort, and also because I was already going to DC for a wedding. You will be presented with many testing options, choose the one you think works best for you.

But Jack, you didn’t pass, don’t you think you needed more time? No.

3. I was ready, I knew what to expect, and… everything was how I expected it. I messed up in the GE. That’s what it comes down to.

You know those moments, I am sure we have all experienced them, when you say something, and you visually try to grasp at your words to pull them back. Or you say something, and the intent is right, but you don’t say it quite right. Or you say something, and you immediately think to yourself, WTF. Did I really just say that dumb thing? Yeah… all those thoughts happened to me during the GE.

Lesson learned: I need to learn how to relax. I won’t lie, and this won’t be a shocker to you if you have been following me for a while, or hell, have even read this far (you’re brave), I want this career and lifestyle. I wanted to do really well when I took the assessment. It would have fit perfectly in my timeline, both life, and career. Not to mention, I have been getting cross with the whole process (too long, too many steps, too etc.). And this was my fifth attempt.

In short, I wanted it too much, and it got to me. So the lesson, even though I tell this to everybody else, I need to remind myself, you can’t want it that much. It has always got to be Plan B.

Final note

If you have read all 2,700 words before this point, I commend you. It really is a word and emotion vomit, and entirely different from what I usually write.

Before I leave you, two more things.

First, I could not have gotten this far in the process this time without my partner. She guided me, helped me, supported me, was my editor, and was patient with me during the aftermath. If you are reading this, I thank you and love you and look forward to our special day next year.

Second, keep at it. I am telling that just as much to you as I am to myself. Keep at it. For some of us, it’s a marathon with several laps. For others, it’s a marathon of a single lap. For those in the former with me…

Keep at it.

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