Oral Assessment

Today has been circled on the calendar for months as the biggest remaining obstacle on the path to the foreign service.  The oral assessment is a day-long test administered primarily in Washington, DC (although there is always one alternate site somewhere in the United States, currently in Chicago).  I opted to fly in to Washington a couple days early to get aclimated to the time change and to spend some time with my son, Malcolm, at the University of Maryland.

While I cannot comment on the substantive content of the oral assessment because of a very strict Non-disclosure Agreement, I can describe the process and my impressions.  The test breaks down into three main sections, each of which lasts about 90 minutes:  1. Group Exercise; 2. Structured Interview; and 3. Case Management.  I knew roughly what to expect as I’ve been studying, at various levels of intensity, just about every day for the past several months.  I’ve been participating with a study group in Berkeley made up of other foreign service wannabees, practicing the group exercise together and critiquing each other’s written Case Management exercise memoranda.  I also followed the dedicated Yahoo! group religiously and I spent time with several foreign service officers at various events.

Per the emailed instructions, I arrived at “Annex 44” at 6:30 am after grabbing a couple of coffee and a scone at Starbucks on the mile and a half walk from my hotel.  Nothing beats walking in the early morning to clear your head.  Upon arriving, I was pointed to a waiting area in the lobby where a couple of other early birds had already gathered awaiting our official 7:00 am check-in.  The building houses offices for FEMA, State, and several other agencies so we needed someone from State to come downstairs, issue visitor badges, and check us through security.  Absolutely no wandering the halls without an escort.

The gathering group of foreign service officer hopefuls was incredibly impressive.  There were 11 of us and everyone had a story with unique credentials.  Graduate degrees from Georgetown, GW, and the London School of Economics, all in international relations.  Candidates flew in from Singapore and South Korea.  All appeared extremely qualified.  Despite the constant refrain that we were not competing with each and that all could pass, all could fail, or some combination depending on individual performances, the impressiveness of the group made it all that much more nerve-wracking.

After arriving at the State Dept. suite of offices upstairs, we were told to look at our name badges for a code.  We had either an A or a B, along with a single digit number.  At 7:00, they immediately split us into two groups, the A’s and the B’s, for the first part:  the Group Exercise.  Upon walking into the group exercise room, we found a small table in the middle of the room, with 6 chairs, each in front of a binder and a place card indicating our individual code number.  In each corner of the room, an examiner sat with notepad and pen at the ready.

Once we took our assigned seat, the lead examiner indicated that we had 30 minutes to review the materials in our respective binders and prepare a 6-minute presentation.  The binders included a large amount of information.  Having practiced this exercise with the Berkeley group, I walked in with a game plan and, although the subject material and end goal was different, the general approach served me well.  I had an outline for the presentation with time to spare so I spent some time refining and preparing some questions for other presenters.

I volunteered to go first and suggested that we proceed in a clockwise fashion so that we spend as little time as possible on the process.  Adding to the pressure was the constant note-taking of the examiners, particularly when anyone said anything.  The presentations went fine for everyone, following a similar pattern.  I tried to ask a substantive question whenever possible, and I kept copious notes of the pros and cons of each presented project.  After all the presenters had finished, we had 30 minutes to come to a consensus as a group.  Several people wanted to jump in and control the substance of the debate, arguing vociferously for their position.  I jumped in fairly early and, rather than engaging in a substantive debate, suggested an approach by which everyone could weigh in and we could reach a consensus in the limited amount of time we had left.  Everyone readily agreed, particularly those that were having trouble getting a word in edge-wise.  I ended up taking my project out of the running after explaining clearly why I thought another was better.  We came to consensus with a minute or two before the end of time.

After a break, I returned to be called into a sub-group who would be doing the structured interview portion of the assessment next.  I found myself in a small room, in a chair facing two empty chairs and an overhead fan.  The room was very hot (although I think more a function of the unseasonably warm day outside than an intent to make me sweat).  After a few minutes of staring at a poster on the wall (What IS the color of happiness?), a knock on the door announced the arrival of my two interrogators.

I answered a series of questions about my background and experience.  The examiners once again took copious notes and showed little emotion in response to my answers and stories.  We then moved on to a series of hypothetical questions.  I read a single-spaced page describing a fictitious embassy and the examiner provided a hypothetical scenario.  With little time to think, I explained how I would handle each situation as the scenario became more and more dire.

Finally, the examiner provided me a new piece of paper which had 10 questions, grouped in pairs.  I was instructed to pick one question from each pair and prepare a 5-minute story from my background that answers each question.  I spent a fair bit of time over the past few months trolling my personal history for interesting stories to fill this portion of the assessment, but there were still some head-scratchers.  I had five minutes total to prepare.  I ended up answering two questions with stories I had not thought about before but that had popped into my head upon reading the question.  I received a few smiles and even a chuckle or two during the story time.

After yet another break, it was time for the last exercise:  the dreaded case management.  Upon walking into a third room, I found rows of personal computers, each with a closed binder in front.  The examiner provided us 90 minutes to read everything in the binder and prepare a 2-page single spaced memorandum on the PC.  The binder was very packed and I was most concerned with having to distill everything in such a short amount of time.  As expected, time flew by.  I had a moment of panic half-way in as a realized I was running out of time and had not yet “solved” the problem.  I put my head back down and just plowed through.  I think I found the answer at the very end, but it was too late to modify the memo which had no lines to spare so I just went with what I had.

The examiners told us to take a break and come back at 3:00pm for the results.  I was convinced that I’d done well on the group exercise and the structured interview, but bombed the case management.  I walked over to the Native American museum and wandered around thinking about the scoring and how well I’d have to do on the first two sections to offset my poor case management memo.  Not only did I need to pass the overall exam with a 5.25 out of 7 (sounds easier than it is as a 6.0 is extremely rare), but as a political cone applicant, I need a higher score to actually get a job offer.

The foreign service has a current high priority need for consular and management officers so those applicants can just about be assured of a job with a 5.25 passing score.  For economic, public diplomacy, and political applicants, a higher score will be required.  How high depends on a variety of factors incuding the hiring needs, the number of other applicants in the same “cone”, and the number of open slots.  I figured I needed at least a 5.5 to have a shot.  To get the final score, they simply average the score from each of the three sections.  Thus, it is possible to fail one section, pass the other two, and pass overall, albeit with a lower score.

When everyone arrived at 3:00, we had another 50-minute wait during which we made small talk, read magazines, and tried to ignore the fact that we were awaiting the final results of a process that for most had been well over a year in the making (and for some, multiple years).  Finally, the examiner walked us into the case management computer room and closed the door.  All 11 of us stared at the walls and continued to make small talk.  After 5-10 minutes, a knock at the door, and an examiner ducked in to call out one name.   The person got up and left.  Then, another knock, and another person left.  After the third person left, I realized they were all from group A.  Sure enough, all of group A was called before they started calling names from group B.

I knew from reading the Yahoo! group forum that being escorted to an empty room was a bad sign because all exit interview for those that fail are done as one-on-one interviews.  Passers receive a group presentation.  When I heard my name called, my heart sunk as I was not the last in the group.  I felt more desperate when I arrived at an empty room with two stone-faced examiners, one of whom I recognized from my structured interview.  I absolutely thought I failed until he smiled and asked me to stand at the end of the wall while they collected a few more people.  Phew.  Now the only question was my score.

Once four of us had been assembled, they gave us the good news.  There was a long presentation of information that, thankfully, was written down in our packets.  After 30 minutes of presentation, they handed out our packages.  The top page indicated that I had in fact passed all three parts, including the case management, and that my overall score was a more-than-respectable 5.7.  I was exhausted, overjoyed, and a little bit in shock.

After texting my wife and kids, I filled out some forms, turned in my 96-page security clearance application, and had my fingerprints taken.  After a bit of a nap, I had a great steak and a glass of wine to celebrate.  Now it’s on to the medical clearance, security clearance, and final adjudication.  Once all of that clears (which can take anywhere from 3 months to 24 months), my name will be listed on the political officer register in order of oral assessment score.  Thus, I will jump over those who scored lower, but will be looking up at those who scored higher no matter when they take the test.  As positions open up, they make offers to those on the register.  If the current pattern holds, based on my 5.7 score, I should get an offer soon after I hit the register.


6 thoughts on “Oral Assessment

  1. Congratulations on passing the exam. We are similarly situated – I am an attorney (currently with another Fed Agency) who recently passed (May 09) the OA with a 5.5 in POL cone (slightly worried about this score). I have just begun the security clearance process. My wife is an FSO – so I already had the medical clearance to travel on her orders. I am trying not to be overly anxious about “getting the call”. Good luck – hopefully we can cross paths as FSOs in the future.

  2. Great blog! I took the FSOA in Feb 2009 and did not pass. I scored a 5.15. I only passed the SI. What really got to me was that I thought I did great on GE. My project was picked because it was the only one people could understand because I explained it well, and got a lot of compliments later from other members. All I needed was the 5.25 because I am fluent in Arabic and could have easily got the 0.5 extra points.

  3. Congrats! I have a question for you…

    I am preparing for my OA in November. I just received my JD (also focused on IP and international law issues), though I’ve been a tech writer for 13 year previous to law school. I’m curious if you have any words of advice for me – such as how to approach the OA as someone who just completed law school. It seems similar to law school tests and the bar exam in some ways.

    In any case, well done and congratulations again!

  4. Thanks for a great blog! Could you talk a little bit more about the approach that you suggested during your GE to allow everyone to weigh in and quickly come to an agreement?

  5. The GE is not a one-size-fits-all activity. No matter how you approach it, keep the overall goal in mind. You are not being judged on whether your project gets funded. You are not being judged by how many minutes you consume talking. You ARE being judged: (1) as a group as to whether you come to a consensus; (2) as an individual, how well you work with other people. Having a jerk or two in your group is not necessarily a bad thing. There is usually at least one person who wants to “win” by dominating the conversation. You will get a lot of credit for finding a way to let others be heard and move and move the group toward a reasonable consensus position. You need to engage in substance; make sure you have a good presentation prepared. The process and interpersonal communication, however, is critically important so don’t forget to be the grown up in the room.

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