Part II will be primarily about how I prepared on my own, but this post is devoted to how my group studied and, most importantly, practiced together. A little over a year ago, I started regularly meeting in the MLK Library with my FSOA study group. An alternate title for this post would be “Hooray for my Study Group”! I know that I wouldn’t have passed the FSOA on my first try without Alex, Darin, Doreen, Lisa, Mark, Matt, Noelle, Shaqueta, and Violetta. Thanks again guys.
For my own personal experience with the FSOA, read the FSOA Recap I wrote last March.
We first came together as a group after looking for a study group on the FSOA Yahoo! Group, which is a great resource for anyone looking for study tips for the Oral Assessment. People are always looking for a study group on the Yahoo! boards, and there are groups on Skype for people who can’t make it to an in person groups. Don’t be shy about joining a group late, you (probably) won’t know anyone at the FSOA, so it’s okay to come into a group of strangers.
We were very fortunate to have a former FSO and BEX examiner come and give us some tips and feedback. He is/was the mentor of one of our group members and his advice/knowledge will be in italics. Here are a few of his general tips:
- You are evaluated from the moment you walk into the building, so be pleasant and polite to everyone. Especially the program assistants, they are there to help!
- Avoid the words ‘uhhh,’ ‘i mean,’ ‘you know,’ and their relatives
- If someone offers you water, accept it!
- In order to avoid appearing unseemly, male examiners will not extend a hand to women. Ladies will need to initiate the handshake!
- Carry yourself well and exercise good posture while sitting and standing. Ladies should cross their legs at the ankle, not the knee.
- Judgement (the dimension) includes attire. Wear a suit. Ladies, wear a pantsuit. (This is less about Hillary Clinton being Secretary of State and more about not flashing the examiners)
Here’s my first general piece of advice, one that I learned from my bygone days as a flautist and oboist. You perform what you practice. Most people think it’s the other way around, that they practice and practice one way, and if there’s a little bit that’s inconsistent or off, well, it’s okay because the adrenaline rush of performance will kick in and we’ll play or speak or whatever perfectly for the performance. It just doesn’t work that way. We may practice what we want to perform, but we always end up performing just the way we practiced. I hope that makes sense. The point (yes! there is a point), is that when you get together with your study group, or sit in front of your mirror, act like it’s the real thing. Speak the way you’re going to want to when you’re face to face with the assessors, and say the things you’re planning to say on the actual day of the assessment.
My second bit of general advice is that candidates are assessed on the Thirteen Dimensions. Know them, live them, breathe them, love (?) them. For each section of the assessment, the examiners grade you from 1-7 on the dimensions.
The Statement of Interest (SOI)
I’ll post my actual Statement of Interest later, but I basically want to point out that you’re meeting with a group of people who are at the same stage as you, and who also (basically) know what the Board of Examiners (BEX) is looking for. Sharing your SOI’s with your study group not only helps you get to know each other better, but also gives you some great feedback. I know my SOI was greatly helped by being shared with the group.
The Group Exercise
My group did all of the practice exercises posted in the files section of the FSOA Yahoo! Group, and split into groups of four or five and went through the exercise as though we were being assessed. In a sense, we were, since we were assessing ourselves. Basically, in the group exercise, you are given a set amount of time to read through some background information on a fictitious country and a project. At the end of the first reading period, you have to present your project to your group (and the assessors). After everyone has presented, an examiner gives your group instructions on what to do next. While these instructions may vary, they will probably include a budget (less than the price to fully fund all projects) and instructions to fully or partially fund projects with that money. The group then has to work together to follow those instructions.
A few of us followed a particular strategy for keeping track of all of the relevant information from the projects. This is a method we picked up from other people on the Yahoo! boards, and this is how I did it, you can adapt it as you like. First I divided the page into thirds, with one third (column) for each project. At the top of the column I wrote the name of the project and the person presenting it, the rest of the column was divided into four parts.
1. A bulleted summary of the project: what it would do, who was driving it, who would benefit, etc, etc.
2. Cost breakdown: if the information gives you a breakdown of the projects cost structure, make note of it. In my experience, if the government can’t pay for the entire thing, they might fund a particular portion. For example, if you’re trying to build a school, and the costs break down to materials, labor, and property, then the government might just fund materials, or find a way to have them otherwise donated.
3. Project Pro’s: why would the embassy (and, by extension, the US Government) want to support the project. How would it help us reach the goals the US has in your country. Often, the Mission’s goals are stated in the country background information, so pay attention to these!
4. Project Con’s: why would we NOT want to support the project. Is there a huge negative environmental impact, would the project offend the host government, is there a huge operational security risk, etc.
By having all of this information in one or two pages, I was able to more easily remember project details and contribute to the conversation. We’re all given plenty of blank paper to write on, so break up the page according to how big you tend to write.
This is the only chance the examiners will have to grade you on the “Working With Others” dimensions, so please, work with your group. I’ve heard horror stories of group members who see the group exercise as a competition; it isn’t. For the approximately hour and you’re in a group together, your group members are your colleagues. Take an objective view of all projects, back up your statements with facts and examples, and work in the best interests of the mission (of the United States as well as the Embassy/Consulate). If you really think your project is the worst of the group, say so, and GIVE REASONS. One of the dimensions is critical thinking, and since the examiners can’t read your mind, you have to say what you’re thinking. However, don’t be overly verbose. Time is a factor as well, so get to the point of what you want to say.
This last bit goes back to the idea that we perform what we practice. I practiced in the library, where we’re supposed to keep our voices down. So, naturally, I spoke softly during my actual FSOA group exercise. The more I think about it, the more I think this contributed to me not passing the group exercise.
Case Management (CM)
I’ll write more about the case management exercise when I go over my personal preparation. As a group, we all agreed on which CM exercise we would do ahead of time and bring the memo to the library to discuss. We’d spend some time reading and providing feedback on the memo’s, then we’d discuss the exercise. Having a wide variety of views really helped me improve my analysis of CM’s; reading other memo’s, reading peer feedback, and discussing the exercises was invaluable.
Structured Interview (SI)
For the SI we tended to break into groups of three, switching roles between candidate and examiners, to try and better emulate testing conditions. The ‘examiners’ would also split their role between the engaged person who asks questions, and the person who never looks up from the clipboard. Whenever I had that role, I generally acted bored and counted the number of times the person across from me said ‘um’ or ‘err.’ We used the flash cards from the files section of the FSOA Yahoo! Group, and questions we made up on our own, and did our best to recreate everything from the motivation, hypothetical situations, and past behavior sections of the SI. Through this practice, we were able to speak with more clarity and purpose, and to express our thoughts more coherently. Here are some more our specific tips:
- BE HONEST! Don’t just say what you think they want to hear.
- Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head, take 30 seconds to gather your thoughts and compose a good opening sentence.
- Don’t get down on yourself. If you make a mistake, false start or otherwise stumble, keep moving! You can start your sentence over, but a simple ‘pardon me’ is fine. Avoid calling your self, or your statement, ‘dumb’.
- For motivation, please think of other reasons besides “I want to see the world” as your primary reason for joining the Foreign Service.
- During the Hypothetical Situations, remember that as an FSO, your primary priority is to act in the best interests of the United States of America.
- For past behavior, explain the situation and make sure to give the result. “Because I did A, B happened.”
- Always keep the Thirteen Dimensions in mind.
I think that’s enough for today. Hopefully I’ll remember more when I write about my own personal preparations. For additional tips, I’ll have to count on some of my tiny readership to chime in and contribute. Thoughts? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
DisclaimerAll views and opinions expressed on this website are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. State Department (they have their own website...).
- Douglas on Preparing for the Foreign Service Oral Assessment: Part II
- Anuradha Shastry (@runneranu) on The Foreign Service is Plan B
- Anuradha Shastry (@runneranu) on Studying for the FSOT (how I did it)
- kristel on My Statement of Interest for the Foreign Service
- Joel on FSOT Score Breakdown