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My FSOA Experience: Long Version

Updated: Apr 5, 2019

If you apply to be a diplomat – a Generalist in the US Foreign Service – you have no choice but to submit yourself to something called the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA) in Washington DC (or San Francisco). The FSOA is a daylong assessment. It’s intense.


Of course, some people are apathetic about their candidacy, and some others are perhaps too familiar with the process to be intimidated anymore - few people like to admit it, but lots of Foreign Service candidates take the tests multiple times.


Before I took the FSOA, I remember reading about other people’s experiences online. I really enjoyed hearing not only how they prepared, but also how they felt about everything. Reading what other candidates went through helped me envision the whole process – including a positive outcome for myself.


That’s why I want to share my experience with everyone who is still working to get there.


Preparation


I began this process in 2016. This post may already contain some outdated information because the process changes regularly, so interested applicants should definitely check State’s official website and sources when making their plans and preparations.


If you reach the stage of the oral assessment (FSOA), I recommend you also join the FSOA Yahoo Group that I mentioned in my previous post with advice for the FSOA or go directly to the Yahoo group from here. Congratulations by the way – according to reported statistics it looks like you have a 40-50% chance of passing!


Now you might be intimidated already. Some people simply hate the idea of having to do a bunch of prep work and research before they even know it’s the job they really want. It’s overwhelming – I know. Frankly, it took me years to muster the energy (and courage) to start this process. But it paid off, and that’s the point.


Why do I recommend the Yahoo group? Well, it instantly connects you to a big group of people who are doing the same thing as you, which is trying to find the best resources and latest information on the FSOA. The orals are held every year, so you can join anytime and find people who are in the same boat as you.


I can’t say I made long-term friends through this group, but throughout the process, which takes a long time, I never felt totally alone. If you contribute, or generally have an open and supportive attitude, you can gain a lot from it. It’s more than just the study materials, too - some people will really take the time to prep you, challenge you, and even critique you if you ask for it.


My timeline:

October 2016 – passed the FSOT

January 2017 – passed the QEP review and scheduled the FSOA

March 2017 – passed the FSOA

June 2017 - start of security clearance investigation

September 2017 – end of security clearance investigation - case moved to adjudications

February 2019 – security clearance approved

March 2019 – final suitability review passed, added to Register


I prepared for the FSOA for about 2 months. When I passed, I was ecstatic. Even though there is a lot of uncertainty still, it made me feel as if – no matter what would happen next – I proved something to myself and learned a ton of things in the process.


Preparation summary


For more on preparation, check my previous post about my complete FSOA preparation plan.


Materials I used: lots of the files on the Yahoo group, websites about job interviews, and blogs about people’s past experiences.


Study Groups I attended: 1 in-person group session to practice the Group Exercise (GE), 1 Skype group meeting to practice the GE and 1 in-person group session to practice the Structured Interview (SI).


Individual practice I did: practiced 2 Case Management (CM) exercises with materials from the Yahoo group. Made several drafts of my SF-86 and Statement of Interest (SOI), which I ran by 3 different people. Created flashcards with tons of examples to talk about my past experience related to the 13 Dimensions.


Scheduling the FSOA


As soon as you pass the QEP, you get a message from State saying that you will be notified of your scheduling window and your assessment window. Depending on your situation, it may be very important to log in and book your assessment date ASAP. Even though you typically get a three-month period in which you can book an assessment date, you should be quick in order to get the date you want.


I was very pregnant at the time, so I wanted to get the earliest date possible while still having some time to prepare. A friend of mine, who had recently passed the FSOA, advised me to stay up until midnight so I could log in right away and get my preferred date. State posted a few hours later than promised, so I decided to go to bed and set my alarm for 4 AM. I bit intense, I know.


When you log on, simply select the date and location that are most convenient for you. I wanted to avoid Mondays and Tuesdays, because I thought it would cause me to be nervous for an entire weekend. I selected a Thursday in Washington DC, which was close to where I live. I only worked half days on Wednesdays, so this gave me some time to relax the day before the big test.


What I brought to the FSOA


I wasn’t aware that I had to bring a specific form to the orals, but thankfully I noticed other people talking about it in the Yahoo group just in time. Don’t make the mistake I almost made and read the instructions (which are all online) carefully to make sure you got everything required for your particular situation. For example, because I’m married I also had to bring a “consent form” (DS-7601 Spousal Release) from my husband. Sounds weird, I know.


I also had to bring a Statement of Interest (SOI) printed on a specific form (DS 4017), which is a simple form with space to write about why I wanted to become a Foreign Service Officer. I took this almost as seriously as I did the QEP – I drafted and redrafted it and ran it by other people. One thing I did differently than with the QEP is that I made it more personal. I didn’t want to seem like a walking-talking list of accomplishments. I made sure that the board of examiners would understand, even if they only read it quickly, that I was wholeheartedly motivated and why.


The big day


Make sure you know in advance how you are going to get to the test center and have a Plan B if necessary. The last thing you want is to be late for the test and forfeit your assessment. In my case, there was quite a bit of snow outside so I planned to go extra early. I had to pay an astronomical amount to the Uber driver, but it was well worth it.


I showed up way too early, but fortunately I wasn't the only one. Pretty quickly after my arrival, around 6 AM, other candidates started dripping in. We stood around in a semi-circle for quite a while. I was curious about other people’s stories, but it seemed like everyone was too nervous or excited to have a real conversation.


I totally planned what I would wear, by the way. I was pregnant, so I didn’t have much choice, but I’m not ashamed to say that I obsessed over it nonetheless. I wore a black dress that would have looked formal if it wasn’t made 100% out of stretch material. Over it, I wore a dark blue blazer that was my favorite. It was cold, so I also wore black tights. My shoes were dark blue and were comfortable but still pretty. I also ordered special hair clips on Amazon so I could put up my hair in a (somewhat) elegant bun, and I wore a watch, which I rarely do, so I could be the timekeeper at the GE. Once I was at the test center I felt that my outfit, which I would describe as business casual, was appropriate. Although for guys, I would recommend a two-piece suit.


After standing around for a while in the lobby, everyone was brought upstairs and shepherded into the testing unit. We all received some paperwork. You get a schedule for the day, which looks somewhat different for each person. Candidates must also sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement and another paper stating that – if you join the Foreign Service - you are available to work anywhere in the world. But this was not the time to worry about those things, I thought (you should do it in advance, though!).


Once the day really started, I actually felt pretty good. Instead of worrying if I was going to pass the test, I decided to see the whole thing as a fantastic learning opportunity. But I also told myself not to sell myself short. After all, why would they not hire me (or you)?! I was there for a reason – I told myself that I absolutely have what it takes to be a diplomat and I was going to show it to them.


Thankfully, all of the test takers that day seemed nice. People had flown in from everywhere; two came all the way from Africa! It definitely didn’t take long for me to be my energetic, social self. I made sure I got to know a few people, especially the ones that were in my group.


Every candidate, at different times during the day, has to do a Group Exercise (GE), Case Management (CM), and a Structured Interview (SI). Everyone also gets a lunch break, although not all at the same time. I brought my lunch, but when it was time to take a break I decided to have lunch with another candidate, just to chat and blow off some steam. I’m an extrovert, that’s probably why.


Because of the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) I signed I can’t say much about the individual parts of the test. I don’t want to get into trouble now that I'm waiting to get on the Register! Also, I don't actually know what I did right and what I did wrong - I can only guess. I will just say a few things about each part of the assessment that I think were useful to me and/or might be to you.


Group Exercise

  • My day started off with the GE, while I was still absolutely bursting with energy. I immediately proposed to be the timekeeper – and then promptly forgot the time when I started speaking. Epic fail? Maybe not – I still passed this part of test.

  • I highly recommend practicing the GE, unless you have plenty of experience with this type of group discussion slash negotiation. To me, the format was kind of new, so I benefited a lot from having practiced it with other candidates.

  • Speak up! Everyone is going to want to say his or her bit, but you have to make sure you contribute in a meaningful way. If you don’t make yourself heard, and say something thoughtful and/or smart, you probably won’t score any points.

  • That said, don’t be overbearing – be nice and helpful to everyone. Let quieter people speak too. Also, understand that you don’t have to be the one who has to make the decisions all the time, don’t be bossy.

  • Follow all of the instructions!

Structured Interview

  • More than the other parts, to me the SI felt like a “now or never” moment. The interview is the only time during the test where you can talk directly to the assessors for any length of time to convince them that, without out a doubt, you will be a great diplomat.

  • Still, if you find yourself blanking out, just take a breath and take your time to answer. Being thoughtful and measuring your words carefully is a useful skill too, isn’t it?

  • Have. Examples. Ready. I can’t even begin to imagine what I would have done if I hadn’t prepared some examples from my past experience. Sure, not all of the examples I prepared fit the questions perfectly, but they gave me a great starting point to tell the examiners about what I’ve done with my life so far and how I will use that experience in the future.

Case Management

  • Again, I recommend practice. I only practiced the CM while using a timer once, but I read several of the other CM cases in the Yahoo group just to get an idea about how to approach different types of problems. I was still a bit bewildered when I read my CM because it was quite different from anything I’d read for practice, but it would have been a lot worse if I hadn’t mentally prepared for a variety of situations.

  • Have a clear plan for how you are going to use your time. The CM is stressful because they throw a lot of information at you. It is tempting to second-guess yourself and obsess over your writing, but you have to be quick in order to finish this thing. Use the tips they give on the Yahoo group on how to divide your time, and look at the clock frequently while you work.


The results


Everyone should plan to remain at the testing center until at least 4 PM, and at least until 6 PM in case you pass. I was out the door by 5:30, but only because the others insisted I’d be the first to go to the Diplomatic Security office to start the clearance process. After all, I was really pregnant – something I’d forgotten about completely by the end of the day.


I think it’s nice that you find out immediately if you passed the test or not. It just feels like it makes the process transparent – examiners don't have time for backroom lobbying, lose their notes, or do other things you might worry about. Of course I can only talk about the experience of actually passing the FSOA – I don’t know how those folks who don't pass feel while they have to drive or fly back home knowing they have to do it all over again (or not, of course).


I wasn’t the first one to be called up to get my results. At least half of the candidates were already gone by the time I heard someone call my name. As I followed the examiner to one of the rooms, my heart was suddenly pounding. I tried to ignore it as best I could, but everything suddenly felt surreal. All I could think was: I hope they don’t ask me to sit down. Another diplomat had told me in advance that, if they ask you to sit down, they are going to tell you that you failed.


As soon as we entered the room, one of the examiners asked me to sit down. My heart sank. But then the other examiner quipped: “But not for too long, because I need to shake your hand!” I jumped out of the chair and started smiling like an idiot. I guess they only told me to sit down because – I forgot again – I was so visibly pregnant.


My score was a 5.7 (plus language points, since I am a native Dutch speaker). I passed all three exercises (GE, SI, and CM).


After I heard the good news, I was sent to the room with the other people who passed. I was hoping to see the girl I had spent my lunch break with, but I didn’t. Somehow that didn’t make sense to me; she seemed great. I was just about to complain to my neighbor when I the door opened and she calmly walked into the room. I smiled at her in relief.


If I counted correctly, half of the people that took the test that day passed. I can’t say if I felt they were the most “deserving”, because I didn’t have enough time to get to know everyone well enough to be the judge of that. All I can say is that some of the people who passed, like me, had some prior experience working for the government.


To my surprise, however, it seemed like the people who passed weren’t as over the moon as I was. My best guess is that some of them were disappointed with their scores. After all, when hiring is down and the register is long it might take a pretty high score to get a job offer. I also found out later that at least one candidate had other things going on in his life that prevented him from continuing with the process after all.


Final thoughts


I thought the FSOA was challenging, but not particularly difficult in an intellectual kind of way. I didn’t feel as if perhaps I wasn’t ‘smart enough’. I think the key to success is not being the smartest in the room, but being properly prepared and motivated, and ideally have some relevant experience and exposure to this kind of work.


You can’t control every part of this process, that’s for sure. I think a big part of being successful is about knowing yourself, trusting your strengths, and being honest about your weaknesses. Don’t try to fool yourself or anyone else by pretending to be someone you’re not – it won’t look good.


I was surprised how nice everyone was that day. The administrative support staff, the examiners and all of the candidates were friendly. I didn’t beat myself up for my mistakes. I didn’t go there to be perfect – I went there to do my best. Being concentrated and outwardly focused is also important I think (I learned all about this in my acting days).


When I walked out of the building, I immediately called my husband. I thought he sounded somewhat surprised to hear that I passed, which dampened my enthusiasm for a moment. But then I remembered that he always sounds like that over the phone. I also realized something else: this is going to change his life too. Even though he is already a Foreign Service Officer, this is going to impact him a lot.


As I went home, by metro this time, I kept on thinking how much I hoped he would still be happy for me. After all, this felt like such a special moment. I could hardly believe that I – who was born and raised as a Dutch citizen – would have the honor to service the amazing USA as a diplomat!


When I finally got home, the first thing I saw when I opened the door was a drawing made by my 3-year old son and something scribbled on it that looked like ‘congratulations, mama’. My son looked at me sheepishly, having no idea what was really going on. My husband, the dear, had poured me half (!) a glass of wine, to celebrate. When I asked him about the phone call he simply said: “I wasn’t surprised – it never even occurred to me that you wouldn’t pass.”


I hope you enjoyed reading this the way I have enjoyed reading other people’s journeys. Pursuing a career like this, to me at least, is very special. One day, if we keep trying hard and long enough, we’re all going to be colleagues, or even friends. So wherever you are in the process I wish you the best of luck. And stay positive, no matter what happens!


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