Wednesday, January 18, 2017

How I Passed the FSOA

FSOA stands for the "Foreign Service Oral Assessment" - the interview portion of the Foreign Service Officer application process. For more information on where this falls in the timeline and detailed updates, make sure to read the official source: the Department of State website here.

As I did with my previous post on the FSOT, I thought I'd share some good (and bad) advice I received while preparing for the FSOA. Of course, I won't go into any non-disclosure-agreement-violating level of detail, but I hope it will still prove helpful to others (as it did for me). This post will be more useful to those who already understand the three main interview components: group exercise, structured interview, and case management. If you're not familiar with these, I recommend you read the official FSOA Information Guide here. As always, keep in mind that my experience is merely one data point among many.

Good advice:

  • Learn the 13 dimensions. The 13 dimensions are the criteria on which you are graded through every minute of the FSOA. Look not only at the words themselves but how the State Department defines them, available here. Knowing them in advance is like giving your interview-day self a sneak peek at the rubric, and it helps to think to yourself as you go throughout the day, "Am I demonstrating that I possess these 13 dimensions?"
  • Learn to think on your feet. No matter how much preparation you do, there's a decent chance some question or interview portion will throw you for a loop. You need to be able to improvise; after all, that's a skill that will prove useful in a Foreign Service career. It's also better to ask for a moment to gather your thoughts before you respond than to blurt out something incoherent immediately.
  • Study with others. I will sing the praises of the Yahoo Group for the FSOA. It is a treasure trove of resources. You can search "fsoa" in Yahoo Groups and request to join, putting you in contact with other candidates at the FSOA stage who will be happy to practice the group exercise over Skype or exchange feedback on case management practice essays you've written on your own or take turns asking structured interview questions. There is no good substitute for preparation with strangers.
  • Be strict with time when you practice. Resist the temptation to give yourself extra time when practicing the group exercise or case management section. You should aim to finish both slightly early if possible so that (A) in the group exercise you have time to review the final decisions made by your group and make sure everyone is on the same page and (B) in the case management you have time to review and proofread your memo.
  • It's not enough to barely pass. Your FSOA score largely determines your ranking on the Register, which in turn determines whether you get hired or whether you have to start the application process all over again from the beginning. (Of course, certain people can count on language points and other bonuses, but you're still at an advantage with a higher base FSOA score.) Therefore, go in with the intention not to scrape by with a passing score, but to blow the interviewers out of the water.
  • Get to the testing location early. I showed up quite early to my FSOA and had the opportunity to meet the other candidates as they arrived one by one. I learned their names and helped calm my nerves by chatting with them before we got started. Also, by the time I got into the group exercise, I already knew the names of everyone in my group and felt comfortable speaking with them.
  • Have a few STAR stories up your sleeve for the structured interview. For the portion of the structured interview where you might be asked about past experience, make sure you have prepared a few stories that could apply to several of the 13 dimensions. (I personally prefer bullet points to a memorized script.) Practice articulating those stories in a concise way that directly connects them to the questions asked. The classic STAR (Situation, Task, Action Result) method works well, and you can read more about that here. Keep in mind that the interviewers don't care about all the details; they only care about the facts necessary to highlight you as a candidate.
  • Talk to your DIR. If you live in the States, you have a Diplomat in Residence (DIR), who has spent a career in the Foreign Service and can offer lots of great advice. I recommend contacting him or her directly via email or phone rather than attending career fairs or larger events, where often more general information is provided. The DIR is a great resource at any stage of the Foreign Service process, but I found mine especially helpful in preparing for the FSOA. You can find your DIR here.
  • Take it seriously. This should go without saying, but I was surprised at some of the people at my FSOA who seemed to be applying on a whim and were not very passionate about the Foreign Service. That's not really fair to other applicants who would've loved a spot in the interview, but it's also worth noting that those candidates didn't pass.

Bad advice:

  • You can't prepare for the interview. OR If you have to prepare, then you're probably not cut out for the Foreign Service. I prepared by setting aside time each week for the few months leading up to my interview to study. I think there is a fine line between preparing enough to feel comfortable and confident on the day of and preparing too much to the extent you sound robotic and rehearsed.
  • The statement of interest doesn't matter. I'll be honest and say I'm not sure what the purpose is of the statement of interest (i.e., personal statement) all candidates bring to the interview. I will say it doesn't hurt to take every part of this process seriously.
  • Make sure you're always leading the discussion in the group exercise. OR Make sure you "win" the group exercise. In the group exercise, you need to try and strike a balance between helping direct the group to consensus and showing you are a good listener and a team player. If you notice someone in your group hasn't been able to get a word in edgewise, try asking him or her, "What do you think about x, Mr./Ms. y?"
  • Nobody passes on their first try. This is just kind of a depressing attitude generally, but it's also not true. I and quite a few others in my cohort passed the FSOA on our first try.
  • Personal examples are okay for the structured interview's behavior section. Personal stories are just generally dangerous territory. Stick to professional, academic, and relevant volunteering examples rather than examples from your personal life whenever possible.
  • You're a shoe-in if you [have a Master's from Harvard/speak a hard language/did Peace Corps/work in the Civil Service already/...] There are no shoe-ins. People from Harvard sometimes make it and sometimes don't. A dear friend of mine who has done multiple programs abroad, works for the government, and has foreign language skills didn't make it despite repeated attempts. There are also plenty without international affairs backgrounds or language skills who pass. You can't tell by looking at someone's CV.
  • The FSOA is basically the last step. Too many people get held up over the security clearance, medical clearance, final suitability review, or never make it off the Register for anyone to count a passing score at the FSOA as a done deal. The conditional job offer you get if you pass is exactly that: conditional.

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