Saturday, January 28, 2017

Personal Social Media and the Foreign Service

U.S. federal government employees are subject to certain rules on political activities, and Foreign Service personnel are no exception. These rules are based on the Hatch Act (a federal law that limits political activities of all federal employees) and 3 FAM 4123.3 (from the Foreign Affairs Manual, or official source of policy for Department of State staff). These rules are designed to help us stay apolitical and nonpartisan in our professional lives.

One of the biggest things to worry about in the digital age is whether certain social media activities could put employees in violation of the Hatch Act. Even a Facebook like can walk a fine line between acceptable and downright illegal. Below are a few examples of what isn't okay for a Foreign Service Officer to do on social media. I hope this will serve as a resource for applicants who want to better understand what they'd be signing up for in this job (and to perhaps reconsider some of the ways they're using social media in advance).

Nonpartisan content is not an issue here, aside from the fact that it's probably best to keep all of your social media pages relatively clean, respectful, and tasteful as a general rule for almost any profession.

Here are some of the big social media no-nos (some of which I certainly didn't know about beforehand):

  • Using your official title or position while doing anything political. Just don't do it. I recommend getting in the habit by not doing things like commenting, "As a Foreign Service applicant..."
  • Engaging with anything fundraising-related. The one exception to this is accepting invites to events, but do not promote or support fundraisers on social media. This includes even such small actions as liking someone else's post or friending a fundraising page!
  • Engaging in any partisan activity on duty (including in a government building, on a government device, via an official account, etc.). Even an alias (e.g., tweeting from the handle "@DefinitelyNotForeignService") won't save you from this one.
  • Targeting partisan content to colleagues or other Department workers. Here's a case where sharing a story to all of your Facebook friends on your free time from a personal device in your own home might be okay, but you still can't share it specifically targeted to State Department employees with whom you're connected on social media.

Let me know if there are any cases or good examples that should be added to the above list. I hope some of those are illuminating.

For more information about permitted and forbidden activities online and elsewhere, please see this handy guide from AFSA (the American Foreign Service Association) here.

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. You can also see my full, personal Foreign Service application timeline 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. When I took the test, the minimum passing score was 5.25. I had a 6, which put me almost at the top of the Public Diplomacy Register, and I received the invitation to A-100 even before I tested in Arabic.
  • 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.

Friday, January 13, 2017

How I Passed the FSOT

The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) is... a lot. It's the first step* to becoming a Foreign Service Officer, and it can be a daunting one. (It takes three hours! It has four sections testing very different skills! Not everyone can pass! And so on...)

If you've never heard of the FSOT before, I highly recommend starting at the most accurate and official source: the Department of State website here. You can also see my full, personal Foreign Service application timeline here.

Without violating any non-disclosure agreements, I thought I'd offer some good advice I received and some bad advice. For the purposes of understanding some of my advice, you should at least be aware of the test format and the four different components (as of this writing): job knowledge, English expression, biographical information, and the essay.

Good advice:

  • Just take the test. It's free, you might pass, and even if you don't you'll better understand where you need to improve.
  • Read a ton. Consuming lots of good journalism (short pieces on current events and longform articles on a wide range of topics) helped me. I recommend subscribing to the daily newsletters of The Atlantic, Vox, and CSIS. Making time for nonfiction books doesn't hurt, either.
  • Use free online resources. The Department of State provides a practice FSOT here. There's also a Yahoo Group with resources and other applicants who often form study groups; you can find it by going to Yahoo Groups and searching "fswe" (for "Foreign Service Written Exam," a previous acronym if I remember correctly). There's even a subreddit for those who want to be in the Foreign Service here.
  • The English expression section is reminiscent of the SAT. I recommend reading the grammar book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss and taking advantage of free online resources for SAT grammar preparation if English expression is not your strong suit.
  • Flashcards can help for the job knowledge section. Flashcards for constitutional amendments, world geography, flags, and more are already available for free online! My flashcard app of choice is Anki (synced across my computer and Android smartphone).
  • Write the essay more like a government employee than an author. Concise, clear language used in organized paragraphs with a topic sentence and an overarching main idea or argument is better than employing a rhetorical flourish or sitting on the fence when it comes to your position on an issue.

Bad advice:

  • There is the way to prepare for the FSOT. There's simply not. Some succeeded with little to no preparation, others with a freakish amount of preparation, and some with a preparation style that would be bad for you. Take all advice (including this blog) with a grain of salt.
  • You can't study for the FSOT. I found that I definitely could study for certain parts of the exam and that my score improved. Practicing brainstorming, writing, and leaving time to edit an essay in thirty minutes helped me consistently complete that section on time.
  • You have to be an international affairs graduate. Although studying international affairs in school might give you an informational advantage, many who pass the FSOT and make it all the way into the Foreign Service do not have a degree in international affairs.
  • The biographical section is straightforward. Look, I passed the FSOT three times, and I still don't really get the biographical section. It's weird.
  • You have to invest money to pass. There are so many free resources online that I just don't believe this is true. You don't need a tutor or a prep class when you can find some free and legal AP U.S. History materials online (with content relevant for the job knowledge section), for instance.

*You do need to choose a career track and register for the FSOT, but I consider those pre-step-one. They're like the Preamble to the Constitution of your life as a Foreign Service applicant.

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Foreign Service Timeline

When I was applying to be a Foreign Service Officer, I checked FS personal blogs to see how long each phase of the process had taken others. I knew deep down that it varied wildly from cycle to cycle and from candidate to candidate, but I still felt better informed having seen timelines - especially recent ones. As a result, I'll provide my entire (successful) application timeline here. (I made it to the A-100 offer on my third attempt, failing at the QEP stage both of the previous two times.)

A brief explanation of each stage:

  1. The FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Test) is the written exam.
  2. PNs (personal narratives) are submitted if you pass the FSOT.
  3. Your FSOT score, PNs, and CV are evaluated by the QEP (Qualification Evaluation Panel).
  4. You are invited to take the FSOA (Foreign Service Oral Assessment) if you pass the QEP.
  5. If you pass the FSOA, you apply for a medical and security clearance.
  6. After receiving your medical and security clearance, your file is submitted for a Final Suitability Review (i.e., where your whole application is evaluated to make sure you'd be a good fit).
  7. If you pass the Final Suitability Review, you get added to the Register (i.e., a hiring list) for your cone (i.e., career track).
  8. You stay on the Register, ranked by your FSOA score (plus some bonus points for things like language skills), until you are invited to an A-100 (i.e., orientation class).
  9. You accept your A-100 offer and make it off the Register.

Now, my timeline:

  • Oct. 9, 2015: Took FSOT
  • Oct. 29, 2015: Learned I passed FSOT and invited to submit PNs
  • Nov. 17, 2015: Submitted PNs (they were due Nov. 19, 2015)
  • Jan. 8, 2016: Learned I passed QEP and invited to FSOA
  • Jan. 11, 2016: Scheduled FSOA
  • Feb. 18, 2016: Took and passed FSOA (yes, they tell you the same day!) and started paperwork for medical and security clearances
  • Jun. 14, 2016: Received medical clearance
  • Sep. 28, 2016: Received security clearance
  • Oct. 5, 2016: Added to Register (Public Diplomacy) and ranked #3 with FSOA score of 6.0
  • Nov. 28, 2016: Received A-100 offer for March 2017

My experience is just one data point among many. I had a little over a year from my FSOT to my A-100 offer, which seems rather fast based on conversations with other applicants. That's partially due to the fact that I scheduled my FSOA right away (instead of six months in advance) and partially because my security clearance (the longest part) went more quickly than expected.

I'll try to go into more detail on certain non-obvious aspects of this process (without violating any non-disclosure agreements) as well as helpful advice I received in future posts.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Introduction

Hello, world! I decided to start a blog for a few reasons: to keep loved ones without social media updated and to serve as a resource for others who are interested in the U.S. Foreign Service. I'll be in the 190th A-100, starting in March 2017. In the months beforehand, I'll aim to do a few posts on the Foreign Service Officer application process, my timeline, and advice I've received along the way. I hope I'll also get around to an "About Me" in there somewhere, too. :)