There I was, sitting in first class (thanks to my Citi card bonus) on American Airlines headed for Washington, D.C. The man next to me was reading “Geronimo,” a biography on the famous warrior written by an eccentric college football coach in his spare time.
“Is that book any good?”
“Incredible. I bought 30 copies for my team.”
“Your team? What do you do?”
“Used to be on Wall Street, but now I run a political website. Just returning from Tel Aviv. You live in DC?”
“No, I’m headed there to take an oral test for the Foreign Service.”
The guy looks at me like it was the first time he had seen me sitting next to him. “The Foreign Service? Why would you want to work for State? Or John Kerry? He hates Jews, you know. You shouldn’t do it. Our diplomats are the biggest waste of money in the budget.”
Unsolicited advice from somebody with barely enough experience to comment. That’s what I have to offer you. And I have a lot of it.
My Experience at the OA
The FSOA is covered by a non-disclosure agreement, so I can’t discuss specifics about what was asked or details of the projects. But I’ll try to give as much information as I can to help people prepare for it.
First One There
The day before the exam, I found my way to the building so I would know where it was. It is an inexplicably plain building just off the National Mall. I was staying with my best friend, Collin. I told him and his wife that if I passed with a 5.7 or better, I’d buy sushi for all of us for dinner.
The day of the test, I made sure to arrive early. Really early. 45 minutes early. People started to trickle in after me. We all introduced ourselves. There was a marine who had flown in from Stuttgart, Germany. It was his second time taking the OA. There was a woman from Ukraine, an FSO brat now in his 40s who drafted bills for Congress, a political officer dressed so impeccably that I felt underdressed in my new suit, among others. In total, there were nine of us. Five would pass, a fairly large percentage for the OA. Only one other person was under 30 years old, from what I can remember.
We were escorted upstairs and split into two groups for the group exercise. The group exercise is part advocacy, part presentation, part negotiation and mediation. Each person has a binder in front of them with a fake project. After reading quietly to ourselves (if anybody speaks, the entire group automatically fails) and preparing notes on our project, four observers (current experienced FSOs) came into the room. One read directions on how to proceed. We would take turns presenting our projects, and the directions asked us to touch on various aspects that were present in each project. These are commonly the cost, the US goals, the benefit to the US/host country, time it will take to complete, etc.
As soon as he finished reading the directions, I offered to go first. I wanted to take a leadership role to demonstrate to the observers that I possessed leadership skills. Nobody objected. I then suggested we could continue around the table to my left until everybody had a chance. They agreed.
I have always been a good public speaker. It isn’t that I don’t get nervous, because I do. I just choose to act like I am not nervous. I had rehearsed my approach to this presentation in my head for months. I would speak slowly but confidently and cover each element the directions wanted me to cover, in order, and do my best to not refer to my notes. When I finished, I felt I had done a good job. I asked if anybody had any questions for me. I made sure to cite to specific data from my materials in answering the questions. I didn’t offer an opinion on my project, I didn’t advocate why something was good or bad (the directions state to just present it at this stage, not advocate), and I didn’t assume any facts not in my materials. I then nodded to the person to my left to let them know it was their turn.
Then something happened that I knew would almost guarantee a passing score. After each person presented, they looked at me as if for approval to be done. I think part of this was due to me going first, but it was also due to the way I came prepared. I set up a grid pattern on my notes that I learned from the Yahoo! FSOA group. While we were silently preparing, the other three candidates stopped what they were doing and watched me, wondering how I knew to do what I was doing. The group seemed to defer to me throughout the entire exercise, and I did my best to put my mediator skills to use. If nobody asked a question, I made sure to ask so the presenter could show what they were capable of. If the presenter left out a key fact the directions asked for, I made sure to ask about it in a way as to allow them to recover from it. I wanted us all to pass.
When we each had presented our project, the advocacy stage started. I asked the person sitting across from me to keep time and to let us know when there were 20, 10, 5, and 1 minute remaining. We needed to advocate for our project. The group would then have to have unanimous consensus on which projects to pursue. The exercise was set up so that not all of the projects could be accomplished. That means at least one person would have to advocate but gracefully withdraw their project. This is a tough balance; do it too soon and you look like you didn’t really advocate, but if you wait too long, you risk looking like you cannot be a team player.
The timekeeper was a nice guy. I instantly felt like him and I were the most similar, and we chatted throughout the entire day. But when 15 minutes came, he didn’t give the group a warning. I tried to casually ask him about it, but I knew the observers would notice that he failed to do his job. I felt bad because it threw off his entire exercise, but I had to make sure that we finished on time. It would be catastrophic to us all to not finish with a unanimous decision within the time limit. Besides that, I felt like everybody did a good job, though one held onto a bad project too long in my opinion and one started his advocacy stage with “Mine obviously isn’t going to be chosen.” Don’t do that.
We eventually reached a decision with 30 seconds remaining. I stepped into the bathroom and splashed water on my face. My nervous had melted away, and I knew I was doing well.
The last aspect of the Group Exercise was an ambassador’s debriefing where you do a mock debriefing to one of the observers pretending to be an ambassador. I don’t feel comfortable talking about it under the non-disclosure agreement since it is mostly fact based, so I’m skipping to the case study.
The case study is the hardest part to pass. I have read that 10% of people pass it. I don’t know if that is true or where the number comes from, but it wouldn’t shock me from the smart people I know who failed it. The case study is a big fat binder full of data, letters, recommendations, and issues to solve. You have to quickly sort through the mounds of paper, summarize them, and make a recommendation to your supervisor. I think you have two double-spaced pages max. I had read that if you go over, even by a single word, you will not pass. So my number one goal was to write at least 1.5 pages but no more than 2.
I began by figuring out the problem. I then took notes on the different solutions (a fresh page for each possible solution I came up with), circling data or facts that I knew I would have to mention. I turned everything I could into statistics or ratios to make the different solutions easier to compare. A problem might be that the embassy wants to hire a celebrity singer to perform at the Christmas party. There are four different people being targeted, some American and some locals. It is your job to find the best person to hire (these aren’t the real facts, nor are they facts of a real practice problem I did).
So your analysis might look like this. Celebrity A is 15% cheaper than B but is known to be a diva and has cancelled on us in the past. B is already in town and is widely respected in the USA for her charitable work in Israel, but the host country is at odds with Israel and B isn’t very popular here. C is an up and coming singer in the host country, but she has made some comments about President Obama that created a small uproar in the American press. Lastly, D is from neither America nor the host country, but his potential price hasn’t been negotiated yet. There are concerns from Person Y that Celebrity A has this problem and this problem; however, Person Y may be biased because he owns the business that would build the set for Celebrity B and C (but not A or D).
So I took all the data, compared the projects side by side using only the verified facts, not rumor. I kept “America’s interests” in mind as the most important thing. Each person was analyzed under how they affected our interests in the host country and abroad. I might say “Person B will result in a PR hit in the local country; however, it will result in a boost in morale, will save the embassy money, and will strengthen ties with Israel.” And so on.
To finish off, I made a strong summary that explained my conclusion. It was supported by the facts I had analyzed in the preceding paragraphs, and I ended with a recommendation for a problem that I had noticed as a secondary issue in some of the letters in my binder. It wasn’t the problem that I was being asked to solve, but I thought touching on it would show that I was perceptive to all problems, not just the work given to me.
I finished the day with the interview (some people had it second and the case study last). I sat alone in the room waiting for the three-person panel to come in. When they entered, I offered them each water from the pitcher on the table next to me. I thought this was clever; apparently it was not because I have seen other people mention doing this exact same thing.
The SI is almost like a traditional job interview. I can hardly remember it. They ask general questions about your experience, your motivation, your goals, and your personality. That stuff I could handle. I focused on what I thought was the most important point to get across: prove that you are somebody that they would enjoy working with.
They don’t give you any feedback. No smiles. No “oh that’s interesting” or “wow, impressive.” Blank faces, scratching pens on notepads, next question. That is, except for the nice examiner who apparently didn’t give a crap about appearing cold and kept smiling at me. Thank you for that. I tried to speak with an even tone, but made it clear that I was passionate about the Foreign Service. When I answered with an anecdote that was crucial in shaping who I am, I emphasized it. I was candid about myself while remaining confident. After I found out that I passed at the end of the day, one of the three examiners told me how impressed he was by how I handled myself in this stage. Sometimes I can be flat and predictable in an interview, trying not to mess up. I’m glad I allowed myself to be open and comfortable.
The scary part of the SI is the hypothetical situations. They give you a scenario that slowly builds to see how you think and form a plan. It is vital to think out loud so they can see how you connect ideas. A political prisoner of the host country escapes jail and comes to your embassy looking for protection. He’s an advocate of democracy and the government intends to try him for treason. What do you do? Now the host country demands that you release him. What now? Now the host country is threatening to take away the police who protect the embassy if you don’t release him. And so on. They knew I didn’t have experience handling this exact situation; nobody at this stage does. So I had to rely on intuition, common sense, and my limited work experience to figure it out.
Alone in a Room
After waiting for more than an hour, we were called one by one into a room with our three examiners from the SI. The man who smiled the entire time read from a letter. It went something like this: Scott Ficklin, on behalf of the qualifications evaluation panel, it is my (here is where my heart drops) pleasure (YESSSSSSSS) to inform you that you have passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment. It went on, but I didn’t hear any of it. My head dropped in exhaustion and relief, and all I remember is the three of them smiling at me. When he finished, he gave me a packet that contained my score. My hands were shaking, and I felt stupid because of it. I tried to open the envelope to see my score, but he told me to wait until I went into the separate waiting room for those who passed. Those who failed were escorted by an assessor down the hallway, into the elevator, and out the front doors.
After all of that, I passed each section. Out of 7, my average was a 5.6. I was happy with that score because I knew it would eventually lead to me getting an offer (hopefully within a week from now, but we will see). One by one, passers joined me in the room. We high fived, hugged, and talked about what this meant for our future.
I took the metro back to Collin’s place. He was waiting in the parking lot for me. I got into his car and didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything some more. I continued to not say anything. He continued to not say anything.
“Well.” I said, finally breaking the silence. “I hope you didn’t want sushi tonight.”
He smiled. “I’d say that exact same thing if I passed. Did you?”
I couldn’t help a huge grin, mostly because he saw right through me (his wife didn’t smile or know how to react when we walked in the door and Collin told her “Hope you didn’t want sushi too badly”). I didn’t get the 5.7 required for sushi, but I didn’t mind ordering pizza for us all to celebrate.