Archives for March 2013

You Gotta Have Passion

I spoke with an aspiring FSO earlier this week.  She was smart (PhD, former college professor) and funny and very personable.  But there was something that didn’t click in our conversation.  Admittedly, it was just a 20-minute telephone call, but still it was almost immediately evident that she was missing what is perhap. s the most important thing for people who want to pass the Foreign Service Exam, especially the Oral Assessment.

She didn’t have any passion.  Not for the work, not for the career track, and not for the FS as a career.

Don’t misunderstand me.  There are some FSOs who don’t have passion for their work.  That’s too bad because I’m convinced they joined the Foreign Service with a great deal of zeal.  But over the years have lost that mysterious ingredient locked into a job because of the health, education and other benefit s.

Be honest with yourself.  If you’re not excited about the Foreign Service, living overseas and working for the U.S. Government, don’t waste your time.  The prep for the exams and the wait to get in are ridiculously long.

But what if you do have the zest and the passion to join the Foreign Service and live and work overseas, but you can’t pass the test.   Say you take it four or five times, but you still don’t pass.  What are the alternatives?  I’ll discuss that in a future post.




State Dept Guidebook for Oral Assessment

For those of you facing the Oral Assessment phase of the Foreign Service Exam, I want to call your attention to the outstanding manual that the Department has recently released. It’s not only an excellent overview of the assessment process, but provides a lot of examples on how to handle the group exercise, the writing assignments and other sections. Take a look even if you’re not yet facing this part of the Exam.

I know I frequently criticize how State runs the assessment process, but I’m pleased to say that the Oral Assessment Guidebook is superb.  Take advantage of it.




Pointers on the Oral Exam (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, I know a lot about African Big Men and State Department policymaking, but Word Press at times leaves me stumped.   I’m sorry that this post originally went up unfinished on the website.  I’ve figured how to avoid that in the future.  Please bear with me.


I have promised a post on the Oral Assessment for months, and after talking to some friends who took their Orals last year I’m re-energized to write about it.

A couple of things I’ve learned and confirmed with my friends are that:

  • The Oral Assessment portion of the Foreign Service Exam has changed very little since I took it 1985;
  • Most of the examiners are probably on their last tours in the Department, and they’re looking for their high-three salaries to bump up their annuities.  Some are bitter and others are curmudgeons who will always be curmudgeons, but most/most are decent folks who in their last assignment with State, on the Board of Examiners (BEX), genuinely wish to make sure the incoming FSOs will be the best possible.                             

The Oral Assessment is a grueling ordeal.

The exam lasts a full day and includes a writing test, a Q&A period with you and two FSOs and a group session that has been alternately described as a minefield and a policy wonk scrum.  To top it off, Careers.State.Gov says, the “[oral] assessment measures your ability to demonstrate the 13 Dimensions… essential to the successful performance of Foreign Service work.”   That last part is debatable, but it makes the HR gurus feel better, I suppose.

On the positive side, test takers get their results back the same day.  When you show up for the Oral Assessment, you will likely get the “Case Management Writing Exercise” — modeled on a memo or email at a typical embassy.  It’s given early so it can be graded before the end of the day. I don’t know who reviews these writing assignment, but I understand that it may they are not graded by Foreign Service Officers.  I will try to find more information about these mystery graders.

Recommendations for Case Management Writing Exercise

Write in clear, succinct English and avoid “academese.” Although FSOs may not be grading your papers (see para above), nearly all successful test takers have told me that they wrote like a journalist or a State Department reporting officer/desk officer.  In other words, be clear, straightforward and to the point.  One successful candidate said he wrote “the way a reporter would write – short and  punchy.”

Another critical pointer — you will likely be writing about an embassy issue, like the Ambassador’s Small-Scale Self-Help Development Fund, the Regional Security Officer’s new security restrictions or the Housing Board’s decision on housing assignments.  There could be other issues, but the common theme is that you will be writing an information memo having to do with an embassy or mission (In State-speak, mission includes other agencies at post) discussion.

My key advice is don’t feel you must answer or decide the issue.  Let me repeat that because it’s important – don’t feel you need to make the decision or render a conclusion.  It’s an information memo.  You glean the information that you can, and you write your memo accordingly.

You will likely be drafting this memo describing the meeting to a superior, say the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) or the Ambassador. As an entry level officer, you will not be making decisions on inter-agency board meetings.  You are there to report what happened, highlighting the disagreements or outbursts (seriously!) so the DCM or Ambassador know that the USAID Mission Director is in a tizzy because his deputy’s housing is “inadequate” for representational purposes or some other agency’s complaints or State’s General Service Officer’s (GSO, typically in charge of the Mission housing pool) inflexibility.  Frame the major issues and highlight the agreements and disagreements.  In the exercise, if you’re asked follow-up questions from the DCM or Ambassador, answer honestly and if you don’t know the answer, simply say that you don’t know the answer and why not – the subject never came up at the meeting, the issue was pushed off to the next meeting, etc.  

Finally, remember the whole Oral Assessment is based on the 13 dimensions.  You don’t mention them in your response, but read them so you have the right mindset for the exercise.  I see the following four as most relevant to this exercise:

  • Written Communication. To write concise, well organized, grammatically correct, effective and persuasive English in a limited amount of time.
  • Objectivity and Integrity. To be fair and honest; to avoid deceit, favoritism, and discrimination; to present issues frankly and fully, without injecting subjective bias; to work without letting personal bias prejudice actions.
  • Judgment. To discern what is appropriate, practical, and realistic in a given situation; to weigh relative merits of competing demands.
  • Information Integration and Analysis. To absorb and retain complex information drawn from a variety of sources; to draw reasoned conclusions from analysis and synthesis of available information; to evaluate the importance, reliability, and usefulness of information; to remember details of a meeting or event without the benefit of notes. 

Stay tuned for my tips on handling the Group Exercise and how to negotiate the interview with two FSOs.