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.  




  1. Very informative! Thanks for taking the time to do this. I’ll check back frequently for Part II.

    • Patrick–
      Happy you found it worthwhile. Check out the Department’s new Oral Assessment Guide at http://bit.ly/2CjkA7E

      • Bill,

        This is very helpful, thank you! I was wondering if you ever posted Part 2 of this post? I’ve been unable to find it, but would definitely appreciate hearing your insight on the other sections of the oral.


        • Jess–

          Thanks for your comment. I felt that the State Department did a really superb job on their “Oral Exam” book that I recommend you go with that. If people are interested in my views, I’d be happy to write Part 2, when time allows.

          Good luck,


  2. I think a lot of your post’s are weak tea… You know, anyone can get what you say from the State Department website — in fewer words, too…

    What are you offering people, after all.

    • Bob–

      Thanks for writing. I regret you don’t like my posts. I’m just trying to give my perspective on the Foreign Service Exam process and FS life. Am I qualified to do so? Well, yes, I am. After 24 years living and working overseas for the State Department as an FSO, I believe that I bring a unique perspective to what it takes to be a good FSO, understand and respect different cultures, and represent the United States overseas.

      Again, Bob, I appreciate your comments. I wish I got more comments, so I would know what my readers want me to write more about.

      You’re entitled to your views, and if you don’t like what you find here, well, there are plenty of other sites where you can buy books and flash cards and other stuff. Actually maybe I should do those things, too. But what I can guarantee folks here is to get my personal opinion. And trust me, I have a lot of them on the State Department and Foreign Service.

      Cheers, Bill

  3. I respectfully disagree with Bob/Apr12.

    While the bare facts of the FSO Exam are available from the DoS public website, they are none-the-less an abstraction of a recruitment process in whole.

    Blogs like this help the vast breadth of the applicant pool get a sense of how they can best represent themselves and prepare. Yes, it’s the same information rehashed over many blogs — but that’s the point. Additional opinions are additional data points.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree with you.

      • I completely agree with KM regarding Bob. Bob does not know what he’s talking about because I LOVE reading about the various issues you discuss on your blog. Your topics are all so relevant and important, yet oftentimes very difficult to find information on because of the opaqueness of the entire process. I am learning lots more from you than the State Dept. website so please continue to write more. I truly thank you for taking the time to share with us readers your infinite wisdom earned from decades of experience as an FSO.

  4. Does the foreign service exam apply to all positions or is it modified greatly to the job role the person is seeking.
    I was looking for more information regarding the Foreign service specialist position that i recently applied to.
    How is it really broken down.
    Step 1 – Case Management Writing Exercise
    Step 2 – Test questions for your job role?
    Step 3 – ??

    • Mike–
      Thanks for the question. It’s one test for everyone, and there are no cone/career track-specific questions.

      The specialist hiring process is different (. You won’t be taking the computer-based FSOT for Foreign Service Officers, but will be selecting your specialization and then applying for jobs.

      The job availability is included on the State Career site here. You can also look at the U.S. Government open jobs website — USAJobs. The same listings will be included, but you may find something interesting in a different agency.

      The next step for Specialists, if you passed the application phase, is for your application to go before a Qualifications Evaluations Board (QEP) that will decide if you have “the minimum qualifications, professional experience, job history, and motivation.”

      After successfully passing the QEP phase, the Department will invite you to Washington, DC for the oral interview process, similar to the FSO oral assessment, but focusing on your job skills and experience as well as the all-important “motivation.” There will be a written essay portion, “Structured Interview,” and “Exit Interview.” The Department has produced a guide about the oral assessment — Oral Assessment Information Guide for Specialists.

      After you pass all of these steps, you face the medical exam and security background check. If you’re ruled fit to serve anywhere overseas and you have no security issues, then you go onto the Specialist register in your area of expertise and in rank order, including extra points for language skills and veterans preference.

      Hope this helps, and let me know how it turns out.

      Good luck,

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience. I have been invited for the Specialist Oral Assessment but haven’t scheduled it yet. It should be this month though, or maybe next. I have a question on the memo. Does it have to be in the proper format of a memo, or do they just look at your writing skills? Thank you!

  6. Hi there, was there ever a Part II to this topic?

  7. Yes. It would be great if there were a Part II. Or maybe there is and I have just not found it?

    Thank you, Bill, for your work.

    Regards – Adam

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