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Mr. Crab's Two Cents on Passing the FSOA

(Note & update: This is a shorter and less technical version of my full recap I originally posted on the Yahoo FSOA group. After passing the OA on 4/14/09, it took six months to receive my security clearance and a few additional weeks of waiting for placement on the Consular register. In January 2010, I received and accepted an invitation to the 152nd A-100 class, beginning in late March 2010).

Departmentseal2  On 14 April 2009 -- after two and a half years of testing, trying and re-testing -- I finally passed final hurdle of the US Foreign Service Exam: the dreaded Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), or OA for short.  The OA is part role-playing exercise, part job interview...and part psychological battery thrown in for good measure. This was, without a doubt, the hardest and most grueling test I have ever taken. I would rather go through Army basic training course again than retake the OA. It's a mind game for sure!

Since posting my original recap, a few folks have written me asking for tips & suggestions. So here's my two cents on passing the FSOA:

1. Everything you need to know to pass the OA is in the State Department's "Letter from the Director of Board of Examiners." Download it, read it, re-read it, digest it, memorize it. It tells you EXACTLY how to pass, from the play-by-play schedule of the OA to the basis for scoring - the infamous 13 Dimensions. Now all you need to do is put it into practice.

2. Join a kick-ass study group. I was a member of two Skype study groups and organized an in-person study group with other expats in London. In the month before my test, my main Skype study group probably met online 3 or 4 times a week, mainly going over SI questions. For GE practice, nothing beats an in-person study group.

3. Memorize the 13 Dimensions. Live them. Breath them. Eat them. Dream them. Apply them and recognize them in your everyday life. That said, don't let them overwhelm or consume you; you are not going to be asked to define the dimensions. But whenever you speak during the OA, bear in mind what dimension you are expressing.

4. For each of the 13 Ds, come up with several good stories from your past for each dimension. Ask your friends, family and coworkers if they have story suggestions. Some of my best stories came from third parties. Memorize your stories forward and backward. For the Situational Interview (SI) subsections of Experience & Motivation (E&M) and Past Behavior (PB), I came up with six "super stories" that fit multiple dimensions, and 3 or 4 secondary stories that only fit one or two other dimensions. I began by typing my stories, then reading them over and over to my Skype study group, family and friends. Most importantly, each of my stories was flexible enough that I could reword it slightly to fit the question. (I spent most of my time studying for the SI because, IMHO, the SI is the only portion of the FSOA in which you are almost completely in control).

5. Join the Yahoo FSOA group.  Chances are, your question has been answered there before; the search tool is your friend!  That said, treat everything on there with suspicion; there's a lot of rumor-mongering, speculation and flat-out wrong information.

6. The best book I recommend is "Career Diplomacy" by Kopp & Gillespie. I probably read that book three times cover to cover. Check out the companion website,  I also bought "Getting to Yes" for the GE and "The Case Study Handbook" for the CM, but only skimmed the latter two books.

7. For the Case Management (CM), remember that you are writing a government memo. This is not the time to demonstrate your creative writing or journalism skills. I'm a career journalist, so at my first OA I wrote a full two-page memo that read like a Pulitzer Prize-winning news-feature story. I flunked, badly. At my second OA, my CM memo was clear, succinct, only 1.3 pages long, just the facts ma'am in a rather dry and boring government tone and style. I passed. 

8. During the OA, listen and read all instructions carefully. If you're not sure, ask for clarification. You would not believe how many people flunk a section simply because they failed to read or listen to instructions. This is especially important on the CM. The CM instructions will tell you exactly what they want in your memo. 

9.  Wear a suit, even if you're not a suit person. If you've never worn a suit, go buy or borrow one. Men, wear a dark suit with a crisp new white shirt and new tie; that 5-year-old tie in the back of your closet is probably out of style. Shine your shoes. Women have a lot more fashion choices, i.e. pant-suit vs. skirt suit, hair down vs. hair up, heels vs. flats, etc.  Use common sense. Remember, Washington is a very conservative dress town. What flies in NYC, LA or even US Embassy Baghdad won't necessarily fly in DC.  

10. Above all, HAVE FUN!  I love board and card games, so I went into the OA with the mindset that this was going to be an all-day game...only with a much bigger prize for the winners than just collecting $200 after passing Go. 

Best of luck!