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My Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment Experience

Today was my Foreign Service Specialist (FSS) Oral Assessment for the Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE) specialist position. In terms of federal government jobs for a post-military career, this one lines up closest with my skill set and allows me to travel abroad or live as an expat while building embassies around the world. I applied in December 2011 and have finally made it to the interview stage. Time to pack! As if you needed a reason to think I was any more of a geek, I actually found this YouTube video on "How to fold a suit without wrinkling it." Which, by the way, worked amazingly well...Much better than when I tried to use the garment bag. Before you get your hopes up as to all the intimate details of the Oral Assessment to reverse-engineer a passing score, I did have to sign some non-disclosure agreements (NDA). So, if I sound vague on some parts of the day, that's intentional. However, what's already out on the web about the process is pretty accurate.
I arrived at the oral assessment location around 08:20 for a 09:00 interview. That's a little too early for me to just sit around and wait, so I took a walk around the block and took a moment to enjoy the very crisp morning air. I signed in around 08:40, went upstairs to the same room used during my Foreign Service Officer (FSO) oral assessment back in November. This time, however, I only counted five people including myself that were there for the interview. Two of them I saw only once before they vanished down the hallway, but the other two people were on the same schedule as me. One was from Chicago, pursuing an Office Management Specialist (OMS) position. The other was from Senegal, and was pursuing a Financial Management Officer (FMO) position. 'Chicago' was enjoyably chatty, while 'Senegal' was much more reserved...or, more likely, jet-lagged.

The Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment consists of three parts:


Part 1: The Timed Writing Exercise
The first part of the assessment was not oral. It was a timed writing exercise. The three of us walked down a hallway decorated with photos of distant cities like Budapest, to which my first thoughts were "Oh, I've been there." Upon entering the testing room, we each took a seat in front of the computers. The State Dept website describes the writing exercise as:
"Candidates will be asked to write either an essay or will be presented a hypothetical problem set in an embassy environment related to the candidate’s area of specialization. The candidate will be required to write a two-page memo outlining how to solve the problem presented. The candidate will have 45 minutes for the writing exercise. He/she will have a computer available to use, but may write the essay or memo in longhand."
While I use this blog to practice and improve my writing, I know that I'm not the greatest writer. This is partly because I often think of a better way to say what I'm trying to express half-way through the sentence that I'm writing. (FYI, that last sentence had three versions, the last of which was completely revised two years after the fact). I think that I managed my time well during this portion, as I was literally making the last keystroke when the timer went off. On to the next challenge!

Part 2: The Timed Specialized Knowledge Test
After the writing exercise, we walked back to the waiting area where Chicago and I started chatting some more. Mostly, I needed to calm my nerves while getting my brain and mouth connected so that I'd be ready for the oral part of the interview. But what came next was not the oral part of the assessment. It was a specialized knowledge test related to our individual specialties, and was also timed. I once again managed my time down to the second...actually, I'm not sure if my last mouse click beat the buzzer. Round two, Done!

Part 3: The FSS Oral Assessment Interview
We headed back to the waiting area (again), and I noticed that the clock on the wall showed it was a little past 1100. I didn't wear a watch today because my Timex Ironman wasn't really suit appropriate, and the nice watch I'd wanted to wear wasn't out of the repair shop until after I was on the plane to DC. But 1100 is usually when I take lunch, (even if it was only 1000 back home). From what few accounts I'd read (like the one here), during your OA day there's sometimes a lunch break before the actual oral part of the oral assessment. There had been one when I went through the FSO OA, so it stood to reason that we'd get one, too. Nope. I'd checked the clock at 1130, and shortly thereafter Senegal was led down the hallway. A few minutes later, I was also taken back to my structured interview. The State Department website describes the structured interview as:
"The interview will be conducted by two examiners, a Foreign Service generalist and a Foreign Service specialist or generalist working in your field. The interview generally takes about 75 minutes. There are two parts to the structured interview. In the first part of the interview, the candidate will be asked about his/her motivation for joining the Foreign Service and about background experiences that might be relevant to their work as a Foreign Service specialist. In the second part of the interview, the second interviewer will ask questions in the candidate’s field and provide hypothetical workplace problems to resolve. Candidates are expected to use common sense and good judgment and to make assumptions they believe are appropriate in responding to the hypothetical situations."
This experience was similar to the structured interview I took during the FSO oral assessment (the one that I bombed). However, this time around I felt not only better prepared, but also more within my comfort zone regarding the relevance of my background experience. I'd say more, but NDA. I walked out of the interview feeling that I did better than last time, but unsure as to whether I did well enough to score above the 5.25 cutoff score (out of 7 possible points) required to get the conditional offer of employment and continue on in my Foreign Service Candidacy.
Ok, to be fair, I never looked at the clock on the wall after the structured interview because there wasn't much point...I'm riding this train until it stops. The first person called back was Senegal.  He wasn't gone very long before the office administrator turned up the TV, which was reporting on an F-18 that crashed into a Virginia apartment complex. It turned out to be Virginia Beach, but for several minutes everyone in the office was trying to figure out where the crash occurred and whether their families were safe. Kinda puts the job interview into perspective...it really isn't a life or death matter.

Then one of my interviewers came to get me for the exit interview. I won't lie, the thin manila envelope that he was carrying looked a lot like the one that contained the rejection letter for my previous FSO attempt. I think my pessimism stems from my experience with college acceptance letters, as you can often tell by the thickness of the envelope whether or not you made the cut. And the manila envelope was similar...except for the fact that it contained a piece of paper stating "Congratulations on passing the Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment!" Awesome. Overall, I scored a 5.6.

After the exit interview, I once again returned to the waiting area. Chicago was there, and she gave me a high five, since she made it too. Then Senegal walked into the room, but I sensed by his body language that he hadn't passed. I've been there. It sucks. When I failed the FSO OA, I was discretely shown the door and never saw any of the other people I'd spent the day with. It was probably much worse for this guy, as he had to walk past where we were sitting with our acceptance packages as he was shown the door. That's gonna be a long flight back to Senegal.
But back to me: right now, I have a conditional offer. It's conditional because I still have to pass a security background check, get medical clearance, and pass a final suitability review before I get my name ranked on the register  by OA score. After I separate from the military, I'll be able to increase it with some veterans preference points, but first I need to actually get on the register. Once I'm on the register, I still have to wait until my score is above the threshold for selection for training (and that's contingent on available funding for both the classes and for my salary). So, yeah, conditional. Very favorable, but still conditional. And I'm totally psyched.

Foreign Service Specialist Application Timeline:
Update: Since this page has turned out to be the most popular one on this blog, I figured that it's because you might be looking for a timeline from application through acceptance and starting class (With Senegal...it turns out he passed too, but since he already had a Department of State security clearance as an EFM, he didn't have to do all the admin stuff that I had to after the interview). So, here are the links to the blog pages that talk about that stage of the process:

16 Dec 11 Foreign Service Construction Engineer application window closed
12 Mar 12 Notified of Qualification Evaluation Panel (QEP) results
21 Mar 12 Notified of Oral Assessment date
06 Apr 12 Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment
08 Apr 12 Submit Security Clearance paperwork
23 Apr 12 Submit Medical Clearance paperwork
09 May 12 Receive Medical Clearance
18 Jun 12 Receive Security Clearance
25 Jun 12 Get placed on the FSCE register
13 July 12 Selection to attend training
10 Sep 12 Class start date

These books are frequently recommended to me by the instructors of my Foreign Service Institute classes. They are well worth the investment if you're serious about the Foreign Service (or just what life is like as a diplomat overseas), click the picture for more info:

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  1. I really appreciate all of your input. Can you give any suggestions how to prepare for the written portion? I see that there is a book “Writting that works” on your blog but I can’t tell if that is just an advertisement.

    1. Ah, Blogger changed how it did change it's ad format a while back and I probably missed it. I'm in the process of clarifying between the recommended reading and advertisements. But I think that one was one that I recommended.

  2. That's a good question. Yes, that "Writing that works" is a book I'm recommending in general (because writing well is important), but for the written portion of the exam, you might want to read over some actual example memos provided by the Department in 5 FAH-1 H-310 to get a sense of the standard format. Be concise. Imagine this is being read by someone important with not a lot of time to figure out what you are trying to say.

    1. One more question, was the FSO OA and the FSS OA very similar? I’m trying to determine if this FSOA study guide here on your blog would be good to help me prepare.

    2. The interview part was similar. I suppose the writing portion was too, except that the FSO version had lots of material to comb thru while the FSS one was basically what you already knew.the FSO OA had a group exercise that the FSS OA didn't. The FSOA study guide could be useful to understand how questions might be asked, but it's maybe 40-60% useful in the sense that it might help you understand what questions a Management Officer might be asked to find out from you (so you know what to tell them before they ask).

  3. Thank you for your amazing blog. I have been reading it since we decided to try to enter the foreign service. My husband is waiting for the date for his exam so we are both excited and nervous. I have a couple of questions:
    He speaks 4 languages: Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. Would those languages add points to his grade? Would those languages influence where we are assigned?

    He recently took the Professional Engineering exam and passed. Would you recommend reviewing that material?

    If he passes and he is invited to the class, how long do specialist stay in Washington for training before first post? The reason I am asking is I am starting new job next week and for what I have been reading it seems that the average time after passing the time to first post is 10 to 12 months.

    Thank you very much!

    1. I'm glad you like it! Sometimes I feel like no one reads it because this blog is admittedly very niche content.
      As for your questions, assuming you're asking about the CE specialist position instead of one of the FSO generalist positions:
      1) Specialists don't take the FSOT exam, just apply, write some personal narrative question (PNQ) replies, then interview/Oral Assessment. The OA score is based on the performance during the OA, so it's less about technical knowledge aspects than the operational performance in the field. Of course, to perform well you need a technical background, but being able to explain your decision is probably more important than the decision itself. Remember that we're not expected to know it all, just know where to find the answer and we (OBO) have specialists in almost all technical areas.
      2) The PE is a good certificate to maintain as it adds clout to your responses in your field.
      3) for FSCEs, training at FSI is ~3 weeks of orientation then working ~2 years in DC where we basically get on the job training. I was in DC for 2.5 years before my first posting abroad, but i probably could have gone up to 3 years in DC (if i could afford to...yikes! it's expensive).

      As far as I'm aware, there are no bonus points for language because the formal assessment would likely occur after hiring. FSCEs don't need language to be tenured, but having those languages might score some brownie points during the assignment process. One thing to consider is that while our projects occur around the world, much of the labor force comes from the same few countries (a non-exhaustive list of labor languages would include Turkish, Tagalog, Urdu, etc). But having local language skills would be very useful when dealing with the local municipalities on permits etc.

      Hope that was what you were looking for. Good luck in your accession process!

    2. Thank you so much for your response. My husband was placed on the register at the end of january so we are excited even though with all the uncertainty who knows when we will be invited to the class. You mentioned in your response that DC first tour is two years. Has that been reduced to 1? Are CEs ever sent to foreign tour and skip DC if knowledge of language needed?

      is a lot of time spent traveling during the tour in DC?

      Once again thank you for all the answers and for putting such a great blog.

  4. Thanks for your really helpful blog entries. I'm curious if you have any recommendations (books, etc.) to study for the knowledge portion of the CE OA. I am a practicing architect but am concerned that my experience may be too "design-oriented." I do site visits and budget reviews but feel they may be looking for more technical people than what I have done (i.e. I have never put together construction schedules or comprehensive cost estimates, only reviewed in a more general manner). Thanks again!

    1. I thought I hit the reply button, but it posted my response to you as a separate comment below. Oops.

  5. Hi Dylan, glad they’ve been helpful. We have plenty of architects in the career field, as well as both design-build and design-bid-build projects. Having a solid understanding of specifications helps. You might want to brush up on general construction and multi-trade coordination when it comes to the logic behind scheduling. You know, stuff like don’t put the drywall up before the stuff that goes inside the wall gets installed. Also, how changes in one discipline might drive changes in others...can’t increase the HVAC capacity without increasing the power supply.
    As for cost estimates, RSMeans is a pretty handy reference. Our job includes a fair amount of contract administration, so maybe peruse the FAR Part 36

  6. Thanks for these tips! I just applied for the currently listed vacancy; fingers crossed for at least an interview, though sounds like I may have only a 5% chance or so...

    Just curious, have you heard anything on your end about how many open positions there are? Maybe that's classified, but perhaps you have a general sense of how much need there is currently?

  7. Good luck! Something to be aware of is that just because we might need more engineers to staff our projects, the Department might need a different specialist even more. With a limited number of seats available in each orientation class, it's a toss-up as to what the mix will be. My orientation class had an unprecedented seven engineers and equally unusual lack of any Diplomatic Security folks.

    As for your "5% chance", i wouldn't put too much thought into it. There might be a lot of people applying who aren't qualified, so the numbers are probably skewed to seem more competitive than they really are. But selection is predicated on whether you're considered to be qualified and pass all of the clearance requirements, not how many people we might be looking for at any given moment. That's why the register system is used: if/when a spot opens up for training, they go down the register to fill the spot.