Grace on Pace

Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment (FSCE)

Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment
Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment Day (FSCE)
Yesterday was my Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment for the Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE) position.  Again, I did have to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), so I must intentionally sound vague on some parts of the day.  I arrived Saturday morning (without Jennilou) at Dulles International Airport, giving myself two full days to relax and prepare.  As much as I would have loved for Jennilou to come, I felt the isolation would get me in the zone.  Besides reviewing the recommended Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment books and writing practice essays, I did manage to see a few of the museums, get a hair cut, iron my suit, take a dip in the pool, run, eat, and nap.


After my failed attempt in Spring 2011,  I had finally made it to the interview stage and I wanted to be fully rested, so I could be at my best.
“Do not spend the night prior to the Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment studying; the extra factoids candidates might cram into their brains at this point will not make a significant difference. Visit a museum, go out to a movie, visit with friends – and get to bed at a decent hour (see “Be rested” above).”
I woke up early and well rested.  Staying at the Holiday Inn Washington – Capital allowed me to relax in my room for awhile before making my way over to the assessment center at 301 4th Street.  Eliminating the need to take a taxi, bus, car, or subway and having to stress about giving myself enough time in case something goes wrong was a great move this time around.  Being able to walk one minute down the street was an absolute blessing.  I arrived at the oral assessment location around 8:40am for a 9:00am interview.  There were three of us who waited in a seat-less lobby for 20 minutes (The last time they had chairs…uhhh), until the secretary fetched us into the elevator and up to testing offices.

The first part of the assessment was a timed Case Management writing exercise.  I was led down a hall with the three other candidates and into a computer lab.  The State Department Oral Assessment Study Guide describes the writing exercise as:
As the first part of the Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment you will be given a scenario describing issues which may typically arise in your specialty in a Foreign Service context. You will be asked to write a1-2 page memo to your supervisor summarizing the situation and providing solutions to the problems you or your supervisor has identified. You do not need to know US Government or State Department rules and regulations – you should rely on your expert knowledge, information presented to you, and your common sense. You will have 45 minutes to complete this section.

As most engineers, I am not the greatest writer in the world and had failed this portion of the test on my previous try.  I stuck to my planned outline and tried to manage my time well.  I didn’t have time to reread anything at the end, but went away feeling much better than the first time I took this portion of the test.

We walked back to the waiting area and I grabbed some water and used the restroom.  I was very nervous, because I had failed the Online Competency Exam on my previous try and knew I needed to score higher on this section for a chance to pass. The exam is a specialized knowledge test described in the Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment Study Guide as:

You will next be given an online competency exam. You will have 45-60 minutes for this section. The test may include English Expression questions, questions dealing with your ability to work with others, and questions appropriate to your area of expertise, such as Microsoft usage; IT problems; hiring laws and procedures; organizing events and VIP schedules; building maintenance issues; contracting and leasing; logistics operations; budgets and accounting; and similar issues that you will be expected to work within your FS specialty. This computer based multiple-choice exam presents a series of technical and/or situational judgment questions. It is intended to measure your job-related knowledge and how you might apply that knowledge on the job. The exam is designed to present more questions than can generally be answered in the time allowed, so candidates should not expect to answer every question.

Again I felt much better about the Competency Exam this time around and was not only able to finish all of the questions, but had time to review over half my answers.  Looking back, having botched my Case Management portion of the test right off the bat in 2011, had really affected my ability to gather myself and push forward the best I could.  With two sections “successfully” down, my adrenaline was pumping as I went back to the waiting room a second time.

In the waiting room, I tried to remain calm and prepare.  I had passed the interview portion in 2011 and my total score was 5.1 out of 7.  A 5.25 is passing, so theoretically, feeling I had done better on the first two sections led me to believe I was going to pass this time.  However, a 5.25 is the minimum passing score and it did not ensure I would be ultimately selected.  I needed to nail the Oral Assessment as well, to achieve my goal of a 5.6.  A few minutes later, I was taken back down the hall to a different room for for the final phase.  The Structured Interview is described in the Foreign Service Specialist Oral AssessmentStudy Guide as:

All candidates participate individually in a Structured Interview conducted by two assessors, one of whom will be a Subject Matter Expert proficient in the functional field being tested. For this portion of the Oral Assessment, assessors will have reviewed portions of your application for employment so they will be familiar with your work history and information you provided in the biographical section of the application. You are expected to respond to questions based on your personal background, experience, and motivation. You should be careful to respond to the questions that are asked, rather than give a response that highlights your qualities or resume but does not reply to the specific question.

Again, I walked out of the interview feeling I did better than last time, but still could not keep from second guessing myself as I waited impatiently in the lobby to be called.  To be honest, I made an attempt to leave my belongings in the lobby as I was called down the hall.  My thought being that the assessors would only ask me to bring my belongings with me if I failed because surely I would need to return for paper work if I passed.  “Oops…you forgot to grab your brief case,” said the assessor.  The thin manila envelope that he was carrying also looked a lot like the one that contained the rejection letter for my previous attempt. My heart sank…I was devastated.

I walked into the room and as I made a motion to sit defeated in the empty chair, one of the assessors blind sided me with a smile and firm hand shake.  “Let me be the first to congratulate you on passing the Foreign Service Specialist Oral Assessment”.   Turns out the thin manila envelope contained a single white sheet of paper with a check mark in every box… a whopping score of 6.0 out of 7.0.  I was very happy.

When I failed before, I was discretely shown the door and never saw any of the other people I’d spent the day with, so this was all new to me, this time I got to actually enjoy strolling around the room proudly checking out the photos.  “One day that could actually be me,” I thought to myself.  Turns out the next hour or so went very smoothly, as I had prepared all of the information in my packet beforehand and only needed to be finger printed and sign a few forms.  At the end I strolled out onto the street a changed man with a conditional offer for employment as a Foreign Service Construction Engineer.  Thankfully it was Moe’s Monday… I needed to celebrate.

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Jeff Grace

I’d like to hope that when I leave this earth, my family and friends believe something about me giving as fully as I could. To the people I love and to the areas of culture that excited me to build things. Then a lot of dancing, loud music and talking about what an idiot I made of myself during that process.

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Enjoyed reading you article, Jeff. It’s terrific that you took the time to write this! I appreciate your willingness to serve. Happy travels!
    Paul F. Bickert
    President, Travel

  • Thanks Paul…Its been a dream of mine to work in the Foreign Service. A builder my whole life, it will be an honor to work on such world class facilities…

  • Really appreciate the insight into the FSS life you deliver in your blog. My OA is scheduled in 2 weeks and I’m freaking out so it’s nice to see that’s a normal reaction to such a big day. Good luck with the job, family and travels.

  • Great blog Jeff. Just got notice of my OA scheduled for next month. Any additional advice you can provide that won’t violate the NDA? I.e. specific books or stress management that may have helped?

  • Thanks Allan…sorry for the delay in getting back to you…hopefully you passed the exam…if you are still preparing, as far as any additional advice, I can’t really go into specifics. Just be sure to check out the study guide linked above and try to arrive a couple days early to rest up and prepare…

  • Hi Romina…Apologies for the delay in getting back to you. I can’t really go into specifics as part of the NDA I signed, but I would say any plan you go in with will be helpful. You can always revamp on the fly, but being able to get some words on the page right at the get go helps calm the nerves. Good luck with your test and hope all is well…

    – Jeff

  • Hey Jeff, Congrats!

    I am waiting for my 2 weeks confirmation letter and I already have an appointment for the assessment.
    My English is a second language and I am worried about the writing part, I can write but and I have taken WR-121 in school but I did poorly.

    Is the writing part needs to be absolutely professional writing or normal everyday writing? Of course my writing is not like a chicken trying to fly.

    why you failed the first attempt? what was wrong?

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