Saturday, April 23, 2005

FSWE Dissected

Took the test this am and met a few Yahoo FSWE group members, Zach (aka York) and his wife (I don't know her online ID, so I'll refrain from naming names (Go Wildcats!). It was such a pleasure to meet other likeminded people in person and gossip about other people in the group! ;)

Everyone seemed mostly relaxed, with a few overconfident; we only numbered in the mid-teens, but were supposed to have had almost 30 show up. The instructions required the proctor to announce when ten minutes remained, but our proctor graciusly offered to further write on the board when 30 minutes remained. Very, very thoughtful of her, allowing for better pacing.

The Bio section seemed to be the toughest for me, not so much the lack of experience, but rather the repetitive listing of examples. Not to mention some, uh, terminology I've never heard of, and can't say whether it's applicable or made up. The breakaway republic did come in handy, thank you. ;)

Thanks to everyone in the essay group I felt quite confident and pleased with my result, despite the rocky start. Our proctor told us to read the prompts and not start writing until she told us to begin, although she never did. Most of us didn't realize that the clock had been started for almost 5 minutes. I did get a lot of mental organization done though. I ended up rewriting half of my intro and was much more pleased with the finished product, but it did look a mess. Now if only they can get to read it. ;)

The cone specific section was great. I finished early and took some time to scan through the other sections. Whew! Some of you ought to get bonus language points at the FSOA for understanding some of those monsters! Every section did seem to have their fair share of computer/tech questions, though.

English expression: confident, but we'll wait and see.

Final Analysis: Although I cannot say definitively whether I passed or failed. Regardless of the final outcome, I was still satisfied with my performance on this first installment.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

FSWE Essay Section

This section of the FSWE is possibly the most perplexing and stressful, but there is an abundance of good information available that will enable one to prepare sufficiently. Many of the local DIRs have scheduled Essay Writing Workshops. These are geared primarily for those with near-passing essays last year, who missed by just one point, but anyone is welcome to attend. Be prepared to take notes, as a lot of helpful advice can be obtained. There also has been an FSWE Prep Group set up in the Yahoo Groups, and has some good information, but is set up mostly so that online study/writing groups can be set up. Evaluating other essays, and having someone critique yours can be an invaluable way to prepare by catching stylistic mistakes and making suggestions for improvement before D-Day. Other than that, you can practice on your own using the Study Guide.

First of all, if you do not often write extensively by hand (which includes most of us), you will certainly want to practice a few 'dry runs', to get your hand accustomed again to the feel of writing for long periods of time. The FSWE Study Guide also contains a few practice essays to get you started. Note that per the instructions you will have 60 minutes to select, plan, write, edit and polish your essay, based on one of several available topics.

The purpose of the essay is to:
The written essay is used to evaluate each candidate’s ability to analyze a substantive topic, organize and develop ideas, and express them in correct and readable English prose. Candidates respond to one topic, after selecting that topic from three possible topics. Representative topics include U.S. and/or international social systems and issues, customs and culture, history, education, religion, employment issues, etc. Essays are handwritten in booklets provided on test day. Essays are evaluated using scoring criteria such as ability to analyze a topic, clarity of purpose, sentence structure, grammar, and mechanics.
-- "2005 FSWE Study Guide", pg. 2, ACT, Inc., 2005.
You will write your essay in the testing booklet provided, and may use the first few pages for planning and organizational purposes. Your essay, specifically:
...should present your point of view clearly and support it. Your writing will be evaluated on the quality of the writing, not the opinions expressed. A successful essay should have an obvious structure and clear thesis supported by relevant substantiating details. It should show your ability to analyze a topic in a way that is appropriate for the intended audience. The writing should be coherent with only occasional lapses that do not impede flow or readers’ comprehension. Language should be generally concise with clear and appropriate word choice. The language should also be free of errors in grammar and syntax, with only minor errors in spelling and punctuation. There is no limit on length.
-- "2005 FSWE Study Guide", pg. 6, ACT, Inc., 2005.
But how does one go about preparing for a question that will not be revealed until the test? Obviously, you will not be able to practice your actual essay, but you can practice your strategies on other similar questions under similar time constrainments. Your strategies may include (but not be limited to) pacing (time management), brainstorming (evidentiary management), organizing (structural management), and proofreading (quality control).

You only have sixty minutes. One measly hour.

That sounds like a long time, until you get into the swing of writing - then it feels more like you are popping popcorn in the microwave. Thus, the key to success is Pacing. Don't give in to the temptation to begin writing immediately. It may seem like you are getting a jump on the essay, but a rushed start will damage your flow and structure, which is essential to getting a good score. After a few practice runs, you will have a better idea of your specific pacing needs, but here is a sample schedule to get you started:
  • 5 minutes - read all presented prompts (topics) thoroughly; choose the topic with which you are familiar/comfortable.
  • 10 minutes - compose your thesis, list your talking points, brainstorm (not fabricate) your supporting evidence, outline your essay.
  • 30 minutes - write out your essay, basing it on your outline. Your transitions should be clear, with each main point clearly referring back to the introductory paragraph. Your closing paragraph should clearly reiterate the problem, the evidence, and the conclusion. Some people recommend writing your intro and concluding paragraphs at the same time before writing all the intervening stuff. A weak midpoint due to the lack of time does less damage than the lack of a strong conclusion.
  • 10 minutes - proofread and polish. Correct those run-on and incomplete sentences. Reword those awkward or repetitive sentences. Try to include a variety of sentence structures in your text. Verify the progression of ideas is logical and smooth.
  • 5 minutes - Glance over your [edited] essay quickly for misspellings or odd puncutation. Do Not make any major changes in your text at this time. Leave it alone!
Congratulations! You have a finished product in your hand. Of course it may look messy and sound rough. You're not being tested on producing a finished article for publication. Rather, you are being tested for your ability to think and write logically and clearly under pressure. It will be scored primarily on structure and organization, and not how well you know the material.

But how are they scored? How is it possible to score several thousand completely different essays on a fair and impartial basis? Aren't essays arbitrary?

Those points are valid, and I'm glad you asked.

Each essay is read once (and only once) and scored by two [trained] individuals, each of whom assign a score ranging from 1-6, according to the rubric (more on that in a moment). They generally take about a minute or so to read each essay. There cannot be more than one point difference between the two scores; if that occurs, the two readers will discuss the essay and agree on a score. Eighty percent of the time, however, the scorers will independently arrive at the same score. Your final score, however, is calculated by adding the two scores together.

The scoring rubric is essentially a 'scoring guide', which assigns a numerical score based on predetermined criteria that the essay meets. There are several scoring rubrics available online for various exams (SparkNotes SAT Scoring Rationale, Collegeboard SAT Scoring Guide, and ACT Scoring Guidelines); although the exact language varies slightly, they parallel each other nicely and can be used effectively to score your practice essays. The ACT website also has some sample essays to demonstrate the differences in scoring.

Passing scores for essays in the past generally have fluctuated between 6 and 7, so if you aim to get a score of '4' on your essay, you should be covered. In recent years, the State Department has been holding 'Prep Sessions' prior to the exam to demystify this portion of the exam. Check with your local DIR (Diplomat-in-Residence) for more information.

The following information was excerpted from a scoring rubric passed out at a recent prep session (for a complete rundown see TD's excellent 'EssaySessionNotes' posted in the fswe group files):
To obtain a score of '4': A paper at this level is adequately developed. The writer’s purpose is clear and the analysis is generally supported by relevant examples. The writer’s rationale may not always be fully developed. The paper has a clear structure with an introduction, body, and conclusion, but the structure may be too obvious and ideas may be subordinated to structure. Alternatively, the paper may exhibit lapses in organization. Transitions are usually used effectively. Sentences clearly express meaning and exhibit some variety, but there may be some repetition. Word choice is appropriate to the audience and is usually precise. While there may be some errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics, a competency with language is apparent. The errors may be distracting, but they only occasionally impede understanding.

To obtain a score of '5': A paper at this level is well developed. The writer’s purpose is well defined and, for the most part, the analysis is supported by sound reasoning and relevant, effective examples. Analysis and judgment may show thought and insight. The writer’s rationale is well developed and integrated into the text of the paper. The structure is logical and coherent, with clear organization, an effective opening and closing, and effective transitions. Sentences are usually concise and varied in structure. Word choice is usually precise, varied, and is appropriate to the audience. The writing shows good command of the language. There may be occasional errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics, but the errors pose minor distraction and they do not impede understanding.

To obtain a score of '6': A paper at this level is substantially developed. The writer’s purpose is very well defined and the analysis is supported by sound reasoning and relevant, effective examples. Analysis and judgment show thought and insight. The writer’s rationale is very well developed and very well integrated into the text of the paper. The structure is unified and coherent, with clear organization, an effective opening and closing, and effective transitions. Sentences are concise, interesting, and varied in structure. Word choice is precise, varied, and appropriate to the audience. The writing is fluent and shows superior command of the language. There may be occasional errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics, but the errors pose minor distraction and they do not impede understanding.
Although it would be nice to score a perfect '6', it's not required. A '4' is all you need. Practice, relax, and good luck!

If you wish to prepare further, here's a few book that might help!