Thursday, December 09, 2010

FSOA Recap (2010)

I arrived at the testing site about 30 minutes early; there were already about ten or so black suits milling about the lobby. As more continued to arrive, I estimated there to be about 30 or so altogether. Perhaps three-quarters of them were male. Very nice diversity among the tracks, professional backgrounds and experience. Everyone I spoke with knew at least one other language. Very few had taken the OA before; most were there for the very first time.  Astonishingly, I heard a couple of candidates state that they had "decided to read up on what this was all about" only the night before.

It was very different from my last OA in 2006.  At that time, we were just a handful of candidates clustered around a conference room table completing our paperwork.  Now the 'waiting room' was completely filled with candidates quietly scribbling out their information.

The GE was straightforward, five people in the group. No surprises. Some of the presentations were somewhat disjointed and difficult to follow, but we had a minute or two after each one to ask some pointed and relevant questions. When the presentation phase was over, one of the assessors read the instructions and dropped the paper on the desk.  Everyone looked at it curiously, as though he had just given us a hefty bill for dinner. I took it, and placed it with my folder of information.

We had a very good discussion about the relative merits of the projects, and brainstormed some reasonable possibilities. We all seemed to agree on one project, and tentatively selected it, pending final approval. With two or three minutes remaining, I stated that I believed my project deserved more serious consideration, but in the interest of moving the group toward consensus to meet the deadline, I would offer to remove it from consideration. We were then able to quickly agree on a recommendation.

Case Management came next. Lots of information, as always. I set up the framework for my memo first (as recommended on the boards) and skimmed over the material. After the obligatory "I'm sorry I couldn't meet you..." intro, I dove right into the problem, contrasting alternative solutions. Some of the information was less important, easily overlooked, but potentially useful nonetheless. No surprises here. I felt somewhat pressed for time, and felt I could have done better with an extra ten to fifteen minutes, but I was still pleased with the final result. DON'T GET DISTRACTED; FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS!

The Structured Interview was a mixed bag. During the E&M portion, I would frequently get cut off or interrupted, but I tried to keep up for the most part. There were some areas where I feel I could have articulated better, and once or twice they would repeat the question I was trying to answer. I would spin my answer a bit and continue, despite feeling a bit muddled.

Hypotheticals were fun. After I would answer, they would sometimes sit quietly, as if waiting for more, which was disconcerting at first, but it did give me the opportunity to expand my options. One hypo was unusual, sort-of like "you are a clerk in a retail store. A customer comes in and throws his cup away in YOUR trash can. What do you do?" Very strange, just a "Meh. Nothing, really, unless blah blah blah happens" sort of response.  Or maybe I just completely blew this one.  ;)

The PBI portion was great. Almost all my stories came from work, and I felt I was able to develop a decent connection with the Assessors. They were not as 'stony faced' as they had been at first, and smiled a little more and seemed genuinely curious about "what happened next".

The next two hours of waiting was tortuous, and a couple of other co-candidates and I walked down the block and around the Air & Space museum. The outdoor walk and the company did me good, and helped return me to reality. 

Back at the Annex, we were all herded into the CM room, and waited anxiously for the Russian Roulette smackdown. One candidate had read on the board about a previous group who had applauded candidates as they were called out, in recognition of their effort, and suggested that we do the same. This was a great idea and worked well, seeming to relieve some of the apprehension.

There were about a third of the candidates left when I was called out, and I was taken into the GE room. No one else was in there except myself and three assessors. I saw two fat envelopes on the table, and allowed myself to feel a glimmer of hope, when another candidate was brought in to join us. The assessors were all very chatty and friendly, and answered what questions they could. We went through all the procedural things of passing, and were returned to the waiting room with the other candidates who passed.

There ended up being a total of eight people passing, which was about average. Five males and three females, a slightly better ratio than had begun the day. One individual passed only one of the three sections, but passed overall with a 5.3.  The highest score of the day, I believe, was a 5.8.

The security interview was largely procedural, but interesting. I really enjoyed the agent that met with me and we had a really good conversation while we were reviewing the paperwork. I felt that I was honest to the point of being annoying, but he seemed to appreciate that. He jokingly told me not to go get myself into trouble, because "we've got your fingerprints now". LOL

PASSED: 5.6, passing all three sections.


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Monday, December 06, 2010

Personal Narratives and the Qualifications Evaluation Panel

Last year was my first attempt at the PNQs, and I did not pass.  This section sort of mystified me at first until I really sat down and read (and re-read) Step 4.  A quick review of the discussion in the Yahoo FSOA Group might lead one to erroneously believe that this step (QEP) is based solely upon the submitted Personal Narrative Questions themselves.  Do not fall into this trap!

The QEP actually looks at the "Total Candidate", examining four separate items:
  1. educational and work background;
  2. responses to the Personal Narrative questions;
  3. self-evaluated and Foreign Service Institute-tested language scores; and
  4. FSOT scores. 
Specially trained Foreign Service Officers (BEX) review and evaluate your application file as a whole, to see how well you demonstrate several characteristics (or 'precepts'), that have been identified as predicting a likelihood of success as a Foreign Service Officer:
  1. Leadership: innovation, decision making, teamwork, openness to dissent, community service and institution building
  2. Interpersonal Skills: professional standards, persuasion and negotiation, workplace perceptiveness, adaptability, representational skills
  3. Communication Skills: written communication, oral communication, active listening, public outreach, foreign language skill
  4. Management Skills: operational effectiveness, performance management and evaluation, management resources, customer service
  5. Intellectual Skills: information gathering and analysis, critical thinking, active learning, leadership and management training
  6. Substantive Knowledge: Understanding of U.S. history/ government/culture and application in dealing with other cultures. Knowledge and application of career track relevant information.
At first glance, it is tempting to pass these off as a shorter version of the 13-Ds, but a closer look will show that although they are similar, there are significant differences.  Perhaps the easiest way to see this is by examining their functionality.  Specifically, if the 13-Ds look at personal qualities, these precepts look at professional applicability, that is, "what you are capable of doing" versus "how you actually make it happen".

It is important to understand how this fits into the overall scheme of things.  The FSOT tests Substantive Knowledge.  The QEP looks at your educational and work background, and tries to determine HOW you have applied that substantive knowledge in the past.  The FSOA then tests whether you can produce and perform "on demand".  Medical and Security Clearances assess risk.  Lastly, the Final Suitability Review Panel (FRP) puts it all together to determine whether you will be a 'good fit' for the Foreign Service.

State's website states "There is no pre-set cut-off score. The QEP evaluates your file within your chosen career track, looking at how well you demonstrate the precepts outlined above" and that "the best qualified candidates are invited to oral assessments based on the QEP evaluations and State's anticipated hiring needs in each career track."

What does this tell us?  The cutoff process here is very similar to the FSOT: 1) hiring needs dictate the number of applicants that will be needed to provide a pool of potential candidates, 2) your file is scored and rank ordered against other applicants within your career track (cone), and 3) those scoring higher than the cutoff (ie. the top X number of applicants) will be invited to attend the FSOA.  Therefore, we can see that this step is just as competitive as the FSOT.

Unlike, the FSOT, however, BEX tells us exactly what we have to do to make our Personal Narratives (and the overall Application) as attractive as possible:
 "The PN offers you the opportunity to highlight not just what you have done, but how you did it and what you learned. You should provide examples from your previous experiences that show you have the skills to be a successful FSO."
"To help write your PN, focus on your own experience in answering the questions. Use these precepts as a guide to (1) give positive examples that demonstrate your abilities; (2) identify learning experiences; (3) indicate how your learning experience will contribute to success in your chosen Foreign Service career track."
"Although the QEP is a total file review, with no one element dominating all the factors considered, you have the most control over your responses to the PN. Your responses can be influential in determining your standing in your chosen career track. This is your chance to tell your story to the Foreign Service assessors. Bear in mind that your responses are subject to verification by the Board of Examiners."
 As you write your PNs, go back and compare what you say with what BEX tells us they are looking for.  Ask yourself: "What did I do?", "How did I do it?", "What did I learn", "How does this experience fit with my chosen career track?"  Do you answer each of those questions in each story?  If not, you may want to revise your PNQs.  Remember that you have complete control over your submitted Narratives.

I know that by discussing this publicly, there is a likelihood (albeit small) that other candidates will use this information to make their PNQs more competitive than they might otherwise be.  Perhaps they will be even better then mine and lessen the chance that I have in subsequent years.  But I also know that not everyone is as methodical as I might be, and there are plenty of applicants who rush to submit their PNQs without really thinking about what BEX is looking for.  That is their loss.  As such, this article is not for them, and they will probably never see it.  That is why I am comfortable posting it openly in this manner.

By contrast, anyone who reads this is free to interpret Step 4 differently than I do.  I do not claim any special revelation or insight about this process.  I only know what seems to work for me.

For the record, I passed this year, and was invited to the FSOA.  I did not attempt the SCNL bonus points this time (as I did last year, and failed), which could have boosted my QEP score even further.  But topping out my QEP score is unimportant.  The score that ultimately matters will be the one attached to my name on the Register if and when I ever get there.

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FSOT 2010

Summer 2010. Back again for the FSOT as planned. Other than reading each issue of 'The Week', I did no real studying other than the routine basics and reviewing the essay scoring matrix from ACT.  My experience was very similar to last year:  JK section quickly completed and reviewed with about 15-20 minutes to spare.  The BIO again was close to the wire, but I completed it with about 3-5 minutes remaining.  EE was also close, with about 5 minutes left on the clock.  Unfortunately, the Essay was a topic with which I am quite familiar and have very real opinions, so the time frame was rather cramped.  I banged out an acceptable essay and submitted with mere seconds remaining.  Just for the record, I prefer having a topic about which I have little or no personal interest, as I can be persuasive without feeling the need to be Persuasive, if you get what I mean.

A few weeks later, I received notification that I had passed and should prepare my PNQs for submission by such-and-such a date.  I believe that some time after my testing window, ACT/BEX began including the FSOT section scores WITH the results letter, which is a very good thing, but I did not request them this time around.

Although it would have been interesting to find out my scores, I have been in this process for so long that passing the FSOT is no longer a source of stress for me.  The PNQ's however, were altogether different, as last year I was dropped at QEP.  Now I needed to decide how I was going to address those things in the hopes of getting better results!

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