Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How I passed the FSOA (Foreign Service Oral Assessment) - part 3

The final piece of my preparations involved getting mentally tuned into the OA.  My 'new' job had helped me develop my people, negotiation, and case management skills, but I needed to channel these skills and experiences into a format that was practical for the OA.

In the Yahoo! FSOA Group, there is a collection of practice exercises for each section of the OA.  I live in a somewhat remote location and the nearest other FS candidate (that I know of) is several hours away, so becoming involved in one of the Study Groups was impractical.  For the GE portion, I felt confident in my negotiation skills, and decided to focus primarily on presentation and timing.  To do this I downloaded and printed the sample GE Exercises, and using a timer, went through the entire package, one project at a time, working up and giving a presentation for each one.  Doing this repeatedly for multiple projects enabled me to get a good feel for the timeframes involved and to quickly pick out pertinent information.

For the CM section, I likewise was comfortable with my own case management skills, but needed to concentrate on the timeframes.  Similarly, I downloaded and printed several of the CM Exercises, and worked through each one with a timer.  To establish a baseline, I reviewed previously submitted samples after writing my own memo to compare and contrast with my own, examining the strengths and weaknesses of both.  I also connected with a fellow candidate (who was testing in the same window) and we exchanged and critiqued each others memos.  By comparing my own submission with those submitted by others I was able to easily see the strengths and weaknesses of each memo, including my own.  I reviewed the sample material and thought about how I might have done better.  By doing this I was felt confident in my ability to separate the essential and important nuggets of information from the filler material.

I believe that practicing in this way for the CM and GE gave me the extra edge I needed to pass.  Without it, I might have done alright, but I would have lacked focus.

In preparing for the SI, it is difficult to set a baseline for my own experience, so I spent a fair amount of time contemplating why I wanted to get into the FS.  My initial SOI (Statement of Interest) was stilted and impersonal, and some very good friends gave me some hard advice and I ended up rewriting it from scratch and going in a completely new direction with it.  I hated this, but am glad that they encouraged me to do so.  The final iteration really 'fit' and I was glad that I had put the blood, sweat, and tears into it.

I also spent time going through the 'practice questions' on the FSOA Group board until I had a collections of answers/stories for each question.  The 13-Ds were reviewed and I felt satisfied that I could answer questions on each dimension.

Lastly, I reviewed my notes taken as I worked through The EQ Edge (which I highly recommend each candidate consider doing) and reviewed the job descriptions of the career tracks to establish a point of reference for the hypotheticals.

Although it sounds as though I invested a great deal of time into the preparatory process, it generally was less than an hour a day for 3-4 weeks before my OA--probably 20 to 25 hours overall.  As I mentioned before, I may have done alright without it, but the focus and confidence was critical to my success, and well worth the effort!

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