The Oral Assessment: Time for Talking

So, you’ve shown you’re plenty smart and then you proved what a great person you are… on paper. That’s fantastic, but now it’s time for the last big hurdle (that’s within your control), the Oral Assessment. Long story very short: this is the time to prove your credentials in person and showcase your interpersonal skills on the spot. Oh, I should probably mention it’s in Washington D.C. too. Hope you have some miles to use and/or live on the Eastern seaboard because guess who’s paying for that plane ticket! It’s you- you’re paying for that plane ticket.

Regardless of the cost of transit, you should feel proud. Very few applicants, under 5%, make it this far in the process and even fewer will pass this portion. Just to be upfront, know this: the day will start early, it will be long, and you will be tested. That all being said, you haven’t made it this far on a fluke. Go in confident and rested, work hard, and understand that even if you come up short, you’ve shown yourself to be an impressive individual.

Yeah ok, thanks for the kind words, but tell me about the actual assessment.

In my experience, the Oral Assessment did not take place at Foggy Bottom, but close enough. The building is classically D.C. nondescript and when you show up real bright, and real early (6:45 a.m.), you’ll probably ask yourself if you’re in the right place. Look around for other lost looking, professionally dressed people; they’re probably with you. Once you’re all upstairs, you’ll fill out some forms, sit around making small talk, and stare at photos of former Secretaries of State until someone comes out and explains the process.

The day will break down into three exercises: a team exercise, an interview, and a solo exercise. On each of the three pieces, you will be graded on a 1-7 scale with 1 being, “Why are you even here?” and 7 being, “No one gets 7’s, don’t think you’ll get a 7.” After you’ve completed all three pieces of the assessment, your scores will be averaged and those with a 5.25 or higher will be placed on the registry (a list of those who have passed the assessment).

At my assessment, we began with the team exercise. This exercise measures your ability to take in and present a project proposal, evaluate spoken information, negotiate, and justify your actions. This exercise is observed by four State Department officials who will grade you, though not comment, as you go. You and your fellow applicants will sit around a table and each be given a short dossier on a made-up country including a couple pages on a proposed project the embassy could invest some or all of its limited funds into. You’ll first be asked to read the dossier, take down some notes, and objectively present the information on your project in a brief presentation to your fellow applicants. I stress the word objectively because if you begin to advocate while presenting, you will be docked significantly. Explain the project; don’t tell me why you think it’s good or bad. Following each presentation, there will be a few minutes for questions. Use this time wisely because regardless of which project is picked, you will be expected to know whose project was whose and the basic gist of those projects.

Once everyone has presented, you’ll begin the negotiation process to determine which projects are fully or partially funded until your resources are gone. Some projects are small enough where you could easily fund multiple in full, while others will take up the vast majority of the budget on their own. It’s up to you and your fellow applicants to determine which project(s) deserve funding and justify why in writing. Here’s a very important tip: you DO NOT win just because your project is funded. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “My project is not as important as yours and here is in why.” So long as you can rationally justify your action, that’s what matters. Finally, once you’ve submitted your proposal for funding, you will all be taken into separate rooms where the State officials will ask you about yours and everyone else’s projects, what your final decision was, and how you came to it as a group.

Next up is the actual interview with two State Department representatives. The interview is essentially any other job interview you’ve ever had where they’ll ask you questions about your leadership skills, overcoming adversity, strengths and weaknesses, etc. In short, they’re determining whether or not you are representative of the 13 Dimensions.

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Think of this time as an expansion of the experience listed in your Personal Narratives. Be honest, clear, and concise. Following the experiential questions, you’ll be given scenarios that build upon each other and asked what you would do in said situation. They don’t expect you to know official procedure, they just want to see how you act under pressure. What do you do, who do you inform, how would you go about doing whatever, and so on.

A quick warning, if you’re like me and have an inclination for reading body language, don’t expect to get much use out of it. The officials interviewing you have been ordered and trained to give no indication of whether or not you’re doing well. They will ask the question as even-toned as they are able and then stone-face you the entire time. You may be killing it, but you can never know for sure. That being said, don’t let it rattle you as is often the case in the interview portion. Trust that you’re doing well, be professional, and if you can, have a little fun with it.

Artist’s rendition of the interviewers.

Artist’s rendition of the interviewers.

Finally, we’re on to our third and final exercise: the solo exercise. You will be asked to demonstrate your ability to absorb a wide array of information, digest the most important parts, and create a brief recommendation while under deadline (about 90 minutes). At the beginning of the exercise you will be placed in front of a computer with a large dossier of information. The dossier will begin with an email from your Ambassador asking you make a recommendation based on the information present. The information itself may include emails, spreadsheets, budgets, news articles, and more. The career track cone that the dossier is relevant to changes every time, so you may be asked to recommend action on an area with which you are less familiar but need to know all the same. I recommend reading quickly and taking brief notes so that you have the maximum amount of time to formulate and edit your recommendation. Time moves quickly so keep an eye on the clock.

With that, you’re done! You’ll find yourself back in the waiting area while you score is compiled and the manila envelopes are filled with information. Once everyone has finished, you will be called back one at a time to be told then and there if you surpassed the 5.25 threshold or not. If you do, you will be led to another room where you will begin security clearance paperwork. If you do not, you will be led out a backdoor (so the other candidates won’t know whether or not you passed) and told thank you for trying. Simply passing does not guarantee you will be called up to the Foreign Service Institute, but it does mean you are eligible and qualified. Should you find yourself having passed, but unhappy with your score, you are allowed to try again the next year as candidates may remain on the registry for two years. Basically, don’t quit your day job just yet.

If the length of this blog post has conveyed anything, I hope it is this: that the oral assessment is long and difficult, but an incredible experience few ever have. Do not let the professional nature of it all psyche you out and go in knowing that you would not be there in the first place if they did not believe you have the potential to be a Foreign Service Officer.

Now that you have all the pieces of this long puzzle, head on over to State’s website and register to begin your journey towards being a Foreign Service Officer!  

For more information on the Oral Assessment, check out the Foreign Service Officer Oral Assessment Information Guide.