Saturday, November 5, 2011

OA Debrief

Now that I've had a full day to absorb the awesomeness of passing the OA (and the glorious knowledge that I never have to take it again) I am ready to start passing on my vast stores of knowledge.

I took the test Thursday with 9 other people. Only 2 of us passed, I think. (The assessors were kind of cryptic, so there may have been a couple other passers who left early, but it's hard to say.)

Since this was my second time around I was less charmingly enthusiastic. I didn't arrive 1/2 an hour early. I didn't pack an extra copy of every single document they requested, I didn't even do much studying. The only prep I did this time was to have a former FSO mentor talk to me about the test and grill me for a couple of hours.

The group exercise was both better and worse than the last time I took it. They threw us all for a loop by changing up the content of the test. There was still a presentation phase, followed by a negotiation phase, but the stuff we were presenting was totally different than what I expected and practiced with. Several members of the group were so thrown by this that their presentations really suffered. I said a prayer and just dove in and I think my presentation was one of the best. I also did much better at the negotiation than last time. I spoke up quite a few times, helped organize the group, and made some substantive observations - rather than just saying 'I agree'. That said, I was still a bit too timid, probably spoke quickly and softly (as is my habit), and made a judgment error when advocating for my project. I thought I had passed that section, but in fact I didn't. (I'll have to wait for the FOIA request to come back to find out how close I was.)

The structured interview was next. I had prepared several of the questions they asked, but otherwise my answers were all a bit rusty. I thought I did worse than last time, but not significantly so. This is the section where the mentor helped me really refine my performance. He grilled me on short and substantive answers and broke me of the habit of starting every response with "So, ..." They definitely played good cop, bad cop this time and I felt like I impressed them by remaining composed and warm despite being challenged on my responses. I ended up passing this section again.

Finally, I had case management. This section killed me last time, so I was a bit nervous. However, I had also spent an entire summer writing for State, in addition to attending writing workshops put on for fellows and reading a series of articles from State magazine about diplomatic writing style that were particularly useful. I figure that if there was a way to prepare for Case Management that was it. (Although no one I know who has taken the test in the past 10 years seems to have passed that part, so mostly I was just trying to not fail as badly as before.) I had a minor moment of panic 3/4 of the way through when, due to my total inability to tell time using normal clocks, I thought I had 2 minutes when in fact I had 32 minutes left. Happily, this helped me work really, really fast for two minutes and get a lot accomplished, though I think it also took a couple of years off my life. I ended up passing this section, much to my surprise.

We all went for a walk to the American Indian Museum to blow off some steam while we awaited our results. Then we returned for the very awkward period of sitting in the case management room while one by one we were called out. We waited forever until only me and one more test-taker were left. They called me out and took me to one of the rooms where several testers were waiting. They brought in the other remaining test-taker and herded us into the corner and I knew we were either going to pass or this was the cruelest fail-speech ever. The first words they said were congratulations and I honestly forget the rest. There were handshakes all around and then we sat down to hear the whole speech about language points and medical tests and whatnot. It was really sweet to see how happy the testers were for us. They all stuck around just to watch us hear the good news.

In the next few days I'll publish me detailed scores from the first test, just for comparison. I held off on doing that before - and on giving my faithful readers a heads-up that I was testing this week - because I was too stressed about passing. But now I'd love to share what I can if it will help someone else.

Over Christmas break I will hopefully have enough time to also upload some of the writing tips from the State magazine articles and the writing workshops for fellows. Til then, I'm off to go celebrate a bit and continue telling random strangers on the metro that I'm going to be a diplomat.

Best day ever.

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