Friday, January 06, 2012

So You've Been Invited To The OMS Oral Assessment?

Huge disclaimer:
The Oral Assessment (OA) is covered by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), and anyone taking it must sign this agreement swearing they will not divulge the contents of the assessment. Therefore, I would like to offer the following NDA-compliant advice to hopeful OMSes out there. I understand invitations to the OA are going out currently, and a few of you have written to ask how they can best prepare. I would like to help out, and here is the best advice I can think of without spilling the beans.

Also, I took the OA over a year ago and they may have completely changed the structure and the requirements since then, in which case this posting may be purely for entertainment purposes.

My background:
I took the OMS OA in 2010 and the FSO OA in 2011 and passed both. I also have been obsessively reading and preparing for this subject and this life since 2009, therefore if this seems a bit excessive - you're probably right! People pass all the time without such structured preparation, and over-zealous people like me fail all the time, too. Go figure. But if this method helps one or two future OMSes, than I will feel satisfied.
Here's the best I can think of:

Writing exercise: 
You don't know what kind of exercise you'll be given, so I have two ways to prepare and both helped me feel confident. First, be aware of the ACT style of 5-paragraph essay in case you need to show an "opinion piece." Meaning, "Some people believe that the Electoral College is the hallmark of democracy, whereas others believe it has outlived its usefulness. What is your opinion and do you feel that the US should continue to use the Electoral College..." blah blah blah. Know how to structure your opinion in a clear, organized and convincing manner. The 5-paragraph structure really helps, even if you think, "the Electoral what?" when you see the question on the page. I would Google this method; I imagine there are lots of how-to's out there as this is what kids in high school have to learn for their SAT, ACT and AP tests. Write timed essays so that you develop your own method of organizing your thoughts under pressure.
Second, go to the Yahoo group for the FSO OA and look in their Files section for the CM portion of their exam. I think that's what it's called, Case Management. I could be wrong on that, but either way, the FSO OA asks applicants to write up a case management essay on how to solve a presented problem. You can see lots of good examples of the problem posed, and then various people's solution essays. I found these very helpful, and particularly mimicked Traveler's style. You'll notice right away that his essays are the best (IMHO). I used this method during the FSO OA, too, and I thought that I would for sure fail that section, but I didn't. It's all about having a practiced method that works for YOU to organize your thoughts in a timed exam.
Third, whatever question they pose to you: (pardon the caps here) MAKE SURE YOU FULLY ANSWER THE QUESTION! Don't beat around the bush, go right out and state your answer: Do you like to eat crab? "Yes, I like to eat crab because 1, 2, 3." Not, "Seafood is a wonderfully healthy way to eat..." See what I mean? Many people, surprisingly, don't fully answer the question.
Grammar and Proofreading:
Know common pitfalls and errors. Read books like, "Woe is I," Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" and any of the dozens of manuals of correct grammar, punctuation and spelling. Start being annoyed when your coworkers put apostrophe's where they don't belong (did you catch that?).  Google online proofreading websites that offer free tests. I don't remember their names, but I found them easily and worked through all their exercises.
Structured Interview:
This is where truly knowing the 12 Dimensions comes in. Here is what I found invaluable: On a piece of paper, cut out the description of the dimension and paste it on top. Brainstorm three examples of things in your life, from any/all of your jobs, to your volunteering to your travels - everything! Pick three examples that BEST fulfill the exact description of that dimension. Write them in order of best to weakest and write them in the STAR format:
Situation (in ONE sentence, set the scene, "I was an ice cream salesperson on the beach in Miami...");
Task ("...when I found that I had way too many Dreamsicles that nobody was buying,"); Action ("I knew I had to market the Dreamsicles better and so I..."),
Result (" the end of my shift, my quick-thinking saved my business and I had sold all the Dreamsicles.") Write down each story in that format so that you can tell the whole story without meandering or forgetting important, concrete actions. Practice these out loud in front of a mirror, in front of friends, in front of anyone who will listen so that you're comfortable hearing yourself, you're using active vocabulary and you're truly giving an example of something you've done that shows why you will be a successful OMS. Be concise! They can and might interrupt you!
This is the State Dept. You will be representing the USG if you get hired. Show the respect the position deserves and dress very nicely, conservatively and professionally. Choosing between the hot red jacket and blouse that shows a bit of cleavage and looks great on you, or the tailored dark blue that says, "Hilary would wear this"? Do you have to ask which one is best? I have to say that there was a young woman who flew thousands of miles for her OMS OA and arrived in a skirt that needed a safety pin to hold it closed (it was visible); scuffed heels with mud on them; her hair pulled back in a rubber band as if she were going running; and an ill-fitting jacket. I just didn't understand why she would do that. She didn't pass. Men, it's not Dockers and a nice shirt time - go for the suit and tie.
Bring a water bottle; bring a snack that will keep you going; spray your hair so you don't have to mess with it, and don't wear come-hither spike-heeled shoes. (That's for your congrats party afterwards!) Bring all requested paperwork completely filled out and anything else they ask you to bring. Half of this task is following directions. That's about it!
I wish you all luck on this long road. It's a fun life and there are some really amazing coworkers waiting to meet you if you're successful.
Let us know what happens!


  1. Happy New Year Caitlin!
    Thank you so much for the wealth of information and advice you've shared with us through your blog.
    It's amazing that what appears to be common sense-- isn't, when it comes to interviewing for new jobs.
    I can only hope that one day, I too, will be blogging about my OMS experience.
    Thank you again! :)

  2. I used this post as my overall study plan and just passed my OA in SanFran on Monday. Thanks so much for putting it together - the prep described here made all the difference.

  3. Congratulations John! I'm so glad that this was helpful to you. Please let me/us know if there was anything else you could recommend (NDA-compliant, of course), or something I've suggested that is now outdated. Good luck with the next steps - the hard work is (temporarily) over!

  4. Caitlin - A year later and we still recommend this over in the Yahoo group. Would you consider changing the font color to black so it's easier to read? It's still referenced MUCH.


  5. Thank you LGW for the nice compliment and also for letting me know that the darn formatting was in white! My goodness, I never noticed that. The formatting on Blogger can be, errr... testy sometimes. I certainly never meant to write this in invisible ink and don't know what made it do that. I hope it stays dark now!