Monday, October 3, 2011

Adventures In Foreign Service Testing.

So, this should be my last full-length article on the subject for some time to come, as the process of becoming a Foreign Service Officer takes many months, but I'd like to report on how the event I've been preparing for since here actually went. This version, also known as the long version of the story, is one where I don't think even my wife has all of the details. For those unfamiliar with my other posts on the subject, I have decided that what I really want to do in terms of long-term career goals is a position in public diplomacy with the United States Foreign Service. It may not be the immediate next job I take, but I plan to keep going after it until I am there or they make me stop applying. The hiring process takes 12-15 months, and the first step is a written exam. I've been studying for the test over the last month or so, and I went into this past weekend feeling woefully underprepared. I had trouble sleeping the night before, got up groggy, showered and dressed, made coffee and poured a bowl of Frankenberry cereal for breakfast.

The actual test room is a cross between something like this and a police interrogation room
straight out of Law and Order or The Wire.

I'd gotten my directions the night before, and the expected travel time was 37 minutes according to Google Maps. I mention this detail because it will shortly become important. I left at 8:00 AM for my 9:00 appointment for testing. Traffic was normal, but I started to feel nerves kicking in, muscles in my shoulders knitting themselves into intricate celtic knotwork patterns and I felt vaguely lightheaded. Despite no serious delays, I noticed that I had several turns left in my route at 8:35 AM. Twelve minutes later, I could at least see signs for the college where the test would be administered. My stomach was boiling with acid, Frankenberry suddenly seemed a very poor choice, and I realized that it wasn't clear at all where I could park. At 8:53, I overshot the turn for parking and started shrieking obscenities like an heiress on meth. Panic was overwhelming me, as every road had a concrete center divider and I couldn't turn around.

One marginally-legal U-turn later, I screeched into the parking lot that is about 1.5 blocks from the college at 8:56 AM. I grab everything and immediately break into a run, which is not a graceful or easy process for a man my size. I hoof it up stairs, across a walkway and past a desk where I wheeze out my name for a guard who tells me I need to go down the hall to the left and around. Amazingly, I enter the small room out of breath in the closing seconds of 8:59 where people ten years my junior are filling out paperwork. There is a guy standing at a desk while a distracted heavyset woman has her back to me, trying to work out something on a computer for him. She eventually turns around, apologizes to him for the wait, and seeing me for the first time, marks my arrival as 9:01. I protest weakly, but drop it, take my arrival paperwork and knock it out. I have to lock my phone in a little locker with a borrowed quarter and my stress level hasn't gone down, I'm officially late and still hyperventilating.

The prisonlike facility that is most definitely not 37 minutes from my house.
Damnit, Google Maps.

As the computers are set up for my testing, in polite conversation I realize everyone else taking the test in my group is a college kid who doesn't seem particularly serious about the process. Several computer glitches later, we're all seated at old-looking PCs in a room monitored by cameras and microphones, with a little whiteboard and a Staedtler Lumocolor marker (love those things for D&D battlemats) as our only aid. I wince as I see how slow the network moves and glimpse a flash of "Internet Explorer" as the test environment loads. The timed test will be accepting my answers and logging them at a speed slightly above dial-up internet from 1996. I'm answering multiple choice questions about politics, culture, economics, history, geography, management and basic computer skills, and I'm likely disturbing the college kids as my hyperventilation has turned into a deep, wet-sounding cough. The section goes by pretty quickly, and I have to guess in the spots I feared I'd have to, nail the questions I thought I would. I really need to read "Economics for Dummies" or something.

On to the next section with plenty of time. This one is one of those "rank from agree to disagree how you feel these statements apply to you." No problem. I got this. I have tons of relevant skills and experience and don't plan on being modest. I realize with horror that 2/3 of the questions will make me elaborate in 200 characters or less. My wide qualifications are backfiring as I'm running out of time. I type furiously as the time is running out, frequently running out of space and having to edit my responses, finishing with about 2 minutes to spare. Next up is the English Grammar section... here I get a breather. I'm good at these. The most annoying thing is that I am asked to correct sentences in a paragraph, then later read the whole sample for content and answer comprehension questions. Problem: my edits aren't featured in the sample, so I have to read it for content as written, errors and all. Still, no worries... I'm done coughing and finish with 17 minutes to spare. Foolishly, I don't take a break, I've been here over 2 hours already testing and watching the delay between clicking "Submit your answer" and the software updating the page. I really should have stretched my legs or something.

What I imagine the test center computers recently upgraded from. This,
or a series of Speak-n-Spells bound together with twine.

The essay. Oh, God. That damned essay. I went into this preparing to write a 5/5 structured argument and really blow them away. (5 paragraph, 5 sentence, with an introduction, Three points and a conclusion.) I see that I have 30 minutes and one prompt, and the prompt is a complex issue. I take it on head on, road less-traveled with a complex position and my structure in mind. I make notes on the dry-erase board and start typing. I re-word for clarity and get an awesome first sentence for my three points paragraphs and a great five sentence introduction structuring my argument with those points in mind. I write and edit my first two points, and glance up at the time left... 4 minutes. OHSHITOHSHITOHSHIT... The pressure is on, and I fear I may not actually finish, might blow the test right here. My third paragraph is weak, and only three sentences, but mostly coherent, and I have 1:39 left.. I type as fast as I can "In conclusion..." and follow with a messy sentence each restating my previous three paragraphs. With less than 20 seconds on the clock, no time to proofread, Dr. Jones... I hit submit and pray that the test accepts the undercooked essay before time runs out.

In retrospect, I don't know how well I did. I suspect if I bombed it, I either missed too many in the first section or my essay turned out as total crap. I'm still getting used to the idea of being able to read for pleasure or play video games without lingering guilt. I was so brain-burnt after the essay and the adrenaline leaving my system that when I got home, I wandered about aimlessly. Everything seemed too hard. I couldn't play games, surf the internet or read. I turned on the TV, flipped around, stopped briefly on "The Jersey Shore," realized I'd gone too far in the other direction and settled on "Women of Ninja Warrior" to let my overheated brain return to functional. I'm mostly better now. I'll get my scores in 5-7 weeks, and then I have to prepare for the next phase if I made it. Luckily, this part is simple pass/fail, with scores being meaningless. If I didn't make the cut... well, there's always next year.
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Jay said...

well, i hope everything went well....'ll find out the results in roughly 37 minutes. ;)

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