So you want to pass the Foreign Service Written Exam?

I’ve written about every other topic, so I guess it was high time for one of these. How did I pass the written exam? Well the first time I took the test, I didn’t pass. I failed miserably. So, don’t lose hope! There is always hope, and a little strategy. I am still not allowed to disclose information about my exam, but I can tell you what worked for me in preparing for the exam.

Step 1: Don’t wing it. Take the time to know how each part of the exam works, what is being tested, and what you need to focus on. You are only doing yourself a disservice by not preparing, especially since you can only take it once a year.

Step 2: ???

Step 3: Profit.

See, it’s easy! Alright, fine I’ll go back a few steps.

2. Do you know your resume like the back of your hand? No? Well, you are going to need to for each step along the Foreign Service Mt. Everest job climb. I highly suggest making a spreadsheet. (Please note that as a management officer, I feel like I am 100% compelled to say that for everything.) At the top, list out every job you’ve ever had, college, internships, volunteer work, or otherwise blank periods of your life that you did something. Now on the leftmost column list out all the 13 dimensions. Now start filling in the blanks. What did you do as a lifeguard in high school that demonstrated composure or judgement? Just do bullet points, think of short examples you can pull from.

This will help you in the personal experience section, the PNQs, and prepping for the Oral Assessment. Plus it is a nice self esteem boost.

3. For the “you need to know a little bit about everything under the sun” section, the only thing I can recommend is brushing up on your US history. I read the mental floss guide to US history, which was entertaining and informative. Knowing a thing or two about international organizations, treaties, and general management principles helps too. And when it doubt, it is multiple choice so go with your gut.

4. The essay portion should be treated with utmost love and affection. And by that I mean, stick to the 5 paragraph basic, simple essay. You’ve got one paragraph to start with your opening line and your thesis statement. You’ve got three paragraphs to make your points. And you get one paragraph to wrap it up. Stick to the high school/college essay format that you used for the ACT or SAT. That’s really all you need to do – stick to the format. And practice. Set a timer, get a topic, and go. Above all else doing a couple practice runs will help you with time management.

5. For the section about your personal experience, have bulleted examples ready for any number of questions. You shouldn’t waste time thinking and using all 200 some odd characters. It should come quickly since you made a list of all the awesome things you’ve done in your life. Don’t write out long sentences detailing what you did, just throw some concise bullets down. Just prove you did what you said you did.

6. English. I don’t think you realize how hard this section was for me. Well, if you have read my blog for a while, you will see that my command of the English language is, ummm, lacking. Well, maybe not lacking, but less than perfect. My grammar is right real Oklahoman. And it gets worse by the day thanks to German and Arabic telling me to do all sorts of things with my sentences. For a month straight, I did practice ACT English tests to prepare for this section. It’s probably better to just read up on English grammar from a ACT like prep test book. I do recommend doing a few practice exams though (look around online for some English section only tests) just to see what you should brush up on. For me, that was everything. This is the one section you can theoretically truly study for.

7. Don’t fret if you don’t pass the first time; it makes you all the more determined to succeed the next year.

Lastly, I get asked quite often about timing and the test with Peace Corps. If you are currently serving, take it during your first year. If nothing else, you can defer for Peace Corps service (at least on the register). Plus, if you take it in your first year then you can always test again. But figure out the timing, work backwards from your likely COS date. I COSed in November and knew that based on timing, the June test would allow me to take the Orals anytime until February. That way I wouldn’t have to fly back to the States for the Orals before my service was over. So, do the math backwards for your service.


Feel free to leave questions in the comments.


Don’t let it slip

I’m fast approaching a date that I don’t want to pass. I’m terrified of November 20th. I don’t want it to come.

I don’t want to say I ended my Peace Corps service over a year ago. I want to remain within my one year mark. I don’t know why, but I don’t want to tip over into that territory. I want to be still fresh off the plane. Three days isn’t going to make a difference, because that date is going to pass no matter what, but I feel it sometimes. I feel it slipping. I feel the connection to my service slipping from my hands. Somedays I come home and cry because I miss Peace Corps so bad. No I don’t miss the hardships or the heartbreak, but I miss the feeling. I miss feeling impactful. Arabic makes me feel selfish. Learning a language is selfish. I’m learning this for me, so I can converse with others. I’m not doing something that has a direct impact on others right now. I get that this whole mindset of wanting to be impactful is just as selfish, but entertain my line of thought. I miss feeling smart because I had all this time to think and better myself. I miss being loved by a community of strangers. I miss feeling like I was doing something. I was someone. I miss that feeling when lights have been off for hours and suddenly the lights are back on and everything seems amazing in the world, like I could do anything because suddenly I had electricity. I miss the intellectual conversations I would have from my porch with other Peace Corps Volunteers, locals, or sometimes the goats. I miss the look on a farmer’s face when I told them something that changed their minds. I miss the smile from my small girls when I would turn on Gangnam style and we would have a dance party in front of the ravine. I miss my fellow Volunteers and the stories we shared. I miss it all.

I enjoy Arabic, for the most part (except when I’m patronized and demoralized), but I can’t really measure it. I can’t describe its impact on me, not yet. I can’t see it smile at me from across the courtyard when I run out of my room because a mouse scurried under my bed. Arabic doesn’t care that I know all about cashew nut quality. Arabic doesn’t excite me like a fresh batch of farmer data ripe and ready for analysis.

We are always ready and looking forward to the next moment, stage, or period of our life. But sometimes, you have to look back and realize where you came from. As much as I miss Ghana, I know that I’m going to enjoy going to my fridge and making dinner in my government apartment though. But right now, I don’t want missing Ghana to end.

Fears and realignment

Someone is always better, smarter, prettier, more sophisticated, or more eloquent than me. That’s how the world simply works. When you work with a group of people who are recruited for their smarts, you start to realize everyone has their own strengths. I know that I can demolish a logistics problem, but can I tell the difference between tones? Nope. I don’t have short term language memory, but my pronunciation is half decent.
Language is a humbling experience and it is fun for a few weeks then it sucks again. It isn’t easy, that’s a given, but I’m struggling to determine if it is dependent on a specific set of variables. Does caffeine help or hurt my ability? Is a good day relative to my ability to remember that one word I just can never remember on the fly? Do I have shitty days when I judge my abilities in relation to my classmates? Or does that push me to be better? If I eat too many carbs does that impact my attention span? Is my interest level correlated to my perception of usefulness of the vocabulary? Or do I really only like the words that are related to my interests outside of language, such as Star Wars. What impact does my fear of inadequacy/rejection have on my attitude during the day? For god sakes someone get me some R^2 values!

Attitude really is half the battle. So starting this week I’m going to go back to basics. Back to my lessons and back to what matters. The lessons I learned during my time in Peace Corps. I used to read them daily and I need to start that again. Because no matter how difficult the day, it will never compare to having typhoid or hot season when the power was out and falling asleep into your own pool of sweat was uncomfortable to say the least. Learning a new language is grueling, don’t get me wrong, but it is also incredibly amazing. Some days I just need to check my attitude at the door and appreciate this grand journey.

Hashtag singleladyproblems

As my birthday creeps closer, a few thoughts have been dancing around my head. Mainly about how being a single woman deserves a tax break. Okay listen up married friends, remember when you got married all these random people showed up to this giant party you threw? Remember how they brought you presents and basically decked out your kitchen with cool shit? Have you ever tried to throw a dinner party without working knives or without a pan to cook your food in? Yeah, it doesn’t work out so well. So, while all of you married people are off being married and stuff, getting tax breaks for suffering with someone’s smelly bathroom habits and having two incomes, us single people have to buy our own kitchen crap. No, we don’t have to pay for little minions running around obsessing over Disney films and their eventual college tuition, but we, the single people, have to own a range of quality wines so that when people come over we can impress them with our knowledge of fermented grapes. We don’t have to pay for kids, but we have to host parties that last all night multiple times a month so as to keep our social cup full. And then, when you can’t get reservations to the fancy restaurant you want to go to for your birthday, you have to host a dinner party for yourself. Do you have any idea the burden it is to plan, cook, prepare, and decorate for your own birthday celebration? You spend more money cooking for yourself and a group of friends than you would just going out. Why? Because, anything less would be unacceptable. It’s either fancy restaurant or dinner party that will blow people’s minds. Being a single woman is tough, expensive, and somehow still socially unacceptable. There are no registries for “I’ve made it in the world” just for weddings and baby showers. But you know what we do have? Lots of fluffy sweaters from J.Crew, a shitton of throw pillows, and candles that smell like the South.

And the random nice skillet because your dinner party dictates the size of your skillet.


It’s all downhill from Monday

Since we are all really just an experiment at the Foreign Service Institute, I’ve been taking notes about my condition. I need more data points, but I have made some correlations that surely will be made into a lovely Excel chart at some point, all in an effort to avoid homework at all costs. The first thing I’ve discovered is my best day is typically Monday and it all goes downhill from there. But, working towards Friday is always uphill, so win win for me. The second thing I’ve discovered is my total and utter lack of patience for class past 10:11am. After 2.5 hours of class, I’m at my maximum saturation point and my brain turns to mush. Which luckily for me, the Egyptian word to negate things sounds a lot like mush, so I can just mutter that under my breath and pretend I’m really following along. I’ve also determined that I really enjoy learning languages, despite my attempts to derail class into a discussion on natural gas production in the US. I enjoy my time with my classmates, because we each have different strengths and we mesh together well. (I like m[]sh words now.) I know that when I’m struggling with something I can rely on my classmates to help me get where I need to be or to go off on a tangent and let my brain rest. I also immensely appreciate having a great friend who speaks Egyptian. That way I can have someone to correct my pronunciation and drill me on vocab when we are just out and about, also secret languages are fun. Also, she tells me I have good pronunciation and then I feel smug about my life.

Another discovery has been truly how vital work life balance is, also my English sucks now. Does that sentence even make grammatical sense? Eh, I don’t care. Either way, work life balance is not just a concept the Germans have down pat and Americans like to mock. Having a balance is good for the mind and the soul. I could study more, I know I should study more, because thanks societal and work pressure, but I don’t. Why? Because, I’ve found that excessive studying does not yield better results. In fact, it leads to worse results. My brain becomes fried and I’m practically useless the next day. I’m sure my brain is consuming some crazy amount of energy processing all this stuff all day, so when I come home and don’t let it reset, it overheats. Just like my laptop with a bad fan. I prefer to spend my time doing something completely unrelated to language learning, such as going to trivia or out to dinner, or dancing around my house to super loud country music, alone. And it’s awesome.

I’ve also found that by taking the occasional brain break, I’m able to come back to class or my homework and knock something out of the park. So now we come to the part of my post that I’ve really just been leading up to, because I want to boast, mainly because I’m shocked and excited, and hells yeah, why not? (“why not” is my favorite sassy thing to say in Arabic) So today, I wasn’t really feeling the first two hours of class, but then I started to feel a little bit like I was back on track. Then 10:11am hit me with a sleepy stick and I mentally checked out for 15 minutes. After the break, I met with my learning consultant and we had a one hour session where he will go over any exercise you feel like. For me, I need the most practice just talking, so he asks me random questions and we have a dialogue. I started talking about working for a natural gas company after college, which lead to a discussion on Qatar and natural gas rights. Which, frankly I couldn’t talk about before Area Studies because I had no idea there was anything to talk about. But, we sat there talking about maritime borders and natural gas fields in Arabic on a Monday freaking morning. And then we talked about the economy of Ghana and the primary exports, including politics between gold producing regions and national foreign relations interests. I blew my own mind with my seemingly out of nowhere ability to talk about these topics. But then I realized I was good at it because it was something new and interesting. I wasn’t talking about Oklahoma or food, but something different. And I loved it. So, I came home and did a 16 minute recording talking about Ghana’s primary exports, expanding more on different products. Off the cuff, just because. All in Arabic. We are just under 2 months in and this is where we are. I love my job. I have no complaints.

Life is awesome. And someone is paying me to do this. Inshallah y’all.

Things I Do Instead of Studying

Language learning is exhausting. But even worse than struggling to pay attention for a full 6 hours a day, is motivation. I have a hard time finding and keeping motivated in the evenings. I have lots of things I could do, but I still don’t know what works best for me. What makes it stick?! So, instead of studying, here are the things I do that I think seem productive, but really it is just me avoiding the inevitable:

1. Clean my house. Need your toilets scrubbed? Because I would rather do that than sit down and conjugate verbs.

2. Vacuum. The sweet dolcent tones of the vacuum cleaner are so soothing after listening to Arabic all day.

3. Translate English into Oklahoman. Because I don’t have enough languages in my brain already.

4. Blog. Avoidance level bravo.

5. Eat sour cream. Alright, I have an unhealthy relationship with sour cream. I sneak into my fridge, grab a spoon, and eat sour cream like it is ice cream. I just ate chips and salsa, so I could have an excuse to eat sour cream. So, basically, I just ate chips with sour cream and a wee bit of salsa.

6. Dance around my sunroom. Turn off the lights, blare the Taylor Swift, and shake it out. Nothing beats avoiding language like shaking your hips until they fall off or your neighbors complain.

7. Happy hours. That’s work right?

8. Watch the cleaners in the office building next to my apartment. They have these nifty little backpack vacuums that look super fun.

9. Shop on Amazon, but never buy anything. It’s the best of all worlds.

10. Read the FAM. The Foreign Affairs Manual, because it’s only creepy if I quote it.

11. Text people. Everyone needs to know every little thing I’m doing right?

12. Do yoga. Well sorta, and in bursts. And then I get bored and would rather stare at those vacuum backpacks.

13. Make lists.

Late night confessions of an ELO

It is currently 3:15 in the morning.  I’ve been a little stressed out with language and the lack of anything else in my life.  This stress is manifesting as a sleepless night.  So what’s a girl to do when she’s stressed out in the middle of the night? Read the Foreign Affairs Manual,  naturally.  It’s beautiful,  everything is laid out so nicely.  The structure is reassuring and comforting.  My Arabic class is missing some structure and clearly my nighttime wandering mind was looking for something soothing and pleasing to ease my stress. 
And it’s working,  nothing is more reassuring than knowing the FAM is always there.