FSOT Step 1: Not so Bad…

Ok, so maybe it’s a little too early to break out the Champagne. (Vienna photo for you, from the opera.) But man oh man I feel FANTASTIC. I had no idea how much this test had been weighing on me until I was done with it. I suppose it’s due to about two and a half years of composite stress that have built up since I first interned with the State Department. Should I take the test? Do I even want to join the Foreign Service? It’s an awful process; do I think I even have a chance at making it through? If not, why bother? All of these questions and more have been rolling around in my mind.

And now I’m FREEEEE!!!! The evilness and dread and unknown hath been vanquished, and it wasn’t so bad. I’d be fine taking it again. In fact, I think I’d do even better having gotten the initial angst out of the way and knowing what’s coming.

It has been a hard-won freedom, though. What a day it was indeed. I got up at 6:00, which is about an hour and half earlier than my current schedule, and was depressed to see the weather. More -10C. The whole train ride to Zagreb I tried to go over my flashcards, but I was mostly was distracted by the snow swirling into the train corridor. Checking the accumulation inside the windowsills was far more fascinating then reviewing basic economics terms and U.S. history one more time. Alexander Hamilton and consumer surplus could not compete with the indoor weather. Moreover, my poor feet were frozen solid the whole ride. The weak heating failed to make its way into my shoes, which had been thoroughly chilled by my wait on the railway platform. It wasn’t until I made it into Zagreb and found a well-heated underground shopping center that my feet regained feeling.

I didn’t have much time to kill before I went to the U.S. Embassy for my 13:00 appointment. My train had been late, threatening to make the whole lot of us waiting on the cold windy platform turn into popsicles, but at least I didn’t need to figure out what to do with myself. I briefly considered plunking down in a cafe, but I turned around as soon as I opened the door. I forgot that smoking still hasn’t been restricted in Croatia, and I nearly fell over as I was hit with the smell. Instead of waiting somewhere, I decided to be on the early side to the embassy.

Upon finding my bus and I let out a prayer. Taking public transportation in a foreign country in which you don’t speak much or any of the language always has an extra level of thrill. Normally I like some thrill, but I didn’t want thrill right at this moment in my life. I wanted assurance that I would be at the U.S. Embassy in time to take my test.

The bus drove farther and farther out of the center of town. I had already been warned by my Croatian friend that the U.S. Embassy was reportedly “in the middle of cornfields.” It used to be downtown in a lovely historical building, but when they needed a larger space I guess they built on the cheapest hunk of land they could find. Yep, the U.S. taxpayer has been served, and the French now call our old place home.

We kept driving. I grew worried. Surely it couldn’t be this far out, right? No way. I am very surprised when my stop comes up, and I walk to the front of the bus. “Ambasada?” I ask. All I see are white fields and a few commercial buildings. “Ja, ja!” He gestures across the street. I get out.

It actually wasn’t too hard to find. I didn’t exactly have too many choices- like I said, there wasn’t much to choose from. The one with a large fence next to a barren snow-covered cornfield proved the be a winner. The extra security is always a dead give away.

I met my fellow test-takers while going through security. There was a young English and dance teacher from Sarajevo, a grad student from Budapest, a business guy from Split, an international lawyer from Vienna, a guy from Zagreb who I never found out what he does, and a wife of a current FSO, all of us Americans currently living abroad.

We got to know each other very well over the four hours in which the computers were not working. The first time we sat down to take the test, the technical difficulties were a surprise. The next two times nobody was shocked. Each time, something else went wrong. There was a good two hours in which we hung out in the small in-building cafe, shooting the breeze and drinking coffee and watching the snow come down.

I think the far greater surprise was when we were actually able to take the test.

Needless to say, we were all stressed out of our minds, and if none of us pass we’re all going to blame it on the excess trauma of waiting so long. We were all primed at 13:00, but four hours later we were already psychologically fatigued. (Next time I do this: ACT center in the States.) The poor Embassy staff apologized to us for the whole thing, and kindly drove us back wherever we needed to go.

I met my friend from Croatia for coffee before catching my train. I was so relieved and exhausted that I lost track of time. For the first time in my life, I missed my train. There were no more trains or buses until 6:00 the next morning, so I spent a delightful night in a youth hostel. I assure you, I have never slept better.

So, how was the test? As I said at the beginning, not bad. The “job knowledge” i.e. random trivia section wasn’t too evil. There was one question which I feel really good about getting, and one that I feel like a fool for missing. Thankfully, because of the non-disclosure agreement, I will never be forced to admit what basic piece of knowledge screwed up on…Let’s just say I thought the answer was so obvious that it had to be a trick question. It was not a trick question. Almost everything else I knew, or was able to make an educated guess on. There were only a few that I outright guessed on. The biographical section was actually harder than I thought it would be. In the future I think I’d prepare for this one a bit more.

The last two sections were English grammar and usage, and the timed essay. I’m extremely confident that I rocked both of these parts. My only fear is that my poor spelling will come back to bite me in the tush for the essay. We’ll see, if I don’t do as well as I think i did, I’ll probably go through the bother of applying for disability accommodations next go around.

Now five more weeks, and I’ll have the results. Then if I pass, (likely,) I have the QEP, or Qualified Examination Panel. This means I’ll write a lot of little mini-essays about how qualified I am. This part I may or may not do well on. If I do pass, I’ll be invited to DC for the Oral examination, which is very hard to pass. For example, my old supervisor passed the written and QEP parts three times before she survived the Oral. To add to the difficulty, hiring is slowing down to a trickle.

Regardless, I am very happy. I’ve done the written section of the FSOT once, and I know I can do it again. Next time I’ll be far more relaxed and prepared. I just wish I had just taken it for funsies while in college. (It’s free, you know.) By putting it off for so long, I had built up the FSOT into something far more scary and monstrous in my head then it actually is.

Life lesson learned.