Holy cow that language test was, episode 2

Short version: holy cow that Chinese test was hard, but I passed at a level high enough to get all the boost points.

Long version: after driving from Michigan to Arlington the day before (note to self, don’t EVER do that again) and staying in a hotel, I arrived at the FSI two hours before my test (when an over-achieving, type-A personality gets nervous, things like this can happen).

Checked in with security, got my Visitor badge, was was set loose on the grounds of the training center. I had been there once before about ten years ago for an academic thing, but this time I got to wander around and check the place out. “Impressive” is the best word to describe the facility. Nice campus, new-ish buildings, good classroom facilities.

I sat in the cafeteria and did some last-minute studying, and also eavesdropped on some of the people around me. A lot of the people there look professional and all, but so many of them looked so young to me. If I get in to the Foreign Service, I guess that I will have to get used to being the old guy in the group (I’m 47).

Due to NDA restrictions, I can’t say much about the test itself, but I can say that I was not surprised by the format or the process of the test. What did surprise me was the level of the language. I expected it to be hard, but I didn’t expect it to be hard right at the start. There was a bit of an easing into it, but it escalated very quickly. I felt comfortable enough during the speaking and listing section. The reading was very challenging, though. Lucky for me, I could choose between simplified and traditional characters for the test. I’m MUCH more familiar with traditional characters, so not having to deal with simplified characters made the reading less hard.

The testers were pleasant and professional, and I was pleasantly surprised that I got my score right away, after a short wait that lasted about 20 minutes but felt like 2 hours.

I needed/wanted to score at least 3 in speaking and 2 in reading. I scored 3 across the board, which will give me the maximum boost points, and will greatly increase my chances of getting The Call. The staff said that the scores are sent in every Monday. Probably too late to make this round of offers, but miracles happen, right? Right?!

As I was checking out, an administrative staff member mentioned that I was the “first” person to take the in-person test since the implementation of the new boost point rule. I don’t know if that was true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if many people are intimidated by the risk of losing the telephone points if they don’t perform high enough on the in-person test. My OA score was low enough at 5.4 that I really needed the boost if I wanted to get The Call, so it made sense for me to take Mark Twain’s advice: put all your eggs in one basket, then guard that basket!

Driving to Washington DC is long, but not bad

Drove to DC from Michigan yesterday. Google Maps estimated nine hours, but it didn’t account for traffic. Total driving time was 10.5 hours.

The Turnpike system is really nice. The tolls were steep, about $30 total from three different legs of the trip, but the drive was easy once I got out of the cities. The mountains of eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania are beautiful. There was some light rain, and the grey from the sky was a striking combination when mixed with the lush green of the mountains.

As I expected it to be, the weather in northern Virginia in late June is hot and humid. I will be running from one air-conditioned room to another.

I will take the language test at the Foreign Service Institute in a few hours. I’m not as nervous about it as I was going in to the Oral Assessment in February. The stakes are high, though. I need the language bonus points.

Good thing I asked

I have been frantically preparing for my Chinese test on June 28th. The test lasts two hours, and consists of a speaking-listening portion, and a reading exercise. The speaking part should not be difficult for me. I do a lot of speaking in Chinese regularly. The reading worries me a little.

Not only is Chinese a difficult language to read (even for Chinese people), but there are two different ways to write characters. The government on the Mainland simplified the characters to make them easier to write, but in Taiwan, they kept using the traditional characters. I have never hid my preference for traditional characters. Not only are they better looking, but they preserve more of the logographic origins of the characters, and in my opinion, they are less abstract than simplified characters.

Take the character for “book,” for example. The simplified form is 书, and the traditional form is 書. If you know something about the etymology of Chinese characters, you might see the components of the traditional form. On the top, there is a brush (the traditional Chinese writing instrument), which is written like this: 筆 and the bottom portion is the character for spoken words (the things that the brush is writing): 曰. A brush writing words = a book. Not 100% concrete, but not 100% abstract, either. But in the simplified form, the clues about the meaning of the character are stripped away. In 书 you can’t see a brush or the spoken word. There can be no argument that the simplified form is easier to write. Even someone who doesn’t know any Chinese can see that there are fewer lines to write in the simplified form. But is it easier to read? I could make the case that it is more abstract, and thus harder to read, than the traditional form.

So I have a preference for traditional characters. But the US government’s interests in China outweigh those in Taiwan. In all likelihood, if my Foreign Service career requires Chinese language skills, I will be required to be able to read and write simplified characters. Despite my preference for traditional characters, simplified characters seem to be in my future.

In preparing for the test, I’ve been familiarizing myself with simplified characters, assuming that they will be the written form on the test. But then I heard a rumor on the message boards that you get to choose which form you want to be tested on. So I wrote to the Foreign Service Institute and asked about the format of the written test. To my delight, I was told that I could choose between traditional and simplified characters!

It might seem strange to prefer the “harder” form of characters. But since I have focused on traditional characters for the entirety of my Chinese learning experience (over 25 years and counting), it’s a relief to know that I can rely on something more familiar to me for the test.

Now “all” that I have to do is do well on the test.

Wish me luck!



When it rains, it pours.

After today’s phone call with news that I was granted a security clearance, in today’s mail was an official letter from the State Department that I have been added to the Registry. That means that in just a few days, I passed through the Final Suitability Review.

WIth my bonus points from the telephone Chinese test, my score puts me somewhere in the middle of the list. In order to have a realistic chance of receiving an official offer, I need to boost my score higher. The only ways to get bonus points are to be a veteran or to get additional language points. Since I am not a veteran, I will be traveling to Washington, D.C. and taking a two-hour reading, speaking and listening test at the Foreign Service Training Center. I hope to do that some time in June.

Woot woot! says the happy man! I’m on the Registry!!



Big step forward

My security clearance was granted on May 29. This was the step that required the 7-hour interview with an investigator, a “plethora” of investigators digging into my past, and “adjudication” to evaluate the information that the investigators uncovered. The clearance means that I can be granted a top-secret security clearance, which is an essential prerequisite to being a Foreign Service Officer.

There is still another step before I can be put onto the register: the Final Suitability Review. In this step, yet another panel looks at all my information, and answers the question: is this person suitable for the Foreign Service? That step can take hours or months.

As with every step in the process, my candidacy could end at this stage. A possibility is that the panel decides that I am not suitable. I read one candidate’s report that he applied three times (which means he went through the whole process of the written test, oral assessment, and security clearance three times), only to be denied at the suitability review stage each time. After the third denial, he finally decided to give up his dream and move on.

You have to really want it. Or be really lucky. I think the latter applies to me. So far.

Stay tuned…