Monday, June 20, 2011

My Interview

There were two rooms for interviews, each with three judges in each room sitting on the panel. Both of the panels had one or two former ambassadors while the rest were from academia or non-profit work. For those of us who were lucky enough to be in the first session of interviews, we had no idea what to expect (we didn't have bloggers for insider's info on this). The interviews were 25 minutes, with five minutes or so in between interviews. We were all just talking and waiting in the lobby for our turn. Afterward stepping out of the room, some were confident and at peace, but others were nervous and sullen.
I was obsessively nervous about the interview during the weeks leading up to it. I picked up reading new books during heavy school courseloads, scheduled practice sessions with my professors, and read the news from top to bottom every day. Once I got there, I was not as nervous as I thought I would be. Mostly because after meeting the rest of my Pickering finalists, I didn't think I stood much of a chance. I was sure this was just another competition where I only reached the finalist level, and I would be totally okay with that. I was so happy to have gotten this far, but did not expect to win amidst students who had extensive travel and more extensive language learning. Thus, I walked into the interview without that biting nervousness I saw in other students. I was able to speak with ease, enthusiastically, but still casually because I did not feel that impending sense of pressure from everything that was at stake. I found out later I was not the only winner who felt this way walking into the interview. Thus: freak out as much as you like the weeks before the interview, but on the day of the interview, it's really all done and out of your hands because you walk in emanating who you are and that's what they're really after.
I was introduced by one of the members of the panel to the rest of the members and sat down in the middle of the room. The panel was much friendlier than I was expecting and the interview was not a brutal session of interrogation. It was very similar to a job interview (and I've had about a dozen of those) so I was not unfamiliar with the format. They all took notes and smiled attentively in all of the interviews as far as I heard. I was terrified, however, because someone on the panel closed their eyes for what seemed like forever during one of my questions. I suspected I was being long-winded and rushed to finish the question. I thought I had not gotten the spot for sure, but other Pickerings told me of some of the members of their panel doing interesting things, including shoving their glasses in their mouth. After the session, I was escorted out of the room, to continue onto the rest of the day as a Pickering finalist, meeting other finalists and reviewing the contract I was hoping but not expecting to soon sign.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Day of the Interview

I'm assuming this is the most critical point in the entire selection process. I arrived at the hotel room that night and met my roommate. She was the sweetest girl from UChicago and we became instant friends. I thought we would feel competitive or suspicious of each other, but we didn't. She confided in me later that she set up two or three alarms because you just never know. One of her friends had an experience where the roommate turned off her alarm so she was late to a similar interview. Very good advice, I thought.
I'm very glad I wore my nicest 2 piece black suit with a knee-length black pencil skirt. Some people also wore pin stripe suits, but most wore black. This definitely calls for a matching 2 piece business suit although one girl did wear a nice black dress with a suit top.
Meeting the other Pickering finalists that morning was intimidating to say the least. I was seriously wondering what I was doing there among Ivy League students and students who had acquired competitive experience all over the world. I transferred from a community college just the semester before and the only abroad experience I had was driving (or walking) over to Mexico because I live in a border town. All of my extracurricular and volunteer work was inside the States, and what I love about the Pickering is that I was still a competitive candidate. The Pickering Fellowship is very comprehensive in that they also look at not only what you've done but also your personal background. I didn't quite understand this at the time, and thought I was among the (if not the) least competitive candidates that just barely managed to make it on the finalist list and didn't stand a chance.
There were two interview sessions so I met only half of the finalists. A few were viewing the pre-interview speeches via Skype. The 20 finalists on my day were split into two groups which took turns going to the two sessions. One of the sessions had speakers about the contract, the clearances, and FSO work. Even some previous Pickering Fellows spoke with us. This is a great time to ask any questions about the process. The other session consisted of the interview schedule, and free time (to freak out, stress, and go crazy, of course) before and/or after the interview. For me, the interview session was first.
Take care what you do during the info session and your downtime. Another fellow told me about an incredibly competitive candidate (great school, amazing experience, multiple languages) who did not get the fellowship because he did not interact with other Fellows during this time. Apparently, he had simply listened to music on his headphones the whole time. I'm not sure if this is true or not, but I'm sure it makes sense that your time outside of the interview when you think no one is scrutinizing you is used to judge your character. The State Department is making a huge investment in you after all.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Finalist Notification, Written Exam

From this moment on, you only have to beat out 20 other finalists. 40 finalists for 20 spots. The letter scheduled my online written exam in a little over 2 weeks from when I received the email. The interview was scheduled to be a week after the written exam. The Fellowship Foundation paid for the hotel right outside of D.C. and reimbursed our travel to and from the site. Under all of this was the finalist acceptance form, where you agree to participate and it suddenly also seems a bit more real. :) For the students who are abroad during this, they will be taking the interview over Skype.

The time slot for the written exam was given on the letter. Mine was right in the middle of finals which made the process for nervously studying all the more fun. The written exams vary greatly from student to student. I was tested on a domestic issue, while others at the interview recounted their essay question was over the Middle East. Thus, I can safely conclude there is no real way to be able to study for this exam since there is no limit to what may be included. I received an email later to add the private testing company to my Skype. They gave me the log in information but it would only be active during my time slot. Many of the finalists reported some small problems in terms of timeouts with the timer on the screen counting down the hour, but most were resolved. There is NO SPELL CHECK available for the essay. The key is to work quickly and not spend too long on the outline. A timer on the top of the screen will count down the minutes and seconds of this epic hour of your life. I was told to finish mine outside of the browser because my timer stopped working (not uncommon). Afterward, everyone felt as if they did okay but were worried about the time they lost having technical difficulties. A few were actually given more time, or another essay, because of the technical nuances. I worried way too much about this. It's really a test over if you can express yourself coherently and quickly in writing, which is a critical skill for all Foreign Service Officers.

After this, the next event is counting down for the actual interview. In my opinion, it's easier to get to hotel from the airport via the D.C. Metro. Google ahead of hand to see if it is easier to walk to the hotel from the nearest metro station. Ronald Reagan airport has a Metro station and Dulles will be getting one soon. Taxis are also an option since you will get reimbursed, but you still have to pay it all up front and it may be a bit cumbersome because of traffic. You'll have to tell the taxi driver to make a receipt for you. Carry cash because not all taxis take cards. Make sure to keep all receipts and metro stubs!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

From Applicant to Finalist

Although I was notified that I was a winner on May 9th (only a week after the interviews), I'm going to start off describing the experience of being one of the 40 finalists. Even if you aren't selected as a winner, getting this far still speaks loads to your potential! There are typically between 600 to 1000 applicants for this program per year for 20 spots. One thing that they did not highlight on the official website is that the graduate schools which are eligible for funding are only the ones on the APSIA members list. This is not really an inconvenience since these are all schools most of us want to attend like Georgetown, GWU, Harvard, etc. During the interview, the staff disclosed that this would likely be opened up to other schools in coming years.

I submitted my application in early February. There was a problem with blank text boxes in the preview of the submitted application. If this happens to you, do not worry. It is likely to be your browser cache trying to mess with your sanity. Reload in another browser or clear the cache. I received a confirmation email that my items were received on March 1st. The email also informed finalists will need to have an electronic headshot of themselves, access to a Skype account, and a webcam. Mid March, all applicants received an email to send in a headshot and a Skype username. We were also told of the exact date of notification for finalists (April 9th for my selection year).

Late April 8th, I received a magical one sentence email notifying me of my status as a finalist! Attached to it was the award letter (a physical copy is on its way being mailed to you). Do not wait for the physical copy because it will likely not arrive in time for you to send it back before the deadline. The letter invited me to a written exam during finals week (of course...) and to an interview in Arlington, VA on May 6th.

Details on the fine print of the letter, the exam, and interview in subsequent posts. If you are reading this, I'm assuming you're likely a finalist yourself or will be soon. For more info on the Graduate program, there's a dedicated blog here. :) Congratulations!