Weekly Special: ORAL ASSESSMENT. Dec 05-4
Commentary interspersed below represents only my own impressions and opinions and should not be confused with the official guidance and statements drawn from official DOS websites, such official language being shown by italics.
4. Oral Assessment
"The Foreign Service Oral Assessment is a day-long series of exercises that tests for the knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal qualities deemed essential to the performance of Foreign Service work. The Oral Assessment has been revised to include Management Case Studies, which reflects the growing importance the U.S. Department of State places on resource management and quantitative analysis." - U.S. Department of State website.
This is a change from the FSOA that I underwent a few years ago, which consisted essentially of a group role-playing exercise, a solo role-playing scenario and a reporting exercise (based upon the solo scenario). And some scenario questions.
The FSOA is stage two of the hiring process for prospective foreign service officers (FSO). The top 25-30 percent of those who took the Foreign Service Written Examination (FSWE) are skimmed-off and given a shot at the Oral Assessment. It's a distinction just to make it this far, especially when you consider that the self-selecting group of those who take the FSWE in the first place don't fall strictly in the middle of the Bell curve to begin with.
"Dear Candidates for the Foreign Service,
The Foreign Service Act of 1980 tasks the U.S. Department of State, and the Board of Examiners (BEX) specifically, with the responsibility for the evaluation and selection of candidates for the Foreign Service. The Department takes this charge seriously and has devoted significant resources to the development of a written examination and an oral assessment with the goal of providing all candidates, regardless of socioeconomic background, education or experience, an equal chance to demonstrate their potential to be a Foreign Service Officer. The Foreign Service Oral Assessment is designed to challenge candidates and give them the opportunity in three different settings (a group exercise, a structured interview, and a case management writing exercise) to demonstrate the thirteen dimensions that have been identified as being the qualities necessary to become a successful Foreign Service Officer. Thus, the validity and integrity of the assessment process as being a fair and accurate selection method for Foreign Service Officers is vital to the U.S. Department of State's mission and purpose.
To ensure no bias in favor of an candidate, BEX periodically revises its testing material. We also ask any candidates to sign a non-disclosure statement before beginning the assessment, and we have implemented other safeguards. Please note that divulging contents of the exam will lead to an invalid oral assessment score or denial of suitability for the Foreign Service.
I encourage you to approach the oral assessment drawing on your own merits, to show that you have the potential to serve as a Foreign Service Officer.
With best wishes for success,
Margaret M. Dean
Director, Board of Examiners for the Foreign Service"
- SAMPLE LETTER, U.S. Department of State website.
One thing I admire about the Service is its genuine determination to cast as wide a net as possible in terms of recruiting talent. I'll admit to some surprise when, early in Colin Powell's tenure as SecState, I saw full-page advertisements for the FSWE in The Army Times and similar publications. I think that was a change, but not in a totally startling direction. The days when all FSOs had double-barrelled names like Thurston Howell III, prepped in New England and attended only the Ivy League began to come to a close after WW2, I think. While you can still encounter the occasional "prep" who comes from old East Coast Establishment and a family tradition of public service, they're not really representative of the U.S. diplomatic corps as a whole, although much of State's corporate culture derives from those bygone days.
Oral Assessment Summary
"Candidates who pass the 2005 Foreign Service Written Examination and the written essay are invited to participate in the Oral Assessment, a series of exercises that constitutes the next stage of their candidacy. For the Oral Assessment testing cycle beginning in late August 2005, and continuing into Spring or Summer 2006, we plan to assess in Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago, as well as in Washington, D.C.
Personally, I've only ever (twice) taken the Oral Assessment and both times were in Washington, D.C. It's my understanding that the BEX puts together an "away team" of sorts and sets up the entire Oral Assessment process at a location in each of the major cities cited. This obviously allows for participation in the Assessment by candidates who might find it inconvenient, to say the least, to travel all the way to D.C. on their own budgets.
Candidates must report to their assigned Assessment Center at 7:00 a.m. on their scheduled day. The assessment may end as late as 6:00 p.m. for successful candidates. The letter or email message that advised candidates that they had passed the Foreign Service Written Exam also advised candidates what documents they need to bring to the Assessment Center. This list of documents can be downloaded at RESOURCES LINK. In addition to the listed documents, candidates are also asked to bring the Social Security numbers of family members who might be traveling with them overseas. This will help the medical clearance process. Provisions for candidates with disabilities will be made available at each Assessment Center but must be arranged with the U.S. Department of State's Board of Examiners in advance.
One of the ways the accession process for new FSOs has been streamlined and rationalized was the identification of a 'critical path' in the process and the institution of some parallel processing rather than the strictly linear process that previously existed. Successful Oral Assessment candidates already have most or all of their, for instance, security clearance paperwork prepared and, it's my understanding, meet with a DS representative following the FSOA who goes over the forms with them to ensure completeness, &tc. This way, security clearance investigations and other time-consuming administrative tasks can begin at the earliest possible time, rather than at some later point when the candidate receives and completes various forms or as a one-by-one succession of paper drills.
The Oral Assessment is an examination, not a job interview, for selection as an entry level Foreign Service Officer, that is, a member of America's Diplomatic Corps. Oral Assessment exercises are based on a job analysis of the work of the Foreign Service and reflect the skills, abilities, and personal qualities deemed essential to the performance of that work. The oral assessment measures the following dimensions:
Legend has it that occasionally a candidate will not only assume that the FSOA is essentially a job interview, but come prepared (with luggage) to leave right then and there to begin their FS career. Not really a recommended course of action, but misunderstandings do happen.
I've seen candidates bring luggage, but only their overnight bags and they were leaving the assessment center directly for the airport to return home.
Composure. To stay calm, poised, and effective in stressful or difficult situations; to think on one's feet, adjusting quickly to changing situations; to maintain self-control.
Think of the film character, played by Kevin Bacon in "Animal House," during the parade/riot/mass pandemonium scene toward the end of the movie and shouting "Remain calm! All is well!" Only less shrill.
Seriously, poise and composure are useful life skills whether you're an FSO or a mere mortal (just kidding, at least about the 'mere' part). My boss comments occasionally at my tendancy to not freak-out during stressful situations or to crack a joke when I could be crying or otherwise getting upset or rattled. It's fast becoming a cliche for me, as an Iraq veteran, to shrug and say simply: "It's not so bad. At least nobody's shooting at me."
Cultural Adaptability. To work and communicate effectively and harmoniously with persons of other cultures, value systems, political beliefs, and economic circumstances; to recognize and respect differences in new and different cultural environments.
The reasons for this are self-evident given the "foreign" component of an FSO career, but possibly less-evident are its necessity as a colleague, co-worker, and manager of non-U.S. embassy employees who come from cultures which sometimes differ greatly from our own or even Western culture in general. This is not a career field (or set thereof) for xenophobes.
Experience and Motivation. To demonstrate knowledge, skills or other attributes gained from previous experience of relevance to the Foreign Service; to articulate appropriate motivation for joining the Foreign Service.
You do really need to want to do this for real, not just something to kill a couple of years after college/grad school or until you find a mate or career that interests you more. Still, even if you leave after a few years, the experiences will stay with you forever. That being said, relatively few officers come to the Service straight from their college graduation ceremony. Many have completed or decide to interrupt careers in the private or public sectors or in academia. I'd honestly never seen such a hugely accomplished and talented group of people as when I first met my A-100 classmates. For a group whose initial selection criteria includes no actual academic requirement (merely U.S. citizenship and an age range), most of them seemed to have graduate degrees, a smaller group undergraduate degrees, and a smaller group with post-graduate education or other specialized education like law or medical school.
Academic credentials aside, many new FSOs have made something of themselves, have worked overseas, been successful at something already. They come with experience that, in the wide scope of things that a foreign service officer may find themselves doing at far-flung points on the globe, can really come in handy. By way of an odd example, did you know that because of a previous job I had, I know how to drive and/or operate most of the sorts of vehicles found on a commercial aviation ramp? While my aerodrome driver's license is long expired, that's no bar to getting the job done when needs be.
Information Integration and Analysis. To absorb and retain complex information drawn from a variety of sources; to draw reasoned conclusions from analysis and synthesis of available information; to evaluate the importance, reliability, and usefulness of information; to remember details of a meeting or event without the benefit of notes.
One of the former ambassadors who visited my A-100 class put it rather simply. He asked us "Why were you hired?"
After gently allowing us to flounder about for a few minutes he made his point: we were hired because, based on the best objective evaluations the BEX could come up with, they trusted our judgement. Period. All the verbiage aside, the BEX selects for people with the knowledge, experience, reasoning and intuitive faculties to make good decisions on their own. FSOs sometimes find themselves far from Main State and detailed guidance and literally become "Johnny-On-The-Spot." When that happens, Johnny has to be able to think on his feet. On a day-to-day basis, Johnny if often making consular decisions, in the NIV realm for instance, with real-world consequences.
Initiative and Leadership. To recognize and assume responsibility for work that needs to be done; to persist in the completion of a task; to influence significantly a group's activity, direction, or opinion; to motivate others to participate in the activity one is leading.
FSOs are officers. They can very early find themselves in charge of sections, in charge of projects, responsible for directing resources and personnel to accomplish tasks and assignments. They have to be able to lead well, or at the very least, not lead badly.
Judgment. To discern what is appropriate, practical, and realistic in a given situation; to weigh relative merits of competing demands.
Objectivity and Integrity. To be fair and honest; to avoid deceit, favoritism, and discrimination; to present issues frankly and fully, without injecting subjective bias; to work without letting personal bias prejudice actions.
During the early Pleistocene era, when I went through this drill, the reporting portion of the Assessment consisted of writing a report, to be sent as a telegram, reporting on the delivery of a demarche, which was what the solo role-playing scenario was all about.
Report writing is not about making the report writer look good.
Report writing is about making an honest delivery of what actually happened and your best evaluation of those event's significance. All the rest is stylistic. Remember this if your Assessment includes this sort of exercise: the people reading your cable draft will be the same BEX assessors who were the role-players in the scenario upon which you're reporting. They already know what you said, they know what they said, they know what you forgot to say, and how you performed in general.
They're not just looking for pretty writing, they're looking for honesty, for someone who'll tell the truth rather than merely what makes the writer look smart.
Lastly, one more tip about cable writing: if you already know DOS "cable-ese" or message format, forget about them for the Oral Assessment. Don't attempt to impress with your knowledge of arcane terminology or acronyms. Just write a decent narrative, with a summary at the top, and number the sections.
Oral Communication. To speak fluently in a concise, grammatically correct, organized, precise, and persuasive manner; to convey nuances of meaning accurately; to use appropriate styles of communication to fit the audience and purpose.
While it's not strictly necessary that FSOs be chameleons, they do need some flexibility in their communication styles. Sometimes utter formality is most appropriate, sometimes humor or more informality or at least cordiality suits the occasion and audience. Judging what manner suits what occasion is up to you.
Planning and Organizing. To prioritize and order tasks effectively, to employ a systematic approach to achieving objectives, to make appropriate use of limited resources.
Quantitative Analysis. To identify, compile, analyze and draw correct conclusions from pertinent data; to recognize patterns or trends in numerical data; to perform simple mathematical operations.
Resourcefulness. To formulate creative alternatives or solutions to resolve problems, to show flexibility in response to unanticipated circumstances.
Working With Others. To interact in a constructive, cooperative, and harmonious manner; to work effectively as a team player; to establish positive relationships and gain the confidence of others; to use humor as appropriate.
Many of the other candidates you will meet in the waiting room at the Assessment Center and in the group role-playing scenario are really quite bright people. Often high school valedictorians who went on from there to academic honors and aclaim, they are frequently accustomed to being the smartest person in the room, no matter in what room they find themselves. At the same time, when it comes to "working and playing well with others," some of these same very "best and brightest" of candidates should never have been permitted to graduate from sandbox. They never learned to share their toys, to say the least, and their people skills reflect that. It's not necessary that the Service recruit new officers who are arrogant or rude; those are traits which can be taught if necessary.
ADDITION: A word about those people who're used to being the smartest person in the room. This means they haven't, as far as they know, ever met anyone smarter than they are and they certainly aren't used to working co-equally with equally-smart people. Having begun my earlier military career in a nuclear weapons field, followed by working in intelligence, I already knew that there are people as smart as I am, and some of them are even smarter. That can have a cooling effect on one's arrogance. It can even help you learn how to work as part of a team, rather than always as the team's leader. Lastly, in the comments section and worth inserting here, Delilah has added her "2 cents: Be self-assured but not arrogant, assertive but not aggressive. Play nicely with the other children in the group exercises, the point is not to win, the point is how you interact."
The group exercise gives assessors a chance to reflect on a very vital component of the selection processes. At the end of the testing day, the assessor is probably answering this question about the candidates he or she is assessing: 'based on what I saw of this person today, would I want to work with them?'
After all, assignment to the BEX is not permanent; BEX assessors will move on and, even after several years of the DRI driven hiring, its' still not that big a service; the odds are not so greatly against one finding oneself meeting a former candidate and actually having to have that person working with you. Is he or she an arrogant self-promoting weasel, or would you want them looking out for you on your advance team someday?
Written Communication. To write concise, well organized, grammatically correct, effective and persuasive English in a limited amount of time.
Candidates are evaluated solely against these criteria by four assessors who observe the performance of candidates in a variety of situations designed to enable the candidates to demonstrate the requisite skills. The assessors are Foreign Service Officers from various career tracks with a wide variety of experience in the geographic and functional Bureaus of the Department. Assessors receive training from professional consultants on how to conduct assessments in an objective manner in which the candidate's performance is observed and where the candidate's score correlates to an established performance standard.
The Oral Assessment is not an adversarial process. Candidates do not compete against one another but instead are judged on their capacity to demonstrate the skills and abilities necessary to be an effective Foreign Service Officer. " - U.S. Department of State website.
"Candidates do not compete against one another." This is important to bear in mind. Candidates are competing against the criteria only. Theoretically, every candidate being assessed on a given day may meet the criteria well enough to move on to the next steps. Or none of them may. Given how long this process has been in place, either or both of these unlikely occurances may already have come to pass.
The Oral Assessment
1. The Group Exercise Preparations
"For the first exercise of the day, candidates are brought together in a group of three to six to comprise an Embassy task force charged with allocating resources to competing projects in their host country. Candidates are given information concerning the individual project each is asked to present, as well as a package of common background materials consisting of the following:
Memorandum from a senior US Embassy official in one of various mythical countries appointing the candidate to a task force to consider proposals for use of scarce resources
The U.S. Country Plan and Objectives
Lists of senior U.S. Embassy and host government officials
A map of the country and background notes
Candidates are given 30 minutes to read and absorb these materials; they may take notes." - U.S. Department of State website.
The Presentation Phase
"When the 30 minute preparation time is over, four assessors join the group and take seats in the corners of the room. At this point in the assessment, the assessors know nothing about the candidates. The assessors do not participate; they only observe the group exercise. Candidates are briefed on the ground rules and are invited to begin their individual project presentations in any order they choose; however, they are cautioned that projects are not to be compared or evaluated in the presentation phase. Each candidate has six minutes to present his or her project to the others, covering all relevant facets of the project, including both negative and positive points, U.S. interests, and required resources. Time may be left at the end of the presentation for questions from other candidates. " - U.S. Department of State website.
The Discussion Phase
"After the last presentation has been made, the lead examiner informs the group that it is now entering the discussion phase of the exercise, the stage in which the candidates must reach a consensus on project selection and allocation of their limited resources.
In this phase, candidates discuss and debate the merits and/or drawbacks of the various projects in order to make recommendations to the Ambassador. Toward that end, the group negotiates and debates pros and cons with the goal of reaching, within the time allotted (20-25 minutes - depending on group size), a consensus on which projects should be supported and at what level.
The group exercise measures oral communication, objectivity and integrity, ability to work with others, information integration and analysis, planning, judgment, initiative, leadership, and composure. Strong candidates are those who keep in mind the objective of the exercise: to help the Ambassador decide how best to allocate limited U.S. Government resources among a number of worthy projects. They have the ability to integrate information not just about their own projects but also about projects presented by their colleagues. They may suggest original ideas and solutions. A good leader can draw out others and help move the group to consensus.
Active participation is essential to successful performance. Examiners cannot judge qualities they cannot see. Even if a candidate presents a clear project, lack of involvement in the discussion phase can make the difference when the scores are determined. " - U.S. Department of State website.
"A candidate might be expected to describe the following information, based on four or five background documents, in the presentation phase:
Gargon University in the country of Erewhon requests Embassy help in purchasing equipment to complete the university's new sports facility.
Benefits of the project: The University would purchase U.S. equipment, aiding U.S. business interests and providing good public relations for the U.S.; the Chairman of the Board of the University would be rewarded for being the instrumental force in Erewhon's opposition to a hostile neighboring country's efforts to host the Summer Olympics; Gargon Regional Rehabilitation Hospital, now sadly under-equipped, would be able to use the pool and gymnasium.
Negative aspects: Gargon is a private university and there is some question whether U.S. Government funds should be used to support it; this grant would not improve economic conditions or raise living standards of the majority of people; Gargon is the home district of chief opposition leader Reubello--a grant might displease the Prime Minister.
Benefits to the U.S.: A grant would promote U.S. export trade and support U.S. business interests in Erewhon; it would enhance public and official perceptions of the United States.
Project costs: The Embassy's total cost is $75,000. The host government would contribute $10,000. Total cost: $85,000. " - U.S. Department of State website.
2. The Structured Interview
"All candidates participate individually in a Structured Interview conducted by two assessors. For this portion of the Oral Assessment, assessors will have reviewed the candidates' DS-1950 (Application for Employment), Statement of Interest, and stated career track preference. Candidates are expected to respond to questions based on their personal background, experience, and motivation.
This portion of the assessment consists of three testing modules lasting a total of approximately one hour. " - U.S. Department of State website.
A. Experience and Motivation Interview
"In this portion of the assessment, the candidate should convey to the examiners a clear and precise picture of him/herself, including personality traits, and his/her understanding of the Foreign Service. The candidate's work experience and motivation to join the Foreign Service, as well as cross-cultural skills are considered. Assessors will evaluate a candidate's potential to serve successfully as a Foreign Service Officer, including in the selected career track, by discussing what the candidate has done with the opportunities presented to this point in his or her life. Candidates must be succinct and persuasive in responding to the examiner's questions. Candidates should have previously informed themselves about the Foreign Service in general, and also about the work related to the career track they have selected. " - U.S. Department of State website.
B. Hypothetical Scenarios
"The second assessment module in the Structured Interview consists of a series of hypothetical scenarios designed to test the candidate's situational judgment.
Assessors will give the candidate a brief scenario to read that provides information about the country and the candidate's position in the embassy, setting the scene for the hypothetical situation. Assessors' questions test the candidate's interpersonal skills, problem-solving abilities, initiative, objectivity, judgment, planning and organizing skills, composure, and cultural adaptability. Although the problems presented in this exercise are hypothetical, they are closely related to real-life situations regularly encountered by Foreign Service Officers overseas. Candidates are advised, however, that, while the problems occur in a Foreign Service setting, candidates are not expected to know how an Embassy operates or to be familiar with government rules and regulations. They are asked to fashion a solution that employs good judgment and common sense.
The hypothetical scenarios challenge candidates to think quickly. Assessors look for a candidate who can organize for action, take responsibility, and respond to new situations creatively and effectively. While there is no single right or correct answer, a strong candidate will demonstrate mature thinking, recognize alternative approaches, and consider both the long- and short-term consequences of responses. " - U.S. Department of State website.
One rumored scenario is where the candidate is the Duty Officer and receives a call from a local hotel where one of the guests has gotten drunk and is playing naked in a fountain in the hotel lobby. What do you do?
I honestly don't recall getting any hypothetical scenarios that were quite this, er, sketchy; mine were more in the way, if I recall, of mundane situations where the candidate has a task, responsibility or project at a U.S. mission abroad and how would you best deal with a situation as it develops based on your earlier decisions. Kind of tricky, but a good test of common sense.
I don't know this for certain, but upon reflection it seems to me that a candidate might bear in mind that he's not the Lone Ranger in these scenarios and at some point as they unfold, his response could very well be something where he contacts his superior and asks for guidance. You do have to know when you're over your head or beyond your authority.
C. Past Behavior Interview
"In the final segment of the Structured Interview, the assessors ask the candidate a series of questions, to which the candidate should respond with examples from his or her own experience. The questions are designed to assess a range of dimensions determined through a documented job analysis to be key to successful performance as a Foreign Service Officer. " - U.S. Department of State website.
3. Case Management
"The third part of the oral assessment is the 90-minute Case Management Exercise. The purpose of this segment is to evaluate the candidate's management skills, interpersonal skills and quantitative ability. Writing concise, correct, and persuasive English is also important in this exercise. This exercise is indicative of the candidate's ability to integrate and analyze information, to interpret quantitative data, and to display sound judgment. The candidate will be asked to incorporate data and other statistical information in the analysis and recommended solutions.
The candidate is given a memo describing the tasks to complete and a variety of information about the central issue, including a summary of the major issues (from the candidate's supervisor), an organizational chart, e-mail messages from a host of different perspectives at different levels in the Embassy and details about the past performance of the staff. A calculator is not needed in reviewing the quantitative data, but these data must be incorporated in the analysis and recommendations.
The candidate may want to spend 30 minutes reading and analyzing the material, 45 minutes writing the required memo, and 15 minutes reviewing and revising. " - U.S. Department of State website.
Scoring the Exercises
"Assessors observe the candidate's performance closely, taking notes during the testing module. At the end of each exercise, assessors individually enter their scores into a computer. The average of the exercise scores determines a candidate's overall score. The Oral Assessment cut-off score to continue a candidacy is 5.25 out of a possible 7. For this cycle, each exercise and each component of each exercise have equal weight. The Group Exercise, Structured Interview, and Case Management Study each count for one-third of the total grade. Within the Structured interview, the Experience and Motivation, Hypothetical and Past Behavior modules are equally weighted. Overall scoring is on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 representing poor performance and 7 representing an outstanding performance. In the first half of 2004, roughly one out of five candidates passed the oral assessment. " - U.S. Department of State website.
"After the assessors complete the integration of their scores, candidates are notified whether they have been successful in reaching the cut-off score. Along with their final overall score, candidates receive an indication as to whether they reached or exceeded the cut off score on any of the three major components of the exam.
Unsuccessful candidates are informed of their results in a private interview with two assessors. At this point, the candidate is given an opportunity to ask questions about the assessment process and future exams. Assessors are not permitted to provide specific feedback or critiques of the candidate's performance. This prevents any undue advantage to those who take the exam more than once.
Successful candidates are given a briefing on the next steps in the Foreign Service hiring process, including information on the security background investigation, language bonus point system, veteran's preference points, the medical examination, and final suitability review. Candidates are also given the opportunity to ask questions about Foreign Service life. A Diplomatic Security background interview may be initiated on the day of the assessment for candidates whose passing score qualifies for an immediate conditional offer.
Immediate Conditional Offer Policy for Assessment Cycle
Immediate Conditional Offers (ICO) will be made to candidates who score a 5.25 out of a 7.0. They will be informed of the steps necessary to obtain their medical, security, and suitability clearances." - U.S. Department of State website.
"The Register List is a rank order list of all candidates who have completed the pre-employment process and are waiting for a job offer.
Candidates can remain on this list for up to 18 months after which their candidacy expires.
In order to be placed on the Register List, candidates must have a Medical Clearance, a Security Clearance, and a Suitability Clearance.
The Register List is also where the 5- or 10-point Veteran's Preference comes into play; that, as well as tested language proficiency, can improve your ranking on the Register.
Candidates may be denied suitability on the basis of any of the eight suitability factors, including: drug usage; alcohol abuse; misconduct in prior employment; financial irresponsibility; misrepresentation in the application process; poor judgment; criminal conduct; and questionable loyalty to the U.S. " - U.S. Department of State website.
Odds and ends.
I recall walking into the waiting room for my first Oral Assessment and looking around at the other candidates. To a man, each of the male candidates were wearing black suits, white shirts, and black lace-up dress shoes.
It was like taking a time machine back to Hoover's FBI or 1970's IBM. Weird.
What was the candidate Consul-At-Arms wearing, you might ask?
That day I was wearing a nice summer-weight medium gray suit with a blue Oxford button-down shirt and cordovan loafers. Ouch.
I took one look around and knew I was sunk.
Seriously (and the above actually did occur as I described), I got some very good advice from my now-retired first sergeant in my Army Reserve unit. "Joe" is, in his civilian profession, a detective sergeant with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. He told me that when they have an officer getting ready to go before a board for selection to sergeant or lieutenant, any promotion board sort of situation, they advise the candidate to wear a nicely polished pair of shoes, a good suit, and to buy a brand-new white dress shirt to wear that day. He told me that there's something about a brand-new white dress shirt that is just a little bit whiter and brighter than a shirt you've been wearing even a little while, and that not only does it look good, but the wearer knows it looks as good as it can and it gives them just a little psychological boost.
B.S.? Maybe. But I followed the advice for my second Oral Assessment and made the cut-off score.
Some other good advice is getting a good night's sleep beforehand. Yawning during the Assessment can't make a good impression. If you normally have a cup of coffee in the morning to get you started, make sure you do that as well, just don't overdo it.
Don't take the opportunity of, perhaps, being in a new or strange city to go out and paint the town the night before. If you want a drink before, during, or after dinner, by all means do, but that's just not the night to "party hearty." Celebrate later.
One area where I had an advantage, perhaps, in the role-playing areas of the Assessment was that, as a reservist in Military Intelligence, much of our training was scenario-based role-playing. So putting on a role and acting-out a scenario was a reasonably comfortable situation for me. I don't mean to suggest joining the reserves as a means of succeeding in the Oral Assessment phase, but perhaps some practice in role-playing wouldn't hurt.
Lastly, for those going in for the first time, or for those who didn't make the cut-off score their first (or second or third) time at the Assessment: relax. There's nothing wrong with you. You're obviously smarter than the average picnic basket just to have made it this far; remember that it's only our best objective measure of some very hard-to-measure and fairly slippery competencies.
You're already a success just by walking in. Nobody "fails" the Oral Assessment; it's just that there's a cut-off score and they take only the highest scoring candidates. That may sound like sophistry but it's true. More than one FSO of my acquaintance didn't make the cut-off their first "at-bat" and they're perfectly successful FSOs today. So if you don't make it the first time, maybe you'll have a better day the second time around. It'll be less-unfamiliar territory the second time, even if the details of the experience change as they update the scenarios and roles and you'll be much more comfortable.