This post is a special request for Brent in Maryland. I thought others would be interested in the answers to the questions he asked, so it turned into a post.
In writing this I realized how much I know about the process, and I am not the officer! It is more anxiety-ridden than applying to your dream university but the experience is similar - taking the big exam, painfully waiting for the acceptance email and completely opening up a world of new opportunities.
Preparation for the Written Exam
As you may have heard, the exam recently changed, it is offered more frequently during the year and it is computer-based. There are more questions related to your previous personal experience. But it is still very tough!
You should keep up-to-date with current affairs by reading newspapers, both national and international, for a while prior to taking the test. There are some preparation classes in the Washington D.C. area that you could consider taking. I would also recommend practicing writing short essays on a subject with a time limit.
Passing the Written Exam
The exam is pass/fail. Your score is not considered in the subsequent steps. Passing the written exam feels like a tremendous achievement, and it is. Few people pass. But it is still only one step in a many step process. Still up on the list: passing the oral exams, getting your security clearance, getting your medical clearance, and getting your number called off the list.
Preparation for the Oral Exam
The oral exam is like one long job interview. The best preparation is really some introspection about what you have accomplished, how you accomplished it and what you want to do with your life. After figuring those things out, practice clearly articulating those ideas to others.
Passing the Oral Exam
There are three different components of the oral exam: group exercise, structured interview, case management study. The evaluation criteria for each of these components is based on 13 dimensions, such as judgment, communication, and leadership. At the end of the day, you will learn which sections you passed, be given a total score, and told if you passed the oral exam. This score determines your position on the hiring list.
Getting Additional Points for a Language
After passing the oral exam, you can test in a language to get additional language points added to your score. This is helpful since it will place you higher in the rankings. Additional points are also given for military service.
You can test in more than one language, but you will only receive points for one language. Different languages have different points associated with them. So if you have skills in more than one language, choose the one that will earn you more points -- so long as you're interested in serving in a country that speaks that language. These tests are conversational and taken over the phone. The conversations may cover a range of subjects. The common Romance languages tests are harder than most people expect.
But don't despair if you don't pass the initial language test, there is another opportunity to test again after you start A-100 to see how much additional training you may need for an assignment. You get up to two opportunities for language study before tenure: one full language and one top-off language.
Getting the Call
After passing the oral exam, you must pass your security clearance, medical clearance and final suitability review before you are officially placed on the list, also known as the "register." This can take a while, so you want to make sure you get everything in as soon as you can. Once these three steps are complete, you then get placed on your chosen cone's list and ranked by your score and the date you were placed on the list.
For each class, a number of slots are selected for each cone. The administrators work their way down the ranked lists, making offers until all spots are filled. Many times people at the very top know they can pick their preferred class, so they may defer until a preferred date.
Classes vary in size, and some can be pretty small. So the previous numbers and rankings are no indication of how many will be called and how far they may go down the list. There is a list-serve dedicated to those on the lists, and some very generous people spend their time keeping unofficial rankings. Any member of this list is supposed to report in when they get the call, so that people will know how far they have moved down the list, if any one has passed, etc.
You can stay on the register for up to 18 months waiting for a call before you must start the process all over again. During this period, your rank on the register will fluctuate as people come and go off the list. And whether your number is called depends on the size of the classes, your rank on the list, and how many people defer for a later class. There are many variables, such as federal budgets, so the experience can be a roller coaster.
And if you can start your household inventory and scanning in all your important documents as soon as you pass the written exam, you may get it all done before you leave for your first post!
Best of luck!