Ok, so here we go. I'm not exactly going to cover in detail WHAT the test deals with for each section. There are plenty of other sources, including the official ones, which do that. I should also preface all of this with the fact that I do not actually grade the tests nor have I ever been an examiner for the orals. Everything I write is from my own perspective. I did however find the written exam for the foreign service fairly easy as did most of my classmates who took the test. I'm guessing that this is likely due to our recent familiarity with standardized testing and backgrounds. In any case, I've gone over why I thought the test was so easy and tried to pull out all the assorted tips that I think my classmates and I take for granted when it comes to testing.
I did SAT tutoring for a while and just like the SAT writing section, this essay tests the same concepts. It doesn't matter what you write, but how you write it. You'll be given a prompt and asked to argue one side of a discussion or to support one perspective. The graders don't care what you write, but whether or not you can articulate your thoughts convincingly.
In general, if you are recently out of school or have gone through any type of standardized testing, the grades you got and scores you received on the written part of the test should be a good indicator of how you'll do on this.
If you manage to nail the structure, you've got a good start going into the essay. The structure should essentially be introduction-->thesis sentence at the end of that introduction-->paragraph 1 that supports an aspect of your thesis and provides evidence for why that aspect is important/true-->paragraph 2 doing the same thing-->paragraph 3 if you have room-->conclusion-->concluding sentence that either rewords your thesis or is able to expand upon the bigger picture (aka why your thesis is important at all).
Your introduction should be relatively short (3-5 sentences). Your conclusion should be short (3-5 sentences). What's important here are the supporting paragraphs in the middle. It's in those paragraphs where you can tell if someone can write concisely, articulate their thoughts in a logical manner, and be convincing.
There are some tips that say to outline your thoughts on paper before starting the essay. This is a personal thing, but I would not use your time writing on paper unless you are much more comfortable doing so than on a computer. I outline briefly on the word document and then am able to copy+paste and move thoughts around as needed. Writing on a paper is valuable time and you'll still need to transfer those thoughts onto the computer.
Support whatever side you can come up with the most arguments for. This may not necessarily be the side you actually support. Remember, it doesn't matter what you write, but how you write it. I actually did this on my test.
For extra points, don't just support your argument, but refute the positions against it! For example, if your thesis is "dogs are better than cats," don't just write about how "dogs are better than cats." Try to include a section against cats. In other words, don't just avoid the other sides of the debate, actually write about why they're not as strong as the side you're arguing. This makes your own argument stronger.
Write from the middle of the essay first. Do this if you're not good at coming up with a thesis or introduction. In other words, don't spend valuable time trying to come up with a thesis if you're stumped. You want to write! Write! Write! Just start writing the supporting paragraphs supporting an argument. Since the paragraphs should cover one aspect of your argument, you can summarize the aspects you covered into a thesis. There's not a lot of time to spend staring at your computer. If you start writing and recording your thoughts, it's much more likely that your brain will be able to form connections and come up with a paper than if you just sit there.
Get in the whole structure! This is a tip from the SAT tutoring. If you just flat out run out of time, try not to just stop in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. Dash out a concluding sentence. Try to show the graders that at least you know what the structure of an essay should look like.
Time to review!! Depending on how fast you read, leave time to review your essay. This should go without saying, but grammar and spelling mistakes are a big no-no. To be on the safe side, move your lips when reading. When reading just in your head, our brains are apt to correct mistakes instantly so that you don't realize them.
Stay logical!! Explain your thinking. This essay (as well as portions of the oral) test whether or not people can follow your thoughts/how well you can explain to get from point A to point B. If the examiners can't understand how you got to your conclusion or why your second paragraph supports your thesis or even ties to it....then no good!
Remember, there's no tricks here. Stay simple and stay logical. If you've got a complicated idea, make sure you can explain it simply in a easy to follow manner. Otherwise, just go with the easiest arguments. Remember! It's all in how you say it!
As an aside, the State Department is a stickler for formating. There are all sorts of specific formats for different papers and how you should be writing. Not to say that the substance isn't important, but there's definitely an emphasis on the how.
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4 months ago