**Note for 2013 Applicants: I am a 2011 fellow and the process changed dramatically in 2012; I anticipate it changing a lot this year as well. Sometime in the fall of 2012 I will write an update on the process but for the time being, treat this post as historical insight into a fast-changing process**
As I write this, roughly 9,000 nominees for the 2012 Presidential Management Fellowship are preparing for, or have completed, the Online Assessment, the second step on the path to becoming a Presidential Management Fellow. I went through the 2011 application process, and posted a review of the semi-finalist in-person evaluation last winter. I’ve since started work as a PMF for the U.S. Forest Service working in the Southern Region based in Georgia. I’ve been here since June, and it has been a great summer! I have interesting work, supervisors and colleagues I respect and enjoy collaborating with, and . The Forest Service is very supportive of the PMF program. They have a PMF webpage, a dedicated PMF coordinator for the agency, and the Chief even allocates funding to support several PMF positions (after an internal competitive application process).
I put together some thoughts and advice about the PMF process. Bear in mind that the assessment process changes every year. This is what I gleaned from the 2011 process, and your experience will be different. But really, that shouldn’t worry you: the assessment tests how well you think on your feet, communicate ideas, and collaborate. It is not designed to test knowledge of any subject area.
My strongest piece of advice would be: don’t look for information or advice about the assessment process online, particularly online forums or comments. (Yes, I realize that that is what you’re doing right now, right here) I did this last year, and found it a little unsettling to realize exactly how anxious and stressed out other semi-finalists were. There was a lot of strategizing and plenty of rumors flying around, none of which were accurate or even useful when it came to the actual assessment. Remember, you won’t be tested on your knowledge of any particular subject, but rather your ability to think on your feet, communicate ideas and collaborate.
Nomination. Ask for a photocopy of the form as well as the fax receipt then call to ensure it was received (check the website to ensure you give OPM sufficient time to process before calling). Keep the copy and the receipt, just in case.
The Online Assessment is largely pretty straight-forward. Find a quiet place to work and have something to munch on. Make sure your internet connection won’t be interrupted during the assessment. Try to be honest and straight-forward on the multiple-choice questions, which you will find somewhat lengthy and repetitive. You’ll find the same question coming up over and over again in slightly different context, and it is easier to be consistent when you’re just saying what you think! Other questions will ask you about appropriate behavior in a professional workplace. See the PMF Assessment Prep Guide for examples.
Finally, you will have a short essay prompt. This is something you CAN prepare for (great, right!). Write down a list of questions for yourself (see the guide for examples), cut them into slips of paper. Every day, sit down at your laptop, pull out a stop watch, set 5-20 minutes on the timer, and pull a slip out of the bag. I wrote position papers because I found that interesting, and swapped positions, giving myself ten minutes for each. Check out the PMF Assessment Preparation Guide for examples of writing prompts to use for 2012. This is NOT what you’ll be doing in the assessment, but it is a good way to practice writing under a short deadline and critical thinking. The goal is not to guess what the essay prompt will be, but rather to get comfortable writing. Stop the instant your timer finishes. This WILL help you prepare, and I urge you to do this every day for at least two weeks prior to the online assessment (repeat when you prepare for the in-person evaluation). If you do not do this, just try to stay calm, write quickly and persuasively, and give yourself the last 30 seconds of your essay to fix typos and make sure you don’t have any sentence fragments.
The In-person Assessment. Hopefully you live somewhere close to one of the testing centers. If you don’t, try to arrive the night before the assessment. If you’d rather be assigned to a different testing center, or want a certain day, go ahead and request that. I heard people had good luck requesting alternate days, and even alternate centers when they had issues with weather/travel. You may only hear a week ahead of time where you’ll be going (I got two week’s notice). I’d suggest a business dress code (yes, this means a suit). 90% of the applicants wore suits at my assessment. Several people dressed business casual (button up shirt/blouse and slacks/khakis but no jacket). One person dressed casually and really stuck out. Arrive early, expect delays. Double-check that you have everything on the required list (ID!). Print out the admission ticket. Here’s a key piece of advice: bring your water bottle and snacks to keep you going through the day. There will be breaks and plenty of down-time, but it was rarely scheduled (so we had no idea how long we would have). I brought a bag of beef jerky, a handful of fruit bars, a couple of apples and a bag of mixed nuts. I’d also suggest bringing extra pencils and pens, book/journal(s), laptop, and headphones. Be over-prepared. We ended up having a long day (staying about 11.5 hours) and I know some test centers had even longer days, so be ready to be there ALL day.
After you get through security, someone will be waiting inside for you to direct you to the testing location. There you will be assigned to one of several rooms with 9 other semi-finalists and left alone. My room contained a wide variety of people and backgrounds, the majority were JDs or MBAs. They were mostly from California, though we had one person from another state and one person who had flown in from Europe for the assessment. We spent the first hour getting to know each other – I was VERY impressed with everyone that I met. Without exception, I found all the semi-finalists I met to be accomplished, interesting, and extremely bright. Don’t let this intimidate you. Remember, you’re among peers – and this is an opportunity to demonstrate that you can collaborate in a (somewhat competitive) environment.
The events of the day will be staggered so that each group (and everyone) can participate in each one. Expect to have a lot of down time. Make sure you get to know a couple of people so that they will come find you in the bathroom/coffee kiosk/wherever if your name gets called and you’re not there. Be professional throughout the day – treat the other semi-finalists as you would a co-worker … or a potential boss. Adhere to the instructions you receive (e.g., don’t discuss the evaluation modules with each other). The three big events are the written essay, the individual persuasive argument, and the group discussion (probably referred to differently, I don’t remember what they called them):
–Written Essay: You will be in a room with a dozen others on laptop computers. You will be told very explicitly how to title, save, and submit your essay. Be very careful that you comply with the instructions. Be VERY careful that you READ the written instructions carefully before beginning. Bring all the tools you are allowed to bring (pocket dictionary)! Reprising your daily writing self-assignment to get ready for this is a great idea. Give yourself longer this time, practice segments of 30-45 minutes (I can’t remember exactly how long our time limit was, but per the Assessment Prep Guide it was 45 minutes). Give yourself time at the end to review your work, check spelling and grammar. This is very important for this assessment.
–Individual Persuasive Argument (NOTE: this will be different for 2012!): You will be taken, alone, to a room and given several sheets of blank paper, instruction, and a prompt. Ask for a few extra pages. You get ~15 minutes to consider the prompt, decide whether you will argue for/against, and prepare a presentation, then you go to a room with a small group of people to whom you provide a five minute presentation of the topic. For 2012, this topic is now a structured panel interview, so I won’t describe this element in detail.
–Group Discussion: Along with a group of 2-3 others, you will be brought to a room where you will be given a topic. You have a short amount of time, maybe ~10 minutes, during which you will discuss the prompt with your group. You will have a writing implement and scratch paper (which is collected afterwards). Everything you say or do will be closely observed by a panel of judges, who will take notes on how effectively you collaborate and communicate in the group. Your group will have to come to an agreement on what position you wish to take on the topic then prepare a presentation that supports your position, then complete a short presentation to the panel. This is a difficult portion of the assessment. You want to demonstrate leadership but not overpower the group (and recognize that you’re in a group of capable, effective leaders who also want to demonstrate leadership)! You want to collaborate effectively and develop cohesion within the group, but not appear that you’re simply changing your position for no other reason than to complete the exercise. Everyone needs to play a role in the presentation, but the presentation needs to be effective and well-organized. In short, this can be tough. I have several suggestions for this portion of the in-person assessment: 1) Know everyone in your group’s name. Address them by name during the exercise and make direct eye contact. While you’re at it, write down the panelists’ names, too! That way if you are asked a direct question, you can respond with their name “I’d be happy to respond to that, Rachel.” 2) Bring a watch with a stopwatch (if you don’t have one, you can purchase one for $10). You will be timed, but likely not have access to a timer. Keep your group appraised of what time it is if they do not have stopwatches or are not paying attention to the clock. 3) Don’t get into arguments. This should be obvious, but you don’t have time for arguments, and it doesn’t reflect well on you individually or as a group. If you disagree with the conclusions the group is going in, speak up early, present your ideas in a concise way, then find a way for the entire group to move forward on the same page. Defuse disagreements, use them as an opportunity to display your effective interpersonal and facilitation skills. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter what point of view your group advocates for, just how effectively you can advocate for it. 4) PARTICIPATE. No matter how you take part in this exercise, you must be actively involved and participating throughout it. You will be individually graded on the panel and if you don’t participate, you will not do well. Take responsibility for involving yourself – and everyone else – in the panel, particularly if someone else is dominating the discussion. 5) When you present your portion of the presentation, stand up, even if the other members of your group present their portion from a seated position. Speak clearly, make eye contact, and smile! If you must read from your notes, look up from them at the panelists frequently.
Finally, the job hunt! Some PMF-finalists I met assumed “finalist” meant “hired”. In reality, when you become a finalist, you are really at the beginning of the hiring process. For some, it can be lengthy and involve a lot of effort, but you have a while to find and start your new position. Many PMF finalists attend a jobs fair in Washington D.C. It is usually held in April, and many agencies planning to hire PMF(s) are there to conduct interviews. I suggest being proactive early in the process – contact the agencies and offices you are particularly interested in. Don’t wait until the job fair – many vacancies have been filled well before the jobs fair. Though agencies will ask you to apply via email, I strongly suggest following up by phone as many people are receiving dozens if not hundreds of responses to PMF vacancies. By the time I accepted my position a week before the jobs fair, I had participated in a dozen interviews. Many positions are filled long before the job fair. However, not all agencies hire on the same schedule- By contrast, I continue to receive follow up emails (as recently as September) from various agencies who received my initial application in March or early April and are only beginning their interview process now, different agencies have different timetables. If you don’t find a position at the jobs fair, don’t despair. You will have a full year to find a PMF position.
Good luck, and feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.
This year I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the 2010-11 Presidential Management Fellowship semi-finalists, and yesterday I went to a testing site in San Francisco for the in-person assessment. I will post in greater detail about the program and the process at some point in the future, but I just wanted to write a quick post to encourage other semi-finalists getting ready for their assessments! While we are not allowed to discuss the specific details of the assessment, here’s a couple of things to keep in mind when preparing for your big day:
Get to the testing site early. You’ll notice the first email you received suggested you arrive 30 minutes or more before the day is to begin; this is wise advice! You will likely have to go through a thorough security screening, particularly if your testing site is a federal building, like San Francisco.
You’re allowed to bring a soft-cover pocket dictionary. Bring it! It isn’t mandatory, but whenever you’re given a chance to use a tool, it is wise to come prepared. And you can get them for $1.99 online (or a bit more if you have to run to the corner bookstore tonight before your assessment tomorrow). If you know you have hang-ups with spelling, don’t let anything keep you from coming with your dictionary in hand.
Make sure you’re ready for the assessment. This means bringing the required materials: a gov’t issued photo ID, two #2 pencils, and a print-out of the first email you got with the assessment location on it to get you in the front door.
What else? Bring food and a water bottle. You’ll likely be there most of the day (or even longer, from what I’ve heard, if you’re at the D.C. assessment center). Plan on being at the testing center at least 8-9 hours, and possibly longer. I brought a small bag with little bags of nuts (good brain food!), some jerky, fruit bars, and enough gum and mints to share. I also brought a water bottle. The San Francisco assessment center has a nice cafe in the same building, with well-priced fruit, coffee and juices, and light snacks as well.
Equally importantly: bring something to do. You’re going to be sitting around for most of the day. I brought my laptop, two journals I wanted to review, and a notebook, and I kept myself entertained throughout the down-time.
And relax! Everyone you’ll meet at the testing site is friendly and helpful. Our testing site even had a greeter stationed just past the security checkpoint to welcome us and point the way to the check-in area. All of the other semi-finalists I was lucky enough to meet were people with interesting backgrounds, engaged in unique and novel research or studies. I felt lucky to be spending the day with such a great, friendly group of people. Give yourself permission to have fun during your day there, it is the best way to make sure you perform well and enjoy the process.
If you applied and were nominated for a Presidential Management Fellowship, there are just five days left to complete the PMF on-line assessment! If you’ve been procrastinating, luckily there is a recently-updated Assessment Preparation Guide for Nominees (PDF) that you can use to prepare.
The assessment consists of three parts: Situational Judgement (30-48 items, with 30-40 min to complete), Life Experience (125 items, 45 min to complete), and Writing (one short essay prompt, with 10-15 min to complete).
One thing I didn’t realize going into the assessment was that you can log out between assessment parts. Generally, once you begin a particular section of the assessment, you must complete it within the time limit, unless you have an emergency or your internet access is interrupted for some reason.
If you do have a problem for any reason, make sure you keep the number for the Help Desk handy: 1-888-804-4510.
The Switzer fellowships for 2010 have just been publicly announced, and two other students from U.C. Berkeley also received fellowships. Congratulations to Stacy Jackson from the Energy and Resources Group and John Urgo from City Planning. We made the U.C. Berkeley website on the 29th.
You may have never heard of Robert Switzer before, but his pioneering research and inventions have almost certainly been part of your life. Born in 1914, Switzer co-invented Day-Glo fluorescent paint, which has been incorporated into everything from supermarket packaging to traffic cones to military signaling. The Switzer brothers even developed a fluorescent marker to be mixed in the slurry that air tankers drop on wildfires! After the sale of his company in 1985, Robert and his wife Patricia decided to develop a foundation devoted to encouraging applied environmental problem solving and supporting the continued development of future environmental leaders. Now in its 26th year, the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation has provided more than 300 fellows with the tools needed to make substantial positive environmental change.
This spring I applied for the Switzer Fellowship program. I was very excited to be selected as a finalist, and thoroughly enjoyed my interview. I’ve never been in an interview process quite like that of the Switzer Foundation. My only regret was that I didn’t have longer to spend talking to the interviewing panel and the other applicants. And here’s the best news: I’ve been chosen as one of the 2010 Switzer Fellows! I’m delighted to be joining the Switzer network and can’t wait to meet some of the other fellows in the network whose research I’ve read about in the past few months. Exciting news!
Photo credit: Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation