The Longest 45 Minutes in Canadian Civil Servants’ Lives…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Dave went on appeal regarding his SLE results yesterday… All involved offices met to discuss his case this morning… and he should get a verdict soon! I truly believe this issue will be solved to his satisfaction: I do not see how or why it could not be! What he requested is reasonable and fair… We shall see!

In the meantime I thought I could post a de-brief a student of mine had sent me a couple of years ago, right after his oral testing… I really do not know why I kept his email for so long! Perhaps because I thought it was a great description of what he (and others) had to go through in order to get his C level. Ian was a sweet guy in his early 30s back then, but kind of stiff! I spent two months with him, preparing him for the test… We had numerous clashes and, despite I agreed with him 100% most of the time, I never stopped making his life miserable so he could perform at his best. And he did! He got his C “haut-la-main”… Ian was against the use of words like enchanté, merveilleux, magnifique and the use of his hands while speaking French (like Francophones do)… Gawd, did he ever give me a hard time! Finally I convinced him to use both so he would sound and look more natural… He just had to pretend he did not know the real meaning of these words and forget who he really was for 45 lousy minutes of his life! Later on, he thanked me for having pushed him in this direction…

Here is what he wrote me the very same day (count on the military type to be detailed in his description) he was tested:

«The waiting room is civil service chic. Lots of emphasis on function and little on aesthetic value. It’s kind of like a hospital waiting room. Still the chance to people watch, but instead of trying to figure out who is the most sick, I found myself wondering who looked the most stressed. My vote went to a girl who was mumbling French expressions to the ceiling and sighing loudly! After waiting a few minutes, my examiner came out to get me. I would suggest that people be prepared to engage in small talk WHILE walking to the exam room – can take a minute or so to navigate the maze of exam rooms.

The exam room itself was about half the size of the classrooms at school. Cozy for two people, but by no means uncomfortable. The examiner sits at a desk with a computer behind her. I sat off to one side. I was even offered water – all part of the process of putting me at ease I suspect.

The tape recorder was about halfway between me and the examiner. I do not think that the mise-en-train was recorded, but I’ll admit to being a little fuzzy on this detail. The examiner did not read from a prepared script at any point in the interview – she was clearly bouncing off what I said in the interview to move to the next question.

The mise-en-train did not go exactly as planned. “La fin de semaine” was not on the list of topics, and I didn’t want to discuss sports because it’s boring. I hoped she would pick “cinéma”, but before we even got there I tried to defend why I had only selected two topics (instructions said to select AT LEAST 2). I said that I was too busy and didn’t do much but work. She said we could always talk about other things in a hypothetical way – e.g., what sports would I like to discuss if I had the time? The conversation went a little all over the place (I mean in a good way, but it certainly wasn’t restricted to just one topic). She asked me what I had been doing with the summer and I opened the baby (pandora) box (sorry, didn’t want to, but it seemed inevitable given that the mise-en-train didn’t have the topics I’d expected). I tried to steer the conversation to C.R.A.Z.Y – with some success. She cut me off because she wanted to see the film! I offered a few general observations without giving away any details and made sure to say it was better than Hollywood films and that it was “magnificent”.

The actual oral exam began with the typical questions – where did I work, followed by the famous responsibilities question. She didn’t pick up on order paper questions, but did press for more details on committee appearances. All other questions (opinion and otherwise) started from this point. The examiner was clearly bouncing from one thing to the other without a clear set of questions. Even opinion questions started from (i.e. not necessarily directly related, but at least a bit) work related stuff. Examples? Why did I have too much work? Why couldn’t the government hire more people to handle increasing workloads? Why was there more work in a minority government setting? What did I think about the government burning out young people on the job? Did I think that people with kids (note the baby related theme emerging again – but wait, there’s more…) got preferential treatment compared to people without families? What do we do in a prep session with senior officials before a committee appearance? What happens in committees?

I will also note that the following questions were NOT/NOT asked : What are your tasks? Please describe the organizational chart of your directorate/division/group/ministry. Finally, I got absolutely zero long questions of the type others have received. There was no script for the examiner – she was clearly making up questions as she went along.

The wheels may/may (repeat the word for emphasis – it’s a military thing) have come off the cart during the jeu de rôle. The topic? You guessed it – baby related. Scene was that I was talking to a colleague who worked in the same directorate and she’s expecting a baby. Her career is important to her and her husband and they’re looking for advice on how to handle parental leave. Is 12 months too long to be out of the workforce? Should they divide the time? How does it compare with the private sector? I think I did not too badly once I got going, but I stumbled out of the gate. Details are little fuzzy…

The wrap-up phase of the interview passed in about 30 seconds. Then I had to fill out a form again – right in front of the examiner. I was a little annoyed that I had to fill this out right then and there – since I had to indicate my level of education and my rank at work. Don’t see what bearings any of that has on the exam so I was upset that I had to provide it. Oh well, I signed as required.

I also had to leave my sheet with notes in the room. Mercifully, I had taken all the notes in French, so I don’t think that represents a problem. However, if students are planning to take notes during their exams, they should know that they will leave them with the examiner before they walk out of the exam room – and they may wish to write as much in French as possible (rather than taking point form in English).

The final thing to do was to complete an evaluation of the exam experience. The front part of this form was optional (again place for name, rank, education, etc.), then included 30 multiple choice questions. I was to fill this form out in the lobby – if I wanted. I thought about it – even started the process – then decided that I was suspicious of people matching my form to my exam, so I left without completing it.

So that was the exam experience. Total time in the exam room – about 40 minutes. The examiner was fair and pleasant. I got the impression that she was asking more general questions rather than specific ones, but that may just be wishful thinking on my part (i.e. the more general the questions, the more likely I was being evaluated for the C level, rather than the B ranking).

I‘m generally happy with my performance and I don’t think that I misinterpreted any of the questions. The whole thing was more of a conversation that started with my responsibilities, rather than a series of random questions. That said, I made mistakes and struggled with some vocabulary, but I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that it was enough for a C.

My final comment is related to the small talk with the examiner in the hallway – both before and after the exam. I watched other students as they met their inquisitioner (sorry, examiner) and it seemed like one awkward meeting after another. If nothing else, this first impression is vital and it is worth investing a few minutes to practice to make sure that things get off on the right foot. I think I did okay on this score, but it is definitely something I will take more seriously the next time around (hopefully 5 years hence).»

Ian took the old version of the oral test, the one I do believe left some room for some creativity along the way… Now that a computer is choosing questions randomly, I do not think there is room for any conversation at all. His advice about “small talk” is very clever… it is important to connect somewhat with the assessor because, this kind of testing cannot be 100% objective… and, if the evaluator likes you and thinks you are charming, chances are you will be in a better position to get your required level! Never forget this: people are not robots and, until the day you will be tested by a computer alone, you can still make a good impression on the examiner!… SO!… Make sure you smell good that day and you are not wearing the stinking socks you had on your feet when jogging the previous day!

This blog moved here, if you ever are interested in reading more on those issues…


1 Comment

  1. Lawoffica said,

    August 3, 2008 at 2:01 am

    It’s amazing

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