Following the CBT tests for the AST1 competition, I was extremely surprised and happy to receive a letter in my EPSO account inviting me to attend the assessment centre. However, when I looked at the date, my heart sank as I realised that I was not going to be available.
The Exam Date
At that time I was extremely busy, as I also work as an examiner for the OCR exam board, which means that once a year I have to mark 300 GCSE English exams in the space of about 3 weeks in May or June. The original assessment centre date coincided with one of my marking deadlines, so there was no possible way I could go.
Fearing the worst (that it would just be ‘tough luck’), I emailed the EPSO candidate contact service to explain the situation and ask if I could attend on a different day. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they understood and offered me the date of the 6th June instead. This was much more feasible, and I was able to get a reasonably priced Eurostar ticket and a very good deal on a hotel.
A quick word about expenses – this is not as straightforward as it might seem, and in my opinion might even contravene some sort of equality rules as it would exclude anyone who could not afford their own travel and accommodation expenses up front. Although candidates are reimbursed eventually, it is not based on what you actually spent, but is a set amount, based on how far you’ve travelled. The info is available here.
So basically because I had to travel between 501 and 1000 km I was entitled to 250 euros. Altogether, my travel, accommodation and subsistence costs were around 300 Euros, which I would not have been able to afford if I did not have a credit card. And it’s not even as though you get reimbursed straight away, or shortly afterwards (which nobody informed me about, I had to ask, and I’ve been told that they have no idea when we will be refunded, but they are currently working on travel claims from March!!). This could be a real barrier for some candidates – I can’t imagine many people being in a position to be able to fork out for a 2 day trip to another country without knowing when they would some of the money back!
That aside, I then had to get myself over to Brussels and find my hotel, hope that it was clean and as comfortable as you could expect for 30 Euros a night, and try to get some sleep!
When in Brussels…
The hotel itself was a very large place close to Avenue Louise, but I didn’t realise how far it was from the nearest metro station, which was almost 10 minutes walk – not fun when you’ve got heavy luggage and you’re in heels (I had to pack my whole bathroom, hairdryer, straighteners etc, there was no way I was going to turn up not looking my best!). I was woken by the noise of the bin lorry at about 5.30am on the morning of the test, and although I was tired from travelling and didn’t have to be there until 10am, I decided to get up, get ready and do some last minute revision.
I’d had about a month or so to prepare for the exercises, however the only one that I could realistically prepare for thoroughly was the structured interview. Luckily, one of my good friends is French and works as a translator, so I was able to enlist her help in preparing answers to questions about competencies, which I could then practise. In doing this, I found András Baneth’s book (The Ultimate EU Test Book 2010) extremely useful. The invitation letter listed the competencies that candidates would be asked about, and so I used the questions and follow-ups in the book as the basis for my preparation.
The Assessment Day
Having gone over the question responses in my head over breakfast, I left the hotel and arrived at Avenue de Cortenbergh (the EPSO assessment centre building) about an hour and a half early, with a massive feeling of dread and anxiety in my stomach making me feel physically nauseous and the onset of what was to become an epic migraine. The only consolation was that there were about five other candidates there already, who looked as though they were feeling exactly the same way.
The day began with the candidates being taken into a large meeting room, where the EPSO representative sat down with us to explain what was going to happen and give us our individual schedules. There would be four parts to the assessment, as outlined in the invitation letter:
- a 40 minute interview based on the indicated EPSO competencies (second language)
- an inbox exercise (second language)
- a document drafting exercise (first language), and
- a second drafting exercise in the form of a mini-essay (first language)
I had been wondering about the second drafting exercise – there were no details given to us on the invitation letter or the outline of the day, which, when added to the general anxiety and nerves, had not helped the situation, so I felt a kind of relief to actually find out what it was going to be.
As there were probably around 20 of us, our interviews would be staggered through the morning, with the rest of the exercises taking place in the afternoon. I was one of the first to go in for the interview, which was fortunate for me, as my nerves had already reached fever pitch – to the point where I couldn’t actually hold a cup of water because my hands were shaking!
When I knocked on the door of the interview room I really thought I might black out, but then a strange thing happened: as I entered the room and saw the two kindly-looking interviewers, a strange calm descended over me, and I shook their hands firmly, smiled and sat down. They introduced themselves and asked me to do the same, in fact to give a brief one-minute summary of myself and my current job. This was absolutely no problem, I had rehearsed and prepared this with my French friend, and it really helped me to settle in to the interview.
The EPSO interviewers proceeded to ask the kinds of questions that I had anticipated, and I gave my answers in a focussed way, without panicking or faltering. It was an odd experience, but in many ways I felt more confident in this than I had in any previous interview. Probably because I didn’t feel like they were trying to catch me out, and also I knew what I was going to say before I’d even entered the room.
Having said that, the questions weren’t exactly what I thought they would be, but I found I could adapt the answers that I had prepared. Once or twice they did ask for further, more specific examples to illustrate what I’d said, but that wasn’t too much of a problem, given that I’d got my head around the kinds of things they were going to ask about.
Overall, I felt it had gone well; they certainly seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say (whether or not it met the criteria remains to be seen!) and I felt that I’d done myself justice, despite thinking that I was going to crumble under the pressure right up to the moment I went in.
I had quite a long time to wait until the rest of the assessments in the afternoon, so I went into the break area and chatted to the other candidates. What struck me was the similarities between us; although we all came from different countries, we were mostly around the same sort of age and had wanted to do this after graduating from university but for one reason and another had not done so, or not been successful.
For some of us, the issue had been confidence, but also lack of experience – it’s much easier to answer questions about work situations if you’ve actually got some work experience behind you! I also felt that we had similar goals in life, and felt the same way about wanting to work on European issues. I remember thinking that if I were to get onto the reserve list and get an EU job, I would be really happy to work with any of the candidates I met on that day.
After lunch, we were all taken into a computer suite and given instructions about the inbox exercise. I have to say, I didn’t really understand fully what I had to do, and as it turned out when I spoke to them afterwards, not many of the others did either. I didn’t feel it was explained clearly enough; the inbox contained a number of emails, and we had to respond to a number of multiple choice questions based on information contained in the emails, under quite tight time pressure.
However, it took me a while to ascertain the fact that the questions did not necessarily correspond with the emails, so at first I found it very confusing! Even after I’d figured out how the test worked, it wasn’t exactly plain sailing. In fact it was a lot more complicated than I thought it would be, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t score very highly on this at all.
The next exercise was very straightforward – we were given a draft of a document, with instructions about things like font, spacing, bold, margins etc, and told to type up and print out the draft, under time pressure again. The hardest part was staying awake – I’m sure they gave us the dullest topic in the world (EU tax harmonisation!!!) as some sort of endurance test.
Finally, the last exercise was to write a short, one-page essay on one of three questions. The main point of this was to assess our capacity for linguistic expression, and use of syntax, spelling and grammar. Despite the fact that I am a qualified English teacher and have two postgraduate degrees which entailed relentless churning out of long essays, by this point in the day I felt barely able to string a sentence together!
I suffer from relatively frequent migraines, which are triggered particularly by lack of sleep and stress, and I’d been keeping one at bay all day. However, I hadn’t been able to take my usual medication as it makes me feel vague and unable to concentrate, so I’d only taken ordinary painkillers, and I’d taken as many as is advised in 24 hours by lunchtime, so by the time the final test started my head was beginning to pound and throb. To compound matters, I was concerned as the day was over-running a bit and I had less than an hour to get to check-in at the Eurostar terminal!
So – I wrote as articulate an essay as I could muster in the time, and crossed my fingers that it would be enough. When the test ended and we were dismissed, I actually stood up and let out an involuntary cheer! I felt flooded with relief, and with my migraine starting to abate a little, I changed into my flat shoes and raced onto the metro, making it to the check-in with about five minutes to spare!
On the way home, I reflected on what a difficult but in many ways wonderful experience it had been. I had never done anything like this before, and I felt very proud of myself for even getting to this stage.
I also found out a lot about myself; I never thought that I would have been so nervous beforehand, but totally surprised myself by how well I’d coped. Whatever the outcome, it was totally worthwhile attending, and I’ll be really interested to see what my competency report reveals.
(to be continued)