An Autopsy of the Written FCICE, Part 1: The Mindset You Need

I wanted my first post on here to be an introduction to my blog, but given that the latest testing window for the Written FCICE just closed, this topic takes priority.

Three years after passing the state court interpreter’s exam in Alabama, I decided to take the first step in becoming a Federally Certified Court Interpreter. I’m happy to report that on Memorial Day I was able to pass the written exam on my first try, scoring a 92% on the English portion and an 80% on the Spanish. Despite a familiar exam format (this exam is essentially a bilingual GRE with a legal focus), I learned a lot about how to best prepare for this test. Outside of the exam manual, there isn’t a lot out there to guide prospective candidates on what they should anticipate and the timeline they’re looking at during a regular exam cycle.

I’m an attorney by training, which means that the instinct to dissect what went right and wrong, what methods worked, and where improvements can be made is deeply engrained in me. I want to offer any future candidates and colleagues my reflections as a way to help them prepare to study for this test. It’s not as simple as registering six weeks before your test date and using that time to cram. This is not the state exam; we’re in a different league.

This topic will be divided into three parts. In this first part, I will talk about something that is not really touched on in the forums or in the test prep courses offered by exam coaches: the mindset and realistic test prep timeline a candidate will need.

Part Two, which I will post separately, will look at what candidates need to do to make sure that their language abilities are at the level necessary to pursue federal certification.

Part Three will go into the materials and strategies candidates can employ in those last three months before the testing window to ensure that they can tackle the exam.

There are two exams that come to my mind when thinking about how to approach this test: The AP Spanish Language and Literature Exam and the GRE. For those who didn’t grow up in the US, AP stands for “Advanced Placement” and are courses you take in high school in order to received college credit for core curriculum. (If you’re more familiar with the British system, think of the A levels.) While the AP exam is well below the level of Spanish tested by the AOC (Administrative Office of Courts, not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), the prep and timeline is comparable. Like the AP test, we know that the FCICE test will focus on certain aspects of Spanish language aptitude. Students taking the AP Spanish test take Spanish IV and V for one to two years learning beginner and intermediate/advanced Spanish and then spend 3 months preparing for the final exam that will determine whether or not they have achieved the aptitude necessary to receive college credit and placement in the advanced junior/senior level Spanish courses.

That is the mindset you need to have going into prepping. The next exam will be in the Spring of 2020. That means you have one year to do your prep. The first nine months need to be spent learning and perfecting your Spanish and English language abilities. Three months prior to the testing window is when you flip the switch over to exam prep mode; by then, you will have already done all of the legwork to get your Spanish and English to the level necessary that you can now focus on how to effectively take the test.

This is where the GRE mindset comes into play. The Graduate Records Exam is the standardized test most college graduates take in order to apply for Masters and Doctorate programs in the liberal arts fields. The GRE assumes that all who are taking it have already done 3 or 4 years of their college education and have the knowledge necessary to sit the exam. But even the best college students will still need to familiarize themselves with the exam and work on honing the skills measured by the test. This is the moment where you finish doing your grammar lessons and reading your literature, legal texts, and periodicals and start working with your vocabulary sets, practice exams, and grammar and reading comprehension exercises.

When approaching these exams, it’s best to keep the same testing mindset as an AP student or GRE candidate. Both of these candidates know that there’s a minimum standard they must hit in order to get that college credit or qualify for graduate admissions. But like these students, we don’t want to aim for the minimum because that will rob us of the cushion we need in order to guarantee a passing score. An AP student may need a 3 to get college credit, but if she aims for the 3 she may fall short and only score a 2. However, if she aims for a 5 she’s giving herself the room to score a 5, 4, or 3, all scores which will give her the credit she needs. The written and oral exams are our admissions tests, and the goal is to get the score necessary to be admitted into federal court interpreting. We’re not going to shoot for the minimum 75. Go for the 100 so that you give yourself the 25 point cushion to pass. Shoot for the A+, but be happy if on test day you get the C that gets you through to the oral phase.

You may read this and groan at the suggestion of taking a whole year to prepare for the written test. You may even know people who crammed two weeks before the test and passed with flying colors. There’s always been that kid in school who sleeps through class, studies the night before, and gets the highest grade.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been that kid. Even in my strongest subjects, where I could have blown off studying because I knew that I had the material down, I never relied on my ability to just wing the exam. And when an exam costs over $200 a pop to take and is only offered during alternate years, why risk it?

Also, consider that most of us taking this test are working adults with jobs, responsibilities, spouses, kids, family functions/holidays, and pets that will eat away into our prep time. This isn’t going to go away magically in the three months prior to the test, so why not give yourself plenty of time to do the work?

Now that we know that our timeline is 1 year and we’re going to shoot for that A+, we can start talking exam substance in the next post.

6 thoughts on “An Autopsy of the Written FCICE, Part 1: The Mindset You Need

  1. Thank you very much. I did not pass the FCICE written. I di great in the English but not in the Spanish. I’m trying to read everything I can in Spanish so I can increase my vocabulary. Thanks for your tips!


    1. Hey there! Right now, Federal Certification only exists for Spanish. In the past, they offered examinations for Haitian Creole and Navajo, but those have been discontinued. I believe that for other languages, interpreters can be conditionally qualified but I’m unsure of the process. I would recommend posting on the forums to see if someone else could provide more insight.


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