We’re now in the Spring of the Written Exam cycle, about three months out from the testing window. You’ve already got your FICE mindset in place and have done all your language skills building over the past nine months. Now, it’s finally time to get down to business and prepare for the examination.
This is where standardized and aptitude testing skills come into play. If you were born on or after 1980 and raised in the US, congratulations on being a millennial. We haven’t had the best hand dealt to us and are constantly berated in the press as entitled children (even though the older millennials are pushing 40…), but here’s where being a US millennial is to your advantage. For better or worse, we are the generation that had standardized testing drilled into us since kindergarten. Without getting into the merits debate on testing, we’re the generation that knows exactly what test prep mode means: knowing what the examiners want, studying smart around their goals, and being able to do it in a timed testing environment.
If tests send you into a panic, don’t worry! This exam, unlike the SAT, is still 80% knowledge, 20% test taking skills. You already spent 9 months focusing on the knowledge part. The test taking part is extremely teachable. Your goal from now until the testing window is to hone in the skills that will make you feel confident when you walk into your test.
Note: If you deal with crippling testing anxiety, especially with aptitude testing, I highly recommend seeking mental health services well before the exam to work with a professional on cognitive strategies and medication to overcome this anxiety.
From my experience with the Written FCICE, here’s what you need to know:
Familiarize yourself with the exam format and logistics
As of the year 2019, PPTF (Post-Paradigm Testing Fiasco), here are the exam logistics:
- The test administrator is Prometric. I’ve had amazing experiences with Prometric in the past, and the Written Exam is one of them. They are professional, courteous, and have everything you will need on site. I sincerely hope the AOC keeps them on as the administrator.
- The written exam is computerized. The software is extremely manageable and contains the following features:
- You can skip to different parts of the exam and are not forced to go in the order in which the sections are presented.
- The program allows you to strikethrough answer choices, so you can visualize which answers you’re eliminating. (The exam is multiple choice.)
- In the reading comprehension portion, there is a feature where you can highlight parts of the text. These portions will remain highlighted as you move through the passage’s accompanying questions.
- There is a timer that will alert you when there is 1 hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, and 5 minutes left.
- You can flag questions that you want to come back to and there’s a navigation page that will show you where all of your marked questions are.
- If the timer runs out, the program will grade all of the answers you’ve marked, even those that are still flagged. Flagging a question won’t affect your score.
- Prior to your test starting, you will be given a last minute option to opt out of the exam for cases like being sick the day of testing. You probably won’t use it, but it’s there if you need it.
- You will also have 15 minutes to do an exam software tutorial. These 15 minutes do NOT count towards your exam time. Take as long as you need to do the tutorial and use the time to catch your breath. Any time leftover on the tutorial WILL NOT be added to your set testing time. The clock restarts once you start the exam.
- During the test, you will be given laminated sheets with an expo marker as your “scratch paper and pencil”. Once you use up all of your sheets, you can raise your hand and the proctor will bring you new ones.
- There are two formats of the exam that can be administered:
- Format 1: 160 questions total (80 English, 80 Spanish) and 2 hours 30 minutes to complete the test. This is the version I took in 2019.
- Format 2: 200 questions total (100 English, 100 Spanish) and 3 hours 15 minutes to complete the test. When this version is administered, the AOC is testing out “experimental questions” for future tests. You will not be able to differentiate between the experimental questions, which won’t be counted towards your score, and the real test questions.
And this is the format of the exam:
- One English and One Spanish Portion
- Each portion has Five sections: Reading Comprehension, Usage, Error Detection, Synonyms, and Best Translation (Spanish into English for the former; English into Spanish for the latter)
- In a Format 1 year:
- Reading Comprehension will have two general texts and two legal texts, 16 questions total
- Usage, ED, Synonyms, and BT will all have 16 questions per section.
- In a Format 2 year:
- Based off of retired exams, Reading Comprehension will have five passages. The extra passage will either be legal or general. The question total will be 20 questions.
- Usage, ED, Synonyms, and BT will all have 20 questions per section.
- In the Usage Section you will be tested on grammatical errors, homonyms, idioms, and sayings.
- Error Detection will focus on grammatical and writing errors.
- Best Translations focus on legal terminology and translation.
I want to note that as of the Spring of 2019, there is a major misprint in the manual, regarding question amount. The manual currently states that the test is 200 questions long, with two and half hours allotted for testing. This is incorrect. Two and a half hours of testing time is for tests that are 160 questions long. A few people have tried to bring this to the attention of the AOC, but so far the mistake has not been corrected. So prepare yourself for the formats and logistics that I mentioned above.
“I know what to expect on testing day, but what are the graders testing?“
We’ve got logistics and format out of the way. Now, let’s look at who the AOC is looking to eliminate as a prospective Federal Interpreter Candidate. This exam eliminates those who:
- Do not have the reading comprehension skills to be able to comprehend and analyze high register texts in American English and the whole gamut of Latin American Spanish, quickly and efficiently.
- Have not had the formal training in grammar in both their native and second language.
- Have not familiarized themselves enough with their second language to distinguish between homophones (words that sound alike, but have different meanings) and recognize false cognates.
- Have not been exposed to a wide range of every day and high register, post graduate vocabulary.
- Are not familiar with idiomatic expressions and sayings. They have a particular emphasis on idioms.
- Are not familiar with the formal, accepted translations of legal concepts and phrasing between US and Latin American legal language.
The good news is that during the past 9 months, you have been skills building in almost all of those areas. Now, it’s a matter of applying those skills to an aptitude tests. Let’s go through each section and look at the recommended materials:
Reading Comprehension and Best Translation
Almost every written exam candidate that I’ve talked to dreads the reading comprehension exam. I get it. It’s by far the longest and most tedious part of the exam. However, it is also, in my opinion, one of the easiest sections.
How on earth can reading high register texts in a timed setting be considered easy?
Simple: For the majority of the questions, the answer can always be found in the passage. It won’t be staring you right in the face, but once you learn how to approach reading comprehension passages, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll be able to spot the right answers.
Again, luckily, these questions are modeled on the GRE and there’s plenty of test prep material out.
For testing strategy and English reading comp practice, I recommend the following from Manhattan Prep:
- If you’ve never taken the GRE or have not done well on reading comp in the past, I recommend Manhattan Prep GRE Guide 7: Reading Comprehension and Essays. This book will lay out reading comp strategy and comes with some Easy, Medium, and Hard exercises.
- For additional exercises, the 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems will give you more than enough practice sets to last you a lifetime. You’ll also get English vocabulary practice problems that will help with the synonyms portion.
There are, unfortunately, not a lot of testing-specific resources in Spanish that are at the same level as the English resources. However, the techniques you learn from Manhattan Prep are easily applicable to the Spanish passages. These are the practice sources I would recommend.
- For exposure to a typical exam format, I would look at the Chilean university entrance exams. While not quite at the register that you’ll be getting on the FCICE, it’s still some good practice.
- For practice reading extremely high register Spanish texts from different subjects, I recommend reading critically and analyzing passages selected by PhD programs admissions. These texts are extremely challenging and are at a higher register than the ones you’ll get on the FCICE; if you can master them, you’ll have no problem tackling the exam passages. These are the links to the passages I’ve found:
For the legal portion of the reading comprehension exam as well as Best Translation, I’ve come across a similar problem in finding adequate resources in Spanish. What I have noticed is that the passages tend to come from civil law and the areas of criminal law that are dealt with more in the federal system but that we don’t get to see as much interpreting in the state system. The examiners want to make sure that we can read civil codes and documents and aren’t just well versed in the criminal side of things.
- For English, you can look at the myriad of Federal Civil Codes available online. Avoid state codes and focus on codes from the federal government. I would also recommend reading sample contracts, wills, and banking documents. The best approach would be to pick a section of the document and analyze it to see if you can understand what it’s saying and break it down into simple terms. If you’re able to cut through the fluff of legal language and get to the essence of the text, you’re golden for the exam.
- You should apply a similar strategy for Spanish. Because of my training in written translation, I’ve had exposure to civil legal documents in Spanish. Unfortunately, I cannot seem to find a good resource of sample documents online. I welcome any suggestions. I would also suggest looking at the criminal and civil codes from different Spanish speaking countries. For criminal codes, make sure to focus more on higher level and white collar crimes. Look at the format and specific language that the drafters use for these laws.
- For further Best Translation practice, if you have at least 5 members in your study group, you can purchase a slightly discounted subscription to Javier Beccera’s Online Legal Bilingual Dictionary. Break down legal texts in English and see if you can find the best translations for the terms in those documents in Beccera’s dictionary. I also recommend Thomas L. West’s dictionary to do this exercise from Spanish into English, as his dictionary is formatted from Spanish into English, especially for business documents.
Remember, the more exposed you are to legal language, the easier it will be for you to zero-in on what’s being discussed and the appropriate ways these concepts are presented in each language.
The other fear candidates have about Reading Comprehension is that it will eat into the majority of their testing time. Yes, Reading Comprehension takes up the majority of your testing time, but if you’re in a good spot and have adopted the reading comp strategies that work for you, each passage will take you between 5-7 minutes to read and answer the questions.
Usage and Error Detection
Reading Comprehension may take up the majority of your time, but if you’ve put in the work to expand your language and grammar knowledge, you should be able to fly through the rest of the exam. Each one of the remaining sections took me about 4 minutes to complete.
The key to Usage and Error Detection are:
- Having a good command of complex grammar constructions.
- Knowing the common errors made by native speakers
- Having a good knowledge of the common homophones in each language (In English, for example, knowing the difference between “there, their, and they’re”.) The Blue Book of Grammar covers homophones in English. For those in Spanish, here’s a list of homophones to get you started.
- Knowing your parts of sentence.
- Being familiar with common idiomatic expressions.
Again, the good news is that you’ve already spent 9 months fine-tuning your grammar, exposing yourself to different texts, and learning your idiomatic expressions. You’re 80% of the way there.
In terms of materials, the Chilean entrance exams should also be a great help in being exposed to a testing format in Spanish. For practice with English grammar error detection, I recommend studying from Kaplan’s ACT English, Reading, and Writing Prep.
“Okay, but those sentences the examiners give us are so long and complex!”
Yes, I know. They’re not super easy sentences, but they’re constructed to make sure you know how to analyze a sentence for grammar. I approached the way grammar was tested in Usage and Error Detection a little differently.
For Usage, you’re given one sentence written in four different ways. You have to pick the one that’s correctly written. It can be overwhelming when you first see them. But the trick is that they’re usually testing just two concepts in that sentence. First, you need to identify which two concepts they’re testing. I did this by comparing option A and B first and noting the differences. Once you identify the two elements being tested, you can go through all four options and eliminate the ones that are written incorrectly. Remember: both elements must be correct in order to be the right answer.
For Error Detection, you’re given a passage that’s divided into individual sentences. In each sentence, three elements of the sentence are underlined and you must decide whether one of those contain an error or if they are all correct. Because these sentences make up a passage, they tend to be long, wordy, and complex. I think most test takers experience panic when they see the length of the sentence, but there is a trick to tackling these.
What I recommend is reading the entire sentence first. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and when you read the sentence, the error will be apparent immediately. However, most of the time, you’ll need to go back in and analyze the sentence. Go through each element that’s underlined and identify what the examiners are testing with that underlined portion. If it’s an adjective or adverb, is the agreement appropriate? If it’s a verb, is there proper subject/verb agreement? Is the verb in the right tense for the sentence? Is there an accent missing or is the incorrect homonym being used? If you can’t find an error the first time, double-check each element to make sure there is truly no error.
The examiners love throwing in a lot of prepositional phrases and independent clauses in there to make the sentences wordier and obscure the connections between the subjects, verbs, and adjectives/adverbs. In order to get some practice breaking down a sentence, grab an old practice exam you’ve already taken and practice segmenting those sentences.
As you do your practice exams and notice areas where you’re still weak, use your Practising Spanish and Blue Book to go back and review those areas where you’re weakest.
The synonyms portion can be a double-edged sword. One the one hand, if you have a good command of vocabulary, you’ll fly through this section and easily score the majority of the points. On the other, if you encounter words you don’t know, the questions are written in a way where you can’t use context clues to find the answer through process of elimination. You’re best shot, at that point, is to guess.
Preparing for the synonyms section is relatively easy. Again, if you did your book clubs throughout the year before the test, then you’re in a good position to recognize the words you’re given. Especially for the Spanish portion, I recommend keeping a glossary of new words you’ve pulled from those texts. You can use these words to start building a study set. I recommend using Quizlet as the platform for building your study sets. They have both free and premium membership.
You can pull additional Spanish words from the Selecciones website. Selecciones is the Mexican version of Reader’s Digest. They have archives of high register vocabulary quizzes put together by someone from the Real Academia Española. One caveat: sometimes when they convert the quizzes to the online version, misprints regarding the correct answers happen, so just make sure to double check the answers being given using the Real Academia’s online dictionary.
For English terminology, Manhattan Prep has two sets of 500 words (1000 total) of the most common terms to pop up on the GRE. These will also pop up on the Federal exam. I recommend getting both the essential and advance sets, especially if English is your second language. While there are a few false cognates, knowing Spanish will be a great help for those English words with Latin or French roots. Focus more on the Germanic and Celtic based terms.
When it comes to testing day, you either know the words presented or you don’t. If you don’t, staring at the screen won’t give you the answer. Pick your best guess and move on.
Alright. I have my resources. How much time should I dedicate to studying?
This is going to be up to each individual and their schedule, but there are a few things every candidate should keep in mind. First, this exam only comes around once every other year. Second, this exam costs over $200 to take. Third, you cannot move onto the oral portion until you pass this test.
Treat this exam like you’re using it to apply to graduate school. You want to get the score you need to be accepted. Remember what we talked about in the first post: we’re all aiming for an A even though we know a C will get us in, because we don’t want to sacrifice 25 percentage points of cushion.
All of that being said, at minimum for the 3 months prior to the exam testing window you should be dedicating at least 2 hours a day to studying, five days a week. Now, if you have an amazing, near 100% bilingual command of Spanish and English, you may not have to do as much work. But in my opinion, it’s better to sacrifice a little bit more of your time now than risk having to do this whole process all over again in the future. Plan accordingly to make room for any important events that will take you away from your studying. Adjust your work schedule as much as you can while you’re doing test prep. Let your boss or colleagues know what you’re doing so they can help give you as much balance in your professional life as possible to let you study.
Once that testing window hits, all of your studying should be done because at that point you won’t be able to absorb enough new information to make a significant impact on your language aptitude. As you wait for your date to come up in that window, you should only be doing those exercises that will help boost your confidence going into that exam.
What about all of those practice tests?
There are two main sources for practice tests. The first is the one offered on the Prometric Website by the AOC. This version is 160 questions long and will give you a good feel for how the test is formatted. My one word of warning is that this test, in my opinion, is slightly easier than the real thing. However, it’s a great way to set a benchmark for the areas you need to work on.
The second source for practice tests is the University of Arizona. They sell two practice tests, and I highly recommend getting both of them. These tests are 200 questions long, so allot 3 hours and 15 minutes to take them. Both of these practice tests, in contrast to the AOC’s, are more difficult than the test you’ll have. The real thing will falls somewhere in the middle. However, these tests are great to really push your skills and point out where your critical weaknesses are.
Here’s how I recommend using the practice tests
- Before you start studying, take the AOC’s practice test under real testing conditions. Use the results of this test to build your initial study plan and determine what are the areas where you need more work.
- At the end of the first month of studying, take Arizona’s Practice Test A under real testing conditions. Remember, Arizona’s test is much harder, so don’t be too discouraged by the score you get. Again, analyze where you did well and where you need more work and adjust your study plan accordingly.
- At the end of month 2, take Arizona’s Practice Test B under real testing conditions. Use it again to adjust your study plan.
- When analyzing your tests, set aside time to go through every question. Analyze each answer choice and see if you can determine why each answer is right or wrong. This will give you deeper insight into what you need to go over.
- In the last month before the exam, do the AOC and one of the Arizona practice exams “open book”; what I mean by this is do each section as a practice exercise and give yourself room to look up answers, etc. This will help you see how you’ve improved since you started.
- About two weeks out from the exam testing window, take the other Arizona practice exam over again, in real testing conditions. Use this test to analyze and make any final changes you want to your approach on testing day. This would be the sitting to experiment with what order you do the sections, etc.
Again, please remember that most practice tests are purposefully written to be harder than the real thing so that you’re prepared for anything that’s thrown your way on test day. If you’ve put in the work, it’s still worth taking the exam even if your scores on the Arizona tests are less than encouraging.
I see that some organizations offer seminars on the Federal Written Exams. Are any of them worth it?
In my experience, these seminars serve to orient prospective candidates on what to expect on the exam. I have yet to encounter anyone offering a test prep program similar to what you’d get for the SAT or GRE. If you want the assurance of having experienced professionals break down this exam for you so that you have 100% confidence on what to expect on testing day, then go ahead and sign up for a course.
But if you feel confident in what you need to do to prepare, these courses aren’t mandatory. I’d save that money and invest it in seminars that will help you prepare for the oral phase of the exam.
If I had to pick one above the others, I’d say go with Transinterpreting’s FCICE Written Exam seminar, because they go into a little more detail about what is typically tested on the written examination and offer access to some glossaries that contain terminology you could add to your word-banks.
Let’s wrap things up
Before I finish, I want to give one word of advice. I highly recommend scheduling your test for the earliest date possible. As you can see from the advice I’ve given, you need to be doing a lot of your studying well in advance of the exam. If you’ve done the proper amount of prep, it won’t matter if you take your test on the first or last day. Get it over with as soon as you can instead of allowing time for nerves to build up.
I also recommend signing up for the earliest date as a contingency in case something happens that would force you to reschedule your test. Better have this happen early in the testing window so you can still have the opportunity to reschedule in case of a family or personal emergency, illness, etc.
With all of that said, the resources I’ve listed are not the only ones out there. I’m sure they’ll eventually be outdated, so I highly recommend staying in touch with colleagues on the different social media platforms to stay up to date on the latest resources.
I wish you guys the best of luck! Feel free to comment or reach out if you have any questions!