An Autopsy of the Federal Oral Exam, Part 1: Myth Busting, Preparing to Study, and a Winning Mentality

A few weeks ago, I took the Federal Oral Exam for the first time. This exam cycle has been a roller coaster of uncertainty and anxiety, following the 2017 debacle. I won’t know what my results are until a few more weeks, but what I can tell you is that I walked out of that exam proud of my performance. I do not know if that feeling will translate to a passing score. I still have my reservations about that. But I came out on the other side feeling more positive about being able to achieve federal certification.

Much like I did with the written exam, after a few weeks of digestion and reflection, I want to share my thoughts on my experience with the oral exam. Having gone through it once, I feel like much of the mystery surrounding the exam has been lifted and it is no longer this legendary, invincible monster. It is only fair to share this with my colleagues in the hopes that I can inspire them to put in the work towards federal certification.

Before I delve in, I want to be very clear about what I will not be doing:

First, I will NOT be giving a detailed account of my exam content. That goes explicitly against the oath that test takers sign and I will not break it. I’ve seen people sharing this information openly in forums and, quite frankly, I am shocked they have the audacity to do so. Additionally, I firmly believe that it won’t be of any help to give you those specifics. After all, the version given in 2021 will be different. That is not what you need to know in order to prepare to become a federal court interpreter. Remember, this is not just about passing the exam. It’s about making sure you’re ready to work in federal court.

Second, I will NOT be divulging information or materials that were shared with me in the different prep courses that I decided to take. That intellectual property belongs to my colleagues and I am not about to pass along their hard work freely to others. They’ve put in a tremendous effort in preparing their materials, and I will not disrespect nor devalue them. 

What I am sharing are my own personal lessons and conclusions. In a future post, I will also share my own evaluation of the materials and seminars I used to help you decide where you want to invest your time and resources.

Lastly, this will not be a forum where I try to play the blame game and complain about how unfair the AOC or the examiners are. I have no patience for pity parties. They won’t get you a passing score or do you any good, so best to break that habit right now. I truly believe that, administrative issues aside, the ability to pass this exam falls squarely on our shoulders. What I will do is provide reflections on what the AOC did right, where they still need to improve, and possible changes to consider for future examinations.

Now that we’ve cleared this up, let’s dive into the oral exam.

In this first post, I want to focus on putting a lot of the rumors about this exam to rest and set the right mentality for going into this exam. Whenever there’s an unknown, there’s a great fear of that unknown. I am here to try and dispel that fear for you.

1. Myth Buster 1: This Exam is Doable

Do not adjust your computer screens. No, that is not a typo. This exam is a lot of things. It is the toughest licensing examination I have ever taken. (Yup, it’s tougher than the New York Bar Exam, and I passed that sucker.) It is incredibly demanding. It is one of the hardest interpretation exams in the United States. And it was a pain in my ass from June to December of this year.

However…

It is 100% possible to pass this examination. The Bar Exam, like other exams, is teachable. One of the reasons I believe the FCICE Oral is tough is because it is not a teachable exam. You cannot learn how to “beat the test”, like you can with the bar or with standardized tests like the SAT. You either have or have not developed your interpreting and language abilities enough to pass it. The good news is that you can put in the work to reach the aptitude to pass this exam.

There is no mysterious formula. You cannot bribe your way in. This is a profession where we do very sensitive work. The barrier is present and high, but it serves an important purpose. This is not an exam built to validate professional snobbery. No one is hiding the ball or setting an impossible standard. Granted, they can’t lower the standard to let anyone in just for giving it the old college try. This is an exam to determine who is ready to work in federal court, so it must be difficult but passable.

I could get a failing grade in a few weeks and I will still firmly believe and affirm that this exam is fair and doable. [2020 Update: I did not pass on my first try and I still stand by this.]

2. Myth Buster 2: The Examiners are NOT trying to fail you

Yet again, do not adjust your screens. The examiners are NOT. TRYING. TO. FAIL. US. I think this sentiment comes from the very real perception that within our profession, there are certain seasoned interpreters who are not willing to be open with those aspiring to professional interpretation. Having said that, I believe that the examiners are not going into this with the goal of trying to fail as many candidates as possible.

The reality is that their recommendation will tell the US government and the public at large who they deem to be ready to work in federal court. It is a heavy burden and responsibility, especially in a profession where, literally, one word makes or breaks someone’s life. The standard they are setting is high and they cannot (and should not) compromise it. I don’t blame them. I don’t want someone telling me I’m ready to work in federal court when the fact of the matter is that I am not. 

With the baby boomer generation getting ready to retire and there not being enough new federal interpreters to replace the old guard, there is an incentive to try to find as many great candidates who meet the criteria as possible. It is nonsensical to think that the examiners want to keep new interpreters out.

You need to get it out of your heads that the examiners get some kind of sadistic pleasure from tearing apart interpreters before you can start preparing for this exam in earnest. They will be very tough, but fair.

3. There is no shortcut or miracle solution to preparing for this exam

The way to successfully prepare for the federal exam? Putting in a lot of time into studying vocabulary and polishing interpretation technique over several months.

That’s it. I have no magical shortcut for you. It’s just a lot of hard work and hours of studying.

There is no magical test taking technique, like the SAT or the GRE. There’s just you, your knowledge, and your interpreting abilities.

Having said that, there are wrong ways and smarter ways to prepare for this exam and I will offer my thoughts on how you can use your prep time wisely, including my thoughts on what I wish I had done differently and will do in the event that I have to take it again in 2021.

4. Team Work is Key

I would not have survived this exam without my study group. I love my FCICE war buddies dearly and am so grateful to them for putting up with my neuroses. Here are a few reasons a study group is key to keeping your sanity:

A. Accountability: A study group will help set the pace of studying and keep you on schedule. You’ll be accountable, not just to yourself, but to the group. Our fearless leader set up an intensive study schedule and cracked the whip when needed. When you’re a few months out from test day, you’ll want to make excuses to avoid studying. You’ll be thankful for the earlier work you put in when the exam is a month away and you’re not stuck cramming for everything at the last minute.

B. Modifying Your Study Schedule: Working with others, you’ll be able to adapt your studying strategy as you go to study smarter. Trust me, how you study and your focus will evolve alongside your abilities.

C. Pooling Sources: With your study group, you can pool many resources. I’m not just talking about glossaries. Your group members will also be a great resource, especially if you make sure to have a balance of Spanish and English dominant members. Hearing someone interpret into their native language is immensely helpful. They’ll also give you important feedback on your renditions and catch things you missed in your self-evaluations. Additionally, group members serve as an important sound board whenever you’re working through a tricky exercise or are trying to find the best way to interpret an idea.

D. Divide and conquer: A big part of preparation for the federal oral exam is building legal and general glossaries. It goes much faster and is way more productive when you have four or five people working on these sets.

E. Administrative Snafus: Unfortunately, the 2019 oral exam was not free of administrative problems. During these times, it was great having people I could immediately contact to see if they were facing the same issues, keep my cool, and strategize on how to deal with the situation. Sometimes, you also just need to vent out your frustrations. Who better to do this with than with colleagues going through the exact same thing?

F. Your Biggest Cheerleaders: A significant part of succeeding on any examination is moral support. With an exam as notorious as this one, it can be easy to get down on yourself and let nerves get the best of you. Your group members will be your biggest cheerleaders going into the exam. It also means more because they are fellow colleagues who understand just how much preparation goes into this and how important this exam is for us. As much as our spouses, family, and friends may be reassuring and supportive, they’re not going through this experience. It means so much more when fellow interpreters who have been with you and seen you improve affirm this progress.

Added bonus: you’ll end up with some lifelong friends. My group members came from all over the country (thanks technology!) and they are now some of my most loved colleagues. The bond between us runs so deep that I truly feel like we’re family. This was especially touching for me, as I’m in a part of the country where professional interpreters are scarce and it can get a little lonely.

5. Be prepared to cut back on work and carve out real study time.

I’m going to be blunt. From the moment you receive your passing score on the written or your failing score on the oral, preparing for the next oral exam will be your part time job. You can absolutely still work while you prepare for the exam. However, from personal experience, you’re going to reach a point in which you have to cut back on work, in addition to social and family engagements, in order to truly dedicate yourself to the prep work this exam demands.

This is not unusual for most professional exams. Look at the bar exam. When you graduate law school in the United States, you normally do not start working until after the bar exam is over. It is two and a half months dedicated to full time studying for this exam. Employers take this into account, because they know that it is much more difficult to pass the bar if you’re trying to work at the same time. They want their new recruits to be licensed as quickly as possible, so they make sure their start dates are in September to give them that room. If someone does not pass the first time around, these lawyers will be put on a part-time schedule or given a sabbatical to prepare for the February exams.

We are professionals. Treat this like the bar or medical board exams. I was working full time through mid-October. During that time, I would study for one to two hours a day. However, once I was six weeks out, I limited my work to no more than 20 hours a week. Typically, I would work either in the morning or afternoon and dedicate the other half to studying. Other times, I would work a three-day week, where I would study for an hour those days and dedicate my full time to studying during the other two work days. On weekends, I would be at the library for at least 3 hours a day.

My advice is to plan ahead of time with your employers, clients, and families. Set aside this time on your calendar in advanced (and any necessary monetary savings) so you’re not scrambling to make it work at the last minute.

Having said that, it is incredibly important to set aside down time to put interpreting aside and decompress. Whether it’s gardening, yoga, your kids, or the latest TV show, dedicate an hour or two to it a day. Even though I cut off social engagements the month before the exam, I still made sure to exercise six days a week. It was an hour and half I would have almost every day to just put on some music, an Audible book, or a podcast and rest my brain. Those 90 minutes were crucial to having successful study sessions.

6. The goal is not perfection, it’s excellence

There is no such thing as a perfect interpreter. The examiners are not looking for perfect interpreters. If they were, we’d need to get 100% of the scoring units and a perfect evaluation on the holistic to pass. No one would be federally certified with that standard.

However, you have to be an excellent court interpreter and show the aptitude to become the best of the best. It’s okay to make mistakes in your exercises and on exam day. This is a timed and controlled setting where we do not have the resources at our disposal to render a perfect interpretation. In an exam, we can’t ask for the court’s indulgence. We can’t look something up in Becerra, Tomasi, or a bilingual dictionary. We’re limited to two repetitions on the consecutive. We don’t have our interpreting team member there to act as support. Mistakes will happen. You need to accept, right this moment, that you will not know everything presented. Everyone who is federally certified messed up somewhere on this exam. Give yourself that permission to make mistakes.

A “perfect” standard, especially here, is the enemy of the good. Leave perfect behind. Instead, focus on being the best interpreter you can be.

In my next post, I’ll get into the nitty gritty of exam prep and materials.

Read Part 2 here.

3 thoughts on “An Autopsy of the Federal Oral Exam, Part 1: Myth Busting, Preparing to Study, and a Winning Mentality

  1. Thanks for the great insight, I am on “recovery mode” after my first try, which was almost by accident. I was not planning on trying out just yet but a dare from some colleagues prompted me to first do the practice written and then sign up for the exam (just a few days apart one from the other), I turned out to be “that kid” that you talk about in your previous post about the written. I decided to sign up for the oral, just to asses my shortcomings; now I know them and your blog is going to help me figure out a good strategy to work efficiently and improve, not necessarily to pass the exam, but to set myself on a path of perpetual improvement.

    Like

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