An Autopsy of the Federal Oral Exam, Part 2: How to Study Smarter

Preparing for the federal oral exam can seem very daunting. With the pass rate in the single digits, it can intimidate even the best state court interpreters. We have to accept the fact that there is a significant difference between what the federal and state examiners demand of their candidates.

That being said, there are some great materials out there that will help you prepare for the exam. Before moving on to those in my next post, I want to talk about what I believe makes preparing for the federal oral exam so difficult for individuals making the transition from state court. Then, I want to share my study tips.

Please keep in mind that I am sharing what worked for me. If something here doesn’t work for you, then don’t do it. There’s more than one way to approach this, so do not limit yourself to my recommendations.

First, let’s talk about what I believe makes this examination so difficult.

General, Non-Legal Vocabulary

I’m sure some of you who have not taken the exam are rolling your eyes at this, but trust me. This is what gets most people on the exam. This is a court exam. We use a lot of the terminology already on a daily basis in our work. However, there is a vast amount of words and expressions in both English and Spanish that we simply don’t encounter regularly, but are common knowledge in the US and Latin America.

For example, how well do you know your geography terms? Once you leave the realm of continent, country, and city, do you know how to say lowlands? Unincorporated territory? Plateau? Tectonic plants? Moderate temperate climate?

What about animals? We all know how to say bird, but do you know how to say swallow, finch, or raven? How about housing terms? How do you differentiate between a shack with a dirt floor, a makeshift refuge, a slum, and a ghetto? 

And what about clothing? We all know how to say “hat”, but what about top hat, beanie, cowboy hat, or newspaper boy cap? (Note: None of these terms reflect what I encountered in the oral exam.)

This type of term, not a court term, is most likely to trip you up on the exam. They are peppered everywhere on the exam, not just in the expert witness exercise.

This is especially true for us native English speakers. We have the disadvantage of Spanish being our second language and living in an English-dominant country. We may know what a buzzard is, but not the Spanish equivalent. For Spanish speakers in the US, you may have forgotten some words from lack of use, triggering “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon.

The good news is that in preparing for the written exam, you’ve already expanded and refreshed your general knowledge. In my opinion, this is work you need to keep doing alongside your court interpreting exercises to diminish the likelihood that you’ll encounter an unknown term.

Federal Court Vocabulary versus State Court Vocabulary

While there is a lot of overlap between the two, there are differences between state and federal court vocabulary because they are two different systems that cover different crimes. The actors and departments are also slightly different. The good news is that the federal system is uniform across all 50 states, as are the federal agencies. You can learn the official names and the Spanish equivalents of Federal offenses without worrying about variations that could affect your interpreting choices.

It is important to be aware of these differences and study the appropriate terminology. Do not to get bogged down in learning terms that will only pop up in state court, because they’re not going to come up on the exam. At one point my team got caught up arguing over how to interpret petty theft, bringing up all of the different ways it’s classified in our states, until someone pointed out that this wasn’t super helpful because it’s not a federal charge that will pop up on the exam. In the federal courtroom? Maybe, if it’s listed as a past charge on a PSI. But otherwise, we were wasting time discussing something that was not going to be tested.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Developing Interpretation Strategies

Having gone through exam prep, the biggest lesson I took away is that part of our studying needs to focus on interpretation strategies. We already know two realities about this exam.

  1. Every candidate will encounter an unknown term or a term whose immediate equivalent is not known.
  2. No candidate will have access to dictionaries/glossaries or be able to pause the exam.

A lot of people are prone to panicking when the inevitable happens, which compromises how they perform on the rest of the exam. Yet, people don’t address how to reduce the probability of panic.

This is why part of your prep has to focus on what you will do to problem solve around an unknown term. You want to have a lot of different options in your interpreting toolbelt so that your confidence can stay up and you can keep going. Whether it’s finding a synonym, making an educated guess, keep the term in the original language, or skipping it all together, practice using this toolbelt.

The best way I found to do this? Always do a dry-run of each interpretation exercise, record it, and listen to how you do. We’re going in to the exam blind and will not have time to perfect our renditions, so replicate this scenario in your practice! This first go at an exercise is not about knowing the terminology perfectly or doing the most beautiful sounding rendition. It’s about practicing keeping your cool and developing your resourcefulness as an interpreter. As you strengthen these skills, it will reflect in your renditions because they’ll sound smoother and more cohesive. (More on this below.)

Speaking of which…

It’s Not All About the Scoring Units

Something I noted in interacting with other FCICE candidates is that so many of them got so bogged down in what could be potential scoring units and how to say a term “perfectly” and “correctly” that they completely neglected the fact that there is a holistic evaluation. As a result, they were missing out on a lot of great strategies and advice being given at different seminars and workshops.

Scoring units are incredibly important. However, our interpretations have to sound smooth, professional, and complete. We want our recordings to sound natural in the target language. When you’re doing an exercise and evaluating your recordings, don’t forget to factor in what the examiners will be taking into consideration in the holistic evaluation. Read the manual again to refresh yourself on the holistic and don’t forget it! It could be detrimental if you do.

With all of this in mind, what study tips can I give to help you study smarter?

1. Keep incorporating general, non-legal vocabulary into your studying. There are several different ways to incorporate this into your studying, such as: 

  • Reading from different sections of newspapers to pull vocabulary. Don’t just stick to the politics and legal sections! Take a look at arts & culture, science, etc.
  • Interpreting non-legal TED talks on YouTube
  • Reading books and short stories.
  • Actively listening to podcasts that cover a variety of subjects. For those who are English dominant like me, I highly recommend listening to The Washington Post’s Spanish language news podcast (“El Washington Post”).

Come up with different vocabulary categories with your study group. Make Quizlet sets for these words and study them alongside your legal and expert witness vocabulary with the caveat that it is impossible to study every single word out there. Don’t get overwhelmed by the fact that you didn’t have a chance to go over all of the names of chemicals and elements, musical instruments, or aquatic mammals. This is just meant to expand what you know since the exam also tests the limits of your general knowledge.

2. Start studying shortly after the written exam. This is a call back to my first post. A year may seem like a long time, but it will fly by quickly. After passing the written exam, I would start oral prep by going back to the basics and revisiting the materials you used to prep for the state exam. For my study group, this was ACEBO Edge. This will help you build a study habit, revisit terms you don’t get to see regularly, and start analyzing where you need to clean up your interpreting skills. 

Once the date of the oral exam is getting closer and the FCICE seminars and materials are being offered, you’ll have done important warmup work that will make the switch to harder materials more seamless.

3. Build a study schedule. A study schedule won’t just keep you accountable. Sure, it will help you plan out your studying ahead of time, but it will also give you a realistic perspective on how much time you’re dedicating to each mode of interpretation and terminology.

It’s important to have this information in hand, because you will reach a point where you won’t need to divide your time equally among the different modes. For example, by the time I was six weeks out from the exam, I was a beast at the consecutive exercises. However, I still needed a lot of work on my fast simultaneous and finishing my sight translations within the 5-minute time limit. I adjusted my schedule and dedicated less time to consecutive.

4. Do not skimp on shadowing, memory, chunking, and paraphrasing exercises. The basics are incredibly important. The greatest athletes revisit the basics in order to be in the best shape for competition. We also need to revisit these basics! These exercises are crucial to helping you keep your cool and build the problem-solving skills the examiners will be evaluating in your renditions.

5. About Note-Taking… Note-taking is an important skill for long consecutive. However, I think people preparing for this test make two mistakes. First, some try to change or adopt a note-taking technique way too close to the exam date. When I was learning note-taking, it slowed me down a lot. It wasn’t until after over a month of practice that note-taking started working for me instead of against me. If you’re thinking about learning or changing note-taking technique, do this well in advance of the oral exam. If you’re only a few months out, wait until after the exam to do this.

Second, people forget that an important part of doing consecutive is developing your listening skills. When prepping for consecutive, in my exercises I started challenging myself to take the least number of notes possible and push my memory retention. This allowed me to be more judicious in my note-taking strategy. This is something you can do without slowing down your consecutive abilities.

6. Take Breaks. This one may sound obvious, but it needs to be said. When I first started working on the harder exercises, I would reach a point of frustration where I was not improving and my study time became less productive. Recognize when you’ve reached this point, put down the books, and step away. If you keep going, you’ll only get more frustrated. Whenever this happened to me, I would set the interpreting exercise aside for 24 hours and work on vocabulary for the rest of my study time. The next day, I found that when I revisited the exercise, I could do it without that same level of frustration. Be kind to yourself and step away when needed. If not, failing to get an exercise right multiple times will begin to affect your confidence.

7. Do each exercise at least three times, each with a different intention. Remember, in the federal exam we’re being evaluated on scoring units and holistically. It’s important to study in a way that will address both of these aspects of the evaluation. Each time I did an exercise, I did it with a different intention. Round One was my “cold” rendition of the exercise. The focus here is NOT on doing a perfect interpretation or making all of the right word choices. Here, the focus is building problem-solving skills and seeing if you can still produce a good, coherent interpretation even when encountering unknown terminology, long renditions, and complex grammatical restructuring. After evaluating this rendition, you can go back and look at what terminology you need to study and develop a strategy for sentence restructuring. After studying this, do Round Two, which is where you can evaluate yourself for scoring units, in addition to the holistic aspects. After additional study, do Round Three to perfect it and get a final evaluation.

8. Test your retention by repeating a challenging exercise a day or two later. This is a technique that helped me pinpoint which areas of vocab and technique I still needed to work on. After doing and perfecting my rendition on an exercise, I would go back and repeat it after one or two days had passed. While not a totally “blind” exercise, enough time had passed that allowed me to see which terms had stuck, which ones I still needed to study, and if I needed to improve any problem-solving techniques to make my interpretation flow more smoothly.

9. Put aside your pride and make peace with the legal terms the AOC examiners will accept. For this exam, if a legal term is in an accepted authoritative text, it will be accepted by the examiners. It could very well be that you’ve been using another term not found in these texts and you feel frustrated that what you believe is correct isn’t accepted by examiners. I understand this, but the federal exam is not the place to make a point or fight about this. I also want to emphasize that you should not have this fight at prep seminars. The only thing that will end up happening is time will be wasted and your other colleagues attending the course will be mad that this ate into valuable class time. If you’re given acceptable terms, make your peace, study them, and move on. After you’ve gotten your federal certification and are invited to be an examiner, you can have this discussion to try and get your term added to the list.

10. Share your renditions with your team members. It’s so important to get feedback from your group members. They will notice both positives and negatives in your interpretations that will help you get a more honest picture of your skills. They will also help you figure out how to make linguistic choices to eliminate any awkwardness in your interpretations.

Ultimately, what matters is the attitude that you bring to exam prep. Like in our real work, we need to balance a healthy dose of humility with confidence in our abilities. If you’ve already achieved state court certification and have been keeping up with your continuing education, you’re already a good interpreter with strong abilities. However, the federal exam is asking you to push past what you have, grow into a great interpreter, and reach a higher aptitude. Therefore, you have to acknowledge that while you do know something, you don’t know everything. Your study group partners and materials are offering opportunities and resources to learn something new and reach the level the examiners are seeking.

Welcome the growing pains instead of fighting against them. After all, if you refuse to budge on the basis that you’re already a good state court interpreter, you’ll remain a good state court interpreter. But you won’t grow into a great federal court candidate.

In part three, I’ll present and evaluate the prep materials I used to study.

Read Part 3 here.

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