You Failed the Federal Oral Exam…Now What?

As you can see from the title, my first go at the federal oral exam was not successful. Results for the 2019 exam are rolling in and people are sharing them both publicly and privately. I want to take a brief interlude from the breakdown of my exam prep experience to talk about how you can process falling short on an interpretation exam. My hope is that by opening up about my experience, I can help others who are feeling discouraged find the energy to keep pursuing certification.

(Don’t worry, I’ll still share my thoughts on prep materials, etc., before finally blogging about different topics.)

First of all, I want to give a huge congratulations to all of the successful candidates! I know just how much time and effort you dedicated to this exam and am so excited that all of your hard work has paid off. You deserve this and I hope you relish in your accomplishment. I know all of you will bring talent and integrity to the federal system and the profession as a whole.

I especially want to shout out my prep team. As of today, we have found out that one of our study partners was successful in passing with a really solid score. (One member is still waiting for her results…more on administrative snafus in a different post.) While the rest of us did not pass, we are still incredibly proud of our teammate and celebrate his accomplishment as if it were our own. Even if he was the only one to pass, we still beat the national passing rate, which sits well under 10%. Statistics would’ve predicted none of us passing and we beat those odds.

Candidates taking this notorious exam are at different points in their careers. Some have years of experience working in state courts. Others may be newer but wanted to take their shot after passing the written exam. Some candidates are already highly skilled and working in conference interpretation. Others may have bypassed the state interpretation exam all together and are going straight for federal certification. And the majority of annual test takers are not taking it for the first (or second, or third, or fourth…) time.

My point is that candidates are going into the federal oral exam with different backgrounds and levels of experience. There can be many factors contributing to a non-passing score. I’m not going to talk about those today, though I would like to write on it to provide aspiring interpreters with a reflection tool. Today, I just want give you a pep talk to help you process this disappointing news.

1. Be Proud of Yourself

Maybe you didn’t pass, but I still congratulate you on taking the time to prepare and actually sit this exam. Because of its infamy, a lot of people panic at the last minute and either decide not to do it or walk out in the middle of it. This happens so often that the proctor has to say as part of the instructions, “If you decide to stop the exam, I will encourage you to continue.” You didn’t quit. You went into this exam knowing just how demanding and nerve-wracking it is and you still finished it. That takes guts.

After taking an amazing prep course in November (more on that in a separate post) where I got to see some of the best candidates in action, and had my mini professional crisis, I made my peace with the fact that this was not my time to pass. After a rough period of self-reflection, I realized that I still needed to do more court interpreting skills building in order to be at the level of my colleagues who were ready. At the exit assessment, I asked one of the instructors if it was even worth my taking this exam. He, in turn, asked me what I had to lose by doing so. In that moment, it dawned on me that I had nothing to lose. All I could do was take what I had learned over those days, try to address my weak areas in the remaining three weeks, and see what happened. 

I’m glad I did because now I know this exam is nothing to be afraid of. Had I not done so, the exam would still remain a mystery. That right there is an important small victory.

2. This Does Not Cancel Out Past Accomplishments.

The prestige afforded to this exam can make failing it difficult to swallow. As Spanish language professionals in the United States, we are encouraged to obtain federal certification to solidify our credentials. Because of this, failing it can make us belittle all of our accomplishments on our professional journey. This, combined with a desire to make sure we’re not seen one of those “paraprofessionals” trying to profit off of the public’s misconceptions about interpreting and translating, can cause us to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to pass and can kill our confidence when we don’t.

Here’s what failing this exam does not do. It does not take away any of the education and training that you have received. Do you have a Masters in interpretation? Failing this exam does not invalidate your graduate school diploma. Are you already working as a state court or medically certified interpreter? No one is going to come by and revoke those.

While our egos may take a (huge) hit, I can assure you that no one is going to respect you less as a colleague because you didn’t pass this time. I will state right now that I still respect you and see you as an equal, even if this is your hundredth attempt at passing.

At the seminar, when I was asked what I had to lose, I realized that the worst that could happen is that I would not pass. However, I could continue working in the field, studying to be a better interpreter, and pursuing other career goals. I am still one of a handful of people here in Alabama that managed to pass the state certification and the healthcare certification exams. I still have amazing clients that have given me great opportunities, and I have had incredible experiences because of them. None of that is going away tomorrow because I didn’t pass this time.

As for professional respect, I can only say this. I was the first person in my group that found out she failed the exam. When I let my group members know, the first thing they did was rush to assure me that while this was disappointing it did not mean that I was a bad interpreter. These are well-respected colleagues who during six months listened to, analyzed, and gave me feedback on my interpretations. It meant a lot hearing from them that they would always think of me as a good professional. I bet if you talk to your colleagues, they’ll assure you that this exam does not change how they feel about your professional worth.

There are hundreds of things a colleague could do that would cost her my respect. Failing to pass one of the hardest interpretation exams in the United States is far from one of them.

3. It Wasn’t All for Nothing

My heart breaks whenever I read a despondent posting on our forums from a colleague that has not passed a credentialing exam. I empathize and understand just how frustrating it can be to put in so much hard work and have it not paid off. Interpretation exams in particular can cause you to question your foreign language abilities, even if you have a doctorate in that language. The cognitive dissonance caused by receiving less than stellar feedback on one of these tests can lead a lot of people to lament the whole process and give up on ever getting credentialed.

I want to assure you that the time, effort, and sacrifices you have made have not been in vain. While the ultimate goal is a passing score, that is not all that you gain from going through the interpreting exam training process, especially for the federal exam. You have just spent months dedicated to interpreting practice, vocabulary building, and perfecting your language abilities. If you studied in a group, you got valuable feedback from people that have helped you realize your strengths and weaknesses. You may have also made new friends across the country and expanded your network. I know I have.

This all matters.

In the six months that I spent preparing for the test with my study group, I grew more as an interpreter than I had in the three years since first passing the state exam (my fourth anniversary is this fall). My Spanish is stronger; even my family members have commented on it. My interpretations are smoother and sound more natural. My skills have all gone up. I have noticed all of this, not just in practice exercises but on the job. I also have a much better idea of who I am as an interpreter, where I am strong, and where I still need to do some work to grow and be ready to enter the next level of court interpreting. 

Additionally, because of the seminars that I attended I finally feel like I know exactly what the examiners want and how to best prepare for this test. All of these are factors that I can take with me into Round 2.

For those that have already gone up to bat multiple times, I can’t imagine the frustration that you feel. All I can say is that, irregular years aside, I still think this is a very fair interpretation exam. If someone falls short, even by one percentage point, there’s something the raters are hearing that leads them to believe they can’t recommend him for certification. Maybe you have already invested in a lot of resources and aren’t sure what else you can do to improve your score. I can only encourage you to keep getting feedback so that you can finally pinpoint what’s going on and what you need to do differently.

I still have faith that you can do this. If you keep trying, then you may finally pass the exam. If you never take it again, then it’s a guarantee you’ll never be federally certified. Please, do not rob yourself of the opportunity to pass.

Chin up, everyone. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. I’ll see you back in 2021 to face this exam again.

4 thoughts on “You Failed the Federal Oral Exam…Now What?

  1. I “failed” the interpreter’s exam twice. I cannot believe it. I did worse the second time than the first. I know it is not me, or my translations. The translations were on point. They are looking for something else that has a certain je ne sais quoi quality. They don’t show you what you did wrong so there is no learning curve. I challenge them to show me what was so egregiously translated that warrants such a low score, but that is a moot point. To give you some background, I am a native speaker, certified Spanish, and French Teacher with over twenty-five years experience. I also have a Masters of Divinity from one of the more prestigious seminaries in the world. I know it’s not me.


    1. Dear Daniel,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I appreciate and empathize with your frustrations. I, too, wish the federal exam raters would give us a more detailed score breakdown. Like the ATA raters for translators, the AOC has their reasons, and while I don’t agree with them, I understand where they’re coming from and don’t focus on this, because this policy is not going to change any time soon. I think all of us who have yet to succeed on this exam have felt these same frustrations. If you’re still planning on taking the exam again (and I hope you don’t give up!), here’s some food for thought. Take it for what it’s worth.

      I think one of the big mistakes candidates are guilty of is thinking that any court interpreting exam, especially the oral portion, is a language aptitude test. It is not. While the written exam does test language aptitude to narrow the pool of prospective candidates, the oral portion is an interpreting performance test that specifically tests court interpreting technique, which is quite different from its sister professions of medical or conference interpreting. Language aptitude is but a small component of what they’re assessing in the oral phase. This is why many candidates who have impressive linguistic skills and academic credentials fall short on the exam.

      Think of it this way: credentialed court interpreters have mastered their working languages. Despite this high linguistic aptitude, a court interpreter, or any professional interpreter, would not necessarily make a great language teacher. I certainly would be a terrible Spanish, French, or English language teacher, because I have never learned pedagogy for language courses. I may have the base skills to train to be a language teacher, but throw me in a classroom today and I’m certain I would fail at teaching. Similarly, a master language teacher may have the linguistic aptitude to eventually be a phenomenal court interpreter, but not until they train in court interpreting.

      My advice: if you’re committed to pursuing a career as a court interpreter, do two things. First, take a training course in court interpreting so you can see what skills court interpreters look for in their colleagues. I highly recommend University of Arizona’s CITI program. Second, work one-on-one with a trainer/coach. Have that trainer sit and listen to your interpreting renditions and give you feedback. This will give you a better picture of what’s going on and why the exam raters have not given you a passing score.

      One bonus piece of advice: closer to the exam date (once they give it), the University of Arizona will offer a live mock oral examination with a seminar run by former raters breaking down the test, results, and the most common mistakes interpreters made on the mock test and the real thing. This is a great way to get as close as possible to picking the brains of the current raters.

      I sincerely wish you the best of luck!


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