An Autopsy of the Federal Oral Exam, Part 4: Exam Day, Administrative Updates, and Lessons Learned

(Read Part 1 here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here.)

It’s finally here. You’ve spent the last months or year preparing for the Federal Oral Exam and the day has arrived. I don’t think there was a single candidate who wasn’t on edge in the days leading up to their exam appointment. Nerves are to be expected and a little nervous energy is good to have. The adrenaline can help boost your exam performance.

However, there are a lot of people who cope with extreme testing anxiety, especially with this exam. I would hate for any candidate to let fear of this test hinder how they do, so I want to give you my tips for managing testing anxiety and also give you a rundown of administrative experiences to leave you at ease for 2021.

Finally, to wrap up this whole experience, I want to sum up important lessons that I’ll be taking with me into round 2 and what changes I’m making to my prep approach.

How to Best Prepare for Exam Day

1. Work on testing anxiety well in advance of the exam

When talking to study group members and fellow interpreters at training sessions, what astounds me is just how many people deal with crippling testing anxiety. I’m someone who may get nervous before a big exam, but I’ve never experienced the level of panic that some people describe or that I have witnessed in person.

There’s absolutely no rational reason to be this afraid of the federal oral exam, or any exam for that matter. However, anxiety is not rational. While we may be cognizant of the fact that an exam need not produce a panic attack, sometimes it just doesn’t click in our heads.

Depending on how severe your anxiety is, it’s important to acknowledge its existence and figure out how you are going to cope with it well in advance of the exam. If you’re on the lighter end of the spectrum, it may be as simple as implementing mindfulness and meditation techniques. Others ease testing anxiety by simulating a full testing scenario as many times as possible. For those who fall into the panic attack category, however, it may be well worth looking into counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and possibly medication. There is absolutely no shame in doing this, especially if it has plagued you in the past.

In the holistic portion, the examiners want to make sure you sound confident in your renditions. No one is going to feel confident passing an interpreter who renders a correct interpretation but cannot project confidence in the choices they are making. Do whatever you need to do to make sure testing anxiety does not keep you from successfully finishing and passing this test.

2. One month before exam day, dedicate yourself to studying full time and limit your social calendar

This last month before the test should be when most of your work day is dedicated to preparing for this test. Two to four weeks before test week, this exam is your fulltime job. Limit social engagements and put your clients, family, and friends on notice that your availability will be limited until after exam day.

Having said that, one month before the exam is not when the majority of your studying should be done. The last month is for polishing the skills and knowledge you have been building during the months prior.

Think of it this way. In the United States high school system, we have courses that are called “Advanced Placement” subjects. In these courses, high schoolers study at a more advanced level for a year or two and then sit an exam that evaluates what they have learned so that they may be awarded college credit for that subject. These students don’t cram the month before an AP Exam. They spend a year learning the material and then review what they have learned during that last month to apply it to the test. Similarly, you cannot “cram” for an interpretation test, especially this one, and expect to pass.

3. The week of the exam, stop studying new material

Like previously stated, if you didn’t learn the material by now, at this point you won’t learn it well enough in time for the test. Don’t waste your time studying new material.

4. Treat yourself to a relaxing activity

It’s important to reward yourself for all of the hard work you’re doing. Pick a day during that final week before the exam to schedule something relaxing. Whether it’s a hike, an indulgent meal, a trip to the movies, or a massage, giving yourself this reward will put you in a great mental state leading up to the test.

5. Figure out all transportation and exam registration logistics a few days before the test

The last thing we need to do is add more stress on exam day. While the test may be out of our complete control, we can still take steps to eliminate other stressors.

  • Reread the portion of the manual and instructions sent by Prometric on all exam day logistics (accepted forms of ID, what you need to bring, what you need to leave at home, etc.).
  • Lay out everything you’ll need the night before the exam. What I did was put everything I needed right beside my purse alongside a checklist so that I could be triply sure I had everything.
  • Plan how you will arrive to the exam. Most GPS apps will find you alternate routes if you’re driving, but if you’re taking public transportation, make sure you know a couple of ways to get to the test. If you’re taking a rideshare or taxi, reserve it the day before. If you’re driving into a city and have the option, reserve your parking spot in advance.
  • Figure out if there are any local events that could obstruct traffic or parking (more on that later…)

6. Unplug for your sanity

I cannot emphasize this enough. Reading about how people are on the verge of a nervous breakdown on the interpreter forums is not helpful. Neither is reading posts from people bragging about how this year’s version is “not that hard” or “the hardest ever”. If your study group has a WhatsApp chat, make a pact that you’ll limit that space to strictly positive, encouraging messages. If you have a question about a logistical problem or want to confirm a certain test day requirement, it’s also much better to reach out to your group members instead of sifting through the forums.

All of those posts will be waiting for you after the exam, so do yourself a huge favor and shut out the noise.

7. The day before the exam, STOP STUDYING

Yet again, I need to emphasize that if you did not already learn it two weeks before the test, you won’t learn it now. Studying the day before will only send you into a tizzy when you can’t remember how to say “guacamole” in Spanish. Leave all of your books at your desk and force yourself to leave the house, if need be. If you’re traveling to your exam site, leave the study materials at home. Don’t even bother bringing them to review at the airport.

On Exam Day:

1. Do NOT study before your appointment

I know I’ve already touched on this twice, but it bears repeating. Studying before your appointment will only be counterproductive, so don’t do it.

2. If your exam takes place in the late morning or afternoon, pick an activity to keep you calm

I know you’ll be jittery before the test, but do what you can to take your mind off of it. If you exercise regularly, then do your workout. If not, just watch your favorite episodes of a TV show or put on your favorite music.

Whatever you do, make sure it has nothing to do with the exam.

3. Eat a light, protein and nutrient rich breakfast and lunch

There’s no need to starve yourself nor eat an incredibly heavy meal. Keep it light enough to avoid feeling soporific, but substantive and nutritious enough to keep you going through the test.

4. Do NOT over-caffeinate

Story-time: At the bar exam, the guy in front of me brought several bottles of 5-Hour Energy with him. A few hours into the exam, he puked all over the table. He lost all of that exam time and the rest of us had to keep working through the smell of vomit.

Don’t be that guy. We’re still talking about him 7 years later.

5. Do NOT make any major changes to your routine

Now is not the time to try something new. Again, if you want to change one of your habits to better help you, do so well in advance of the test. Deviating from your routine may cause unintended consequences (see the 5-Hour Energy story above), so don’t risk it.

If you work out every day, keep working out. If you’re an omnivore, now’s not the time to switch to a vegan diet. Change is great, but not on test day.

6. Do NOT go onto the interpreter social media forums

Yet again, we all know what kinds of posts we’ll find before, during, and immediately after exam week. Shut out the noise.

7. Do whatever you need to do in order to put yourself in the right mindset

Everyone has a different way of getting into test mode. If you need to dress like you’re going to court in the full suit and tie, do it. If you need to wear something comfortable, opt for something comfortable (but avoid pajamas). If acting like you’re going to work helps, then by all means do it. Maybe you need to listen to heavy metal or a classical concerto. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to do it no matter how silly it may seem.

8. Pick a warmup exercise to prepare your voice for the exam and boost your confidence

While it is not the time to study, a warm-up is a perfectly safe and advisable thing to do before an exam, especially if you’ve gotten into the habit of doing a warm-up before each study session. My recommendation is to use materials not related to the exam (i.e., avoid legal topics).

Some people like doing vocal warmups done by actors or singers. Others like to do light shadowing exercises. Do what you must, but I do advise against actively interpreting to warm up. Again, you risk spiraling if you encounter an unknown term. Instead, do two familiar shadowing warm-ups, one in English and the other in Spanish.

9. Arrive at least 30 minutes before your appointment time.

Going back to eliminating stressors, don’t let traffic be one. I left an hour before my test to make sure Atlanta traffic didn’t keep me from arriving promptly.

10. Use the restroom and drink some water before walking into your test

No need to let a full bladder, bowel discomfort, or dry mouth distract you during the test. (You do get water in the testing room.)

11. Do not interact with Nervous Nellies buzzing around the waiting areas.

I was very fortunate to wait in an empty lobby before my appointment. If you’re at a more popular testing spot, however, you’re bound to run into people nervously (and foolishly) looking over flashcards or people dying to complain about how unfair, terrible, and horrendous this whole thing is. These people are the worst, so try to avoid them.

If your car is close enough, go back and wait there until it’s closer to your testing time. Alternatively, find a quiet corner away from everyone. Bring your headphones or earplugs. Feel free to be rude and just walk away from anyone trying to make conversation or just tell them that you’re not interested in talking before the test.

12. Take notice of how the staff is managing the test-taking space and make a mental note of any irregularities.

Make sure that what the staff is doing seems in order. If something looks suspicious or wrong, politely inquire about it and make a mental note of what happened. This way, if you feel that a Prometric staffer’s action affected the administering of your test, you can document it and report it promptly.

If you have any technical troubleshooting with the equipment during the exam, bring it to the attention of the proctor immediately. Make sure to state the problem out loud so that it is documented in the exam recording.

13. No matter what happens, finish the test.

Even if the first sight translation makes no sense, just keep going. You’re already here, so you may as well finish the test. You may actually be doing much better than you think, so it’s worth doing the whole thing.

14. When the exam finishes, stop thinking about it and RELAX.

Once the test is over, it’s officially out of your hands. Why worry about something you can’t change? Give yourself at least the rest of the day to celebrate the fact that you finished before overanalyzing your performance in your head. In my study group, what we did is picked a day well after the exam to have a Skype call and used that time to debrief about the test so we wouldn’t spend the holidays obsessing over it.

Administrative Updates

The 2017 fiasco left both first-time and returning candidates feeling shaky about the AOUSC contractor’s ability to administer the exam smoothly. Based off of my experience taking the exam in Atlanta, I’m mostly satisfied with the job Prometric has done and believe they can be trusted to administer the exam in the future. My proctors were well organized and very professional. However, there are some things that need to be addressed before the 2021 Oral Examination.

1. There are still errors in the current candidate handbook that must be corrected.

The most recently published version of the exam manual still contains logistics errors. These mostly have to do with the written exam, where they erroneously state that exams that are 200 questions long must be completed in 2.5 hours instead of 3.25. (Exams that are 160 questions long are done in 2.5 hours.) I tried emailing someone about this, but I got no response and it still has not been fixed.

Leaving significant errors in the handbook does not inspire trust.

2. Prometric and AOUSC must be better prepared to handle the increase in e-traffic on exam registration day

Those who signed up to take the 2019 test remember well what a mess day one was. The website was crashing, leaving some people able to sign up and others stuck trying to refresh the page. Even worse, when we tried to call Prometric, the number was not working for some. Those who did manage to get an agent on the phone realized quickly that the agents had no idea how to deal with the influx of calls. There was no protocol put in place to deal with the fact that payments were failing to process, which led to some agents telling people they couldn’t sign up and others that they could sign up and pay later, only to call them back the next day telling them that their original registration was not valid and that they had to reregister.

This caused a lot of confusion and frustration, especially since some people ended up losing the time slot they originally wanted. Given that people need to plan for out of town travel and child care accommodations, this whole situation was pretty unforgivable. There is absolutely no excuse for something like this happening in 2019, let alone 2021. No computer or telephone system should get overwhelmed by 500 users trying to sign up for an exam.

3. Prometric needs to send candidates parking and transportation guides for each testing site

Since most candidates must travel to take the exam, it’s best to give guides on parking and public transportation. Had I not done my research beforehand, I would not have realized that my testing site was at a hotel that had a flat $45/day parking fee. Prometric never got back to me on whether or not the parking fee would be waived for test takers. Luckily, because I looked ahead of time, I was able to reserve a parking spot at a more reasonably priced deck a block from the hotel.

Additionally, in choosing downtown Atlanta as its testing site, Prometric failed to consider that December 7th was also the same day as the SEC College Football Championship. It takes place at the Georgia Dome every December and brings in college football fans from all over.

Again, as someone who lives in the Southeast, I knew this was happening and avoided traffic by testing on a Friday. Saturday test takers weren’t as lucky. Prometric needs to take these things into account when picking a testing site.

4. AOUSC needs to be more transparent with candidates on when test scores will be mailed out

We know from the manual that scores will be ready 12 weeks after the test. As that deadline approaches, people become anxious. As soon as someone posts on the forum that they got a letter, everyone scrambles to check their mailboxes every day and become concerned when their letter is delayed by several days, fearing that it has been lost.

I think AOUSC should take the time to send an email announcing: 1) that scores have been mailed out; 2) a timeframe for how long it could take to receive them; and 3) a designated deadline by which candidates should inquire if they haven’t received their scores. This will put candidates at ease and prevent a flood of phone calls and emails inquiring about letters.

Speaking of which…

5. It’s time AOUSC look into more modern ways for candidates to access test results

Mailing an official letter is fine, but this being the only way to notify candidates of their scores is prehistoric. There is no reason that AOUSC can’t allow test takers to find out their results without having to wait for snail mail. From blogs of years past, I can see that they tried to put up a website at some point, but it was overwhelmed by 500 users logging on at the same time. Again, this is pretty inexcusable given that I was able to access national testing scores online as far back as 2004 without a website crashing, in the early days of DSL.

However, in the hopes of inspiring some creative solutions, here are a couple of ways they could go about sharing scores:

  • Send the scores via a private, encrypted message to the candidates’ Prometric account. This is done by the GRE.
  • Have Prometric email an electronic copy of the letter, just like the Consortium does for many state results. This is how I got my Alabama and Tennessee exam results, followed by the official letter in the mail. You can even make the file password accessible.
  • Post a password accessible, on-line list of successful candidates. If your name isn’t there, you didn’t pass (a lot of states do this for the Bar Exam). If no one passed, put a note up saying as much.
  • Post a similar list where scores are listed next to an individual registration number. This preserves anonymity.
  • Allow candidates to call into Prometric starting on a specific date to receive their individual results via phone. The College Board let students use this method back in the early 2000s for the AP Exams. You could call in on July 1st and then receive your score reports in late July/August. A similar model could be adopted.

As you can see, there are a myriad of ways to do this so that candidates can rest easy knowing they will receive their scores. I have a feeling the anonymous or public lists are not done in order to hide the actual pass rate of the exam – even though it always comes out when candidates freely share their scores on the forums. I don’t think there’s any need or real incentive to keep this a secret. Still, there are other options that would allow AOUSC to inform candidates quickly and keep the pass rate a secret.

6. As a profession, we should push AOUSC to release a full score report to candidates.

I know the AOUSC puts a statement at the bottom of each letter that this exam is not “diagnostic”, so there’s no need to send a score report.

I’m going to respectfully disagree. This exam is being used to determine if a candidate has achieved the minimum interpreting and language skills to work in Federal Court. Considering the different modes tested, the vocabulary evaluated, and the many factors weighed by the raters in the holistic evaluation, this argument does not hold up. This is the very definition of a diagnostic test.

I don’t see why, at a bare minimum, candidates can’t receive a breakdown of how they were scored in each section. Giving this breakdown can help candidates determine whether they need to work on their skills over all or if they need to work on a specific weak area.

I also believe that having access to a summary statement of the holistic evaluation can help out candidates tremendously, especially those that receive a borderline failing score. If the AOUSC so wishes, they could offer this report for a fee.

7. Retired examinations should be released along with passing and failing renditions as preparation tools

This is a no-brainer and something that other exam administrators do all the time. I understand that the AOUSC does not retire exams as frequently, since interpretation exams are so hard and costly to formulate, but eventually some are pulled out of rotation.

Why not make these available to prospective candidates? The AOUSC could release retired exams, along with transcripts of the recordings as well as the notes from the raters evaluating these recordings. These will help guide prospective candidates so that they can better understand the differences between stellar, middling, and failing renditions. If regulations allow, they could sell them, or work with a third party, like the University of Arizona, in order to compile and publish these retired exams as study guides.

I don’t see any real risk in doing this. Making these retired examinations accessible won’t make it any easier for candidates to fenagle the test – it’s virtually impossible to fake an aptitude test, short of a candidate sending in an already federally certified interpreter pretending to be them, especially if these are exams that will never be used again. I don’t even think this will necessarily compromise the prestige of the exam by significantly bumping up the pass rate. I think it would stay about the same or, at most, increase a couple of percentage points. If anything, it will help candidates be more judicious in deciding whether they are ready to take the test and get a better sense of what they need to be evaluating in their own renditions as they prepare.

What I Will Do Differently for 2021

I’ve spent enough time talking about changes the AOUSC and Prometric should consider making. Now, I want to focus inward to changes that are in my control.

What I’m about to share are adjustments that I’m making based off of the feedback I received while studying, common factors I noted among successful candidates, and what I’ve determined my preparation lacked. All of this to say, it’s very tailored to me and should not be taken as a universal guide. Some of it may resonate with you but others may look at what I have to say and think “that doesn’t sound like me”. Instead, I invite all unsuccessful candidates to do the same level of reflection to make the changes that will help them pass.

1. Language Immersion and General Knowledge are Key

The only way to improve a foreign language is by immersing yourself in it. This can be done many different ways on different budgets. Some candidates may choose to spend time abroad in an immersion program to build their skills. If my schedule allows, I would love to do an adult immersion program abroad. Those whose second language is English are lucky to already live in the US. However, it’s really easy to live within your insular expat communities and not really embrace the culture around you. I would push you to embrace the English-language culture instead of sticking to your familiar Hispanic communities and families.

I’m in the opposite situation, but I can still take steps to make sure I’m as immersed as possible while in the US. From now on, I’m going to make sure that part of the daily news I’m hearing and is coming from a Spanish source. I will keep consuming Spanish language novels, film, and television. I’ve also asked my family members to weed out all of the “Spanglish” that plagues our house. My parents, even as professionals, are amazed at how many words are re-entering their lexicon now that we’ve banned Spanglish from the family home.

For current events, what I’ve started doing is reading at least one article on a different topic from a Spanish-language newspaper every morning. I also listen to the weekly episodes from the wonderful El WaPo (El Washington Post), Extra EPS (El País Semanal) and Radio Ambulante podcasts.

2. Never Skimp on the Basics and Warm-Up Exercises

If you are already a seasoned interpreter, it can be easy to let foundational, warm-up exercises fall by the wayside. Memory exercises, chunking, and paraphrasing can seem like a chore, especially when you move up to the harder materials, and you could be tempted to put them off. I know I was, but I now realize that keeping these basics in practice is very important to building the real-time strategizing that interpreters need to have when working in court.

Next time, no matter how tempted I am to skip these, I will make sure that I am doing these warm-ups before each interpreting exercise.

3. Do More Formal Training

I don’t know about you, but my journey as an interpreter has involved a lot of self-training. I used only the ACEBO materials to pass my state exams and though I do attend continuing education workshops, I have not gone through a more formal training since completing the graduate Translation program at Georgia State.

After talking to some of the passing candidates, I believe it is time for me to invest in more formal training. There is only so much growing one can do through self-study. This is why I plan on attending the University of Arizona’s well-known CITI summer program. I have heard nothing but great things about the program and am excited to finally get some classroom training under my belt. I was sad to hear that it is being moved to an all-online course, as I was looking forward to spending two weeks in a real classroom setting. But I’m happy to see that they’re adapting to our current realities and not canceling the course altogether.

4. Use Side-by-Side Comparisons to Improve Interpretation Choices

One of my perpetual goals as an interpreter is to make my interpreting sound smoother and more natural. I don’t just want it to be “passable”; I want it to sound like I am naturally, spontaneously saying these things in the target language. To do this, I want to do more side-by-side comparisons of original legal texts and their official translations, as well as interpreting exercise transcripts and transcripts of my renditions in order to get a better visual of where I can make improvements.

Athena Matilsky blogged about this type of exercise over at the NAJIT Observer. I highly recommend checking it out.

5. Keep Welcoming Critique and Professional Growth

What’s key to achieving any interpreting credential is the humility to accept you always have room for improvement. In the time between now and the exam, I am going to seek as much feedback as I can get from my colleagues, my study group, and possibly a private coach. The more feedback you get, the better you’ll get to know yourself as an interpreter and be able to pinpoint areas that need work.

On that note, I am finally done talking about this exam…for now, at least! I really hope my breakdown and lessons learned help future FCICE candidates on their journey to certification. I’m sure I’ll be checking in regularly as I prepare for this test, but for now I am excited to move on to other topics.

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