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.

An Autopsy of the Federal Oral Exam, Part 3: Study Materials

When preparing for the oral exam, a major misconception I’ve noticed among candidates is that success is linked to amassing as much material as possible. I’ve also fallen into this trap, so don’t feel ashamed if this is you. When talking to successful candidates, I’ve found that it’s not about how much material you have but how effectively it is used.

This all goes back to the principle of studying smarter, not harder.

On that note, I’m ready to talk about the different materials that I used. Please note, these do not encompass everything available. I can only speak to the materials I’ve used. If there is something missing from my list, I would reach out to our colleagues who used them to get their thoughts.

Please do not think you have to buy everything out there. There are successful candidates out there that worked with one set of study material and used it wisely to pass. Everyone has a different level of income. I am giving out this information so that you can decide how you want to spend your money, not to pressure you into buying materials. I am not affiliated with any of the companies or instructors mentioned in this post.

I. Dictionaries

Dictionaries are the one resource that I would argue all language professionals need. Again, you don’t need everything on the market, but you do need reliable resources so that you can study the proper terminology and work on making your interpretations sound more natural.

1. The Interpreter’s Companion ($30.00)

The Interpreter’s Companion is a glossary that every Spanish speaking state court interpreter has in their arsenal. It covers categories that come up the most in court cases. I especially love the diagrams of cars, weapons, and body parts, as well as the lists of every day slang for drugs, weapons, and the human body. 

It is a good tool to have. However, I prefer the legal terminology suggestions of other glossaries. 

For those that have relied on this for learning Spanish legal vocabulary for the state exams, don’t fret! The examiners are aware that this is a widely used authority by court interpreters. If you use a term from Interpreter’s Companion on the exam, you should be fine.

Pros: Great for terminology related to cars, drugs, weapons, body parts, and slang.

Cons: Not my favorite for legal terminology.

2. Diccionario Javier F. Becerra ($9.99/monthly, $49.00/6-month, or $89.00 annual subscription)

This is the Holy Grail legal database for US-Based Spanish court interpreters. The Becerra team is constantly revising and adding terms, definitions, examples, and explanations to this online database. It’s easy to use and, best of all, since it’s online you can have it on hand easily without literally being weighed down by a heavy book.

It is pricey. However, I’m happy to pay for it every year as a business expense. I use this dictionary almost every day in my real work.

They also have a great (free!) blog where they do deeper analysis of certain terms. If you had to pick only one English/Spanish dictionary, I’d choose this one. $89 may seem steep, but it’s actually cheaper than a Spotify or Netflix subscription and, like the other materials, it can be deduced from your taxes.

The one caveat is that you can only search for terms in English.

3. Tomasi’s Law Dictionary ($35.00)

There are many people who swear by this dictionary and for good reason. It is a phenomenal resource and somewhat affordable. The editorial board is top notch. I really love Tomasi’s offering and have it on hand, since I’m not always allowed to use my iPhone on the job. 

While not as exhaustive as Becerra, it’s still a really rich resource with great legal foundations behind the translation choices. I also enjoy the charts on how criminal cases move through the legal system, federal jurisdictions and federal court procedure. These are immensely helpful for interpreters who do not have an American legal background.

Like Becerra, it is also monodirectional (English to Spanish).

4. Spanish-English Dictionary of Law and Business, 2nd Edition – Thomas L. West ($59.95)

This dictionary is monodirectional, but from Spanish into English. It is used by many translators when translating Spanish legal texts for an US audience. It’s slightly pricier than Tomasi, but also worth the investment. 

The translation suggestions are well founded in legal resources from all over Spanish-speaking countries. They also note where terminology is used more often.

Since texts on the test can technically come from any Spanish speaking country, this is a great resource to have. It will help tremendously when working on your Spanish to English Sight Translation Exercises, which test your ability to understand and interpret Spanish legal language into English legal language.

5. Black’s Law Dictionary, 11th Edition – ($79.42)

While not a bilingual resource, this is something I would suggest every court interpreter have on hand, especially if your professional background is not in the American legal system.

Why use it? Unless you went to a US law school or worked in the American legal field, you’ll need to learn and understand the legal concepts behind the terminology. In here you’ll find every American legal term with a definition and explanation. I still use it when I encounter processes outside my scope of legal practice. Remember, we’re not just interpreting words. We’re interpreting existing legal concepts.

If price is an issue, your local library should have a copy on hand. I would rent or reserve it during exam prep time. You can do the same for general bilingual and English dictionaries.

6. Oxford Spanish Dictionary ($29.49)

If you work as an interpreter or translator, you need a good, general (NOT POCKET SIZED) dictionary. My personal favorite recommended by my translation teachers at Georgia State is Oxford’s Spanish Dictionary. The definitions, usage, and regionalisms are laid out in a clear and easy to understand format. I highly recommend investing in one to verify word choices for general vocabulary that pops up in your exam prep.

An alternative to Oxford is Larousse’s Unabridged Spanish/English English/Spanish dictionary. I prefer the format of the former, but many language professionals swear by it. I’m not sure if it’s been discontinued or if a new version is forthcoming, but I can’t find it through a direct seller online. You can still buy it second hand.

There is a phone app, “Oxford Dictionary and Translator”, free and paid subscription. It’s pretty good to have on the fly so you don’t have to drag the big dictionary everywhere and it is way better than some of the other widely used online dictionaries, but again, not as extensive as the print version.

7. New Oxford American Dictionary ($21.99)

I know the internet has many free dictionaries, but not all dictionaries are created equal. Especially if English is your second language, I highly recommend investing in a comprehensive (NOT POCKET SIZED) monolingual English dictionary. Again, Oxford is my personal favorite. Make sure that it focuses on American English instead of British English.

Oxford also has an app for their monolingual English dictionary (“Oxford Dictionary of English”). There’s a free and paid “premium version”. It’s not as extensive as the print dictionary, but may be something to have on hand.

8. Real Academia Española (Website or App – Free!)

In the same vain, you need a great monolingual Spanish dictionary. Luckily, Real Academia Española not only offers their database for free, but it is now available as a user-friendly app. This is great for verifying word meaning and, of course, they will also include regional nuances with each term.

II. Independent Study Materials

All candidates will need to study on their own in order to prepare for the exam. I want to reiterate that you don’t need to invest in everything out there. You’re much better off picking a couple of things and focusing your time and energy on those. The materials out there have their pros and cons. Take them into consideration alongside cost and your budget to determine how you want to invest your money.

1. ACEBO The Interpreter’s Edge Turbo Edition ($60.00)

What you get: 4 simultaneous, 4 consecutive, and 6 sight translation exercises, with a companion textbook and CD.

If you’ve taken the state court interpreter exam, then you’re already familiar with the materials offered by Holly Mikkelson at ACEBO. I used both Edge and Edge 21 when preparing for the Alabama and Tennessee exams. These are also important to revisit in your prep when you’re getting back into the groove of studying and polishing foundational skills. Edge 21, in particular, has a couple of federal level exercises, but in my opinion, it is worth investing in more challenging materials.

Enter Edge Turbo.

Turbo was specifically designed to address FCICE candidates’ desire for tougher prep materials. These exercises are brutal and throw everything at you in terms of linguistic challenges that can pop up on the exams. The exercises are riddled with idiomatic expressions and slang. The technical language is extremely high register. The grammar is harder to restructure. The simultaneous is much faster. And the consecutive renditions are much longer.

While it was frustrating to do these exercises at the beginning of my exam prep, it helped me identify my weaknesses. They were great because they forced me to think through interpreting solutions at a rapid pace.

Pros: Great advanced materials for seasoned interpreters, affordable, and a great diagnostic tool.

Cons: Unlike Edge 21, you do not get sample audio renditions. However, the suggested translations following each section are a good reference against which you can check your renditions.

I would recommend that every FCICE candidate invest in a copy of Turbo.

A word of caution: if you are getting ready to take the state exam, DO NOT use these exercises. These are designed to challenge seasoned interpreters. Doing them when you’re starting out will only be discouraging. Stick with Edge and Edge 21.

2. ACEBO Two-Tone CDs, Volume 1: English-Spanish Simultaneous Practice ($18.00 or $15.30 if bought alongside Volume 2: Administrative Hearings)

What you get: 9 Simultaneous exercises in a two-tone format, where you can hear the simultaneous exercise in one year to practice interpreting and hear a sample rendition by Holly Mikkelson in the other ear.

Pros: What I love about this supplement is that it covers the most common cases that will be covered in a trial. The language and style they have chosen for the opening and closing arguments exercises are also well structured and akin to the speech patterns used by American attorneys in court. They also have some topics that are more likely to pop up on the federal oral exam, such as firearms experts and terrorist bombings.

If your budget only allows you to buy either Turbo or Two-Tone Vol. 1, I would recommend investing in Turbo. However, if you’re someone whose simultaneous skills need a lot of polishing, I think it is worth investing in these additional exercises. This is also a great investment for current state certified interpreters looking for resources to keep building their simultaneous skills.

Cons: My one con with these exercises is that, since they were recorded over 20 years ago, the sound quality is very poor in comparison to modern recordings. My hope is that the ACEBO team will eventually put out an updated version that has better quality and updated linguistic references and topics.

3. Interpretrain Court Interpreter Federal Certification Program – ($349.00 in 2019, with occasional discount promo codes offered)

This is the new kid on the block, so I’m going to dedicate some extra time to it.

What you get: Access to 50 Interpreting Labs (based off of the 2019 version) and self-grading platform designed to prepare you for the federal exam. This is separate from another course offered for those preparing for state certification.

What it is: Interpretrain launched their training platform for interpreters in the fall of 2019. Interpretrain, founded by federally certified interpreter Virginia Valencia, is already well-known in the North American interpreting community for offering courses on foundational note-taking techniques. This platform serves as an online self-paced exam preparation program. It comes with instructional videos on how to use the platform and set up your study schedule so that you can pace your preparation. 

The 2019 federal program had 50 interpreting “labs” covering all three modes of interpretation. Each lab has three steps: Vocabulary, Interpretation, and Grade. 

In Step 1, “Vocabulary”, you focus on learning the terminology associated with the interpreting exercise. You’re provided three to four different vocabulary exercises to reinforce the language learning component. 

Step 2, “Interpreting” is the main exercise. In the 2019 version, simultaneous and consecutive exercises were based off of the same script, with minor changes to adapt to the mode of interpretation. You can also do the exercises at different speeds: “decelerated” or “normal” for consecutive and 120, 140 and 160 words per minute for simultaneous. 

Step 3, my personal favorite, is “Grade”, where you can play back your interpretation against a transcript of the exercise and then use evaluation criteria provided by Interpretrain to help you do a fair assessment of your rendition.

Pros: The biggest pro to this program is how exam preparation has been moved to a virtual classroom platform. You can take your classroom and homework wherever you go. You can also move through the different steps freely – so if you want to do a cold run of the exercise first before focusing on learning terminology, you can.

Second, this program saves candidates time by providing you with the vocabulary and flashcards. It cuts down on what you need to self-input into vocabulary sets. You know what you need to study that day with your exercises. With the different study modes, you can reinforce terminology.

Third, the simultaneous and consecutive exercises are offered at different speeds. This is tremendous in that it allows you to focus on different aspects of your interpreting.

Last, and my favorite part of the platform, is the “Grade” Step. First, alongside the exercise manuscript, you have to note if you got the scoring units within the exercise. The second half of the evaluation looks at the holistic criteria. You even have a space to make any additional commentary. I love this because it gives you criteria that follows what the examiners are evaluating. It makes it so that you have to sit with your renditions and give an honest, objective and holistic evaluation of your performance, not just on scoring unit recall.

Cons: I love the mechanics of this learning platform and think that it has great potential. However, there seem to be some kinks that still need to be worked out in terms of having each exercise build on what is taught in the ones prior.

Some of the labs didn’t reflect the flow and structure of the exercises the candidates will be facing on the exam. For example, some of the exercises used for the simultaneous and consecutive worked off of the exact same script. Most of the time, it seemed like exercises designed to practice the simultaneous mode (English into Spanish) were broken up into consecutive chunks. Similarly, other exercises had only a Spanish speaker with no alternation between Spanish and English text. I felt that this left out an important aspect that makes consecutive interpreting challenging: switching between source and target languages.

Second, while I enjoyed those labs focused on learning regionalisms, profanity, and slang, they are taught in an isolated context. For example, in an exercise, the speaker will say something in regional slang in every rendition. There’s a lack of that back-and-forth scenario of interpreting the high register English of the attorney to the slangy register of the witness. The current exercises are great for reinforcing memorizing terminology, but there’s that missing link of testing this terminology in an exercise that also tests other consecutive skills.

Additionally, once you finished a lab with slang, the terminology rarely popped up again in other exercises. Personally, I would prefer having this terminology also peppered throughout the different exercises. That way, as you progress you can have these expressions come up within the other exercises so that they can test long-term recall, like Interpretrain does with legal terminology.

Finally, I would love it if they could keep adding to the technical vocabulary and more expert witness simultaneous exercises. Especially with speed alterations and grading criteria, this platform would be amazing for expert witness practice.

Conclusion: The most exciting part of what Interpretrain launched is the platform. It is a great tool to reinforce the linguistic learning component of interpretation training. Another strength is that it incorporates the holistic evaluation that many candidates ignore in their prep. Though it has the pros and cons of a new program, I am excited to see how this will evolve for the 2021 offering.

4. Interpretrain 10 Lessons to Excel at Consecutive Interpretation – ($109.00)

What you get: 5 instructional videos with practices, The Note-Taking Manual (PDF), Lesson Plan with Quizzes, and audio exercises.

If you’ve never taking a note-taking course, especially the one offered by Virginia Valencia, I highly recommend it. Once you learn and practice the technique, your consecutive will improve exponentially.

If you do decide to do the digital or the live version (whenever Virginia offers it), my recommendation is to do it well in advance of the exam. This is because when you’re switching note-taking methods, you’ll be slower in the beginning. It’s better to learn these foundational skills ahead of time so that you’re well practiced and ready to perfect it for the exam. Note-taking should help you, not hinder you.

III. Webinars and In-Person Seminars

If your time and resources allow, I highly recommend attending an exam prep seminar. Whereas I didn’t feel they were worth the investment for the written portion, this is the time to sign up for a course. I couldn’t take everything out there. There are other courses that I am sure are wonderful, but I had to pick where to invest my money. If you are interested in a different course, I would recommend asking people in the different forums for private feedback. 

In 2019, I did the following two prep courses.

1. Transinterpreting: Prepare for the Federal Oral Exam ($289.00 in 2019)

Edgar Hidalgo is a state certified court interpreter in California who provides a lot of great continuing education webinars for court and healthcare interpreters, as well as prep materials for the state certification exam. He has partnered with a federally certified interpreter, Antonio Pelayo López, to offer a prep course for the federal oral exam.

What you get: A combination of live and prerecorded courses covering all modes of the exam. The course focuses on breaking down the examination and the techniques needed to approach interpreting at the federal level, as well as a breakdown of how candidates can get tripped up during the different exercises. Materials also include access to various interpretation exercises in all three modes with word banks and transcripts.

Pros: Being an online course, I was extremely pleased with what Transinterpreting has to offer. Aside from this being ideal for folks that need flexibility (you can access the class recordings at any time up until the exam date), I enjoyed the breadth of materials covered in this prep course. The exercises provided were extremely challenging and great for pushing your interpreting skills to the max. You also get a ton of word banks on non-legal terminology that trip people up on the exam (descriptors, slang, regionalism, etc.) and expert witness fields that could pop up on test day.

My favorite part of the course was the materials provided to study Spanish to English sight translation, along with the analysis provided by the federal instructor. This was phenomenal for tackling this exam exercise.

Cons: This does have the limitations of a webinar. While it’s convenient for folks that can’t always make it to class, if you don’t attend then you miss out on the live class experience. Of course, the Transinterpreting team is great, so you can always contact them if you have a lingering question. Like with any independent study, you also have to be accountable and have great time management skills so you actually do the work.

2. FCICE Exam Workshop – Tony Rosado and Javier Castillo ($500.00, plus travel and lodging expenses)

If you can attend a live exam workshop, I absolutely recommend it. If you can grab one of the coveted seats at Tony Rosado and Javier Castillo’s workshop, get it.

What you get: an intensive, three-and-a-half-day live workshop with two of the best and most well-respected interpreters in the profession. Classes are held in a collegiate setting (UNC Charlotte in 2019). The workshop covers each section of the test, grading criteria, and technique in depth. It ends with a mock examination and an optional evaluation, in front of the class or in private, of one of your renditions.

You get tips and insight from phenomenal interpreters that want people to pass this exam, but who will be brutally honest about your readiness. The instructors are not unkind, but they expect you to have the thick skin of a professional interpreter.

Tony and Javier have a great dynamic as instructors. Both their personalities and language combinations complement each other. Tony is also a former exam grader and provides important insight so that you better understand the oral exam. (No, he won’t be giving past test questions. That would be impossible, illegal, and, frankly, totally useless.) You also go home with transcripts of the class exercises so that you can use them in your self-study as well as tips on resources and how to study. Additionally, the instructors give candidates advice on how to protect themselves if there are any problems that pop up in the administering of the exam.

Pros: This workshop was exactly the ass-kicking I needed a month before the exam. It left me feeling raw, and I did a lot of deep reflection into where I was, both as an exam candidate and as an interpreter. Tony and Javier forced us out of our comfort zones as interpreters. It was a rough week, but I think it was quite possibly the best investment I’ve made, not just for this exam, but for my interpreting career.

Aside from getting a much-needed reality check, the value in this workshop is that it is the only one where I left feeling like I finally had a good grasp on what this exam is, what they are evaluating, and exactly what is being asked of candidates in order to work in the federal courts. At the end of that week, after hours of intensive work and a one-on-one session with Javier where he kindly talked me through my emotions (yes, I cried in front of him – fun!), I left with a great game plan to best use my remaining month of prep before test day. That alone made the time and money worth it.

Cons: I don’t really have any. I have just one minor suggestion that has to do with time management and Q&As. As interpreters, we’re quite an enthusiastic and opinionated bunch. Of course, when it came to terminology and exam-insight, fellow attendees wanted to ask about all of the words and propose a myriad of hypotheticals. I understand that impulse. It’s so hard studying for an exam that is so difficult, lacks transparency at the administrative level, and that makes you feel as if so many factors are out of your control. But this ended up taking away a good chunk of class time. My one suggestion would be that the instructors find a way to control these tangents so that they have plenty of time to cover everything on the agenda, possibly asking attendees to hold questions until the end of each section or during a designated Q&A session before lunch and at the end of each class.

I hope that in 2021, Tony and Javier are able to offer this workshop in one or two more locations. The setting in North Carolina was great and ideal for me as an Alabama resident. If their schedules allow, I think it would be wonderful if they could also offer a West Coast session for our colleagues on the other side of the country.

IV. Practice Tests

While the AOUSC provides one practice test with sample passing and failing renditions, a lot of candidates want other opportunities to simulate the exam with different materials. University of Arizona has you covered with both a download-ready and live, online practice tests. I was not able to fit in the live tests with my schedule but I did use The Spanish Talking Manual. Like most of the U of A’s materials, it is extremely challenging and great to get a sense of where your skills really are. You can do this practice test over and over again and still encounter challenges. It’s absolutely a worthwhile investment.

For those looking to do a live exam, I would be on the lookout for announcements from Arizona about a live mock exam. The exam is done online and is followed by a two-part webinar going over the practice test and oral exam logistics.

V. Private Coaching

While I did not use a private coach, I do want to make sure candidates know that this is an option. If you check out the forums, you’ll see that there are federally certified interpreters offering one-on-one coaching. I know that Athena Matilsky does this and her students love their experience working with her. I’ve had Athena as an instructor in the past and she’s been great.

If you’re interested in private coaching, I would reach out both to instructors offering this service and our community to see which coach would be a best fit for you.

Final Thoughts

I hope this helps you navigate the world of federal court interpreter exam material. I encourage you to also get feedback from others in the interpreting community. Most folks will happily talk about their experiences.

Remember, there is no need to put financial strain on yourself and buy everything out there. People have prepped and passed this exam on different budgets. It is not about how much material you buy. It’s about taking full advantage of the material you have.

In the final post on the oral exam, I’ll wrap everything up by going over how to prepare for exam day, updates on the exam administration, and what I plan on doing differently for 2021.

Read Part 4 here.

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.

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.

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.

An Autopsy of the Written FCICE, Part 3: Study Mode

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:

Continue reading “An Autopsy of the Written FCICE, Part 3: Study Mode”

An Autopsy of the Written FCICE, Part 1: The Mindset You Need

I wanted my first post on here to be an introduction to my blog, but given that the latest testing window for the Written FCICE just closed, this topic takes priority.

Three years after passing the state court interpreter’s exam in Alabama, I decided to take the first step in becoming a Federally Certified Court Interpreter. I’m happy to report that on Memorial Day I was able to pass the written exam on my first try, scoring a 92% on the English portion and an 80% on the Spanish. Despite a familiar exam format (this exam is essentially a bilingual GRE with a legal focus), I learned a lot about how to best prepare for this test. Outside of the exam manual, there isn’t a lot out there to guide prospective candidates on what they should anticipate and the timeline they’re looking at during a regular exam cycle.

I’m an attorney by training, which means that the instinct to dissect what went right and wrong, what methods worked, and where improvements can be made is deeply engrained in me. I want to offer any future candidates and colleagues my reflections as a way to help them prepare to study for this test. It’s not as simple as registering six weeks before your test date and using that time to cram. This is not the state exam; we’re in a different league.

This topic will be divided into three parts. In this first part, I will talk about something that is not really touched on in the forums or in the test prep courses offered by exam coaches: the mindset and realistic test prep timeline a candidate will need.

Part Two, which I will post separately, will look at what candidates need to do to make sure that their language abilities are at the level necessary to pursue federal certification.

Part Three will go into the materials and strategies candidates can employ in those last three months before the testing window to ensure that they can tackle the exam.

Continue reading “An Autopsy of the Written FCICE, Part 1: The Mindset You Need”