Last month I had the opportunity to sit the written portion of what is known as the FCICE, the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination. This is the first step in becoming a federally certified court interpreter in the US (the second is the oral portion). Being federally certified is essentially the highest level of court interpreter accreditation one can obtain in the United States. It is a prestigious and respected title with a correspondingly difficult exam process. I’d like to take the opportunity to share my experience with the written portion.
Signing up for the FCICE was not even a blip on my radar until very recently. Since I only became state certified last year, I had not remotely considered pursuing another certification until I had some significant state court experience under my belt. Long story short, though, I hung out with a crazy cool friend and colleague who convinced me over whiskey and fried fish that I must sign up for the written exam. So I did. That was April 2019. Two months later I took the exam.
In this post, I’d like to focus on three subtopics: my preparation for the exam, the exam itself, and my thoughts on the process. My goal is that anyone interested in the written exam get a sense of whether he/she is ready to take it, and also how I found the exam in and of itself.
In order to prepare for the written exam (which set me back $300), I banded together with five colleagues (four students, one instructor) to form what has now been deemed the International Dream Team. We reached out privately to Judy Jenner to give the four of us prep sessions remotely.* Judy is an esteemed federally certified court interpreter and spokesperson for the ATA. Besides her impressive professional résumé, Judy is a human gem, and an excellent teacher. She administered two different practice tests to us four participants, and we spent two Zoom sessions with her discussing problem areas and also getting a rundown of the exam process with Judy’s personal tips and tricks.
In addition to our Zoom sessions, my preparation consisted of completing two more practice exams on my own time. With the four exams and our time with Judy, I’d estimate that my total preparation amounted to approximately 10-15 hours.
My exam took place at the facility of a private testing company called Prometric. It is my understanding that Prometric has facilities in most mid-sized to major US cities, so I did not have to travel. The day of the exam I wore a tie and jacket to make sure I was in a professional frame of mind . For me, the performance factor in interpreting plays a big role, and if I feel the part, look the part, and act the part, the quality of my performance improves significantly.
The exam was scheduled for three hours, and took place in a room full of computers and people who were testing for a variety of accreditations. I found the setting and how the exam was formatted on the computer to be pleasant and user-friendly.
The exam is split 50/50 between an English and Spanish section. I won’t delve into great detail as to the content, as there are plenty of practice exams to be purchased and accessed online. In summary, though, there was reading comprehension (e.g. of political, legal, cultural, historial texts etc.), error detection, synonym identification, and a translation section.
The system allowed me to mark questions that I wanted to come back to, and also to highlight or strike text on the screen. I found all of these features helpful.
After finishing the exam, I sat at the desk for about 60 seconds, and the computer immediately spit out my results: 89% on English and 79% on Spanish (I needed a 70% in both sections to pass). The computer did not provide me a breakdown of my scores in each subsection. The kind lady at the Prometric desk printed out my results and stamped the paper for me.
Thoughts on the Exam
Generally speaking, I don’t think this is the kind of exam you can cram for. You’re either ready or you’re not, and if not, significant time may be required to buff up on weaker areas. I have the fortunate perspective of having taken the state court exam fairly recently, since I was certified just last year. It might go without saying, but the written portion of the FCICE was significantly more challenging than the state written exam (on which I scored a 96%) in almost every aspect.
My impression is that the FCICE really seeks to thoroughly plunge the depths of one’s ability in both English and Spanish. There was vocabulary and reading comprehension content in English that I struggled with as a university-educated native English speaker. I suppose part of the goal is to really make sure that those who arrive at the oral portion already have extremely high-functioning bilingual skills (interpreting skills aside). This was not the case with the state exam, as a native English speaker with weak foreign language skills could arrive at the oral portion unimpeded. For the FCICE, no mercy was extended in either language; both were tested with material from the same linguistic registers.
I suppose it’s worth mentioning that I also passed all four practice exams I took. Two of them were more challenging and I scored within the lower range of passing, but on the other two I scored very similarly to as on the actual exam. I’d recommend a healthy dose of practice exams for anyone else interested in the FCICE, since in my case they seemed to be a fairly accurate indicator of my ability to pass.
Although I don’t plan to sign up for the oral portion this year, I’m really glad I took and passed the written exam. It boosted my confidence and showed me that I have a higher ability than I usually give myself credit for. I’m grateful to Judy and also to my study buddies for the time set aside to work together towards this goal.
If you’re asking yourself, “Am I ready for the written FCICE?”, my general impression is this: if you are a state-certified court interpreter who works regularly and competently in state courts, I believe that passing the written FCICE is more than doable. Sign up and take the plunge. At the very least it will give you a gauge for what language gaps you might need to fill in, which is always useful information.
We’ll see if I’m bananas enough to sign up for the oral portion. I have a lot on my plate now as I’ve been traveling around the country with federal immigration court (for another blog post), but I’m always up for the next challenge. Thanks for stopping by and please let me know if you have any questions. Follow me on Twitter for more frequent updates on the my interpreter shenanigans.
*Judy kindly gave permission for me to write about her participation as our exam prep instructor. Her Twitter handle is @language_news.