A Lesson in Perseverance: Reflections on the Federal Certification Exam

Every career has its pathway to the top. The general consensus among court interpreters is that our gold standard is the Federal Court Interpreting Certification Examination (FCICE). The test is only offered in the Spanish-English language combination, as the test writers explain on the website: “that is the primary interpreting need in the federal judiciary.” The testing period for the oral screener test this year, originally scheduled for June, was postponed to November 12-14 nationwide due to the pandemic. This gave a lot of ambitious souls a chance to pivot and study for a few extra months.

The exam requires attention to detail to the hilt. Aside from demanding total dexterity in both languages, it’s a battle against the clock which tests your ability to perform under pressure. The passing grade is 75% in both the English and Spanish sections, so it’s like taking two mini tests within a test. This scoring method weeds out those who have a clear strength in only one language.

Not one and done

My first attempt at the FCICE written exam came in 2016 when I fell short by a measly four points. I felt disappointed, but I mentally shifted: the only true failure is one you don’t learn from. Knowing my weaker language clearly at this point, I decided to double down on my studying with the hopes of triumph on my next shot.

Life moves fast. My initial devotion to study every day until the next written offering eventually tapered off and before I knew it, it was May 2019. As it turns out, I wasn’t a “one and done” passer, nor was the second time my big break. Interestingly, my score stayed almost identical to my first at bat. It wasn’t hard to surmise that I’d have to crank up my study game to a new level in order to pass. I’m an optimist by nature–I get that from my mom–and I started to view this failure as lightness. Being able to approach this next round as a newfound beginner alleviated some pressure and cleared a path for growth.

So here we are in 2020, a year full of ups and downs completely out of our control. Living in New York City, I spent a lot more time indoors this year due to the pandemic than I normally would have. I used this time to study and read in both languages as much as possible. That being said, I imposed a strict rule for at least one day off per week – Sunday Funday!

Giving it another try

Yet again, life moves fast and before I knew it, my testing date of Friday the 13th (eek!) was right around the corner. I checked in with myself and noticed that I was mentally and physically run down. After completing two training courses and a year of self-study, I was finally at my threshold. Between a strained neck, bloodshot eyes, and a wicked case of carpal tunnel, I knew it was time to stop studying and just relax until exam day.

The morning of the test, I made myself a strong coffee and a light breakfast. In an effort to avoid any commuter drama, I left extra early for the testing center. Upon arrival, I was seated in front of a computer labeled “Booth #3” which I took to be an auspicious sign – third time’s the charm, right? I used every second of the allotted exam time and wrestled with nerves throughout the test, but nothing beat the heart palpitations while I was waiting for the computer to generate my score at the end. When I took my crossed fingers away from my eyes to see my score, I nearly fell out of my chair. The third time was indeed the charm, I passed! It wasn’t a win full of glitz and glamour, but rather one of dogged perseverance.

On the heels of Thanksgiving, amid COVID-19, and dealing with all that life can throw our way, it seems like a good moment to take stock and say thank you. I have a lot to be grateful for. I had a solid support system throughout my prolonged testing period. They had faith in me even in the moments I lost it in myself.

To my colleagues who also passed, congratulations! On to the oral! To my colleagues who may need another go or two, like I did, hang in there and try again.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Thomas Edison:

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Please feel free to share your comments and experience below. Happy Holidays!


Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd is a staff court interpreter in New York City. Before starting work in criminal court in Brooklyn, she worked as an independent contractor to kick-start her interpreting career. Her experience includes Spanish<>English interpretation in sundry work environments: medical appointments, disability hearings, social services, public school system meetings, and much more. Her enthusiasm for interpretation can be traced back to living in Spain, where she often served as the language conduit between her visiting Dad and her Spanish then-boyfriend. She was an English teacher abroad for several years and considers teaching a passion. In her free time, you can find her running along the Hudson River or fostering kittens.


16 thoughts on “A Lesson in Perseverance: Reflections on the Federal Certification Exam”

  1. Congrats on passing the exam, Elle!

    You mentioned that you completed two training courses and a year of self-study. Would you share with us the work that this centered on? And what was the main difference-maker that put you over the top?

    1. Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd says:

      Hi Sandro! Thank you for your kind words and your question. I thought that I needed to work on all five sections so my work focus was very broad. I don’t know for sure, but what I think put me over the edge was reading in Spanish as much as possible. English is my native language, so I knew that a lifetime of reading in that language was already pretty tight. Considering the exam is looking for candidates who truly master both languages, I wanted to focus on authentic Spanish texts. I would continuously look up and review new vocabulary from those texts (novels and Spanish newspapers primarily). Using those new words, I created ten sentences per day. I believe that reading often, coupled with using a timer to time my study sessions and increase my stamina, are what put me over the top. What do you think works best for you? I’d love to hear your methods as well.

      1. I don’t really have much of a method. So I appreciate you sharing what worked for you. Studying vocabulary through reading and using new terms found therein through creating sentences sounds fundamentally solid. Thanks!

  2. Odilia says:

    Congratulations Elle!

    1. Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd says:

      Thank you, Odilia!

  3. Scott Jackson Wiley says:

    Elle, Am I undertanding correctly that you have passed the Federal written test? I have not been on this site for ages, so I am a tad unsure. If so, I echo Sandro’s request. I passed the written years ago, but failed the oral test not once, but twice. I swore I would never sign up for it again unless I was willing and able to really commit to preparation. If in fact I am still elegible to take the oral test, I am getting a hankering to gear up for a third try at the oral…

    1. Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd says:

      Hi Scott!! That’s right, I’ve passed the written exam now. I encourage you to take the oral with me next year! Remember – third times the charm 🙂

  4. Dear Ms. Dowd,
    I really admire your spirit and am glad you and your mother learned this important life lesson. So many people who take this or the the state tests blame the tests instead of looking at their own shortcomings. I’ve always asked folks at orientation seminars and presentations to university T&I students this question: “When you took a difficult test in school and did not do well, why was that usually the case?” The answer that comes back, “Well I wasn’t prepared” or “I didn’t study hard enough,” or something along those lines. I commend your approach and hope many others will take responsibility the way you did instead of taking the easy way out.
    Congratulations and best wishes as you prepare for Phase Two,
    Robert Joe Lee, Retired Manager of New Jersey Judiciary’s Language Access Services office

    1. Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd says:

      Dear Mr. Lee,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful words. I agree with you-blaming the test seems futile. I know what I have control over, and that’s my own effort, so I think I tend to operate within my limits. I avoid the ‘sour grapes’ thinking at all costs.


    Congratulations on passing the written portion of the FCICE exam! I love your attitude! Your commitment to study and preparation has surely already paid off in dividends making you an ever more excellent interpreter. Passing the oral exam will be icing on an already well prepared cake filled with the very best ingredients! Best wishes for continued success.

    1. Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd says:

      Armida, thank you kindly! I certainly hope I can devour that dessert next year! Best wishes to you as well.

  6. Susana Gee says:

    Sara, may heartfelt congratulations to you! I’ve been through the process and it is not easy. I took the written in 1994 thinking I was a shoo-in because I was raised in Mexico in a bilingual household. To my dismay, I failed the Spanish portion, of all things! It was humbling and bitter. Decades later, I started interpreting in the community around 2014, and in 2016 I saw the written portion was coming up. So, I decided to go for it with more humility and much more effort. To my surprise, I passed! I knew the next phase, the oral, was going to be the real challenge, as I literally had no experience worth mentioning. Obviously I was not ready to take the oral portion but I knew I had nothing to lose and would have to wait two years for the next one. So, I hunkered down and studied every day from 5:00 am to about 7:30 am before the family woke up, rain or shine. Every other free moment I had was sacrificed to the exam. For the next year, each time that little voice in my head would whisper, “Take a break, you’ve studied enough,” I would ask myself if I wanted to study like this again if I failed. The answer was always “No!.” The idea of doing it again was the impetus that kept me going. My daily mantra was: failure is NOT an option, and guess, what, I passed! So Godspeed, you obviously have what it takes.

    1. Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd says:

      Susana, thank you for your comment. When I try to articulate the difficulty of this exam to my friends who work in different industries, I find that even my most dramatic exaggeration can sometimes fall short. I am so glad to hear your success story! Congratulations to you! I admire your early morning study sessions-I struggle waking up at that time-but I want to keep trying to study in the morning because it’s good to accomplish first thing. It sounds like your “failure is not an option” attitude is one I will aspire to. Do you have any key tips for the oral preparation? Thank you!

  7. You wrote, “the oral screener test this year, originally scheduled for June, was postponed to November 12-14 nationwide due to the pandemic.” I believe you meant the written test was postponed to November of this year, right? Because I believe the oral exam is scheduled for June 2021. ??

  8. Donatella Ungredda says:

    Congratulations for passing the written exam which is quite challenging. The first time I took the written exam I failed by ONE point in the English section. ONE!!. The second time I passed it with an overall 88% score which made me feel absolutely confident of my skills, but then, the oral exam which I took last year went horribly wrong. I now understand I must be 100% precise and master my rendition. Besides vocabulary, one must master many other skills to take the oral exam.. So congratulations again!

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