By Liz Essary
When interpreters prepare for interpreting exams, we practice interpreting. But what are we doing to practice controlling our test anxiety? As someone who’s taken many interpreting exams (and didn’t pass them all) and prepared many interpreters for exams, there are a few things I’ve learned about managing test anxiety. Test anxiety can affect your performance in an exam to the extent that you fail, so it’s worth considering.
Anxiety can come in the form of fear, no matter what the stakes may be. When I took my healthcare certification exam, as a seasoned healthcare interpreter I was sure I’d pass. But there was that lingering thought: What if I actually fail? What if I’m exposed as a fraud and I realize I’m not actually competent to do the work I’ve been doing for the last decade? When I took my court certification exam for the second time, I just wanted to get it over with and couldn’t bear the thought of failing again. When I took my grad school exit exams, the weight of knowing that I wouldn’t graduate if I didn’t pass felt physically crushing at times. Sound familiar? I’ve got some tips to get you through it.
Practice: When you sit down to do your interpreting practice, take the opportunity to practice your anxiety management as well. As much as possible, practice in a setting that is like the testing environment. Somewhere where you’re not too comfortable. In grad school, this was easy for me because I practiced in the interpreting lab, which was the very space I knew I’d be taking my exams. But in addition to the physical testing environment, I also made an effort to get into the mindset of exam day, and I’d go through all the things I might be feeling.
“When interpreters prepare for interpreting exams, we practice interpreting. But what are we doing to practice controlling our test anxiety?”
When I was preparing for my court and healthcare certification exam, I didn’t have the advantage of practicing in the actual physical space where I’d be taking the test. But you can do some things to emulate the environment, like sitting up straight at a table, timing yourself and recording yourself, making sure that you are doing your practice without stopping. That means no stopping and starting 30 seconds into the practice, five thousand times, whenever you feel you’ve messed up! Yes, practicing the same small part over and over can be a helpful part of practice, but your practice should include simulating the test, which means doing the interpretation from beginning to end in just one go.
Before you begin your practice, take a deep breath. Engage in something that works to calm yourself. Whatever it is, do it every day, every time you practice, well BEFORE the day of your exam. That way, when exam time comes, you’ll already have trained yourself to calm your nerves.
Noting things: Not taking actual notes, but just making mental notes to yourself about what’s happening when you feel anxious, in an objective way. I have a lot of trouble falling for that “hook” – that thought that yanks me into a downward spiral of panic. For example, when I start thinking “ohnothistestisimpossible and Idon’tthinkIcandoit and Ican’tdoanythingright and Ican’tcontrolmybreathing and nowmymouthisdryandmyheartisracing and everyonewillbedisappointedinmewhenIfail and they’reallgoingtolaughatme, I need a figurative hammer to smash that downward spiral. Simply stating in my mind what is happening does the trick for me. So instead of falling for that hook, I simply tell myself, “Now I’m taking a test.” That’s it. And it breaks that cycle so I can focus on the task at hand.
“When you sit down to do your interpreting practice, take the opportunity to practice your anxiety management as well.”
Self-compassion: Having a positive mantra can be helpful. When I’m trying to find some positive aspect of a difficult situation, mine has been, “I’m learning so much.” I use it a lot since I always seem to be learning so much, stumbling up some kind of steep learning curve. But self-compassion isn’t necessarily positive self-talk. Self-compassion is simply recognizing what you’re feeling in any given moment, and that it’s okay. When I feel my heart begin to race as I sit down in front of that mic, I can simply tell myself, “Right now I’m having a moment of anxiety.” This has been more helpful to me than resisting the anxiety, which seems to intensify it. Leave room for some positive self-talk, but also leave some room for, “This is really difficult,” and even, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Practicing on the day of the exam: I’ve recommended in past posts to not practice the day of the exam, and that’s something that works for me. I don’t want anything undermining my confidence on exam day. On the other hand, I’ve heard other trainers recommend that you practice with something that is easy for you on exam day. Surely this is to boost your confidence. If that’s the case, I’d practice with something you know is easy for you because you’ve practiced with it before.
When I took my healthcare and court certification exams, I didn’t practice on exam day. When I took my exams for grad school, I did shadowing on my exams days (there were four), just to have the feel for listening and speaking at the same time. I also had the habit of shadowing every day before I began my practice, so that worked for me.
Practicing interpreting is a necessary part of what we do to get better. When we have the skills to confront our anxiety, we can overcome it on exam day.
Liz Essary holds the CERTIFIED HEALTHCARE INTERPRETER™ credential (CCHI-Spanish) and state court interpreter certification in Indiana. From 2011 to 2015, she was the supervisor of Language Services at the IU Health Academic Health Center in Indianapolis. Liz holds a B.A. in Spanish from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, where she is Associate Faculty. She holds a Master’s of Conference Interpreting from York University’s Glendon School of Translation. Liz currently works as a freelance interpreter and interpreter trainer in Indianapolis. You can find her blog at www.thatinterpreter.com.
Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash