Who Wants to Fail ATA’s Certification Exam?

Self-help books and websites have recently been featuring “not-to-do” lists as a way of improving work habits, enhancing productivity, and generally boosting quality of life. ATA’s certification team can’t claim to offer anything so grand, but we can enumerate several (unfortunately) tried-and-true actions that have stood in the way of candidates passing ATA’s certification exam.

  1. Cut to the chase. Who reads instructions anymore? Actually, we expect you to use the valuable resources available at your fingertips, from the general information on ATA’s website down to the specific translation instructions (TIs) printed at the top of each exam passage. Ultimately, it’s up to you to educate yourself about the exam process before registering, to click on the link that comes with your registration confirmation, and to read the TIs. Or not! In which case, you’ve already turned the page. If you’re still with me, read on.
  2. Skip the practice test. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal, right? Well, when it comes to the certification exam, rehearsals are a good thing. Like all exams, ATA’s certification exam is a hybrid of a real-life situation combined with exam conditions. The practice test is a retired passage marked by ATA graders and is the only chance to receive direct feedback prior to the exam. Don’t miss this opportunity—unless you like surprises.
  3. Use the exam as your ticket into the profession. Despite its description as “an exam that assesses the language skills of a professional translator,” many new graduates and career changers sign up with no experience, assuming the exam is an entry-level credential. Caveats against this appear on ATA’s website, as well as in this column, webinars, and candidate preparation sessions, but you’ll be unaware of this if you “cut to the chase” (see point 1 above).
  4. Start with your native language. As a general rule, our native language is our strongest, but this doesn’t mean we should use it as our source language (i.e., the one from which we translate). As language teachers know, the most difficult skill to master is writing—and that’s what translation is. This is why most experts recommend we translate into our native language, even if we’ve spent many years learning and using others. There are exceptions, of course, but should you assume you’re one? ATA’s exam is difficult, so taking the exam into a non-native language will likely increase the difficulty. In addition, not checking your exam registration email to ensure you’re actually regis­tered for the correct language and direction will definitely add unwanted challenges. Showing up on exam day only to discover that you don’t have passages in the right language will definitely hurt your chances for success. Bottom line: double-check everything!
  5. Travel light. Don’t assume that all test-taking resources will be provided at the exam site. Actually, the only thing ATA promises to provide is your exam packet. If you’re taking the computerized exam, you must bring your own laptop, as clearly stated on the website and in the registration information. (And yet there have been cases where candidates have left theirs at home!) Also, ATA cannot ensure that links to online resources will be up and running on exam day. I know, I know, nobody carries books around anymore, but do you want to take a chance and leave your dictionaries at home that day?
  6. Be spontaneous. Actually, some advance planning is crucial. If you join ATA and register immediately for the next exam sitting, even if it’s only a few weeks away, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the exam by taking a practice test, listening to a webinar, attending a candidate preparation session, or working with colleagues. Some people perform better under stress, but the certification exam is not the time to find out if you’re one of them.
  7. Cross the bridge when you come to it. If you wait until exam day to ask an important question (or to realize you have one), you may be out of luck. Many exams are given on weekends, when ATA Headquarters is closed. The head proctor’s contact information is included with your registration in case you have a last-minute question or need directions to the venue. Your registration email containing this information is sent to you twice, once when you register and again just prior to the exam date. But if you don’t open the link or read the instructions ahead of time, you may find yourself in a pickle. If you do manage to reach someone, whether it’s the proctor or ATA staff, even if you feel desperate or stressed, try to remember the advice of authors like Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey: treat folks with respect and you’re more likely to get what you want!
  8. Think of yourself as a snowflake—unique and exceptional. Well, yes, everybody is exceptional, but that doesn’t mean ATA will make exceptions for you. Perhaps you asked a question about using a certain resource, but didn’t get the answer you wanted. Perhaps you are someone who always runs late. Whatever the case, don’t assume exceptions will be made to accommodate you. If the answer was “no” from ATA staff, the answer from the proctor will still be “no” on exam day. Rooms for exam sittings are rented for a certain period of time, which cannot necessarily be extended to accommodate latecomers. ATA relishes the diversity of its members, but you may have to stifle some aspects of your uniqueness on exam day. Rules are rules.

This all might seem to be just common sense, but ATA’s certification team has seen candidates make these mistakes more times than we can count. Sure, candidates don’t set out to fail. But certification is just one of many short- and long-term goals in our busy lives, so we may not feel we have time to “sweat the small stuff.” We might skip over instructions in our rush to meet the registration deadline, and when exam day is upon us we may even forget basic guidelines in the stress of the moment. So, if you want to give yourself the best chances for success on the exam, take the time to inform yourself and prepare. Good luck!


Michèle Hansen has been an ATA-certified French>English translator and editor for over 20 years, specializing in pharmaceutical and medical documents and health-related international development. A former administrator of ATA’s French Language Division, she is now a member of the Certification Committee. Contact: hansentranslations@mac.com.

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