The Aptitude Test – Overcoming the First Hurdle

It’s that season again – the interpreting schools, close now to winding up the academic year with their final exams, are already starting to prepare for next fall. Yes, it’s aptitude test time. Over the next few lines, I will be giving you a rough idea of what to expect if you have applied to take an aptitude test for a post-graduate interpreting course – and possibly reviving some traumatic memories among those readers who have already been through it!

The purpose of an aptitude test is to identify which applicants to a course would appear to be most suitable for training as interpreters. Since this is virtually impossible to determine from a paper CV alone, it is necessary for universities to hold face-to-face interviews with candidates. These tests constitute the first of many hurdles that need to be overcome on the way to becoming an interpreter. I won’t bore (or depress!) readers with details of all the various hurdles right now – there will be plenty of time to tackle them all one-by-one on the pages of the Diaries.

What? No obstacles? If only it were that easy ...

In keeping with the diary theme of this blog, I think it’s appropriate that I introduce readers to this topic by sharing the story of my own aptitude test (which was more years ago than I care to admit, although not as long ago as some might think). The test that I took at the University of Westminster (sniff!) may have changed over the years, but at least back when I took it, it comprised a personal interview, memory exercises, written translations and a general knowledge quiz.

My most vivid recollection of the interview component of the test was that it seemed to be a hair-raising blend of job interview, personality profiling and all the oral exams I had ever taken at university. I was sat down before a panel of four examiners (all of whom I came to know well later and who actually are extremely nice people!), who proceeded to pepper me with questions (in four languages) about my life, my experience and why exactly I thought I might want to become an interpreter, anyway. I was expected to code-switch between all my languages, replying to each question in the language it had been asked. And of course I had to remain cool, calm and collected throughout – not to mention try not to say anything stupid!

After this friendly multilingual chat, the examiners put me through some memory exercises. Ironically enough, I don’t remember a thing about what that was like. I have completely blanked out the whole affair. That just goes to show that it is short-term, not long-term, memory that counts in an interpreter. But I imagine they were just like all the other memory exercises that I have done (or inflicted!) since: 2-3 minute speeches on a given topic that candidates are expected to recall (without notes!) and then reproduce in their mother tongue, with as much detail as possible and ideally following the original structure.

After that was done and I had been given some time to catch my breath, I was sat down with the rest of the candidates, given some texts in my various passive languages and asked to provide a written translation of each into English. This part is also a bit of a blur now, but I do recall wishing I had a dictionary when I came across the word “colza” in the French text and hadn’t a clue what it was (rapeseed! Grrr… I’ll never forget that again).

After the translations, all candidates were asked to fill out a general knowledge quiz. This part of the aptitude test, we were assured, was not eliminatory. In other words, if we performed well on everything else, we would be forgiven for not knowing the difference between the Koran and the Taliban (which I didn’t – my excuse now being that this was long before 9-11!). I still remember the words of my examiner when I was given the results of my general knowledge quiz: she said that my answers “hadn’t been quite as abysmally bad as that of my fellow candidates” – words which I took as the highest form of praise at the time (and made me wonder what sort of answers the others had given!).

Interestingly, one of my most vivid memories of the whole aptitude testing ordeal was the “buzz” I felt when I came out of the test. It was a completely new sensation for me, but I have since come to recognize it as the feeling you get when you have nailed a particularly difficult speaker or made it through an especially challenging meeting. I think this “buzz” is probably one effect of the interpreter’s great friend, the adrenaline rush (which I talked about last week).

Oh, my goodness – are they all like that?

No, actually. It must be said that not all aptitude tests are the same. Far from it: some universities run group sessions instead of individual interviews, others leave out the written translation component. At the University of La Laguna, for example, candidates are tested in groups of eight at a time in sessions that last three hours each. These sessions include the dreaded memory exercises, general knowledge questions and language-switching components.

But the ultimate aim of all aptitude tests, whatever form they take, will be the same: to test the candidates’ ability to express themselves clearly and eloquently in their mother tongue, their comprehension of their passive languages, their ability to deal with stress, how they work with memory and, of course, their knowledge of the world.

For those with a more academic interest in the subject, I would encourage you to read a 2008 comparative study on aptitude testing in interpreting schools. It’s available for purchase from St Jerome Publishing.

You said something about hurdles …

If you are an aspiring interpreter, what I’m sure you really want to know is: what are my chances of actually passing the aptitude test? Well, like all interpreting trainers worth their salt, I believe in throwing in a few figures at the end, so here goes …

I am told that at most interpreting schools, roughly 20% of the candidates who are invited to participate in the aptitude tests will ultimately be offered a place on the course. At the University of La Laguna, the course I know best for obvious reasons, some 95 applications were received for the 2011-12 course; 75 of these applicants have been invited to take the aptitude tests; the number of places available on the course is 16-18. Specifically, for the Spanish booth, it is expected that perhaps ten of the 45 or so candidates might make the grade.

How can you make sure you will be among that 20%? Well, my main message would be “remain calm”. It’s only a test, after all. And if you don’t make it, that might just mean you aren’t cut out to be an interpreter, for whatever reason – a message you are better off receiving now rather than later, when you have invested more in the process.

Why do people fail the aptitude tests? I’d hazard a guess that the most common reasons for not passing an aptitude test are proficiency problems in one’s passive languages, inability to perform as required on the memory exercises (whether due to stress, not understanding the original, or other reasons), and insufficient fluency in one’s mother tongue (problems with choice of register or poor active vocabulary). But I have no statistics to back this up, it’s just my own impression.

As to specific forms of preparation: in other posts, I look more closely at how much “general knowledge” you will be expected to possess at an aptitude test (and at other stages of your training) and what “language proficiency” means from an interpreting perspective. That information, plus my reflections in the last post on the typical character traits of an interpreter, will hopefully give readers an idea of what it takes to overcome this first of many hurdles.


9 thoughts on “The Aptitude Test – Overcoming the First Hurdle

  1. Uff! Me has hecho recordar mi prueba de aptitud para mi curso… Coincido con todo lo apuntado: calma, tranquilidad y seguridad, buen conocimiento de las lenguas de partida y un vocabulario activo de la lengua materna en cualquier área. Yo recuerdo perfectamente el tema del discurso en italiano, pero no lo desvelaré por si sale nuevamente en las próximas pruebas.
    Lo recordaré toda la vida porque la pronunciación de unas siglas archiconocidas me ocasionaron problemas al inicio. Los primeros 30 segundos pensé “fatal, no lo superaré”. Después me calmé, cogí la perspectiva y a los 30 segundos ¡ya tenía lo que era! Mi consejo ante un problema de esta índole es mantener la calma, estar atentísimo al discurso y sacar las dificultades según el contexto y la lógica sin caer en soltar tonterías sin sentido por la boca.

    ¡Suerte con las pruebas de esta convocatoria! ¡Son un montón de candidatos! 🙂

    • Hola Judith, siento no haber respondido a tu comentario antes, pero esta semana ha sido bastante movida :-P. Luego nos contarás cual fue el tema de la prueba, vale? Tengo curiosidad … Yo también me acuerdo de varios discursos clave que me causaron problemas en los exámenes, aunque ya hayan pasado años desde entonces. Parece que la memoria no da tregua con estas cosas :-/.

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  3. Nice to see a blog like this! In response to this particular post, readers interested in aptitude for interpreting might like to have a look at the latest issue of the journal “Interpreting”. A special issue has just been released, containing contributions from a number of aptitude researchers drawn from both signed and spoken language interpreting fields. The website link is here:-

    • Thanks, Karen! I shared the link to the journal on my Facebook page – looks very interesting! In another life, I will become an interpreting researcher, and then I will be able to express my views with some authority – right now, it’s all just experience-based ;).

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