How to Prepare for the United Nations Interpreter Exam

As many readers will already be aware, the UN is currently recruiting English, Spanish and French interpreters for its headquarters in New York and other duty stations (you can find details of the posting here). Unfortunately for those who are just hearing the news now, the deadline for applying has already passed. However, there will undoubtedly be some interpreters out there who have submitted their applications and are now wondering how to make the most of their time until the tests are held later this spring.

Now, while I haven’t actually applied to take the test, I have to confess I was curious to see what sort of information and resources are available to help candidates prepare for the big day. So I started digging, and here’s what I found.

Oddly enough, a cursory search of the UN careers website didn’t turn up much (whilst the site is jam-packed with interesting information, I find it a bit hard to navigate effectively to find exactly what I want).  A quick Google query led me to this article: How to Pass the United Nations Interpreter Examination. I found the article informative enough, and it included a few useful links at the bottom. However, it was nothing compared to what I unearthed next…

On the Interpreter Training Resources website, my site of choice for all things interpreting-related, I found a link sporting the innocent title of “UN Tips”. Well, what did I find when I clicked on it but a direct link to the United Nations’ own official guidance document on how to prepare for their interpreter exams!


Thank you, Andy! What would we do without you…

The full title of this little gem is Examinations for Interpreters* and I’m happy to say it delivers exactly what the title promises. The guide is published on the UN’s Language Outreach portal (I didn’t go back to the UN Careers site to see if there was a link through to this portal, but I have to hope there is one and I just wasn’t clever enough to find it).

The guide gives detailed, step-by-step suggestions of how to prepare for the exams using material found on the various UN websites. There are enough ideas there to keep even the eagerest of beavers busy for the next few months until test day!

The only downside to the resource that I could find were the statistics they gave in the right-hand column (UN hopefuls, please avert your eyes now): there were 38,231 applicants to the 55 examinations held between 2005 and 2009, and only 10.6 successful candidates were placed on the roster after each exam. Gulp.

So, there you have it. Time for you aspiring UN interpreters to get practicing so you can beat the odds… and time for me to stop blogging and get back to my real job!

*Update for 2016: the UN language careers website has been revamped and all information on Examinations for Interpreters, including the Tips for Preparation I described above, can now be found at this link. This blog post has been amended in part to reflect the changes.

13 thoughts on “How to Prepare for the United Nations Interpreter Exam

  1. Pingback: How to Prepare for the United Nations Interpreter Exam

  2. Thanks for this! I was wondering whether you would consider writing an article on your very first conference. I am nearly at the end of my one-year interpreting course (not long enough, imo) and I’m note sure how to make the leap from student-interpreter to professional interpreter. (I’m looking into volunteering – but there don’t seem to be that many opportunities to do so, as far as I am aware). I’d be interested to know how you prepared for and coped with your first confernece.

    • Thanks for the interest! I keep meaning to write about my first steps in the profession, but so many other interesting topics always come up that it seems a shame for me to “waste” a post writing about myself ;). In any case, your request is noted. I will hopefully write some more posts this spring about getting started after graduation.

    • As this post above, I’m studying translation at interpreting, I found this post interesting and a great opportunity. But it’s true that there is a small amount of successful candidates, what do you all think is the main raison?

      Regarding the links, the audio files of sample exams are so useful, in some websites about preparation for exams they don’t provide this material.

      I’d be interested as well to know hoy you coped with your first conference, job and if you have done some volunteering work,. anyway, there is no rush, whenever you can. Thanks 🙂

      • Thanks for your interest, Elena. I have never done any volunteering, so I can’t write about that. I contacted the Red Cross back when I was starting out and they told me that without Spanish I couldn’t be of any use to them (I didn’t interpret from Spanish at the time). And I have been too busy since to try to find time for volunteer interpreting. But I have colleagues who interpret for Amnesty International. Maybe I can get one of them to do a guest post for me one day…

  3. Pingback: (TOOL) – How to Prepare for the United Nations Interpreter Exam | Michelle Hof | Glossarissimo!

  4. Thanks for your reply!

    I wanted to ask what kind of headphones are useful for practicing speeches at home (i.e. with a laptop)? I hate interpreting at home and always go to the booth…but I’m away on a translation placement atm, so have no booth access. I have my iPod headphones but they’re not really very good – as soon as I start talking, I can barely here the original. Any tips?


    • It’s worth investing in a proper set of headphones if you intend to make a living from interpreting. Many colleagues go for the Bang & Olufsen ones. They are nice and compact and fit easily in a bag, and give you great sound!

  5. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Feb 11-17)

  6. Dear colleague, I am afraid this resource doesn’t exist anymore, the link to the guide just takes you to a general page with a presentation of the service but no guide, and the link on the artible above pointing to the audio files is broken. It’s such a pity, but I think it would be better either to remove it or try to update it so that it’s really useful. The interpreter training page is very good. Thanks.

Leave a Reply to Legal Language (@LegalLanguage) Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.