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.