One Member’s Tips on How to Prepare for ATA’s Certification Exam

There are so many ways you can prepare to take ATA’s certification exam. Here are just a few tips from a fellow exam taker.

There’s no question that ATA’s certification exam is challenging. The good news is that there are effective ways to ready oneself. Had I not prepared extensively, I highly doubt that I would have passed the Spanish>English exam on the first try.

The certification section on ATA’s website has a wealth of information about preparing for and taking the exam, and I cannot overstate the importance of reviewing these guidelines carefully.1 In addition to all the great information ATA provides, I believe that sharing my personal experience about taking the exam may be helpful to prospective examinees.

It’s Cool to Practice

It was very helpful to have taken an ATA practice test. This allowed me to gain a better understanding of my areas for improvement before actually taking the exam. At a fraction of the price of the real exam, I felt that the practice test was a great deal, with the added benefit of getting the required passage plus both optional passages graded. On the real exam, you can only choose one of the optional texts, so it really helped to get the additional feedback from the grader of these extra practice test passages.

When I received my practice test results, I reviewed the grader’s feedback thoroughly. This review helped me realize that ATA graders place as much importance on translation skills as on writing ability. While my reviewed practice tests didn’t show many negative points for grammar, mechanics, and punctuation, I decided that it would benefit me to improve my writing skills before taking the actual exam. After all, the little things do count on the real exam (as in real-life writing), and it only takes a few negative points for writing errors to jeopardize your chances of passing.

Two Helpful Guides

I was fortunate to find two excellent guides that I highly recommend to anyone intending to take the exam in the “into-English” direction: The Best Punctuation Book, Period2 and It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences,3 both by June Casagrande. Had I had more time to prepare for the exam, I would have also read The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.4 The punctuation guide was very handy during the actual exam, and a careful study of It was the Best of Sentences… prior to the exam helped me write more concisely and cohesively. For those intending to take the exam in the “from English” direction, I’m certain that there are excellent style, punctuation, and mechanics guides in your target language.

Before the actual exam, I was very fortunate to have attended Jane Maier’s presentation, “Everything You Wanted to Know About the ATA Certification Exam,” at the 5th Annual Conference of the Colorado Translators Association, which took place last May in Boulder, Colorado.5 Jane, a seasoned ATA grader, provided a useful overview of the exam, explained how it’s graded, and suggested reference guides that were helpful during the real test, such as the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage,6 by Allan M. Siegel and William G. Connolly, and the BBI Combinatorial Dictionary of English, compiled by Morton Benson, Evelyn Benson, and Robert Ilson.7

Feel Free to Overpack

I took all the relevant dictionaries and style guides I own to the actual exam. It felt a little strange to walk into the room towing a large suitcase, and it took a few minutes to get my “tools” organized and ready. But once the test got underway, I was happy to have not “packed light.” For example, there was one particularly challenging phrase for which consulting A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish,8 by John Butt and Carmen Benjamin, helped me find a good translation. Without a doubt, my specialized bilingual legal dictionaries were quite helpful on the optional legal passage. In short, I believe that it’s much better to have more tools than you need than to discover during the exam that you need tools that you do not have.

To aid concentration during the exam, I also found that wearing earplugs was a great benefit. The exam room was not particularly noisy, but the 29 dB noise reduction made it possible for me to work undisturbed. I think it would be more comfortable, though, to use noise-canceling headphones.

Parting Thoughts

I hope this brief account of my journey through my ATA certification exam experience has been useful. I wish all future examinees the best of luck. 

  1. ATA Certification Information,
  2. Casagrande, June. The Best Punctuation Book, Period (Ten Speed Press, 2014),
  3. Casagrande, June. It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences (Ten Speed Press, 2013),
  4. Strunk, William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th Edition (Longman, 1999),
  5. Highlights from the 5th Annual Conference of the Colorado Translators Association,
  6. Siegel, Allan M., and William G. Connolly. New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 5th Edition (Three Rivers Press, 2015),
  7. Benson, Morton, Evelyn Benson, and Robert Ilson. BBI Combinatorial Dictionary of English (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2010),
  8. Butt, John, and Carmen Benjamin. A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish, 5th Edition (Routledge, 2011),

David L. Lauman is an ATA-certified Spanish>English translator and a federally certified court interpreter. He has interpreted extensively in legal, law enforcement, conference, seminar, medical, and community settings. His translation work has focused primarily on legal, medical, and business-related documents. He has an MA in translation and interpretation from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a BA in Latin American Studies from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Contact:

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