The UN English Editors’ Exam: Final Thoughts

It has been a long five months since I posted about my gearing up to take the UN Editors’ examination. Back in February I had given myself low odds of passing. After relentlessly studying French and the UN style guide, and taking as many practice tests that I could get my hands on (two), I cautiously say at this point that it’s a crap shoot.

At the beginning of my studies, however, I showed a bit of naïveté in saying that I was going to dedicate so much of my time solely to the apprehension of French. One of the most important takeaways from this experience was that as native as you are in English and as good of an editor you may be, to “edit for UN style” well, you need to study the style guide; and in the case of the UN, it is a chimerical amalgamation of US and UK English. Personally, the style guide was not the only challenge. Simply cultivating efficient and correct (hand-written) editing skills to improve the clarity and direction of a written document is a challenge in itself.

In my professional life I am an editor and translator, yes, in that order, because I edit twice as much as I translate. And I like it that way. Yet, I do my work on the computer with mouse and keyboard, and, of course, track changes. For the UN test, it was made abundantly clear that the use of any reference, electronic or otherwise, during the test, during the lunch break or in the bathroom was grounds for expulsion from Geneva via catapult. Obviously, that means no computers on which to edit the texts and type out the rest of your test so you’re stuck with a pen in your hand and an actual piece of paper in front of you. If your handwriting is terrible, or if your hand or wrist craps out, there is no quarter. To counter this I went to a cafe a couple of times before the test with a notebook and a pen simply to write and I didn’t have a problem on test day.

You are allowed to bring (according to the website) pens, pencils, erasers, highlighters, whiteout, rulers and calculators (perhaps they meant slide rules or abacuses because the last time I checked every calculator was considered an electronic device). Also, bring food and drink because it is a long test and even during the break you are not to leave the testing hall. You can go to the bathroom but you are escorted.

The view from the building where I took the test. Not too shabby.

The first part is three hours and comprises two English texts (one general, one technical) that you edit for correctness, clarity and style, plus about 30 style-related questions in English à la “which sentence is best?”, “where is the error?”, “if there is no error, what is the difference in meaning?”. This is where you encounter classic good-English stumpers like compliment/complement, affect/effect and preterite/past perfect usage questions. You manage your own time and write directly in the test booklet. The first part is eliminatory, so you really want to nail it or else they won’t even look at the second part.

After a 30 minute break, you start the second part, which is where you get to flex your linguistic muscle. There is a translation and a summary, both into English, from two of the UN’s five official (non-English) languages: Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish. You can’t choose the same language to do both the translation and the abstract so I did the summary from French and the translation from Spanish. You have two and a half hours and, again, you manage your own time.

Lunch was a good recharge break but my brain was spinning hard and fast during the summary of a French text. Distilling some thousand words on the political and security situation in Liberia into about 300-350 lucid and well-written words into English was punishing. Despite the time I spent poring over UN documents in French preparing myself, it was still difficult and was definitely my weakest section. The translation from Spanish was straightforward.

Though both parts were challenging and laborious, I had plenty of time for both. I was among the first to finish both parts, which made me incredibly nervous during the first but oddly comfortable during the second. I attribute my feelings during the latter part to mental exhaustion, for one, and to my experience in the open market where efficiency equals paying rent. I had the sneaking suspicion that there were not too many freelance translators and editors at the test until I met two sitting right next to me. So much for that theory.

The editors’ test is long and is more (in my opinion) a test of endurance. You have to be good in English and your two other languages of course, but, moreover, you have to be good for a long time. I liken the testing process as a microcosm of the whole application process to become gainfully employed by the UN. Creating your UN profile online where you have to type out all of your experience and education because they don’t “accept CVs” is the first gatekeeper. I understand it. It sucks. And it is the first filter, the first hurdle and it answers the question, “are you sure you want to work for us?”. The rest of the processes after you have a profile also have that same friction that ensures that the candidates who make it to the end want to be there, can follow simple instructions and have patience and humility. The test, to which you must be invited, is designed to organically examine the candidates. No one today does anything without reference material and the Internet. Very few hand write their texts anymore. So why would they test that way? It’s a test of constitution, not necessarily one of knowledge. If you get stuck, can you think critically to provide an adequate workaround? Are you resilient enough to withstand five and a half hours of mental pounding? I may be reading too much into this but I honestly feel that they (the UN, the EU, the US Gov’t) understand that there things you can teach and there are things you can’t. How do we filter out those with the requisite foundation and those with only Google skills? (The latter is also important, don’t get me wrong.)

Here I am back at home with a day or two to get back to my work. I am glad I took the test, rather, I am glad the UN was so desperate for English natives that they invited me to take it. At the very least, I have the experience of having done one test and the subsequent ones won’t be nearly as daunting. If I pass, (hey, here’s to hoping) then I might get an interview, and beyond that I might get placed on the roster, and beyond that I might get picked up one of these days. Needless to say, my breath is not held nor bated. I know glaciers run circles around these types of processes so I can calmly return to my life and focus on the next thing: more clients and better pepper jelly.


  1. Sonja Perry

    Nicely put, Dustin! I took the German test yesterday, and the funniest part was when the Proctor said (after part 1 & 2, i.e. 4 hours of handwriting): “You will have a thirty minute break now, but you are not allowed to leave the room nor talk with anyone inside the room.” Needless to say, the allotted time was not enough to escort all the girls and the one guy to the restroom one by one.

  2. Good for you, Dustin! That experience sounds intense, and I’m impressed with your resilience and your Frenchie work. Bonne chance!

  3. Hey Gillie,

    Thanks, it was quite the experience and I am glad I did it. By the way, started Bird by Bird. SO GOOD. Love that she mentions the dump in Pet-a-llama.


  4. Nadine Brittan

    Hi Dustin! I also wrote the exam for English editors and I can fully relate to the experience you described in this post. Fingers crossed that I passed as well!

  5. Nadine Brittan

    My language combination is English, French and Spanish. I wrote the exam in Montreal, Canada.

  6. Chris Boland

    Thanks, Dustin. I took the test, too, in New York. I work as an editor at a nonprofit. I had the impression we could use pencils. But, at our location, the proctor told us we could “only make notes in the margins” with pencil and that those markings would not be graded. So, I just used pen and ended up crossing out a lot more than I had hoped. I don’t understand why pencil wasn’t allowed. Here, at my job, handwritten edits in pencil are perfectly normal. The ability to erase is important in keeping the page clean.

    Were pencil markings allowed as “graded markings” at other exam sites?

    Thanks, Chris

    • Hi Chris. How did the test go for you? The proctor in Geneva just specified the use of black pens. I don’t know why pencils were not allowed (I wanted to use pencil too) but the UN works in mysterious ways.

      Hope you did well!

  7. Chris Boland

    Hi Dustin.

    Thanks for that. I feel better about my pen markings now.

    I hope you did well on it, too.

    I feel o.k. about my performance. It’s hard to know how these exams are evaluated. It is “competitive,” which leads me to believe they will only pass the very best. I wonder if there is a set number of slots for the best exams?

    All we can do is wish each other well and look forward to the results.

    Kind regards!


    • Hi Chris,

      You’re absolutely right. I hope we make the cut but I won’t be disappointed (terribly disappointed) because I will have had the experience of taking it. Best of luck and hopefully we’ll see each other on the other side!

  8. Nadine Brittan

    Has anyone heard any news yet? I’m growing impatient and tired of looking at Frank Schramm’s pic on their Web site! (no offense Frank, but I need to see some something new soon!). I wrote both the translation and the editing exams and I believe they mentioned that we would receive results in September/October. Has anyone heard otherwise?

  9. Hi Nadine,

    Thanks for the comment and good luck with the results…when you get them. I’m here too just awaitin..

  10. Nadine Brittan

    Just saw my letter and I didn’t pass. Hope you fared better? Needless to say I’m disappointed…but perhaps I’ll apply again next time.

    • Hey Nadine,
      Thanks for the comment. I got the same letter as you; am I disappointed? Yes, but it was a great experience and we’ll see you at the next exam.

  11. I’ve sat the UN English Editor’s exam twice with no success. Firstly, in 2006, after a three-month stint at UNECE in Geneva then in 2008 after editing for OECD. I’m now thinking of doing this toughie again but the worse thing is they give you no feedback on examination performance so it’s questionable whether it’s worth all the hassle?

    • Hi Simon,

      Thanks for the comment, and I share your frustration over the lack of feedback. Is it worth the hassle? I don’t know, the test is difficult and it doesn’t guarantee anything. I sat it once to no avail last year and now I am focusing my efforts on German instead of French since I live in Zurich now. I don’t foresee myself taking it again soon. If you decide to do it again, I wish you the best of luck!

      Warm regards,

  12. David C.

    Hi Dustin,

    I just came across this blog post. Like you, I sat the same exam in July 2012 (in Montreal, Canada). It was, indeed, a rather gruelling process. To my surprise, however, I received notification from OHRM in November that I had passed. The following month, I went to New York for the panel interview. It was a relatively straightforward affair. In February 2013, OHRM wrote to me again to confirm my placement on the roster.

    As of this writing (August), I have not been contacted. It is my understanding that it could take up to a year or two before someone on the roster is offered a position within the UN.

    I am sorry to hear that you did not pass the exam, but am happy to hear that you enjoyed the experience.

    Best wishes to you,

    • Hi David,

      Thanks very much for the comment! I am sorry I have not been up on my blog lately–another international move, learning a new language, starting a new job and siring a son has gotten in the way.

      Congrats on the great news that you’ve been rostered! So this is nine months since–what’s the status now?

      Wishing you the best and I look forward to your reply.

      I am trying to make more time to write (I am a full-time writer now at work, ironically, I have little time to write) and to service the blog.

      Thanks again for stopping by!



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