Test Anxiety

We’ve all been there.  The nerves, the shaking, the sweaty palms.

Taking a skills speed test is unlike the usual testing experience.   When you take a written exam, you have the benefit of mulling over an answer and going back to the question at a later time.  If an essay is required, you can take a few minutes to formulate your thoughts so you can respond in an organized manner.  Although there is a time limit, you have flexibility in the way you can use that time.

When you as court reporting students are taking your skills tests, you have no such luxury.  You need to be spot on at that very moment.  You need to write every word, hit the right keys, and keep up the seemingly relentless pace.  You have only so much time to transcribe.  And as if that weren’t stressful enough, the pass rate is not 70%.  It’s 95%!  It’s no wonder that test anxiety is a major issue for so many in this field.

There’s a lot of advice out there on what to do to mitigate test anxiety; for instance, get plenty of rest the night before, eat a healthy breakfast, and engage in deep breathing exercises.  Some believe exercise helps to calm nerves; some believe in meditation.  Positive mental rehearsal is another technique used by many as a means to enhance positive results.  All these suggestions have merit, and they’re worth pursuing.

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof solution to calming those test jitters.  What works for one person may not work for another.  Each of us has to find our own way in this regard.  One thing is for sure:  Anxiety comes with the territory in this profession.  Even when you are out in the working world, there will be times when your anxiety is through the roof.  You must find a way to deal with and overcome what can sometimes be a crippling fear.

On the other hand, I personally find that a little anxiety can actually be a good thing.  It gets the adrenaline going and keeps you on your toes.  The trick is to find that balance where you have just enough anxiety to propel you forward but not so much that your feelings of panic and dread sabotage you before you even get started.

For those of you who are prone to having test anxiety, the best advice I can give is to be prepared.  This means putting in as much meaningful practice time as you can.  Write cleanly, expand your vocabulary, build your dictionary.  Read back everything, examine your errors, and correct them.  Hone your concentration skills so you can eliminate distraction.  Keep a positive attitude and get rid of negative thoughts.  If you are stuck at a certain speed, consider that a temporary situation and resolve to keep on trying.  Even though you may have failed at your last testing attempt doesn’t mean you won’t succeed in the long run.  If you are practicing in an efficient and deliberate manner, even though you may think you are not making progress, you are.  You’ve passed tests before.  You’ve already had success!  You just have to pass some more.

Test anxiety is a part of every student’s learning experience.  It’s normal.  It’s sad that for many of you the anxiety is heightened because you haven’t passed a test for months, because you have no other financial options, or because you can’t run away from your obligations at home.   But don’t give up!  The good news is that there are wonderful job opportunities waiting for you when you graduate and become certified; and once out in the working world, the anxiety you feel today will dissipate as you gain more experience.


As if Q & A dictation wasn’t hard enough, with only an attorney and witness speaking, now comes multi-voice dictation which adds one or two additional speakers to worry about.  At just about every deposition you will attend in the future, you will need to be able to identify at least one additional participant, so having a system in place to accurately identify speakers is vital.  This is especially important when you have multiple attorneys arguing, sometimes at a quick pace and often interrupting each other.  It is easy to get confused, lose your rhythm, and drop.  We’ve all struggled with this.  Thankfully, it is a skill that becomes easier with practice.

Some schools rely on tape for multi-voice dictation where the voices introduce themselves at the beginning.  I’ve heard of lone instructors changing their voice to designate a change in speaker.  Some schools have actual speakers giving live dictation in front of the classroom, which I think is ideal, as I prefer a visual frame of reference.  My school back in the day used a rigged contraption with lights on it, and my teacher would switch a light on to identify which “person” was speaking.

The reason I prefer a visual aid is because that is the way my speaker identification system is set up.  This system is based on physical placement.  It only matters if the person speaking is on the left or the right.  So if someone on the left is speaking, I will hit certain keys on the left.  If someone on the right is speaking, I will hit certain keys on the right.

As an example, let’s say you have four speakers in front of your classroom situated like this:

Speaker (left)   Questioner (Q)   Witness (A)   Speaker (right)

Your dictation will be in Q&A format until the speaker on the left interrupts.  When that happens, I hit SKWRAO.  When the speaker on the right interrupts, I hit EURBGS.  This eliminates precious seconds trying to remember a name, if he’s the plaintiff’s lawyer or the defendant’s lawyer, if he is conducting direct or cross, or any other identifier.  It allows you to react immediately based on a visual cue

When you become a reporter, one day you will be faced with multiple people seated around a conference table.  Consider the seating diagram below for nine additional participants besides the questioner and the witness.  The same principle applies.  There is no need to commit their names to memory.  You only have to assign them a “token” to keep track of them.  I have put the appropriate token next to each person based on their seating placement.

*For the questioner, I will write SKWRAO when he speaks in colloquy.  He is assigned that first token.  If the witness speaks in colloquy, I write WEUT/WEUT.

Counsel  SKWRAOT          Counsel  SEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOL          Counsel  TEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOP          Counsel  PEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOF          Counsel  HEURBGS

Questioner SKWRAO        Counsel  EURBGS

                                    Witness  WEUT/WEUT

(Reporter sits here)

If there is a person sitting at the far end of the table, opposite me, I usually hit the whole keyboard, which is also my designation for a judge.

Notice the pattern.  For the people on the left, your core bank will always be SKWRAO.  You will only need to add the F, P, L, or T, assigning them in order as they appear down the table.  The same applies to the people on the right.  Your core bank will always be EURBGS.  You will only need to add the H, P, T, or S, S being the person furthest away from you.  I hit my tokens twice because I am less apt to mistake it for a word.

There will be times when there will be more people than you have tokens for.  At that point you will have to become creative and assign other identifiers for people, such as what they’re wearing, or come up with other tokens using the upper banks, STPH and FPLT.  The scenario noted above, however, will be more than adequate for the majority of the time.   This system has worked very well for me over my career.  Try it and see if it works for you.

If you are practicing multi-voice dictation by means other than visual cues, it is definitely harder, in my opinion; however, this system can still work.  Just mentally assign each voice a token.  I think a left or right token is an easier option than writing a name, for instance.

Identifying speakers in multi-voice dictation certainly adds another layer of difficulty, especially when you are pushing for speed.  The key is to not overthink it too much and hit the token the second you hear a different voice.  There will be times when you hit the wrong token.  Be alert during the editing process to any comments or objections that seem out of place for that particular speaker.  Let context aid you in choosing who the correct speaker should be.  Obviously, the faster you can write, the more time you will have in your reservoir to be able to correctly stroke a Q, an A, and any colloquy that is interspersed throughout the dictation.

As much as you may be struggling with speaker identification now, there will come a time when you will be confident in your abilities to accurately identify everyone in a room.  You will actually welcome seeing many lawyers at a deposition because each lawyer represents a potential sale.  One reporter from this office got called out on a last-minute assignment and ended up selling 21 copies!  (Thankfully, not everyone spoke.)

So, as always, keep practicing.  “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca

Tips for Passing the Q&A

I think it is safe to say that the Q&A leg is the nemesis of all court reporting students. Students learn early on that it is a long and grueling road trying to reach the 225 wpm goal required to pass the RPR.  I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how consistent and mindful practice will imbed the correct brain-to-finger connections essential to gaining speed and accuracy; but that aside, I thought I’d share with you three tips to help you on testing day that you may not have considered.

First of all, it may seem contrary to everything we are trained to do, but it may be a good idea to actually DROP during testing.  Sometimes you just can’t hold on.  If you cut your losses and immediately move on, you won’t dig yourself into a bigger hole trying to catch up, all the while writing unintelligible strokes.  The errors will add up quickly.  The “dropping” is easy; it’s the resumption that’s difficult to do, as it may be hard to get your rhythm back.  However, if you can stay calm and execute this strategy as the words are flying by, it may work in your favor.  Of course, if you do this throughout the Q&A take, you are not quite there yet and it’s time to regroup and practice some more.  This advice regarding dropping does not apply to your practice sessions, however.  Ultimately you will not gain speed if you don’t push yourself to the max when you practice.

My second thought would be to brief on the fly.  I still remember my first attempt at the CSR.  The street name “Furnace Brook Parkway” came up a few times.  This was long before briefs were even talked about – we wrote everything out back then – but if I’d had the benefit of this knowledge and had come up with a brief on the fly, I would have turned five strokes into one, sparing myself much anxiety and energy.  Briefing on the fly may not come easily to you, but try it during your practice sessions so you become accustomed to doing it.  If you can come up with a brief one or two times during a test, it might just be enough to get you a passing grade.

As an example, try the OIG brief.  I use this as a suffix on my right hand and use an initial sound or letter on my left hand.  So for “Furnace Brook Parkway,” a great brief would be FOIG.  The trick with any brief, though, is remembering what it stands for, which is especially challenging during a testing situation.  A word of caution:   Sometimes you will come up with a brief for “Norwegian Cruise Line” — NOIG, for instance — but the dictation may also include “Norwegian Cruise Lines” or “Norwegian Cruises.” Alternatively, you could just stick to NOIG for “Norwegian,” which would be a big timesaver in itself.

My last tip would be to transcribe your take even if you think you may not have passed.  You may have gotten more than you think you did!  For a 95% pass rate on the RPR exam, you are allowed 57 errors on the Q&A leg at 225 wpm.  It’s always useful to know what your score was, if you missed a passing grade by ten errors or 20.  Unless you think you absolutely blew it, it’s worth the effort and always good practice to transcribe.

Hopefully you will have enough time to carefully proofread your take.  Familiarize yourself with NCRA’s Grading Guidelines and what constitutes an error.  It is also important to pay attention to the content/story line when you are proofreading because doing so may provide clues that will aid you when transcribing.

It is not uncommon to be stuck at a certain speed for a long time and for months to go by before you pass another test.  Everyone hits a wall at some point and discouragement sets in.  You can’t break through, though, if you don’t keep trying.   “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”  –  Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tips for Passing the Jury Charge

Most reporters agree that the jury charge is the easiest of the legs to pass. The reason is because it is the one take that is made up of dozens of phrases that are common to that leg and are repeated throughout the dictation. So at the outset you are at somewhat of an advantage because you can already anticipate some of the language that you will hear. Furthermore, since jury charges are basically the same format-wise, that is, a judge reading instructions to the jury, the dictation is narrower in scope which I have always found to be less intimidating.

The key to passing a jury charge is to use one-stroke briefs for the common phrases found in jury charge dictation. There are several briefs out there for “preponderance of the evidence,” for example, but choose a brief that immediately makes sense to you, one that you can adopt and remember easily. If it conflicts too much with your theory or if it causes you to hesitate when the words are flying by, that will defeat the purpose of using it!

What is also tricky about jury charge briefs is, as always, the little words.  Take this sequence:

*beyond a reasonable doubt

*beyond all reasonable doubt

*beyond any reasonable doubt

*beyond every reasonable doubt

There is a one-stroke brief for each of these phrases, but you will have to commit each specific brief to memory to avoid being charged an error for writing the wrong one. You cannot afford to be tripped up during test time. They may be “little” words, but they carry the same weight as every other word on test day. Not to be overlooked is the big difference in meaning between the four phrases.

Of course the great benefit of jury charge briefs is that they can buy you valuable time. Just when you think you can’t hang on any longer, you will hear “beyond every reasonable doubt.” You can hit it in one stroke, and you’ll be back in the game. Briefs can give you breathing room, a chance to catch your breath if only for a valuable second. Briefs can really make the difference between a pass or fail.

Check out the links below. I found them after doing a Google search. Pick out the briefs that you like and practice them until you own them. If you don’t like a suggested brief on the list, don’t use it. Look for another one or create one of your own. A brief has to make sense to you for you to retain it. The third link contains common words and phrases relating to jury service which you may find helpful.




If you frequent Facebook, check out these sites:  STENO BRIEFS, The Brief Exchange, Steno Briefs for court reporters, and A BRIEF a day keeps the doctor away. Fellow court reporters are more than eager to share their briefs with you.

Additionally, your software can help you.  For example, Stenograph’s Case CATalyst has Brief It.  You write a phrase often enough, and Case CATalyst will suggest a brief for you.  http://www.stenograph.com/HelpDeskDocs/Cat4V8/Using%20Brief%20It%20In%20Case%20CATalyst%209.05.htm

NCRA’s website also has a section called “Jury Charge Dictation Materials” which you can use as practice material.  Here is the link:


Incorporating jury charge briefs in your practice regimen will be your ticket to a pass on your next test, but you will have to know them inside and out so you can write them correctly without thought or effort.

Tips for Passing Literary Tests

Between literary, jury charge, and Q&A dictation, the literary was always my favorite leg in school.  I loved the challenge of tackling dense material.  And since it was favored by me, I tended to do well on my literary tests.

I remember consciously making an effort to include literary practice from a book.  Sometimes taking a break from dictation on tape is a welcomed change.  I had a medical textbook put out by NCRA back then which included chapters on each system in the body:  skeletal, nervous, respiratory, digestive, muscular, cardiovascular, etc.  I would write from each chapter, concentrating on correct fingering, not on speed.  If I had trouble with a certain word or group of words, I would practice them until I could write them without error.  I would read my notes to see if there were any flaws or mistakes.  As time went on, I could write the chapter quite comfortably.  Because of this, when I was presented with nontechnical literary for testing purposes, it did not seem as difficult.

If you do not have such a book, there is plenty of material on line for you to use.  Just print up a few articles and write away.  Besides medical material, choose material in other subjects as well, such as chemical, engineering, or environmental.  The supply is endless!  If you can concentrate on one full article a month in a different subject area, think of all the new vocabulary words you will be able to add to your dictionary, not to mention the exposure you will have to the many disciplines you will most likely encounter in your court reporting career.

As an example, I found the article “Wiping Out Gut Bugs Stops Obesity” by Kerry Grens in the November 16, 2015, issue of The Scientist from a simple Google search and found this sentence:  “Inhibition of this signaling impairs antibiotic-induced subcutaneous-fat browning, and it suppresses the glucose phenotype of the microbiota-depleted mice.”  This is obviously a difficult passage.  If it is way beyond your abilities, look for material that is less dense and more manageable.  The main point is that there is great free practice material out there for whatever level you are at.

To get you started, email me at cpsaros@doriswong.com, and I will send you some medical chapters from the NCRA textbook, now sadly out of print, for you to practice.  They are not as difficult as the example above, but you will still find them challenging and very interesting.

Another hint:  You can also carry the articles with you so that if you have spare time – in a doctor’s waiting room, for example, or on the commuter train – you can practice the fingering without your machine.  Though not as effective, it is still a good way to forge new pathways between your brain and fingers, new pathways that will soon become part of your everyday writing arsenal.

Try including this method of practice in your routine and see if it brings you success.  In any event, it is far better to test your writing abilities during your quiet study sessions than when you come face to face with an expert witness some day.


We all know there is a court reporter shortage. Many court reporters are aging, nearing retirement, and there are not enough graduates in line to replace them. To compound the situation, the number of accredited schools has diminished considerably around the country due to low graduation rates and decreased enrollment.

Needless to say, NCRA is pushing to rectify this situation through their Court Reporting, Take Note campaign, which can be found at http://www.crtakenote.com. NCRA is heavily promoting court reporting as a career that offers flexible hours, job security, character building, and an average starting salary of $45,000.

So when I see ads or news reports touting $100,000 salaries, I cringe. Court reporting can be a lucrative career, especially if you are a top-tier professional, but luring potential students into this vocation thinking that $100,000 salaries are the norm I think is irresponsible. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for May of 2012, the top ten percent of reporters earned $90,530, the bottom ten percent earned $24,790, and the mean salary was $48,160.

If you are contemplating becoming a court reporter, it is important that you not base your decision on potential earnings alone. Before one dime is invested in your education, you should honestly evaluate how you stack up in terms of temperament, skill set, and work ethic, all qualities addressed in a previous blog. With that in mind, there are other things to consider: How much time will you realistically have to devote to your studies? Do you work full time? Do you have challenges in your personal life, such as child/elder care or your own health issues? All these factors could prove distracting and could potentially delay or even derail your goal of graduating in a timely fashion.

Yes, $100,000 salaries are certainly attainable, but the reporters earning those incomes by and large have NCRA’s RMR, RDR, and CRR certifications. These designations have been earned over the course of their careers, not upon graduation.


The major focus of court reporting school is to write faster.  As a student, this process becomes ingrained in your psyche.  It is your quest.  You practice for months on end, pass a test, and the seemingly never-ending cycle continues.

Why does speed matter?  For one, it allows you to write comfortably.  Nothing is worse on an assignment, or more exhausting mentally and physically, than struggling to get every word and playing catch-up all day.  Having speed also allows you to write more cleanly, which will translate into better read-back on the job and less editing time afterward; and when you get more experience under your belt, you will be able to provide clean realtime feeds to counsel, a skill which is becoming more in demand with each passing day.  Lastly, speed matters because you will be in a better position to actually listen to the testimony that is unfolding before you and to learn what the lawsuit is about.  You will produce a better transcript if you understand the reason for the lawsuit and the parties’ positions on the issues.

Having adequate speed is one thing; having a speed cushion is even better.  A cushion will help you hang on during the fast spurts, endure very long-winded technical answers, and accurately record heated arguments between counsel in colloquy.

In a nutshell, having speed puts you in control.  You will be able to report all day with less stress and with confidence knowing you are getting the job done.  The truth is, and working reporters will tell you, that you can never write fast enough.  There are some witnesses that challenge even the most experienced reporters, which is why many continue to practice long after they have graduated from school.

So it may surprise you to learn that, as crucial as speed is, it isn’t everything!  What good does it do if you can write at 225 wpm but you don’t know how to punctuate or if you have inadequate word knowledge and choose the wrong word in context?  Your work product is being examined by intelligent and discerning people.  You wouldn’t want your reputation tarnished by errors, in black and white, for all to see.

Court reporting is part science and part art.  The science is the technical aspect of writing the words on your machine.  The art is using every tool at your disposal, along with your judgment and experience, to produce a transcript that accurately reflects what transpired.  This is your core responsibility.  A reporter must be competent in both areas, the science and the art, to be successful.

So while you are pushing for speed, remember not to overlook the other components that will make you a better reporter.  All accomplished reporters I know care about every word, its spelling, and usage.  They think about, sometimes agonize over, punctuation.  They know enough to research what they don’t know.  They read newspapers and magazines to improve their word knowledge and to keep abreast of current events and the world around them.  They are members of NCRA, and they attend its seminars.  They are organized, have excellent time management skills, and pay attention to detail.  These attributes are just as important as speed.  Being proficient in both areas will make you a reporter in high demand.