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How to pass the Cambridge First Certificate exam

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What is the Cambridge First Certificate exam?

The Cambridge First Certificate Exam (FCE) is a certificate organised by the University of Cambridge. It is aimed at upper-intermediate English learners who would like to prove their English proficiency.

The certificate can be an excellent qualification to have, since it is recognised by thousands of universities, employers and governments worldwide.

Attaining an FCE pass can open the door to better education or employment opportunities, as well as increasing the chance of you being allowed to live and work in English-speaking countries.

The FCE consists of 5 papers:

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Use of English
  4. Listening
  5. Speaking.

Papers 1, 2, 3 and 4 are taken on the same day. Paper 5 is taken on a specified day, either on, or close to, the main exam day. The five papers are each worth 20 per cent of your overall mark.

Before you take the exam

The FCE is a serious challenge of English ability. To be able to pass the test, you will need to be confident in all skills of English – reading, writing, listening, speaking, sentence formation, grammar, vocabulary and so on. Typically an English learner will need to have been studying English part time for at least two years before he or she is able to pass the exam. Learners from non-European language speaking countries (such as Middle East and Far East countries) may need even longer.

The main reason to only take the test once you are ready is an issue of confidence. If you take the exam before you are ready, you may fail and lose confidence in your ability to become a good speaker of English. If this happens you may be discouraged from studying further. Furthermore, it can be a waste of time, money and effort to take an exam you are not ready to pass.

On the other hand, having an exam date to look forward to can be an excellent motivator to study hard and make the most of your time. Some students study harder than ever and see a large increase in their ability in the months leading up to an exam.

How to pass the Cambridge First Certificate exam

Let’s take a look at each paper of the exam. We will see how to prepare for and pass each paper.

Paper 1: Reading

How to prepare:

  • Get used to reading English fast. Don’t spend too long staring at words you don’t know. You can usually guess the meaning by reading the other words in the sentence.
  • Practise reading for more time each day. You need to be comfortable reading for a full hour as the reading paper will be that long.
  • Read practice paper questions as much as you can. If you run out of practice papers, try reading newspaper or magazine articles. 550-700 words is the best length, to match the exam questions.
  • The natural instinct is to spend time reading the text and trying to understand it, followed by answering the questions. But don’t do this! You don’t have much time. It is better to read each question, then look at the text. Scan read the text to find the answer you need. Usually the question order is similar to the text order. So the answer to question 1 will be close to the beginning of the text, and the last question will be close to the end.
  • Don’t spend long on each question. If you don’t know the answer, go to the next question. If you have time, you can come back and try the question again.

Paper 2: Writing

How to prepare:

  • Get used to writing English by hand quickly. Typing on the computer is not enough as the exam is handwritten.
  • For part 1, you will need to write a letter or email. Therefore, learn the usual English expressions like “Dear ___”, “Yours faithfully / sincerely ” (letter) and “Best regards” (email).
  • You can also learn standard English expressions usually found in emails and letters. Examples: “I am writing to inform you”; “I am writing to request”; “Please do not hesitate to contact me” and “I look forward to

    hearing from you”.

  • For part 2, you can choose to write about a set text. From 2012 to the end of 2013, these are Vanity Fair by William Thackery and This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart. If you would like to write about the set text, choose just one book and read it a few times.
  • Do practice papers. If you don’t have an English speaker to give you feedback, try a website like Lang-8, where there are native speakers who can check your work.
  • Part 1 and Part 2 are worth the same number of marks. So spend 40 minutes on each.
  • Start by reading the question and spending a minute thinking about a good answer.
  • Write a short plan for your answer. This will mean you can write a better-structured answer and not miss anything you want to say.
  • Write about what you can explain, even if you have to give an opinion you don’t agree with. Just show your writing ability.
  • Part 1 should be 120-150 words, and Part 2 120-180 words. Make sure you write enough to show your ability. On the other hand, don’t ‘waffle’. Saying unimportant things to increase your word count won’t help.

Paper 3: Use of English

How to prepare:

  • Do a lot of practice papers. Each year similar questions appear. In this way, you can find your strengths and weaknesses.
  • When you fail a question, learn the meaning of the words or grammar points in that question. This will help you improve. Common errors are in the use of similar words like but, yet, however or could, would, should.
  • Keep a clear head. If you have done your preparation, these questions are quite simple and can be done quickly.
  • If you don’t know an answer, leave it and come back later.

Paper 4: Listening

How to prepare:

  • Listen to as many different English sources as you can find. TV, films and radio can help you get used to understanding naturally spoken English.
  • Remember you should be comfortable with different accents. Don’t focus only on American or British English. Listen to a variety.
  • Do past exam papers. You need to be comfortable reading questions quickly and listening to English recordings at the same time.
  • The biggest mistake people make is trying to remember the meaning of a word they have heard, and consequently missing the rest of the recording. Don’t do this!
  • Another common error is trying to concentrate on reading the questions and as a result missing the recording. If you can’t concentrate on both, just listen to the recording. You can look at the questions afterwards.
  • It can be good to write a few key words while you listen. For example, expensive car, accident, police station. This can help you remember what you have just heard when you answer the questions.

Paper 5: Speaking

How to prepare:

  • Even if you are confident with your English studies, you must remember to practise speaking!
  • Speaking English with other English learners is a good idea.
  • If you know any native speakers or English teachers, try to chat with them in English. This can even be someone in another country, through Skype, for instance.
  • Make YouTube videos of yourself speaking English. Don’t be shy! These can help you improve quickly, and get you useful feedback.
  • Talking to yourself in English is very helpful. Talk about what you are doing and how you are feeling. For example “I have to go to the bank. I love the weather today. I forgot to close the window.”
  • Speak clearly and calmly. Don’t rush. You have to talk for a few minutes, so you should not finish too quickly. Take your time, breathe deeply and relax.
  • Talk about what you are confident saying. If you don’t know the words, describe it in a different way or even say something different. The exam is to test your English, not to learn your real opinion.
  • You will have another candidate with you in the speaking exam. Don’t just repeat what they say. Show what YOU know.

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