How to Prepare for the Cambridge First (FCE) Exam

How to Prep Cambridge First Exam

The FCE, or the Cambridge English: First Qualification, is a great way to really put your English skills to the test and obtain a certificate that proves your ability. It’s valued by employers, and officially shows that you have obtained level B2 (upper intermediate) in English according to the Common European Framework of Languages.

The FCE is open to everyone, and many employers will consider funding or subsidising your lessons and exam fees if you can show it will benefit them. The Cambridge First is similar to other language tests (like the TOEFL or IELTS) and covers several areas: speaking, reading, listening, writing, and use of English (grammar).

Like any good exam, the FCE can be tricky, so it’s worth taking some time to prepare properly and give yourself the best chance possible. There are lots of things that anybody can do to increase their chances of doing well, and many of them can be done at home with no extra equipment.

Read on to find out what you can do to tackle each section of the exam with the best possible results.

Speaking

As an FCE tutor, I’ve noticed that by far the scariest part of the test for most students is the speaking section. It can seem pretty terrifying – especially if you dislike public speaking even in your native language – but if you take the right steps it’s really nothing to worry about.

The key to success in the speaking exam is, without doubt, practice. Practice, practice, and then practice some more. Practice speaking until your mouth is sore and your voice is hoarse. And then keep going.

If you can do this with a native English speaker who is happy to correct you, that’s ideal, but this works with just about anyone. Even speaking alone in front of the mirror helps.

The test consists of several sections. Some questions will be directed at you alone, while others will require you to work together with another student, or students. It may be reassuring to remember that no part of the test requires you to speak for more than a few minutes.

One key part of the test is a photo comparison. Here, students are given two photos and work together to compare the two situations. For example, students might get a photo of a beach, and another of a busy city, and be asked to say which location would make the best holiday.

The trick in this section is not to get stuck describing the photos for too long. It helps to give a little background information, but remember that your task is to COMPARE the photos. Focus on the positive and negative points of each one, and the important differences between them – don’t just say what you can see.

Other sections of the speaking involve questions on a specific topic which the examiner will ask individual students. The topic could be anything, from climate change to sports. It’s important to give some kind of answer. This can be hard when your mind is blank, but even a shaky answer is much better than saying nothing at all.

Some general tips for this section:

Always have a few phrases memorised that you can rely on. These can be simple things like ‘in my opinion, this is a complex topic…’, or ‘I agree that sometimes X is true, but Y can also be the case’. These buy you time, get you points, and can help you feel more confident and relaxed.

Remember to include your partner. If you feel very confident on a question it can be tempting to do all the talking, but you’ll lose marks if you ignore your partner on a group exercise. Try using phrases like ‘What do you think?’ or ‘Do you agree?’ to create a real conversation.

Use YouTube. There are loads of great videos online that give coaching for the speaking section, and recordings of successful speaking exams with explanations of why the candidate did well. In general, YouTube is a helpful resources when it comes to preparing for the Cambridge English tests and examinations.

Reading and Listening

The reading and listening sections of the Cambridge English First test are fairly straightforward. Each section takes approximately an hour, and consists of reading chunks of text and listening to recordings of people speaking. Then, you’ll answer questions on what you read and heard.

As with any test, time management is important. Make sure you leave enough time to do every section properly and avoid rushing at the end.

As for preparation, there are plenty of options available. Some past exam papers can be downloaded online from the FCE website, although the selection isn’t great. It’s a good idea, if you have the funds, to buy a book of practice papers. There are lots of these available online for reasonable prices, for example the ‘Cambridge English First 1 for Revised Exam from 2015 Student’s Book with Answers‘, which also contains plenty of FCE Practice Tests.

Apart from doing tests, another good way to practice is by simply reading and listening to things in English. Many of the Cambridge First Examination (FCE) test questions are based on newspaper articles and radio clips, so taking in these kinds of materials can give you a good idea of what to expect in the exam and make you more comfortable with the language.

Use of English

The Use of English part of the test can be tough. It’s basically a grammar test, and requires students to understand the finer points of the English language. The questions involve things like adding suffixes to words, rearranging the words in a sentence, and selecting the correct word to fill a gap.

It’s hard to directly train for this part of the test, as it requires a general good knowledge of English. The best way to study is to read and use English as much as possible, and become familiar with how sentences usually look and how words are normally used.

If you’re unsure, go with your instinct – many of my students are surprised at how often their guesses turn out to be correct.

Writing

The writing section of the test can be challenging for some, but the questions are generally quite generous, and you don’t need to be the next Charles Dickens to get a good score. You’ll be given a choice of a few different scenarios, and be asked to write about one of them.

These can range from short stories on a particular topic, to writing a letter to an imaginary friend with a certain theme. Try not to worry too much about small spelling mistakes and focus on creating a piece of writing that flows well, makes sense, and answers the question. Grammar is important, of course, but it isn’t the end of the world if you mix up a tense once or twice.

Writing is an easy skill to practice at home, but it’s important to have somebody look at your work critically. If you have a friend that speaks English that’s great, but the best way is to get a teacher.

Which brings us to the next point…

Get a (Good) Teacher

I know, I know. Teachers are expensive.

They can, however, be a huge help when preparing for the FCE. As mentioned above, your employer might be prepared to pay for lessons, or at least offer a discount. What’s more, you don’t need to pay for hundreds of classes – just one or two could still make a big difference, although regular lessons are always better.

Teachers can be found by searching university message boards, using social media, or contacting language schools in your area. If you live outside of a big city, or can’t find any good teachers in your area, you could try taking lessons on Skype or other video messaging sites.

Teachers are useful because they can point out your mistakes straight away, and identify any areas where you might be struggling. They also often have access to the best resources, so you don’t have to pay a fortune for books and CDs.

The structure of lessons is a good cure for laziness, too – it’s far less tempting to take a day off if you’re paying for it.

If you can’t find a teacher, it can help to simply practice with friends. Preferably ones who speak English, but other people studying for the exam can also be a huge help.

The FCE can be difficult, and to really do well it’s important to put in lots of time and effort. However, following the steps above should ensure that you go into the exam feeling much more confident, and give you that all-important advantage.

About the Author: Louis Moran is an ESL teacher currently living in Prague, Czech Republic

Image credit: Alex Brown, Flickr

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