Hello everyone! In today’s post I would like to discuss some strategies and in fact the general approach that needs to be taken in order to be successful at Cambridge First Certificate. These can be made extensive to other tests. But first of all let’s define success in this context.
Success in this kind of exam is measured in two ways. On the one hand, passing the test with the desired number of points. On the other hand the “life goals” obtained in the process of preparing for the test and ready to be demonstrated on the day of the test.
The Cambridge tests are not language proficiency tests. They are language use proficiency tests. It is not about how many words you know or how many grammar exercises you can do correctly. It is about doing things in English. Which of course requires a deep knowledge of the language. B2 deep.
If you google “Cambridge English first handbook for teachers” you will find a pdf where you will find these goals on the right side (test focus) of the descriptions for each part of the test. For example, if you take the Reading and Use of English part, you can read that “candidates are expected to be able to demonstrate:
- the ability to apply their knowledge and control of the language system […] at text and sentence level
- demonstrate a variety of reading skills including understanding specific information, text organization features, implication, attitude and text structure
(Screen capture from the official teachers’ handbook. Credit: Cambridge Examinations.)
These are skills that you are supposed to have in your own language: things we all do to some extent (depending on our educational background, etc) All they are asking is that you show you can do the same things in English. Simple, but maybe not easy.
Preparing for Cambridge exams is a two-step process. There are two problems to tackle: language knowledge and application of it to different tasks. The more you have to work about any of these two areas, the longer and harder it will be for you to get ready for the exam. Not only is linguistic deficit a problem, but being unfamiliar with or untrained in some skills could take you down – even if your English is immaculate. Some native speakers could fail the test too.
For instance, if you are very shy or you do not have vert strong collaboration or debating skills, you could do poorly in the speaking test. Because in the test you are required to speak in front of other people and debate, negotiate and come to shared decisions. Being antisocial is a problem.
The same could be said about any other part of the test. In the writing section of the test you should drill your self a number of things that have little to do with language:
- Read carefully the task and the parts of the task that you must fulfill or “answer”. Usually there will be three and all three must be addressed. If you forget any of them, you will automatically lose those points.
- Develop a technique. Stay cool, don’t rush like a “headless chicken”. All texts you will be asked to produce (write) in the exam have a structure. The structure is determined by the kind of text and by the contents provided in the task. It is good to follow the “1 paragraph – 1 idea rule”. If you must put two of the ideas in a paragraph, make sure they are not mixed.
- Be relevant. Examiners – specially veteran ones – are trained to hate irrelevant writing. If you keep it relevant they may continue reading past the word limit. If not, they will draw a line and consider that the end of your piece.
- Develop your brainstorming abilities. Anything you have experienced or that has been shared with you by anyone could give you relevant ideas.
- above all be organized and develop routines. For example for writing: read question, read the three tasks, brainstorm for each of them, then start writing.
If all this sounds like things you would do in your own language, part of the job is done. If you do not usually speak to people in public, or if you do not usually write much beyond the occasional shopping list… then get ready to work hard. On the linguistic side of it, for “First Certificate”, I would recommend having a solid B1. For “Advanced” a solid B2 and for “Proficiency”. What these levels mean in practice, you can find out here.