How to Prepare for Cambridge English Exams


The exams are actually created here...maybe...

One of the most common motivators for learning English is to take a Cambridge English exam. For most people, these exams are a path towards university entry, better pay, and a work promotion among other things. Cambridge’s exams are recognized all over the world and have several advantages over other exams, such as IELTS. When you pass a Cambridge English exam, you have near definitive proof of your level of English. On the other hand, it’s always possible that an exam won’t be the most accurate depiction of your English skills.


In this article, we’re going to look at Cambridge exams and what options we have for preparing to take them.


About Cambridge English Exams


Cambridge English exams have been around for a long time with the aim of providing a recognized certificate that people can use to prove their English level. At the time of writing this article, the exams are divided based on the Common European Framework of languages as follows:


  • A2 Key

  • B1 Preliminary

  • B2 First

  • C1 Advanced

  • C2 Proficiency



Remember to put your answers in the answer sheet

Each exam consists of 3-4 Papers depending on the level you’re taking. A2 Key and B1 Preliminary both have three Papers, Reading & Writing, Listening, and Speaking. For B2 First, C1 Advanced, and C2 Proficiency the number of Papers goes up to 4 where Writing becomes its own Paper and Reading becomes Reading & Use of English. You can find more information about Cambridge English exam formats by visiting this website and choosing your level.


The Speaking papers of Cambridge English exams typically happen on a separate day either before or after the rest of the exam which should contain the rest of the papers. Once you know the date of your exam, it’s a good idea to block off about 4-5 hours from that day as each of the Cambridge English exams can run from 2-4 hours total with breaks in between papers.


One of the biggest advantages of Cambridge English exams is that once you pass them, their certificates never expire. They’re qualifications for life. This is in contrast to the IELTS which typically needs to be renewed every two years if you want to maintain its validity, which means you have to retake and pass the exam.


Who should take these exams?



They all have their reasons

Cambridge English exams are considered standard English tests that are recognized by nearly every establishment in the world. Almost every student I’ve had in my exam classes has needed to take a Cambridge exam for both professional and academic reasons. One of my students even needed to pass the C1 Advanced in order to find work as an airline pilot. Needless to say, Cambridge English exams are a big deal and are extremely useful to get once your English is at an appropriate level.


So, who should be taking the Cambridge English exams? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of people who should consider taking them:


  • English-speaking university candidates

  • Professionals looking to advance their careers

  • Professionals in industries where English is a requirement (e.g. hotel and tourism, nursing, etc.)

  • Job seekers looking for work in English-speaking countries

  • English language teachers who are non-native speakers

  • Business owners looking to expand their network


These are the most common types of people who would benefit from obtaining a Cambridge English exam certificate.


The reason for passing such an exam, however, isn’t enough. A lot of times, people try to take a Cambridge English exam that is beyond their own English level. I’ve had C1 Advanced students who clearly needed to either take a B2 First exam or work on their English a bit more first. It’s important to understand that taking a Cambridge English exam isn’t the same as working on your English language skills. You can do both but it will increase the amount of time you need to prepare before taking the exam. It’s important to be sure that you have the appropriate level before diving into exam preparation.


Choosing your level



When in doubt, ask your teacher

I’m not going to beat around the bush here: English language levels - or any language levels for that matter - are a tricky thing to define. It’s tough for qualified English teachers to fully explain, let alone students who aren’t sure what they do and don’t know. It’s a complex problem because it has so many facets to it. My personal opinion is that English levels don’t do a good job of describing a student’s English skills.


So, what can you do to choose the level of Cambridge English exam you can take? A lot of people start with the level that was last given to them at their own school or at a language school. These places are the closest thing you have to a qualified institution so it’s easy to trust their judgment. My experience, after over 10 years of teaching, has been that non-English speaking schools tend to overestimate their students’ English level. It’s not that they’re trying to trick you or manipulate their own results. The problem is that they don’t have good ways of measuring all aspects of your English skills. As we’ve said in another article about studying in schools, it’s not a typical thing for regular schools in non-English speaking countries to have qualified English teachers. This means that their English teachers are relying on curriculums that focus primarily on grammar and vocabulary while skills, such as speaking and listening, get sidelined. To make a long story short, your school doesn’t know enough about your English to make a clear distinction.


The best thing to do is to try a few practice tests that are based on Cambridge English exams and check your results to see how well you’re doing. In order to avoid spending too much time testing yourself, I recommend starting with Reading and Listening practice tests 1 or 2 levels below the one you think you are. For example, if you feel you’re a B2 then you should try practice tests from B1 Preliminary. The reason I suggest focusing on Reading and Listening is that comprehension is not practiced enough in English classes in regular schools. If you feel you can understand at least 50% of what you’re reading and listening to in the practice tests, then that is likely the optimal Cambridge English exam level for you to take.


Exam preparation options



The right door is the door that's right for you

Actual Cambridge English exam preparation classes are an entirely different type of class compared to general and specialized English lessons. Whether you’re planning on studying on your own or taking classes in a language school or with a private tutor, it’s important to understand this distinction so that you can prepare appropriately.


General English lessons teach the whole gamut of English language aspects and skills, from grammar and vocabulary to comprehension and speaking. Exam preparation, on the other hand, assumes that you know a good percentage of that already and focuses primarily on strategies to help you pass each individual part of your chosen Cambridge English exam. At the same time, some of your language gaps may be filled but that is something you will typically have to work on in your own time, especially if you’re taking a class that has other students in it.


If you’re going to take classes in an English language school or an exam preparation center, you will need to ensure that you’re enrolling in an exam course that will be appropriate to your level. Some English language schools might run mixed classes because they don’t have enough students to justify opening classes for individual exams. This means that people taking the B2 First could be mixed with people taking the C1 Advanced. While the strategies are pretty much the same, the problem with mixed classes is that teachers have to split their attention which rarely works out well for their students. Before signing up, be sure that you have gotten clear information about the class and if at all possible sign up for a Cambridge English exam preparation class that is dedicated to your chosen level.


Another way to mitigate the above problem is to take classes with a private tutor. Whether online or face-to-face, there are qualified English tutors like myself who have experience teaching exam preparation classes. Some online tutors may even offer small group classes to keep their price per student low. There are many advantages to going with an online tutor as well as a private one whom you can meet face-to-face. More and more qualified English teachers are turning to online teaching by either starting their own websites or joining a language exchange platform.


Finally, you can also prepare for your Cambridge English exam by self-studying. A lot of the exam coursebooks are designed for both classrooms and self-study so you’d have a wide selection to choose from. There are also websites that have practice exams for your chosen exam so you can test yourself and receive immediate feedback. The main problem with self-studying for a Cambridge English exam is keeping yourself organized. Motivation is also a big problem when you don’t have a teacher to encourage you and give you the feedback you need.


These options will all depend on your own time and money, so there is no right or wrong answer. Follow whichever fits your life circumstances. Just remember that consistency is important. Make your choices and try to stick with them until you take the exam.


Strategy vs. knowledge



The right strategy might bring you success

I’ve been talking a lot about the word strategy in Cambridge English exams and how that is different from regular English learning. To put it simply, exam strategy is about doing each task as efficiently and effectively as possible. Like all exams, Cambridge English exams have time limits which put a lot of pressure on candidates to finish all of the questions as quickly as possible. It can cause a lot of stress, especially when there are so many different words and topics to deal with. By using strategies, you can minimize the time it takes you to complete tasks by reducing the amount of work you need to do. There are those who feel that exam strategy is cheating or that it doesn’t help with your language development. Personally, I disagree.


People use mental strategies for almost everything in life because our brain doesn’t like working hard. If you were to read up on any geniuses of the past, such as Richard Feynman, you would discover that they made use of productivity tricks to get their work done. Think about how you do simple maths or read a passage. If you spend too much time on the little details, your brain becomes exhausted. Instead, you try to focus on bigger ideas first and then look to the details. Cambridge English exam strategies are very much the same thing. It helps with your language development as well because your brain learns a new way to comprehend and process English. So how does this tie in with English language knowledge?

A strategy is used to organize the information in front of you so that you can quickly grab the right knowledge you have from your brain. By doing English exam practice through strategies, you become better at using them which in turn makes it easier for you to see what you know and what you still need to learn. Whichever option you choose for your exam preparation, you must understand that you will be faced with gaps in your English knowledge. Therefore, it’s your responsibility to learn it. If you’re in a language school doing a Cambridge English exam preparation course, your teacher will likely not be able to give you a full lesson on grammar or vocabulary you don’t know. You should ask them questions but don’t expect them to have the time to fully teach whatever grammar point you don’t know. My best exam students always put in their own self-study time between the classes I’ve taught in schools and online. Whatever plans you make for your Cambridge English exam preparation, do your best to factor in the extra learning you will need to do to fill in your knowledge gaps.


How to calculate and understand your practice test score



It's not this hard to calculate your score

One of the practices that you will be undertaking, no matter how you choose to go about preparing for your Cambridge English exam, is that of taking a mock exam. A mock exam is basically a practice test that typically makes use of old Cambridge exams. Cambridge themselves have books that contain such practice tests and they’re used by English teachers like myself all the time. The problem is that these books don’t clarify how you’re supposed to score yourself.


Giving yourself a grade for a practice test is a good way to check your progress. Naturally, you should look at the mistakes you make and study to improve them, but a grade can give you a quick representation so that you can compare your performance from one mock test to another. I recommend making a chart in Excel or Google Sheets to track how you’re doing. So, how do we calculate our grade?


For starters, I need to clarify something important. Cambridge has its own scoring system which isn’t quite clear to the rest of the world how it works. They do calculations that result in a number of points that then show if you’ve passed or not. The method I’m going to show you here will give you a percentage which I feel is easier to understand.


Calculating your score for a Cambridge English exam means you need to do a mock test. Once you’ve done your mock test, you need to look up the number of points for each question. Listening papers are straightforward; you get 1 point for each correct answer. Reading and Use of English isn’t as straightforward, however. Most tasks give you 1 point but then there are some that give you 2 and the notorious Task 4 gives you 1 or 2 depending on your answer. Once you have your total number of points, you need to do the following calculation:


Points earned / Total points * 100 = your percentage %

You need approximately 60% in total across all papers to pass at the exam’s level. Receiving a grade lower than that will put you at a lower level and you can receive a document that proves that but not a certificate. Receiving over 80% will put you at the next level and your certificate will reflect that. For example, if you pass your B2 First exam with over 80%, your certificate will say C1 instead of B2.


Unfortunately, assessing Writing and Speaking will require some external help, like a teacher or someone with Cambridge English exam marking experience. The calculations, though, work the same.


As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into preparing for a Cambridge English exam. You need to consider how you will study, what materials you will need, spend time improving and filling your language gaps, and testing yourself. Even though it’s hard work, once you pass the exam it’s an amazing accomplishment; one that will help you in your life, education, and work.

There you have it! I hope this has been useful. If so, share this article with someone who wants to learn English, follow us on Instagram and try making some examples in the comments below!


See you in the next lesson!

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YANNIS ONLINE ENGLISH TEACHER