What is the Cambridge First Certificate in English (FCE)?
This is a certificate run by the University of Cambridge. It is for people who would like to demonstrate that their English proficiency is at an upper-intermediate level. It is one of the best known and most well-renowned English language certificates, and is accepted as proof of English proficiency by thousands of universities, companies, governments and others throughout the world. Attaining this certificate can lead to much better opportunities in education and employment. Due to the international recognition afforded by the certificate, attaining it can even allow you the chance to live and work or study in other regions or countries, thanks to the importance of English as the global language.
The Exam Format
The Cambridge First Certificate in English (hereafter referred to as FCE) consists of five papers:
- Paper 1: Reading (1 hour)
- Paper 2: Writing (1 hour 20 mins)
- Paper 3: Use of English (45 mins)
- Paper 4: Listening (approximately 40 mins)
Papers 1-4 are taken on the same day. Paper 5 (Speaking) is taken at some point during a “window”, that is, a period of several days around the main exam date.
Each paper is worth 20% of the total mark. In other words each paper carries equal importance.
Should I Take the FCE Exam?
The FCE exam is a serious test of English ability, aimed at upper-intermediate English
speakers, and should not be taken lightly. There is nothing more discouraging than attempting an exam in which you don’t know any of the answers, and finding the time limits far too short for your current level. It is a reasonable expectation that any English learner choosing to take the FCE should have at least two years of part time English study completed before taking the exam. English learners who have spent time living in an English speaking country might be ready within 6 months to a year, depending on their progress. In this teacher’s experience, mother-tongue speakers of European languages are able to achieve English competence in about half the time and effort taken by mother-tongue speakers of non-European languages, such as students from the Far East or Middle East. The reasons are obvious enough, in that languages from the same families have so many similarities. A French student learning English can enjoy around 15,000 cognates between French and English, whereas a Japanese student will have to make do with a few hundred English loan words they have come across in their own language.
Of course, every English learner is different. But these rough guidelines are to save you time and money in the long run, and to ensure you only take the exam once you have a good chance of passing. Attempting the exam before you are ready might have negative consequences, in that a bad exam experience can damage confidence and put learners off future studies.
In any case, if you are confident in your English abilities, the FCE exam can give you a goal to aim at and be an excellent motivator for taking your English to the next level.
Preparing for the FCE Exam
It is good to prepare for each paper of the exam as a separate challenge, due to the specific skills each requires. Here we will look at what exactly to expect in the exam, and how best to get ready for each type of question.
Paper 1: Reading
3 parts (30 questions total)
Each text is 550-700 words.
Part 1: Multiple choice.
Each question has four answers to choose from (A, B, C or D).
2 marks per question.
In this section you will read a section of text 550-700 words long, and then answer 8 multiple choice questions on the text. The text could be from any of a number of sources, for example a newspaper, a novel, a diary extract or a letter.
Part 2: Gapped text.
8 possible answers (sentences A-H) to fit into 7 possible gaps.
2 marks per correct answer.
In this section you will read 550-700 words of text with seven gaps. Each gap requires one of eight sentences provided to you. You must choose which sentence should go where. As before, the text could be from any of a number of sources (novel, newspaper, magazine etc.).
Part 3: Multiple matching.
1 mark per correct answer.
In this section, you will read 550-700 words in one section or several short sections. This will be divided into sections A-E. You will then have 15 questions to answer. For each question you must answer which section of the text is being referred to.
Since each of the three parts carries about the same number of marks (16, 14 and 15), you should divide your time roughly equally. So 20 minutes per part.
20 minutes is actually quite a short time to do each section. The biggest pitfall here is spending too long reading the text and trying to understand every word. The chances are the text is slightly too difficult for you to understand every single word and meaning. It is too easy to waste a lot of your time trying to do so, and then having insufficient time to actually answer the questions. A much better technique is to actually start by reading the questions. Then, scan read the text looking for key words that might link to the answers. If you have time you can read the text fully at the end, checking whether you still feel your answers apply.
How to prepare for the reading paper: It is a good idea to get used to reading English text quickly. Try not to get into the habit of staring at words you don’t understand. If you don’t know a particular word, keep on reading. The chances are you can guess the meaning based on the words around it. Medium length newspaper or magazine articles are often about 550-700 words long, so they are a good place to practise your reading skills. Try to read the article in about 5 minutes and then try to describe (in English) what the article is about. This can seem very challenging at first, but it is this speed of understanding that you will need to reach in order to pass the reading section.
If you do practice papers from previous years, be sure to do the reading section within the specified time limits. Be strict with yourself with regards to timing, as during the exam you will have strict time limits. Reading at speed can be quite demanding. You may find your concentration fades quickly. But you should get into the habit of being able to read English at high speeds for an hour at a time, as that is the time you will have to read for during the exam. You can build up by starting with 10 minutes at a time, then 20, all the way up to an hour at a time.
Paper 2: Writing
1 hour 20 minutes
2 parts (1 compulsory question and 1 question chosen from a selection of 5)
You will be given a piece of text (up to 160 words in length) to read. Using information from this text, you will write a letter or email of 120-150 words.
In this letter or email you will need to do one or more of the following:
- express opinions
As an example, you might be given a description of a terrible holiday experience had by a customer of your travel agency company. You will be required to write a letter to the customer, apologising for the bad experience, explaining what went wrong, and telling the customer what you will do to make things better.
In part 2 you must choose one of five questions to answer.
These consist of:
Questions 2-4: Write one of an article, an essay, a letter, a report, a review or a story.
Question 5: Choose one of two questions (A or B). These are based on two set reading texts.
The set texts are the same from the beginning of 2012 until the end of 2013. They are as follows:
- William Thackery: Vanity Fair (Black Cat or any edition)
- Mary Stewart: This Rough Magic (OUP)
In part 2 you must write 120-180 words.
The writing paper is worth 20% of your total mark. Part 1 and Part 2 carry equal marks. Since the paper duration is 1 hour and 20 minutes, you should spend about 40 minutes on each question.
How to prepare for the writing paper:
You will need to get used to writing English
(by hand) very quickly. For each question you will need to spend a few minutes reading the information and question you have been given. You should also spend a few minutes planning your answer. Once you start writing you do not want to have to go back to the start because you have structured your answer wrong.
With the writing section you can actually prepare quite a lot beforehand.
Since you know that part 1 will be a letter or email, you can research standard language to start and end the communication. Expressions like “Dear Sir/Madam” and “Yours faithfully” or “Best regards” are certain to be useful. You can also memorise certain standard expressions found in letters and emails, such as “I am writing to inform you that…” or “I am writing to apologise about…”. Other useful expressions include “If I can be of any further assistance please do not hesitate to contact me”, “I am sorry to hear that you had a bad experience” and “I hope that this information is useful to you”. At least 10-20% of your 120-150 words in part 1 can be perfect English if you take the time to memorise useful written communication expressions.
Another good way to prepare for part 1 is to do practice exam papers from previous years. These are available from the Cambridge ESOL website and other sites. Remember to adhere to time limits strictly, since you will need to be able to do so during the exam.
It can be difficult to mark the work you have done since there are no exact “right” answers in a writing question of this nature. A good way to gauge your standard is to use a website like Lang-8, where you can have your work checked and corrected by an English native speaker. By doing this you can look at the mistakes you made, and then learn the correct or appropriate expressions or spellings.
You should prepare in a similar way to part 1. However, if you wish to you can work on question 5 which is based on the set texts. If so, you should read one (or both) of the texts in the months or weeks leading up to the exam. The more time you can spend reading these texts, the better prepared you will be to answer any question on them. Since you can only answer a question on one of the texts, it is a good idea to choose just one of the texts and focus on that rather than spreading your time thinly between two books. To give yourself a good chance of being able to write about the text, it is a good idea to make one or two mind maps of the text. For example, you could draw a mind map which contained sections for each of the main characters in the book, and what key things happen to them, along with their connections to other characters. This will allow you to quickly remember key information about the characters when you are answering an exam question. Another good method would be to draw a chain of events which happen in the book. A series of 10 or 12 events is likely to be a good summary of the text which is also easy enough to remember. Then practice writing (within the set time of 40 minutes) different essays of 120-180 words. You should imagine what kind of question topics are likely to come up, such as key characters, main events and ongoing themes, and write about those.
Paper 3: Use of English
4 parts (42 questions total)
This section tests your knowledge and ability to use English vocabulary and grammar appropriately.
Part 1: Multiple choice cloze.
1 mark per correct answer.
In this section you will read a section of text which has 12 gaps. For each gap you must choose the most suitable word from four possible answers. Each answer will be a word with a similar meaning (for example: but, however, yet, although).
Part 2: Open cloze.
1 mark per correct answer.
In this section you will read a section of text which has 12 gaps. You need to decide what word would fit into each gap. There are no hints or multiple choice answers for this part. For example: It’s a hot day ___ I feel cold. Answer: but
Part 3: Word formation.
1 mark per correct answer.
In this section you will read text with 10 gaps. Each gap requires you to insert an appropriate word based on a prompt.
Germany is also famous for the _________ of quality cars.
Part 4: Key word transformations.
Up to 2 marks per correct answer.
In this section, you will be given 8 sentences for read. For each sentence, you must rephrase it using a given word. Use between two and five words.
Mr.Jones was too hungry to think.
Word to use: THAT
Rephrased sentence given: Mr.Jones was _____________ he couldn’t think.
Possible answer: Mr.Jones was so tired that he couldn’t think.
This paper is worth 20% of your overall mark and must be completed within 45 minutes. You should aim to spend about 12 minutes on each of part 1 and part 2; 10 minutes on part 3 and 8 minutes on part 4.
How to prepare for the Use of English paper: This is a challenging paper which will test your understanding of the subtle differences between words like “but” and “although”, and your ability to build English sentences correctly. The best way to prepare for this paper is to do as many practice papers as possible, and then to study the answers and learn why they are correct. Each paper tests similar elements of your understanding, so you can improve your mark considerably by learning the type of question you are likely to encounter.
Paper 4: Listening
4 parts (30 questions)
This section will test your ability to listen to natural speed English and pick up meaning, detail, topic, mood and so on.
Part 1: Multiple choice
1 mark for each correct answer.
You will hear 8 short recordings of about 30 seconds each. For each recording you must answer a question by choosing an answer from A, B and C.
Part 2: Sentence completion
1 mark for each correct answer.
In this section you will hear a 3 minute monologue or conversation. You must listen carefully and answer 10 questions. These questions are sentences related to the recording you have heard, and require you to fill in a gap.
Part 3: Multiple matching
1 mark for each correct answer.
In this section you will be presented with six written statements. You must listen to five recordings of 30 seconds each, and match each recording to the statement that best describes it.
Part 4: Multiple choice
1 mark per correct answer.
Listen to a 3 minute monologue or conversation, and answer 7 multiple choice (A, B or C) questions related to the recording.
How to prepare for the listening paper: Exam technique is very important in the listening paper. The biggest mistake listeners tend to make is trying to remember the meaning of a word or sentence they have heard, and missing the rest of a recording. You should allow the recording to flow through your mind as you listen, and do not worry if you miss a bit or don’t understand everything. The recording will almost certainly contain words or phrases you have never heard before, but that doesn’t mean you can’t answer the questions correctly.
To prepare for the listening test effectively, try to listen to as much naturally spoken English as possible. This can be from TV, radio, past exam papers and so on. Try to ensure you hear a variety of accents. In particular British and American accents should both be familiar to you.
In this paper you don’t need to worry much about the time limit as the recordings will be played at a speed you cannot control. So the most important thing is just to concentrate on what you hear and write your answers. It is worth turning your head (and ear) towards the speakers which play the recording. This may seem unusual but when you are trying to concentrate on a difficult recording of a foreign language, it can help you pick up detail better.
Paper 5: Speaking
14 minutes per pair of candidates.
You will take this paper with one other candidate and two examiners. One examiner will ask you questions and talk with you, and the other examiner will listen to you and mark your performance.
Part 1: Interview
Your examiner will ask you questions about yourself and you answer with appropriate information. You might have to describe things like past experiences, personal preferences, plans for the future and so on.
Part 2: Long turn
1 minute per candidate.
You will be given a pair of photographs with questions about them. You will speak for a minute about the photographs. This might be expressing your opinion, describing differences and so on.
Part 3: Collaborative task
You and the the other candidate are given some pictures and asked to make a decision together. You must give your opinion, discuss it with your partner and attempt to reach a decision together.
Part 4: Discussion
This part involves more discussion with the other candidate about the pictures in part 3. You must express further opinions and give your reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with your partner.
How to prepare for the speaking paper: Many students are very comfortable with other English skills but lack confidence in speaking. Therefore it is essential that you have had enough speaking practice. If you have the opportunity to speak to other people in English, whether native speakers or other learners, talk to them as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes when you are speaking. Fluency comes by making mistakes and learning from them. If you have English speaking friends, try to chat with them on Skype. Spend time expressing what you like and dislike, and tell them your views on certain things in order to get used to expressing opinions. Even if you don’t have someone to chat to, you can still practise speaking on your own. Try to speak everyday. Another good technique is to make YouTube videos of yourself. If you are posting them on YouTube you will have a lot of motivation to do your best and to improve your English speaking.