Understanding the Cambridge Exams
in four simple points

1. Just like you have to learn how to ride a bike or swim or ski, you need to learn how to take standardized tests like the Cambridge Exams. The first thing to learn is what is the exam testing you on. Obviously the answer to this is English, but this is only part of the answer. There is more. According to Cambridge, the B2 First, which was known before as FCE, and the C1 Advanced, which before was known as Cambridge Advanced Exam or CAE, are exams that “shows you have the language skills that employers and universities are looking for.” The difference between the two is that the B2 First tests the students on a more basic level than the C1 Advanced.

2. Of course it is important to do well on the text grammatically, but this is only part of your task. The tests also look at how well you can operate in an English speaking environment like a meeting, a phone call, a conference or a university class. The biggest skill or ability that you need in these situations is to be able to communicate. This means that you have to be able to understand first what people are saying to you. The trick to communication is vocabulary, and that is what the Cambridge tests are mostly about. Basically the student needs to increase the number of words that he or she understands.

For example, the person you are on the phone with asks you, “What time did the package turn up?” “To turn up” is a colloquial way of saying, “to arrive.” If you understand that, it is not incorrect for you to answer, “The package arrived here on Tuesday,” but the important thing is that you know what the person asking you wants to know. He or she will not misunderstand you or think that you made a mistake if you say “arrive” instead of “turn up.” However you must be familiar with both words.

3. The important thing that employers and universities want to know is if you can understand different ways of saying the same thing, because English is a mix of several languages. Often times there is more than one word to say the same thing.  This comes from the history of the language. Anglo-Saxons, Norman French and Vikings have all contributed to English vocabulary. You can say that someone is “intelligent,” which a Catalan or Spanish student will easily recognize, but what if someone says that a person is “wise” or “clever.” These words entered English though its Germanic and Nordic influences. The same is true of “forbidden” and “prohibited” or “stupid” and “dumb.” This is also true with other languages, but English usually has more than one way of saying things. Part Four of the Reading and Use of English section of the exams especially tests students on this point.  

4. The more vocabulary the student feels comfortable with, the better he or she will do on the test. There is no exact percentage or number, but more or less the student needs to double his or her vocabulary. This is not easy, but it is also not impossible.  The best way to do it is to start with the word that you know.  For example, “to arrive.” Make a list and write “to arrive…to turn up…to show up…to get here/there/in.” Don’t make the list too long, but try to include the words that the Cambridge wants you to learn. These are the words that they use most often on the exam. In this case, “to turn up” and “to show up.” It is not easy to know which words these are. This is why it is best to study with teachers who have a lot of experience with these exams. You wouldn’t take swimming lessons from a skiing instructor. The Cambridge exams have been created as they say to test students on the skills that universities and employers want. They have done a lot of research into the area and have designed the tests with this purpose. The student doesn’t have access to this information.  However, if he or she took the test several times they would begin to see that certain words and structures are repeated. This is why it is easier to prepare for the exams with a teacher who has a lot of experience with the test, or to put it another way, a teacher who knows the tests “inside out.”

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