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Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English

Contents:                    Make as many copies of these CPE web pages as you like, but see the conditions at the end


Paper 2: Composition

Paper 4: Listening Comprehension (in preparation –see preliminary advice at Advice on language examinations (Multiple choice)




Paper 1: Reading Comprehension  As a result of changes in the form of the CPE exam this page has become partly out of date. However, much of the advice is still valid.

Paper 3: Use of English  As a result of changes in the form of the CPE exam this page became out of date. It has been partly revised, but it should  now be regarded more as general advice, rather than an exact guide.

Paper 5: Interview (in preparation)



Practical information


These CPE web pages are a greatly expanded extract from The Art and Science of Learning Languages, by Amorey Gethin and Erik V. Gunnemark, published by Intellect (  


"This book is very interesting...could be a great help to students of foreign languages, but also to tutors. ...The best section of all, however, in my opinion, is the chapter on how to pass language examinations, which includes all those techniques which are likely to help the student..." From the review in The Lecturer July 1996.


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 ...the need for realism

Know your weak points

Examination technique - Timing

General principles

Reading material

         "                "        - Checking


Grammar books

         "                "         - Summary



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The tyranny of examinations and the need for realism

Exams are hateful things. No truly civilized community would ever subject anybody to such ordeals. There are not only the emotional effects of fear of failure, and of failure itself - a collapse of self-confidence and a miserable anxiety about one's ability to cope with the future. Countless millions of people's whole lives are decisively affected by how they do in exams. Because exams play such a big part in modern society I want to suggest some ways in which people could do better in them.

I have been helping candidates to prepare for the Certificate of Proficiency examination for over four decades, including 14 years as the Director of Studies at a Cambridge language school. I have had exceptional success with the methods I recommend here. Several private students who, after repeated failures, had been given up as hopeless cases by private teachers and institutions alike have been able to pass their exams by using these methods. The same methods have also worked extremely well with whole classes. Of those who used them a very much higher proportion than the average (sometimes as high as 95%) passed their examinations.

What has particularly gladdened me is that in my classes my advice has helped many candidates who have been on the 'borderline' between passing and failing. It is such students who need help most.

There is nothing special, difficult or complicated about the way of working I suggest. It is based on nothing more than common sense and being systematic.

The key to success is to be realistic. One of the most common reasons for people failing their Proficiency examination is that they aim too high. They aim for perfection, and instead just make a terrible mess of everything. Unfortunately it is often teachers who are responsible for this situation. They try to get their students to achieve perfect or near-perfect answers, and as often as not undermine the students' morale as well as failing to show them the essential thing: a practical way of dealing with the problems.

This in a way contradicts what I believe should be a basic principle for most people when they learn a foreign language: one should aim for perfection. But exam candidates face an immediate practical problem, and preparing for an exam and finding good enough answers to the questions one finds in the exam papers themselves are in many important ways not the same as learning a language.

There are many thousands of candidates with a good enough knowledge of English to pass who have failed because they have not prepared in the right way and because they have used the wrong technique, or no technique at all, in the examination itself. But there are also many students with less knowledge of the language who have passed, through good preparation and good examination technique.


You may feel that what I am saying is that the best way to pass is by using tricks. But that is not really so. What I am saying is that you can do best by being systematic and self-disciplined. Below I first offer some general advice. I then discuss in detail how to deal with the various types of test.


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General principles

This web page has not been written for those who, without much difficulty, will get a top grade in their Proficiency examination. They have little or no need of the advice in it. All that such lucky people need do is make sure they know exactly what sort of tests they are going to meet in the exam papers and what the examiners expect of them.

Most candidates are in a very different situation. They know they will not get the highest marks. The important question for them is simply, "Can I pass?" If you are such a candidate, there are a number of simple practical things you can do to get many more marks than you might otherwise get.

Above everything else, though, there is a principle about language examinations you should never forget:


You must show the examiner only what you know, never what you do not know.


For instance, in the composition paper it is foolish for most candidates to try to write something that meets perfectly all the demands the examiners make. They will probably meet with catastrophe if they do. It is much better for you if you can be realistic and use practical methods to write good language, even if that language is not up to the ideal standard the examiners are asking for from candidates they would give the top grade.

To pass the examination you need:

1 the right preparation before the examination

2 the right technique during the examination itself

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Before anything else you must obviously know in outline what is going to be in the papers set for the examination. This is only the beginning. It is essential to know too, in detail, exactly what type of language the examiners will ask you to show you understand, what sort of subjects they will probably ask you to write about, and what sort of grammatical or vocabulary points they are likely to test you on.

Clearly you must be prepared for the sort of questions you will get and clearly you must practise answering some of the same sort of questions.

Some teachers may have fine intellectual or practical ambitions on behalf of their students and may resent the distractions of examinations. They should always remember what a terrifying responsibility they have. If you have teachers, you must insist that they do not give you things to do that you do not have to do in the exam; that's a luxury you cannot afford, and can be dangerous for candidates' confidence. Teachers and candidates have to be thoroughly systematic, and make sure they are really ready for all the problems they are liable to get.

But do not make the mistake that, unfortunately, so many students make. Do not believe that doing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of test questions, and discovering the answers, is the right way to prepare. Do not believe that if you do 600 questions and answers you will be twice as well prepared, will have learned twice as much, as if you do only 300. Very often this sort of preparation just means going through automatic, mechanical motions without thought; don't just say to yourself "Ah! So that's the answer, is it! Next question please!"

Ten thousand test questions will be useless to you unless you study the method needed to answer, and the method needed to prepare. If you doubt this, remind yourself of the fact that you will almost certainly never get exactly the same question again. You should spend the time studying how to be ready for questions you have never seen before. It is much better to spend an hour thinking carefully about how to do five questions, than to spend an hour doing fifty questions and answers without thinking about them. The question a candidate should constantly ask is "How?" In this way you can build up confidence that you can deal with almost any problem. If you decide to use the services of teachers to help you prepare for your exam, make sure that they too concentrate on answering the question "How?"

This point about dealing with problems leads on to what is probably the most important piece of advice I have to offer.

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Know your weak points!

You must learn about yourself. You must discover what your own special needs are in the language concerned. There is no need to 'learn' the whole of the foreign language 'equally', so to speak - spending equal time and effort on each part. This is a waste. You should pick out what makes English different from your own and concentrate on those parts. And then, above all, you should discover your own personal weak points in the language, become aware of your own special problems, find out what mistakes you most often make.

Make a list of them.

You should practise doing the various sorts of work you will be asked to do in the examination; in particular you should practise writing compositions. You should then make a careful note of any mistakes you make more than once. Count up how many times you make each mistake, and the mistake you make most often should be at the top of your list, the next most common one in second place, and so on. If your own language is Japanese or Persian, you may find that the problem of articles (a, the) comes at the top of your list. If you speak German, you may find if is your biggest problem. If your mother tongue is French you may find you are always having trouble with since. And if Spanish or Italian is your language, you may constantly forget to use it when you should.

But these are only examples of mistakes typical of speakers of certain languages. They may or may not be your particular personal mistakes. Those personal ones are the ones you must discover. It is surprising that so few students organize their studies and exam preparations in this way, for the logic of the method is so clear and simple:


Find out your problems and deal with them.


This principle is connected with another important truth that can be expressed in the slogan:


The problem is not remembering the answer; the problem is remembering the problem.


An example of what I mean is given by the many thousands, perhaps millions, of German-speaking students of English who repeatedly make the mistake of using would with if: "If I would do that, I would miss my flight" etc. Most of them, if you asked them how one uses if in English, would probably give a correct answer. They know how if should be used. But they constantly forget the problem when unreminded by someone else, and so, unthinking, fall into the same trap again and again.note 1


Most people will find that if they constantly keep their particular problems in mind, they will very soon and very easily and naturally learn the 'answer', learn the correct mode of expression, simply because they are so often thinking about the point. It is a much more pleasant as well as much more effective way of fixing the necessary knowledge in your mind than learning rules by heart.

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Reading material

Just as reading is probably the most effective way for most people to increase their knowledge of a language, so it is also one of the most important things to do in preparation for an examination.

Look at as many old exam papers as you can get hold of, and find out what sort of writing you are likely to meet in them, and then read the same sort of material. In fact, though, one of the best sources, apart from good quality daily newspapers, is women's magazines. This may seem a surprising, shocking and stupid suggestion to some men; nevertheless, it is certainly true of at least British women's magazines that they contain some of the most varied material you will find anywhere. Nearly all other magazines are 'specialist', are in some way limited in their subject matter, and so, of course, limited in the language they use.

But a women's magazine does not contain matters of interest only to women. Certainly you may find cooking and knitting, and babies' nappies; but, even more, you will find discussions of social questions, information about famous women and men, sport, pop groups, travel, history, practical do-it-yourself hints, and hobbies of many kinds, mostly probably written in a popular style and vocabulary. Of course there may be romantic novelettes and short stories. Don't look down on them. They may be 'bad literature' if you judge by the standard of Tolstoy. They are often made up of clichés - conventional expressions, conventional thoughts, conventional feelings. But when you are learning a foreign language, this is just what you need. First learn the way most people talk and write conventionally, and when you have this foundation then you can, if you want, start trying to be 'original'. You can only be original if you know the conventions.

On the whole, reading literature is not the best preparation for the Proficiency examination. If you are interested in literature, of course you should read it. But you must understand that it is unlikely to prepare you so well for the tasks you will meet in the exam. Newspapers and magazines will provide you with the kind of 'active' vocabulary that in the examination you will probably need far more than you will need the vocabulary of literature.

However, it is probably not a good idea to try in your own writing to imitate in every way the language you find in high quality newspapers. Remember the big gap there is between 'passive' and 'active' knowledge of a language. Notice the grammar, the vocabulary, what words go with other words, but be very careful about copying the style; you could get into a fearful mess if you tried. Consider, after all, that even in your own language there are not very many people who can write successfully in the style of your good newspapers.

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Grammar books

I shall not discuss here all the features of a good grammar book, only emphasize two points.

First, use a grammar that is written in your own language, not one in English. You have quite enough work to do preparing for the exam without working out the meaning of the explanations and worrying about whether you really understand them.

Second, it is essential to have a book with a really complete index. As you prepare for the examination you will need to look up points of grammar and usage continually. A grammar book without an index is useless for this purpose. The only exception might be a grammar in which the topics are organized alphabetically with numerous cross references.

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Examination technique - Timing

Particularly in Britain, many people find the time they are given in examinations much too short. You need to time yourself very carefully in the two written papers. You should plan the time you are going to spend on each part of the paper and then keep to this plan exactly.

The first rule to remember is that you must try to finish the paper. You cannot get marks for parts that you do not do. If, for example, you miss the last 25% of a paper, you cannot get more than 75% even if you get full marks, the maximum, for everything you have written. It is like starting a race with only one leg. You have lost marks even before the examiner begins to look at your paper.

So you will find it much easier to finish if you follow a timetable. Some people say that it isn't practical to keep looking at their watches, or that it makes them nervous. But it is much better to have a lot of little panics, when you can still do something about the situation, than to have one very big panic when it is too late to do anything at all about it.

If you have a problem with time, but just go on writing without looking at the clock, you will get further and further behind, and very possibly end up managing to do only half the paper, or even less. Instead, you must have strength of mind, and stop immediately you get to the end of the time you have decided on for each section. You must stop whether you have finished that section or not. It is useless having a timetable unless you keep to it. Once you start falling behind you will never catch up again.

This method has two advantages. First, you will make sure that you do at least part of every section of the paper. And second, if you are behind, you will realize this at a very early stage, and realize that you will have to go faster.

But particularly wherever the paper demands 'free' writing (the most obvious example is compositions) or any writing where you have some degree of choice in producing whole sentences, the timetable you set for yourself should provide for quite a long period at the end after you have finished writing. This time at the end should first be used to finish the paper, if you haven't already. Keeping a strict timetable acts as a kind of safety net. As we saw above, it will make sure you keep up a good speed. But then at the end you have that extra time which you can use to prevent any catastrophes. However, if you have to use that end period for finishing, you should finish as quickly as possible, because there is something else just as important you must do, and that is checking.

As your timing is so important for both finishing and checking you ought to find an opportunity to practise with a few old examination papers (at least one of each sort) in order to make sure your timetable is about right, and to train yourself to keep to it exactly.

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Examination technique - Checking

Checking can perhaps more than anything else make the difference between a student passing or failing.

There are many, many students who complain that checking never does any good, that they never see any of their mistakes; and there are even many students who say that if they read through their work afterwards they start changing things that were right in the first place into things that are wrong. It is true that both these things happen; but it is because candidates check in the wrong way.

It is useless to read through your work (probably only once) in a general way, looking vaguely for any mistakes that may be there. If you are looking for everything at the same time, you will probably either (if you are one type of student) see nothing at all; or (if you are another type) lose confidence in yourself and start thinking that half of what you have written is wrong.

You must remember exactly what you are looking for. This will make you efficient; and, in turn, because you know you are being efficient, it will give you confidence and you will not start changing things that are perfectly correct. This is where your own personal list of weak points (or 'favourite' mistakes) that I have talked about above comes in.

You should take each point in your list separately and read through your work looking for mistakes connected with that one point only. Do not think about anything except that one problem. You are then certain to see if you have made that particular sort of mistake. You then take the next point on your list and do the same with that -read right through and look only for that one sort of mistake. This means that if you have got seven points on your list, you must read through your work seven times; if you have twelve points, you must read it twelve times, and so on.

So this is the second reason why it is so important to time your examination carefully. You must give yourself the time to make sure you have not made any of those 'silly' mistakes which probably more than anything else cause the failure of those who could pass.

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 Examination technique - Summary

1 time to finish

2 time to check

3 confidence

The last point, confidence, is as important as anything else. If you keep to a timetable you will know that you are being efficient, that you are going to finish, that you are going to check; in other words, that you are in control of the situation. As a result, your work will probably be much better, because you will not be nervous - or at least you will be far less nervous - and you will not be in a panicky rush. And apart from the practical results, that is a much nicer feeling to have.

The three things to remember each time you go into the examination room are:

            1          the list of your personal or 'favourite' mistakes

            2          timing (with finishing)

3                    checking



Practical information


The Certificate of Proficiency examination is set and administered by the:

University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES)

Syndicate Buildings

1 Hills Road

Cambridge CB1 2EU

United Kingdom


You can get information about the Syndicate's examinations in English as a Foreign Language at:


tel. +44 1223 553355

fax +44 1223 460278

and at their web site


The Syndicate also publishes from time to time a free Certificate of Proficiency Handbook, which contains detailed information about the examination, and can also be downloaded free from their website.




If you have any questions you would like to ask about English, or about preparing and taking the Proficiency examination, please write to the editor. He will do his best to give satisfactory answers on the Questions and Answers page. Your name will not be published without your permission.

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