There are many reasons why somebody would want to certify their level of English: studying abroad, looking for a better job, getting a work promotion, just to mention some. There is a variety of exams available for certifying it. There is not one that is better than the others. Your choice must depend on your purpose, since they also have different features. In the case of Cambridge English exams, unlike other ones like TOEIC or TOEFL, there is a specific exam for each CEFR level. Hence, you would have to choose the right one for the level you want to certify. However, they have the advantage of not expiring, which can make it more appealing than other options.
First Certificate in English (FCE), Certificate in Advanced English (CAE), and Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) certify the levels B2, C1, and C2 respectively. Despite focusing on different CEFR levels, they share the same format, being divided into speaking, listening, reading and use of English, and writing. This time, it is the last item the one that will have our attention.
The writing paper is the second one, following reading and use of English. The time assigned for this part depends on the exam you have chosen: 80 minutes for FCE, and 90 minutes for both CAE and CPE. This section is divided into two tasks, one compulsory and another where you will have the chance to choose one option from a list (there are three to five possibilities, depending on the test).
Each task considers a different amount of words, fluctuating between 120 and 190 for FCE, 180 and 260 for CAE, and 240 and 320 for CPE. Based on this, your writing should be neither too short nor too long. The key is finding the balance of detail and brevity. It can be helpful to mention deep aspects of simple things and to go straight to the point with topics that are too wide. However, do not leave aside the core of your idea that may interconnect the less important points.
It is important to take time into account since there is an examiner who checks this, and once time’s up you will not be able to add or erase anything. Doing so may involve a sanction. Consider that you will have two different texts, it is helpful to identify what part of the process takes you more time. Think about how long you may need to organize your ideas to place them on the paper and check the result of your composition too. It is advisable to measure this while you are practicing in order to know your own rhythms and reduce time if it were necessary.
The division of this section has a compulsory task, and another that offers a series of options where you will be able to choose which one you prefer. It is here where you have to take a decision on what genre you feel more comfortable writing. However, take into account that you will never start from zero, since both tasks include a contextualization and some useful information like a summary of arguments, topic, or your addressee.
You will face different types of text, where each has its own features. These tests consider short essays, e-mails, articles, reviews, stories, among others. Of course, you may have a preference for some, so you can choose for the second task the one you feel most comfortable with. However, if you have not yet, you should get familiar with the other genres. Start by reading samples of them on media and then work on your own piece of writing.
Since these exams focus on English for general purposes, getting familiar with these genres implies different aspects. You need to know who the audience is. Writing an e-mail to a friend you have not seen in a while is not very similar to writing a report about environmental measures in your city for a journal. Depending on who the readers are intended to be, you may use different registers.
In the case of essays, you are expected to provide information but also to express your opinions. However, this is always constraint by certain elements provided in the exam. The way you do will depend on its aim (for example, argumentative or comparative), but the structure remains the same. Open the text with an introduction that creates expectations for your ideas. The body is the strongest part regarding content, where the argument for your opinions must be expressed. Then, for the conclusion, it is good to sum up the most important points that support what your previous comments state.
As important as the type of text you are assigned is the topic. The tasks are specific to the content of the expected writing. You may write a perfectly structured review, but if it was supposed to be on a certain book and you do it in a movie, you will hardly get a satisfactory score on the item. It is useful to take some time to brainstorm what you are going to write so you can organize your ideas before.
Finally, do not forget to check the formal aspects. Avoid using contractions when it is not necessary, especially if it is a formal text. Try not to repeat the same words in a paragraph, a test to check proficiency considers your lexical knowledge. In spite of being the writer, take the perspective of the reader to self-evaluate your composition. And, of course, take some time to read again and eventually modify what is necessary before handing in your test.
*Samples obtained from Kenny, N. & Newbrook, J. (2014) Cambridge English Advanced Practice Tests Plus. New edition. Students’ book with key. Pearson Education Limited. Essex, England.