Hey fellow English learner, how’s it going? In this brief post we review the two available formats of any Cambridge Assessment English exam: the paper-based and the computer-based exam.
Are you a paper-type or more of the pc-kind?
In reality, both offers advantages and disadvantages: it’s about evaluating them carefully and make a choice.
It matters a great deal because it can make a difference between passing or failing your English exam. 😦
In this page of the Cambridge Assessment English you’d find the whole story: but as it is a bit of a yarn, I have condensed it all in this post written in a – I hope – comprehensible language.
Exam Format: Introduction
It’s when you register for the exam that you have to choose your Cambridge English exam format.
There are four points to start with, before to dig into technicalities:
#1 Exam rules and scores are the same in both versions. It just changes the way the exam is administered.
#2 Some centres offer merely the paper-based exam, other offer this one as well as the computer-based.
Up to now, I haven’t seen centres offering just the computer-based exam, though sessions of one kind and of the other are normally held in different days.
#3 The Speaking does not change between one exam format and the other. Maybe in the computer-based exam you’re going to have it in a different day / moment, but that’s all.
#4 Prices are generally identical. Nevertheless in certain countries, the computer-based exams may cost a bit more than the paper-based counterparts.
Let’s dig into both formats now.
📝 Exam format: paper-based
The exam day, show up with pens, pencils and rubbers. Do not bring green or red pens, as they’re not allowed: ink must be dark blue or black.
Pencils must be B or HB, coloured ones we better keep aside for autumnal hikes in the woods. 🍂
If your stationery get stolen on the way to the exam centre, you should be provided here with pens and pencils anyway. But since I’m sceptical by nature, I always have a B plan in place.
Your whole exam is on paper: it is, so to speak, the Cambridge English exam it has always existed. 📝
Before to begin, the invigilator gives you three main paper items:
- Sheets with questions;
- sheets for answering the questions and write down the Writing assignments;
- white paper to scrabble things on.
You have a wall clock somewhere in the classroom, clearly visible to all examinees. The invigilator will also let you know when your time is about to run out.
Reading and Use of English
There is no mystery here: you read the questions on one sheet and answer them on another. 📝📑
It’s in the computer-based format that changes a bit. We’ll see it in a while.
As I indicated above, you have a Part 1 (compulsory for everyone) and a Part 2 (you have to pick one assignment out of three options offered).
In both parts, you can organize yourself in two ways:
- Write a draft first, then pass it on a fair copy;
- write the fair copy straight on the answer sheet. ✍️
Yeah, just since the beginning of times. Allow me a word or two of advise:
- Intelligible handwriting! If the last time you wrote something your teacher said Wait, let me check it with Champollion’s great-grandson, that’s not a good sign.
- Spelling errors penalize: if you write aberrations like the concensus I recieved, writing better than Hemingway won’t save you.
- Respect the maximum number of words, for your own good.
- It’s all right if there’s just a couple smudges on the fair copy. But no more than that.
This is a critical point.
In the paper-based exam Listening section, what you hear comes out of loudspeakers installed in the classroom where the exam takes place.
Normally, they work well. Normally. 📢
If the acoustics is decent, you’re at a reasonable distance from the speakers, they work as they should and the volume is sufficient, it doesn’t have to go wrong.
Any Cambridge English exam session is normally awash with examinees. Hence, it is likely that you get the Speaking on another date. One day earlier is quite common.
🖥️ Exam Format: computer-based
The exam day, go with pens, pencils and erases here too. 🖊️
You are provided with paper, in case you want to take notes or make some drafts, but as there is no evaluation on paper here, there is 0 criteria concerning the colour of the ink.
Obviously, the fulcrum of it all is: your computer. Screen, keyboard, mouse, headphones, the whole pack. ⌨️
As you will have understood, this is an exam that can’t be taken anywhere, but in a computer classroom.
You’re just given a piece of paper, the Candidate Sheet: you have to check that the personal data you see on screen corresponds with those on this sheet. You can use the back of such sheet to jot down stuff and draft your Writing later.
All is on your screen: questions, answers, the text processor tool you use for the Writing.
A pleasant surprise is the stopwatch right before your eyes, top of the screen. ⏱️ It’s discrete enough so that you don’t see it all the time, but as the end draws near, it start flashing red.
Note: in the computer-based exam, if you have your head in the clouds, there is no invigilator warning you aloud that you’re running out of time.
Reading and Use of English
Here, questions and answers are on the very same screen of the computer you have been assigned.
It works the same way: you can still skip a question that makes you hesitate, to come back to it later, through the menu on the bottom. 💻
Instead of putting an X or numbers on a cellulose support, you put them with mouse and keyboard on screen. As simple as that.
For both Part 1 and 2, you have a word processor, a simple one, that counts words too: it’s at the bottom of the screen and it’s darn useful.
There are legions of examinees who choose the computer-based version of their Cambridge English exam just to get rid of their handwriting anxieties: mixing upper and lower letters with cursive, the mess of writing-erasing-rewriting that turn a piece of paper in an offcut of the Shroud of Turin. 😟
If, on the other hand, you type slower than a snail, you should think it through.
You can still scribble ideas on paper: see the Candidate Sheet? The back of it can be used for taking notes: if you need extra paper, you only need to ask the invigilator.
Instead of listening to the audio tracks through loudspeakers, you do it through headphones connected to your computer.
You may adjust the volume as you like, but of course you can’t decide when to start the playback ⏯️ neither you can pause it or anything similar.
Headphones are a formidable upside of the computer-based Listening section.
No difference, in general. If there are a lot of candidates, most likely they anticipate or postpone the Speaking section of a day or two.
Which exam format is better?
There are some clear and also less-clear points to consider before to choose the exam format that suits your needs.
😕 My handwriting is nefarious
Just for the Writing, personally, I’d go for the paper-based exam: I feel more at ease writing by hand, even though I’m always tyrannized by time. ✍️
Typing is of little help to me when I try to produce original content.
Surprisingly, I’m not the only one: a good deal of my students ratifies this viewpoint.
If, on the other hand, a pc saves your life concerning handwriting (I’ve forgotten how cursive works, my handwriting needs an Assyriologist to be deciphered, etc.), then the matter is resolved: it’s going to be computer-based exam.
🦻 I hear well but I want to hear even better
For me, the computer-based Listening is a paramount problem-solver.
Even though I have never been diagnosed as hearing-impaired, I have the feeling I do not hear very well sounds or voices below a minimum. 🦻
In an exam, you want to hear very very well. Hence, getting headphones is a terrific advantage.
It doesn’t happen the majority of the times, but there may some cases in which things get twisted. These below have been witnessed by myself:
- there are refurbishment works in the street below, with jack-hammers and all that jazz;
- being surrounded by examinees seemingly affected by something worse than whooping cough; 😷
- a computer virus that disables all audio equipments;
- a sick invigilator, that prompts the arrival of a new one, which is as familiar with the centre’s equipments as I am in plasmoquantum physics;
- chairs which backrests emit sinister wheezes every time candidates lie back on them. 👻
⏱️ I’m in a hurry to get my Cambridge English certificate
Time is a huge factor.
There are different sessions in a year, but perhaps you really want one now: in that case, keep in mind there normally are more computer-based sessions than paper-based. 🗓️
But time plays a role also when registering for an exam.
In paper-based exams, deadlines are 7-8 weeks before the fateful day, whereas computer-based test merely 2 weeks (though only if meanwhile the centre haven’t run out of places).
Last but not least, the time needed to receive results. 🤔
These normally arrive in:
- 4-6 weeks (paper-based)
- 2 weeks (computer-based)
Eventually, you receive the real certificate in:
- 8-9 weeks (paper-based)
- 4-5 weeks (computer-based)
As you can see, once again the golden rule here is: the sooner you register for your Cambridge English exam, sit it and get your certificate, the better.
🤯 I’m more skilled with a nuclear reactor than I am with a pc
If you’ve got a real hatred of computers: paper-based exam Some people can’t stand them, period.
👵 I’m a creature of habit
Habits are not to be dismissed either. As of today, you have very little if you want to practice specifically the computer-based test, whereas you have plenty of mock exams for training the paper-based version.
After having done 10, 15 or 27 mock exams on paper, you are caught a bit off guard when sitting a computer-based exam: where should I click, what’s is this button for, am I going to mess up everything if I click here, etc. 🤔
It’s entirely normal: regaining control of the situation is a matter of a handful of seconds, though. So, relax.
😕 I can’t decide between the two
If the preference is light (hmmm yes, headsets are a plus but typing isn’t my thing, these sort of stuff), then simply go for the session which comes handier to you in terms of dates, I’d say.
But again: it’s really a personal choice. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Exam Format: Conclusions
Congratulations for having reached the end of this post, in a world of people who seem incapable of reading more than 200 words without a kitten gif livening up each paragraph. 🐱
So you’re taking a Cambridge English exam? Which one?
Regardless of paper or pc, please find here below a few guides to help you find your way among the most popular English exams:
Thank you for the time taken to browse this 😉
Your personal exam trainer, 💪