Hello hello! Wassup? If you got here, my intuition tells me you’re one of the many who want to get one of the most popular English certificate: the First Certificate in English 👏 Great to hear that!
This certificate, also known as FCE or with the more recent nomenclature of Cambridge English: First, it’s the first step towards a professional usage of the English language.
It makes possible to you to get plenty of working and studying opportunities, as well as wading through red take to obtain citizenships, residence permits and the like.
I’d love to tell you that it’s easy-peasy to pass it. Unfortunately, this is not the case. 😓
First you need to reach a B2 level; then, you have to specifically prepare for the exam, in order to bring your certificate home.
Why is it a tough nut to crack?
- In many schools, levels aren’t properly assessed. They make you believe you’re at a B2, but in reality is below that, 😤
- you have to become familiar with the exam structure,
- the time available is scarce and if you stop reflecting too much on stuff, you’re doomed.
How to pass the First Certificate in English with flying colours?
Keep reading and you’ll find out 😉
WARNING: THIS POST IS NOT FOR THE MILK-LIVERED
There are more than 5K words in this post.
Devote these 12 minutes to read this now; then, if you want, feel free to watch as many videos featuring funny cats as you want, would you?
First Certificate in English: What is it for?
The FCE certifies you have a B2 English: if you want to step into higher education, in the vast majority of cases, you have at the very least to prove you have this piece of paper in your linguistic folder.
B2 is considered to be the minimum level of competence of someone who wants to arrive in an English-speaking country and linguistically hit the ground running as a worker, citizen, human being with a social dimension.
It is the Cambridge Assessment English exam most taken worldwide. 🌎
In general terms, at a B2 you can:
- read somewhat complex texts,
- watch audiovisual materials conceived for a general English-native audience,
- attend courses taught in English,
- use English in environments in which high linguistic accuracy is not paramount.
FCE is part of the English certificate portfolio of the Cambridge Assessment English, a non-teaching division of the prestigious University of Cambridge (UK).
In a minute, I am going to delve into the structure of the exam, section by section. 📋
The minimum score is 160, the maximum is 179.
Actually, it’s a bit more complicated, but for the moment let’s stick with this span: 160 to 179. Hence, with a meagre 160, you still pass it.
Like all Cambridge qualifications, it does not expire.
First Certificate in English: Who is interested in getting it?
Who should obtain a FCE qualification?
- Students wishing to access pre-university studies in English-speaking countries;
- teachers in pre-schools in English-speaking countries or international schools anywhere;
- graduate nurses with ambitions to work in the British NHS (B2 is the bare minimum required); 🏥
- students willing to access courses taught in English in non-anglophone countries;
- plenty of students who wants to enrol in university in their own countries;
- people in need to prove their upper intermediate English in business; 👔
- candidates to civil service positions.
In the west, generally speaking, anyone who gets a high school diploma should have a B2 in English: at such point, getting the FCE is just a matter of cramming the exam format.
Let’s suppose you’re a high school student.
If your school does not provide for it, it’s an excellent idea to obtain the First Certificate in English as soon as you’ll have get your A-level graduation, especially if you know upfront you won’t pay as much attention to English for a while.
The same goes for those university students who have had English, one way or another, in their degree.
First Certificate in English: When and where sitting it?
There are six to eight exam sessions per year, according to the chosen area and exam centre.
- There are more sessions in the first half of the year;
- there are a lot of places available, but also a lot of people taking the FCE.
Therefore, the sooner you register for it, the better it is.
There is a huge number of countries, cities and exam centres in which you can take the FCE: have a look at the map and register here for your FCE exam.
You are not required to take the exam in your city or within your country of residence: if you feel like taking it in Tierra del Fuego, Kamchatka or Alaska, go ahead.
Just be careful with your personal documentation: your ID card or passport must be valid.
The average registration fee is EUR 207 (in 2020), although each country and centre goes its own way with prices.
Fix your hair and get dressed up for the FCE, as most likely you’ll be taken a photo, even though it won’t be uploaded on any Instagram feed. 📸
In any case, with the new post-coronavirus normality, in many countries pictures are no longer taken.
Let’s now see step by step how you can register for the First Certificate in English.
First Certificate in English: How to register?
Let’s assume that, by following the link above, you have already identified the exam centre that suits you best.
You then go to page where you may search your exam centre, once you have already chosen the exam you want to take and the city where you want to take it. In the below mentioned example, as you can see, I filtered by:
- Year: 2020 (second half)
- Exam: Cambridge B2 First (FCE)
- City: Valencia (Spain)
And these are the results I got, which are five available sessions, all of them computer-based:
Choose the date, then click on “Register online” (Realizar mátrícula online, in the Spanish form). You get a first resume of what you’re about to sign for:
Right after, you see a plain form to fill in.
In “Comments” (Comentarios, in the Spanish form) you can put all sort of details, especially disabilities you want them to take into account. However, I’d strongly advise you to discuss about this with the centre before filling the form:
You fill in everything and select the payment method. 💸
If you choose to pay by card, you enter in a payment gateway and eventually get a receipt like this:
At the same time, you receive in your inbox an email of confirmation:
IMPORTANT: If you don’t get this email of confirmation, get immediately in touch with the exam centre. Don’t take for granted that the mere payment implies the centre is aware of your registration!
Normally, they should send you a second confirmation, as the one below, during the same day, in which you are informed about the date in which the Speaking takes place, centre rules and other info:
Here you can read that:
1️⃣ They are aware you exist and take part in this exam session. ✔️
2️⃣ They tell you the bulk of the exam takes place on July 23 but the Speaking on July 22.✔️
3️⃣ They inform that you will receive the CoE (Confirmation of Entry, so to say, practical info) two weeks prior to the exam. ✔️
And having said all this, now you only have to… ehm, prepare for the First Certificate in English.
Let’s see how to do it without getting crazier than you already are.
First Certificate in English: How can I prepare for it?
After many gray hairs, years and tons of quid invested in learning languages and obtaining official certificates, the way I see it there are three ways to prepare the FCE:
- In a private language school;
- with the help of a private teacher.
And the ideal one, in my opinion, is the number 2 with a sprinkling of the 3:
75% self-study ✔️ +
25% with a private teacher ✔️ =
🏆 success 🏆
Allow me to clarify myself.
The FCE is the exam most sat by English learners. Considering the how high the English language soars above all other languages, it’s fair to say the First Certificate in English is the most requested language certificate worldwide.
A mouthwatering cake for private businesses. 🍰
Language schools, everywhere, organize plenty of courses to prepare candidates to the First Certificate in English.
What normally happens is:
- you’re given a placement test,
- you’re put in the group that sharpen its skills for the FCE exam,
- you pay the tuition fees, the course itself and a few books,
- you attend lessons, do several mock exams with other students during 2-3-4 weeks,
- the teacher correct them, at home you try to make up for your shortcomings, and you go with this flow until the exam day comes.
Well, doesn’t seem so bad, does it?
Well, there likely are some pitfalls.
First of all, placements tests may be interpreted rather than analysed. 🤨
Perhaps you’re at a B1, or even at a C1 level, but… turns out there’s a FCE prep course coming up. You know what may happen?
If you’re at a B2 level, they may tell you:
Hey, you’re clever and motivated! Subscribe for it and with a parallel reinforcement course, the FCE will be yours.
If you are at a C1, instead, you might end up in the B2 prep course simply because… there is no C1 prep course to sell you.
This is problem number 1.
I’m not saying that language schools are a scam. I’m saying there are those who don’t work honestly.
So, if you really want to get your preparation in one of them, visit it in person:
- Talk to teachers and employees,
- ask references of former candidates (opinions in Google and social media may be real as well as fake),
- ask to speak in person with the teacher who will lead your classes.
But before, read about the problem number 2 here below: the inefficiency of the process.
The vast majority of the lecture time vanishes on tasks you could do on your own, at your place, autonomously.
The teacher intervenes at the end of the task, to correct first and clarify possible doubts.
If you consider the minutes in which the teacher concretely contributes with his knowledge, the course turns out to be quite expensive.
And problem number 3: 150% of our students pass the exam!
Well well, in order to pass the First Certificate in English, you don’t have to find the philosopher’s stone. 🧙
Being at a B2 level is the first step; preparing for the CFE exam is the second.
The third is constituted of tips to study and tricks for the day of the exam: these I can give to you in this post 😉
There are no initiation secret the school will unveal to you once you have paid for the course. It’s a language school, not a Masonic lodge. 🏫
➡️ Preparing on your own, with some help from a private teacher, allows you to quickly move forward and on a reasonable budget.
If you’re ready to pay a certain amount in a language school, then take such budget and turn it into private lessons.
One hour of private tuition is equal to several hours of group lessons.
Here below, I specify what I recommend to students to prepare the First Certificate in English, primarily within a self-study frame.
There are valid materials available out there. Then, I suggest you my tips and tricks to pass with flying colours.
🆘 If you need help, feel free to have a look at my page concerning private lessons and contact me: I have been transforming insecure monoglots into confident English speakers for years. 👍
We can all learn English and successfully certify our knowledge with a Cambridge exam: don’t you ever doubt it.
First Certificate in English: Compulsory materials
Let’s begin from a fundamental textbook:
First Trainer 2. Practice Tests with Answers and Audio: you have to blow it out by studying.
Don’t even dare to sit the FCE exam if you haven’t bought it and studied it onward and backward.
First Trainer 2 comes with six mock exams: Test 1 and Test 2 are tutorials of what the real exam is. Alongside each section, they explain what is expected of you, what English you have to demonstrate knowledge of, how to sharpen your skills with other materials and strategies.
Tests 3, 4, 5 and 6, on the other hand, are pure mock exams.
Audio tracks are downloadable for free from the Cambridge English Assessment website. Transcripts are available at the end of the book, together with the answer keys.
A couple things turned out to be let-downs, to be honest. 😂 Two or three keys are wrong, and in one of the tracks, Ana from Madrid has a strong non-Spanish accent.
But well, I mention these here just because I can’t resist the pedantic craving in me. 😂 Any book has way more errors than this.
You still have to rely on a private teacher to fine-tune Speaking and Writing, as no prep book comes with a gnome, enclosed in the pack, to help you out about that. 🧚♂️
Summarising, in matter of self-study, this tome is compulsory.
First Certificate in English: Highly suggested materials
There are two other manuals that I strongly advise you to work on as you approach the exam. One is lexicon, the other grammar.
I’ve been working with these for a while: the candidates who make use of them usually have their 180 points secured. Food for thought.
English Vocabulary in Use. Upper-intermediate
English Grammar in Use with Answers
First Certificate in English: Materials advisable too
The following books are frankly negligible, if you have a solid B2 level.
Whether using them or not, depends on a variety of factors: the gaps you still may suffer from, how confident you feel about your skills, how much you want to rely on luck.
If you feel that your B2 English has some holes, I’d give a look at them.
Grammar and Vocabulary for First and First for Schools
Objective First – Student’s Book with Answers
Common Mistakes at First Certificate… and how to Avoid them
First Certificate in English: Study strategy
As with any language examination, the best thing to do is to start getting familiar with the exam when your language proficiency is right at the same level.
Hence, first of all, reach a B2.
Then, test yourself with a mock exam from the book I mentioned above: how did it go? Keep doing a full exam simulation every two weeks and find out where you need to improve.
In order to cover any gaps, you’re free to use any material you like: however, be aware the Cambridge University Press books I suggested you above are excellent.
First Certificate in English: Exam structure
The FCE exam is designed to assess the four canonical language skills. The main sections of the exam correspond to them.
Let’s take a look at them.
Reading and Use of English (75 mins)
This first part consists of 7 exercises and 52 questions. Depending on the exercise, what is measured is:
- Vocabulary (8 questions)
- grammar (8 questions)
- vocabulary (8 questions)
- vocabulary and grammar (6 questions)
- reading comprehension (6 questions)
- reading comprehension (6 questions)
- reading comprehension (10 questions)
This section offers a certain variety: you have to fill in gaps with the right words, answer multiple choice questions on different texts, come up with a modified word from a root given to you, produce a sentence which is similar in meaning to one you’re given but doing so according to the instructions given, etc.
🔎 How to come out on top in this section? 🔎
Far from the exam, the key is reading everything and abundantly: reports from ther World Health Organization, magazines such as Mental Floss, newspapers, blogs about gadgets, online stores of sportswear, etc.
Read everything, being aware that those texts that are for cultured native speakers are still out of your reach.
Nathaniel Hawthorne might be difficult to read, but these two adapted novels are not:
Far From The Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy (level B2.1)
Pride And Prejudice, by Jane Austen (level B2.2)
There is no way but reading, period. Passing the First Certificate in English is more than just mindlessly cramming a couple of preparation books.
Obviously, a month or two before the exam, replace bulimic reading with exam preparation.
On the fateful day, if you have become accustomed to the format of the Reading and Use of English, you’ll wade through it without sweating, in perfect control of timing and structure of the section.
Should you doubt too much over one of the 52 questions, move on to the next.
Writing (80 mins)
Writing is made of two assignments that score the same.
Exercise 1 is compulsory: 140-190 word essay, to be written according to the subject and the instructions given.
Exercise 2 offers you three alternatives from which you have to pick one: review, article, email, report or letter.
🔎 How to win the Writing hands down? 🔎
Far from the exam, surprise surprise, other than reading profusely, we ought to write a lot and have our compositions checked.
If you don’t deliver yourself to extensive reading, you will lack the necessary raw materials to write; but if then you don’t actually write, you’re stuck halfway.
Writing is one of those skills in which you must resort to the support of a teacher. You can’t by definition do it by yourself and online tools are still in their infancy.
Turn to a teacher experienced in the Cambridge Assessment English qualifications. Why? Because your American boyfriend or your Jamaican cousin ignore what the exam is about.
In a FCE assignment, untrained people might spot all sort of non-existent drawbacks: inadequate vocabulary, informal style, unsophisticated or overly sophisticated language, etc. 🤨
Then, think through beforehand whether to sit the paper-based or the computer-based exam.
If your handwriting is disastrous and snail-paced, go for the computer-based: by doing so, you save yourself the time of jotting down the draft and making a neat copy afterwards.
Notwithstanding, computer is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
There are those who only by handwriting are able to organize their ideas, clarify to themselves what to write about and how. It’s a personal thing.
Ultimately, don’t beat around the bush. Stick to the topic.
Let’s suppose that in the first, compulsory exercise, you deal with the role of sport in society. You couldn’t, for example, start off with a:
Sport is important in modern-day society, but so is computer literacy…
And then go on a long rant about pc skills. Stick to the topic.
❗ Do you need specific insights for the Writing section of FCE? Read here: Cambridge English: First. Tips for the FCE Writing.
Listening (40 mins)
It consists of four exercises for a total of 30 questions.
Each exercise or question corresponds to an audio track, which you listen to twice before to answer.
Exercise 1 (8 questions) is a multiple choice one, based on brief monologue or dialogues.
Exercise 2 (10 questions) is about sentence completion: you have to fill some gaps in the sentences after having listened to a monologue.
In exercise 3 (5 questions), once listened to five 30 second-monologues, you have to associate five options to eight possible answers.
Exercise 4 (7 questions) is again multiple choice, based on a three to four minute-conversation between two speakers.
🔎 How to win the Listening by a landslide? 🔎
This section is a major obstacle for an examinee. Luckily, one that can be overcome.
Far from the FCE examination, a super-duper strategy is reading and listening to a text simultaneously.
An audiobook like the The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald in your ears, while your eyes are on the lines of the novel, it’s a useful practice. The same goes for the masterpiece The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by the underdog Mark Manson.
Still and all, you can find plenty of benefit in the BBC English collection: very good repository. 🌐 Helping English students for decades 😉 You have video clips, audio tracks, podcasts, transcripts, explanations and exercises. I wouldn’t rely merely on the BBC stuff, but I would certainly spend some time here.
I wouldn’t disdain YouTube either: if you choose carefully your videos, it can be a formidable resource.
Channels like MIT OpenCourseWare, with an academic focus, or pirate-like as the extrapopular Joe Rogan Experience, for instance:
The JRE, as it is customarily shorten, was born as a podcast but got its video dimension after some time, in the form of a YouTube channel. You can either listen to it, or you can watch and listen at the same time: in this second case, subtitles are available and are quite reliable.
On the other hand, as FCE draws near, it’s time to train yourself to rely exclusively on your ears. It’s a challenge for focus and listening skills, but it’s the only way. No more reading and listening at the same time now: only listening.
In the computer-based FCE, there are earplugs at your disposal: generally speaking, it’s a great plus. 🎧
When sitting the exam, during the first listening jot down everything you understood; during the second, correct it or confirm it.
You are given a few minutes, after the last exercise, to copy/confirm your answers: five minutes in the paper-based FCE, two in the computer-based.
❗ Do you need specific help concerning the Listening part? Read here: FCE Exam: How to Attain the Top in the Listening part.
Speaking (14 mins)
Fourteen minutes for the Speaking: short time, but intense, reeking of adrenaline. ⚡
Normally, Speaking takes place in a day different from that of the main exam, before or after. Your exam centre promptly inform you on this.
You share a classroom with another candidate (or two other candidates, in exceptional cases) and two Cambridge English examiners.
The candidate is next to you, one of the examiners is in front of you both and is the one who leads the exam, whereas the other examiner is cornered a bit farther and, as mute as a fish, observes and takes notes.
Speaking consists of four parts. 📢
Exercise 1 (2 minutes): the examiner asks you how are you, who you are, what do you study or what’s your craft, etc.
Exercise 2 (1 minute): you get two photos and you have to describe them according to some instructions.
At this point, your fellow candidate has to speak about your photos during thirty seconds. After this, it’s your turn to talk about his photos during thirty seconds.
Exercise 3 (3 minutes): you and your mate receive a topic to talk about. A debate must take place, at the end of which you have to reach a consensual decision.
Exercise 4 (4 minutes): the examiner take back control of the Speaking and stimulate a common debate about something mentioned in exercise 3.
🔎 How to excel in Speaking? 🔎
- express agreement and disagreement,
- voice your opinion in a polite manner about a number of subjects,
- describe and compare,
- weigh pros and cons,
- reach an agreement taking into account the other person’s position,
- defend your choices and viewpoints.
It always comes handy to dress up your speech with phrasal verbs, idioms and collocations.
⚠️ It’s paramount to show a B2 English in terms of expressive richness.
Some folks register for a First Certificate in English after having just read a booklet in the Learn English in two Weeks fashion: be on the ball.
The good news here is that Speaking fundamentals are easy to master: you only need to put in a few hours to learn and rehearse them with your teacher.
Pronunciation also has to be good: if you have a distinctive Spanish, Polish or Chinese accent is fine, as long as it does not hinder comprehension.
Speak clear and measured: you gain no credit in talking so fast that people can’t understand.
Now, a frequent question: what if my exam companion is far below my level? Will that drag me down? It shouldn’t.
There’s always (a bit / quite / a lot of) imbalance between the two candidates: one speaks better than the other. Let him talk if you’re the better of the two, and if he doesn’t let you intervene, take advantage of when he pauses to breath to sneak in.
Above all, always keep in mind that a bad fellow candidate, for whatever reason, never affects your grades: examiners know very well how to evaluate each of you individually.
For some of us, it doesn’t matter how many times we have rehearsed the Speaking: when in front of an examiner, we panic as we’ve never panicked before.
I don’t know about you, but it did happen to me. Months of effort down the drain. 😔
I was already familiar with yoga, when I turned back to it to reduce exam anxiety. I got hold of a now-discontinued book, which illustrated the principles in an exhaustive yet playful way.
Then I have found this one, which is even better:
Yoga: A Manual for Life, by Naomi Annand
It’s brilliant because it explains yoga for what really is, pruning away that air of guruism and ditching knee-breaking poses that do not bring you closer to nirvana.
I practice yoga kind of regularly, intensifying it in pre-exam periods. 🧘
The day of the exam, in between an exercise and another I take advantage to insert in yoga breathing and short meditations. This is how I take control of my anxiety. Maybe it can work for you too?
I’d give a try if I were you: you have nothing to lose anyway.
❗ Would you some help in the Speaking? Read here: Coming soon.
First Certificate in English: FAQ
Q: Better the computer-based or the paper-based?
A: Here you are ⬇️
Q: I tend to write more than requested. Is that bad?
If you write an epic novel when you’re requested to produce a 190 word-text, you can even be Zadie Smith: you’re penalized.
Three or four extra words aren’t a big deal, but you also ought to keep in mind that the more you write, the more probability you have of messing things up.
Q: I have no time to study for the exam. Is watching series useful?
A: Enjoying films, binge-watching series, fiddling around with Apps: these are the new Learn English while sleeping.
Series alone, without a substantial dose of other linguistic work, is neither useful to learn English nor to prepare oneself for an exam such as FCE.
I understand is not always easy to carve time out of one’s agenda to prepare for an exam, but there are ways to optimize time.
Q: In multiple choice tests, does an incorrect response penalizes me?
Whether you do not attempt an answer or you answer incorrectly, you get zero points. Hence, when in doubt, put something.
Q: I have some old prep stuff for the FCE some friends gave me, from 2013 and 2014, are they good?
A: No. Some exams changed in 2015, among them our beloved FCE: you need newer books.
Those I have listed above are according to the new standard.
Q: Is it true that they’ll give me a CAE (Cambridge English: Advanced) if I score high in the CFE?
A: This is a popular urban myth, and the answer is NO. Have a look at this graph:
Whether you obtain a Grade A, Grade B or Grade C, you receive a FCE certificate. If you get an A, in your certificate it will be stated that you have gone above the B2 level.
Legally speaking, however, you have obtained a FCE certificate.
You can find more info here about how to interpret the results of the FCE.
Q: If I attend a specific prep course, will I secure a good result?
A: It’s better than nothing, of course, although if you have read the chapters above, you may have realized I have a somewhat bleak opinion about prep course in language schools.
I generally deem more efficient and cost-effective to self-study with some help from a private teacher.
Q: I speak a blend of British and American English. Is that a problem?
A: It can be.
You’re allowed to use one variety only.
Standard British English would be preferable, but Standard American English is also fine, as long as you use it consistently in the whole exam.
I also had to detox my English several times before to sit an exam, as being exposed to several varieties is enriching, but also troublesome when needing to take an exam. 🤨
In daily life, it is even entertaining: people understand you well but struggle to put you on a map (Where is this guy from?). In an exam, ehm, it’s less funny.
On the other hand, it’s useful to have a good comprehension of different varieties, in life and in an exam.
Q: I know I’m gonna need the FCE diploma for both studying at university and working afterwards, but I don’t know when would be better to get it. What do you think?
A: Good point.
In many parts of the globe, a First Certificate in English is compulsory if you want to enrol in university.
Sometimes, they may not require it prior to entrance, nevertheless then you have no choice but getting it before to present the dissertation.
When? 🗓️ It’s really a personal choice.
Many obtain it during their last summer month-long holidays before to enter university. Evidently, things change if you’re willing to study English-related degrees.
Q: Can I bring my own laptop if I register for the computer-based FCE?
A: Not really.
Anyway, should you ask because of an impairment for which your laptop is adapted to, check with your exam centre before to register for it.
First Certificate in English: Conclusions
That’s all folks 🇬🇧 💕
I tried here to summarize what I know about the FCE exam: what is like, what the major pitfalls are, how to become the Batman of this Cambridge Assessment English exam and pass it.
Are you going to register for it?
In case you’ve already put it in your linguistic folder, why don’t you let me know how you did it?
And if not, how do you plan to prepare for it?
I can’t guarantee any result, but if you follow the strategies I’ve been relating along this post, you have reasonably high chances of getting this result:
This, my friend, is what I mean when I say “passying with flying colours“. 🏆😺🍾
However, if a B2 level is still remote, then you are going to appreciate this ⤵
I guess I have nagged you enough for the day.
Share this post with friends and foes, if you have found it useful. And keep up the great job with the English language.
See you around! 😉
Your personal linguistic consultant,