The Cambridge English: First, also known as the First Certificate in English (FCE) is a B2-level examination offered by the University of Cambridge. It has since become very popular, with more and more students taking it every year. Whether you’re interested in studying at a university or you’d like to find a better job, the First Certificate in English will help you showcase your qualifications in English. Thus, helping you to take another step forward in achieving your academic or career goals.
While all parts of this exam can entail difficulties for those being tested, I have noticed that my students often struggle with the writing section. In this article, I will help you understand how to (not only) improve your writing mark for the First Certificate in English, but also successfully pass this exam.
1. What you have to do for the writing component
For the writing part of the First Certificate, you have to complete two different tasks in 1 hour and 20 minutes. The first task is always an essay. For the second task, you have to choose to complete one of the following options: an article, email, letter, report, or a review.
The word limit for both tasks is around 140 to 190 words. It is very important to respect the word limit, or else you will be penalized. If you don’t write enough, however, your piece of writing will not be seen as well-developed or detailed enough. And if you write too much, your examiner will gauge that there is irrelevant information in the text. So, this is why you should respect the word-limit as much as possible.
Before you start writing the answers to the tasks you have chosen, you should plan them out. Why? Because your writing will be better structured and more convincing if you give yourself some time to think about what you want to write about and how to phrase your ideas on paper. Follow these simple steps and your writing will be noticeably better organised and relevant to the task:
- Read the task and underline the key information that’s being asked of you.
- Decide if you need to write in formal or informal English.
- Make a short list of ideas for each task.
- Put your ideas in a logical order and then organise them into paragraphs.
- Write down some words and expressions to help you connect your ideas (for examples: “Firstly, Secondly, In addition, To sum up”).
- Think of words related to the topic that you could include. You will need to use synonyms of the key words.
3. Formal or informal style?
In order to decide on the writing style for your writing, you need to think about the target reader. Who are you writing to? For instance, if you’re writing a letter to a friend, it will be informal. On the other hand, if it’s a letter of application, then you’re sending to a possible employer, and you will need to use a formal style of writing. The essay for the first task should always be written in a formal or neutral style, so it can never be informal.
Try to execute in your writing a combination of academic language, solid grasp of grammar, and variety of vocabulary choices. For example, these can be: phrasal verbs, collocations, expressions, passive voice, conditionals, etc. Don’t worry too much about making mistakes if you’re utilizing higher language skills in your writing. The examiner will appreciate your effort if your ideas can be understood. However, don’t use words that you don’t really understand since it can run the risk of your writing being misunderstood. Basically, don’t use complex words just for the sake of using it. Before the exam, try to prepare a list of useful general vocabulary and grammar structures that you can use in your writing.
Finally, avoid repeating the same words as much as possible. Think of synonyms or other ways of saying the same thing, especially for key words. If you use the same words repeatedly, you won’t manage to show the examiner how versatile your language skill is.
5. Word limit estimation
As I mentioned before, respecting the word limit is crucial if you want to get a high score. However, counting your words in an exam just wastes your time and likely will constrain you to revise your written ideas that were initially good. When you’re practising at home, learn to estimate how many words you’ve written: count how many words you have written on one line (approximately) and multiply that by the number of lines. This way, you can save time which should be allocated for the other sections of the exam.
And remember, it’s not like your examiner will sit there while marking your writing by counting exactly how many words you have written (since he or she has to mark so many pieces of writing). They probably have mastered the art of approximating the word count through years of experience marking the FCE exam. So don’t worry if you go overboard for a few words, but also don't make it blatantly obvious that you have over or under written.
6. Checking your written work
I believe this step is absolutely necessary and critical in delivering a solid piece of writing -- so plan some extra time for this accordingly. Quite often, students forget to do go back and check their work. After you’ve finished your piece of writing, make sure you double back to proofread your work; check for punctuation, spelling, or grammar errors and correct any of your mistakes. You don’t want to be penalised for making basic mistakes.
If possible, work on the other components of your FCE exam (like the multiple-choice section) and then double back to your writing. You will often find that by coming back to your writing after even just a short period of time away from it, a fresh pair of eyes will enable you to find silly mistakes which you previously did not notice whilst writing it in the first place.
Another small tip is to whisper (or mouth the words) when proofreading your writing. You will catch errors in a sentence if you find yourself unable to say sentences fluidly from one to another. So when you find yourself stuck reading a particular sentence, stop, and consider rephrasing that sentence in order to make it sound more natural.
As we all know, practice makes perfect, so start preparing for this qualification as early as possible. Following these six steps will surely help you improve your writing ability for the FCE and you will exceed the exam in no time. Good luck!