by Aggie Chapman
Whether you are about to start your exam preparation, or you’ve been working towards your goal for a while, sooner or later the tricky question will come – am I ready?
There are a few things that help you here. The first thing to do it to look at the level of the exam you want to take and bear in mind that it means that you need to complete the level before preparing for the exam. For example, if you want to take the Advanced exam, which is C1 level, and you have just started a course at this level – you are not ready for the exam yet. Very often, after completing the level students take another course, focused on exam preparation. In this way, they make sure that their language level is where it needs to be, plus they have a chance to get to know the exam structure and practise using exam techniques.
It’s also a good idea to try doing a sample exam – you can find past papers of the exam you are interested in, but as the exam formats change every few years, be careful to do the current version (ask your teacher if you’re not sure). The Reading (IELTS) or Reading and Use of English (Cambridge exams) part is a good one to start with as you can do it on your own, and for most questions it’s not difficult to calculate your score. The open questions in IELTS (the ones they you write an answer rather than choosing one of the given options) are a bit more tricky to mark as the answer key may only give you one version or the most important part of the answer. Likewise, the Key Word Transformations in Cambridge exams can be problematic to give the score for as you won’t know which part of the answer gets a point, and sometimes there is more than one possible answer (a good answer key would at least provide all possible answers). You also need to pay attention to which questions get 1 point and which ones 2 points for the correct answer (Cambridge exam).
Getting a score for this part of the exam would give you the initial idea of where you are standing. Many candidates score higher in this part than in some other papers, especially writing, and… speaking. If the last one surprised you, keep reading – I’ll come back to that.
If you are considering starting exam preparation, the result between 55% and 65% in the reading / reading and use of English part of the practice test is not bad. It means that you need some time (we’re talking at least a few months, though) of solid, regular work so that you can polish off the edges – learn the things you need to know for this part, practise the skills, learn the exam techniques etc. If you have been preparing for a while, your results in this part should be above the minimum 60%, ideally somewhere in the area of 70% or more. As I said, this part tends to be the one that candidates tend to score higher in, so if your result is much below the pass mark, there is a chance that the other parts will compensate for it, but it’s rather unusual for it to happen. Most likely, you need to keep working on developing your language before you are ready for the exam.
Once you’ve tested you reading / reading and use of English, you can do a listening test. This one is also quite simple when it comes to marking – as long as you have the answers, you won’t have any problems to see what your result would be. Scoring more than 60% is a good sign at the beginning of your preparation, but it doesn’t guarantee the pass mark yet. It’s only one part of the exam, and if the score is only enough to pass, it means that you might pass, rather that you will surely do. Don’t feel bad if you get less that the required 60%, at the beginning anything more than 50% is OK, provided that you don’t expect the result to improve immediately, but it give yourself time to work and gradually get better.
Both writing and speaking test are really only worth doing if you have a teacher (someone who is experienced in preparing students for exams and knows the marking schemes) who will tell you what scores your written work and speaking performance would get and why. You can, of course, just get an initial feel of the tasks – try writing a text that is as long your exam writing test requires (there are different word limits in different exams) and see if it’s easy for you to do, and if you can do it in the time limit of the exam.
You may also have a go at the speaking task – look at the types of questions, visual materials, time limits and think if you feel you can do it. Another way is recording yourself while speaking (yes, I know, everybody hates this idea at first, but it’s really effective). While you won’t be able to give yourself a mark (not objectively anyway 😉) you can just see what it’s like. If you’re not ready, you will see that you can’t easily say what you want, keep repeating the same expressions, or hesitate often (when you make all the “uhmmmm”, “hmmmm” and similar noises).
It’s quite common for the more confident candidates to neglect what is important in the exam because they believe that it’s enough to just keep talking. Unfortunately, it’s not, there’s a lot more that is tested in the exam. The fact that you can understand the films you watch doesn’t mean that you can speak at the same level as the characters in them, either. 😉 I need to highlight here that only a teacher who really knows how the exams are marked can you give an opinion about your language level. There are many elements that are assessed in the exams, and you need to make sure that you show the examiners what they need to see. The examiners will mark what they can hear in the exam, they have no idea if you know more than you show them, how could they?
The danger with testing your ability yourself may be that you are either too easy on your mistakes, or on the contrary, too harsh and treat every small error as the end of the world. If you are trying to decide if it’s the right time to enter for the exam, being hard and marking every answer in doubt as wrong can be a better approach. If you see that you’ve made a mistake, but give yourself a point thinking “oh, but I knew that!” – have no illusion that someone will do it for you in the exam. 😉
Having said that, I also need to stress that no exam, even the highest-level ones, expect the candidates not to make any mistakes. Though, there are different kinds of mistakes, plus their number also plays a part in the assessment. This is also something that your teacher can explain to you. After all, you can get an idea of how easy or difficult the exam is for you doing a practice test, or a few of them on your own, but you can’t fully assess your abilities.
Whichever way of exam preparation you choose, remember that nobody can tell you exactly how much time you will need to prepare for an exam. It’s different for everybody, not only because some people learn faster than others, but also it depends on how much time you can spend learning / revising, and how much energy you’ll have for it, too. An hour of practice on a day when you’re relaxed will achieve incomparably more than an hour of studying after a busy, stressful day. Do you see what I mean?
Also, no teacher or examiner, however good and experienced they are, can tell you if you will pass the exam, let alone what grade or band you’re going to get. You may hear that based on your performance during the course your chances of passing are really high. Your teacher may also tell you that your coursework is worth grade A / band 9 etc., however that is no guarantee that you will perform to the same standard in the exam. While many people perform better in the comfort of their own classroom or writing compositions at home (not always sticking to the time limit), others get motivated by the exam pressure and achieve much better results than they did during the course.
If you would like to check if you are ready for an exam, you can schedule an assessment session with me. I will give you the materials to do on your beforehand (reading/reading and use of English, listening and writing), and in the session I will evaluate your speaking and discuss your performance in the parts you completed on your own.
Email me on: firstname.lastname@example.org