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English Examinations
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The page is not intended to give English teachers or examiners material to argue about… it is designed to give information about the different major English examinations which can be taken, along with an objective assessment of
    - the relative levels of different examinations (including Common European Framework or ‘CEF’ equivalence)
    - the approximate COST of the different exams
    - where, when and how frequently they can be taken
    - the potential VALUE (or ‘currency’) to you of each of the qualifications
1. Do I need to do an English exam?

You only need to do an exam if your boss or school or parents (etc.) say you must. But there can also be good reasons for doing one, even if you haven't got the pressure of need.

  • If you're doing an English course, why not do an exam at the end of it? There will be no better time (see Question 2, below)
  • "A bit of paper" (that is, a certificate) can always be useful. You never know what's going to happen in your career.
  • Motivation. Many people find that the feeling that they have to pass a test gives them greater motivation to work. If you think this is true for you, don't hesitate: the money you spend on entering and doing the exam will be money very well spent, even if you don't pass it. If it has helped you to ‘buy’ motivation, it’s worth it!

    2. Are there any good reasons for not doing exams?

    Yes, there can be good reasons for saying that you don't want to do an exam:
  • Some people are not motivated by the idea of doing an exam - it has the opposite effect.
  • Some people are motivated at the thought of doing an exam, but more by nervousness than excitement. Being nervous is not the best condition for learning a language.
  • There can be a difference between knowing English well and being able to do well in an exam in it. And some exams are better than others: with the good exams, if you know English well you will do well in the exam; with the bad ones, knowing how to do the exam is more important than knowing English. The more time you spend learning exam techniques, the less time you spend learning the English you're going to need in real life!

    3. When is the best time to do an exam?

    If you have only time to do one exam, it’s definitely best to take it at the end of your English course, and it's best to do it while you are still in an English-speaking country. It's not that you forget your English when you go home, but an exam which includes speaking or listening tests (most exams include listening) will be much easier if you do it while you are still hearing English every day.

    4. Do I need to follow an exam course?

    Yes, it's a good idea, but be careful! Some exam courses have a very narrow focus, and if these are long courses they are often bad even for the one job they are trying to do well - getting you through the exam. One problem is that a continuous diet of test exercises is easy and comforting: it's easy because there are many things you don't have to think about (for example in a test of grammar you don't usually have to worry about difficult vocabulary) and it's comforting because you concentrate, so you feel you are working hard.

    But the ease and comfort are - unfortunately - not really helping you to develop your language in the complex, demanding ways you need to be fluent and accurate in a wide range of communicative situations.

    Another problem is that too much practice at a limited range of tasks makes you bored in the end, and being bored is the very worst condition for learning language well. It's natural to want more confidence in doing the kinds of questions you have to answer, but if you spend too much time getting that confidence you are taking time away from learning really useful English (which is useful in exams too!)

    For an exam preparation course of 6 weeks or longer, you need a programme which will give you a good ‘diet’ of general English, with only a little exam work at first, intensifying as the exam gets nearer.

    If you are doing a short preparation course, however (say, for just the two or three weeks before an exam) then you obviously need a much higher proportion of intensive practice - but even then some general English is a good idea.

    In any preparation for an exam, never lose sight of the basic truth: Good English + a little Exam Technique has far more chance of success than Poor English + a lot of Exam Technique

    5. Which are the best exams to do?

    There is only one factor which really matters when making this choice: let's call it "currency" or "value". This simply means that the certificate or 'score' you get when you pass an exam must have value where you want to use it. So the first thing is to find out which exams have the best "currency value" in the country you want to work or study in, for the kinds of things you want to do.

    By James Rogers
    Severnvale Academy