Top tips for passing the FCE (First Certificate in English)

If you’re planning to take the Cambridge First Certificate in English, it’s not only your level of English that’s important. Understanding the exam itself and knowing how to tackle each of the papers is crucial for success. Below are our top tips for passing the FCE. For a thorough course of exam preparation, look no further than our special MyEnglishLab Cambridge First.

**** Top tips for passing the FCE – general ****

  1. Familiarise yourself with the structure and timing of the exam. An ideal way to do this is to work through practice exams at home, making sure you time yourself accordingly. You can find some examples here.
  2. Understand exactly what is being tested in each part of the exam. Is it vocabulary, grammar, collocation, the ability to paraphrase, the ability to find detailed information in a text, the ability to understand a text more generally? Knowing this will help you devise strategies for passing.
  3. Never leave an answer blank. In the FCE, as with other Cambridge Exams, you don’t lose marks for wrong answers (there’s no negative marking), so even if you really don’t know what the answer to a particular question might be, it’s always best to guess – you might just get it right!
  4. Remember that you’re not expected to understand every single word you read or hear. The FCE tests your language skills as well as your language level – for example, understanding meaning from context or the ability to paraphrase – therefore it has to be challenging.
  5. Don’t panic if there’s a text about an unfamiliar topic. Again, the exam is testing your language skills, not your general knowledge. Even if you nothing about, say, alternative medicine, birds, or rugby, with the necessary level or English and good exam skills, you’ll be able to complete the tasks.

**** Top tips for passing the FCE, paper by paper ****


FCE English examMultiple-choice cloze – this tests vocabulary, including phrasal verbs, collocations, linking words and dependent prepositions

  • Read the text first, ignoring the gaps, in order to have a general understanding of it.
  • Pay close attention to the words before and after the gaps.
  • When you’ve finished, read through the text with your answers to check that it makes good sense.

Open cloze – this part tests grammar, so the words you need to fill the gaps will be prepositions, auxiliary and modal verbs, conjunctions, articles, quantifiers, pronouns and so on. Follow steps (a) to (c) above.

Word formation – this tests vocabulary

  • Read the whole text through first to get a general understanding of it.
  • Work out which part of speech you need of the gap (e.g., adjective, adverb)
  • Bear in mind that you might need to make more than one change. For example:

He’s so rude and _____________. FRIEND  > unfriendly

Key word transformations – this tests your ability to paraphrase

  • don’t change the key word
  • only use between 2 and 5 words
  • make sure you keep the meaning the same.

Remember, correct spelling is important in this part of the exam.


  • Before answering the questions, read the text quickly to get a general understanding of it.
  • Remember that you’re not expected to understand every single word in the text. Where possible, try to quickly work out the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context, but don’t waste time.
  • Make sure you read both the questions and the options and underline key words and phrases. The questions often include words or phrases that are important in choosing the correct answer.
  • Be careful of distractors – words or phrases that might lead you to choose the wrong answer. They are not there to trick you but to ensure you are paying attention to the whole text and not just looking for words that match between the questions and the text.


  • FCE English examYou have to write an essay and also one of the following: a formal or an informal letter, a review, a report or a short story. Each of these is a distinct kind of text and will require a particular kind of language, so bear in mind:
  1. who you are writing to (a friend, a company, a magazine etc.)
  2. what you are trying to do (get information, tell a story, express your opinions, etc.)
  3. how the text should be organised (for example, essays need titles, formal letters use set phrases, essays require an introduction, two or three main paragraphs and a conclusion, etc.)
  4. which register you need (formal, informal, descriptive, factual etc.)
  • Make sure you include all the points in the instructions.
  • Don’t repeat the input language. Use your own words!
  • Obey the word limit!


  • In the time you have before each recording begins, quickly read through the questions and options and underline key words and phrases.
  • In the Sentence Completion task, try to predict what kind of information you will be listening for, e.g. a name, a number, an amount of time, a type of activity.
  • As with the Reading paper (see above), be careful of distractors.


The speaking paper has 4 parts and is done with another candidate.

Part 1 (Interview) – Here you answer simple questions about your job or studies, your hometown, you hobbies and so on. Make sure you extend your answers.

Part 2 (long turn) – Here you are given two pictures and asked to contrast them and answer a question about them. Say what they have in common and what the differences are, then answer the question. Don’t describe them!

Part 3 (collaborative task) – Here both candidates are given a task (for example, choosing ways for a local café to attract more customers) and some written prompts (e.g. showing live football, having an international food menu and so on). It’s important to interact well with your partner, making sure you work together to complete the task using language to express opinions, respond to suggestions, show agreement and disagreement etc.

Part 4 (Discussion) – Here you will have the chance to show that you can discuss the issues and ideas from Part 3 in more depth. Make sure you give full, extensive answers to the examiner’s questions.

You can find out more about the FCE exam here and top tips for other exams here.

Related articles:

– Top tips for passing the CAE (Cambridge Advanced English)

– 7 tips for English exams to help you prepare

– 10 best practices for tackling English language exams

– PTE, TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, Cambridge exams… Which English exams should I choose?

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