Exams are terrifying!

The big day is here and after all that studying and hard work, it’s finally time to show what you have learned. If you do well, you will receive that certificate you need for work or university – it could even change your life.

Cambridge exams test your Reading, Use of English, Writing, Listening and Speaking – and it is this last 15 minute Speaking paper that makes a lot of people very nervous indeed.The idea of talking English in front of two scary examiners and another student, is a big challenge.

Follow these six strategies and you’ll get the best possible mark in your speaking exam.


1. Make a good impression

Like everything in life, first impressions count. Come into the exam with a smile on your face, say hello to the interlocutor (the person who asks you the questions) and the assessor (the person who listens and assesses your English) and show them you want to be there.

Not only will they get a good feeling about you, but it’ll also put you in the right frame of mind once you get started.


2. Relax

There will be times during the exam when you will get lost, forget what you want to say or not know a particular word. Don’t worry! That’s completely normal, especially in an exam. Try not to get all hot and flustered. The more you panic the worse it’ll be.

Take a deep breath to control your breathing and if you are really stuck, move on to another part of the question or say something new. Remember that you are marked at the end of the exam on your overall performance, and one slip-up is not going to affect your global mark.

Other techniques to give you more thinking time include, asking for questions to be repeated, using set phrases such as, that’s a good question or in the collaborative parts asking your partner what their opinion is.


3. Be Natural

The more relaxed you are, the more natural you’ll be. Practising, under exam conditions, with someone who isn’t your teacher will help. Avoid memorising long lists of phrases or expressions. Although you need to be able to give your opinion, agree or disagree with ideas, talk about your preferences etc., be careful you don’t end up repeating the same thing over and over again. There’s also a good chance the examiners have probably already heard the same thing 100 times that morning.

This won’t show you have a good range of vocabulary which is essential if you are looking to get top marks.

Tips on how to pass the Cambridge speaking exam

4. Know the mark scheme

You may be surprised but you are assessed on much more than grammar and vocabulary. Although this is still important, it only makes up about 20% of your final score. You are also given a mark (out of 5) for:

Discourse management: producing relevant and clearly organised answers.

Pronunciation: including intonation, sentence and word stress and articulation of individual sounds.

Interactive communication: how you work with your partner and develop conversations.

Global achievement: how you do overall in the exam. This mark is given by the interlocutor and not the assessor.

It’s also useful to know that the examiners are marking you on what you can do – not what you can’t. So don’t worry if you make one or two silly mistakes. Instead try and show off your English by using complex language where possible.

The handbook for teachers provides lots more information about how the First and Advanced exams are marked. Although these are not designed specifically for students, they offer some practice exam questions and details about the mark scheme so they are definitely worth taking a look.


5. Choose your partner

One of the easiest ways to help you relax and get top marks for interactive communication is to do the exam with someone you know well. Ideally a person you have studied with. That way you can practice with each other before the exam and you will instinctively interact with them in a much more natural way.

Doing the exam with a friend is not 100% guaranteed, but if you request your partner in advance your Cambridge Exam Centre will do their best to accommodate you and schedule you for the same speaking slot. If this doesn’t happen, don’t panic! Just do what you always do and you’ll be fine!

Also remember in the second half of the exam you are also supposed to be having a conversation. Don’t take it in turns to speak like an interview, but think of it as a chat you’re having with a friend. Listen to what they say, comment and expand on their views, ask them for further information and don’t feel bad about interrupting them.


6. Help each other

Remember your partner is probably going to be as nervous as you are. If you see them struggling, jump in and help them out when possible. If they forget a word which you know – remind them, if they don’t know what to say – take control and tell them what you think and ask if they agree. This will impress the examiners and you never know they might do the same for you if you get stuck.

This is even more relevant if you end in a group of three. Although this is fairly unlikely, it is possible. You are given more time in each part, but it’s easy for one or two students to take control and not let the third get a fair chance. If you notice this happening try and make sure everyone is included by directing the conversation towards them.

Glossary for Language Learners


Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

ramble (v): talk or write at length in a confused or inconsequential way.

mark (n): a judgment, expressed as a number or letter, about the quality of an exam or piece of work.

frame of mind (exp): mental attitude, outlook or mood.

flustered (adj): to be in an agitated or confused state.

slip-up (n): a small or unimportant mistake.

end up (pv): to eventually become or do.

show off (pv): to show or display something you are proud of.

instinctively (adv): to do something without thinking about it.

panic (n): a sudden overwhelming feeling of terror or anxiety.

to struggle (v): to find something difficult.


n = noun

exp = expression

adj = adjective

pv = phrasal verb

adv = adverb

v = verb

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