CPE Exam Tips (or How to Pass Proficiency)

So you've nailed Advanced and now you're thinking of doing Proficiency? I get mails from lots of students in the same boat as you, all asking if I plan to do a website about CPE.

Short answer - no! It's just waaay too much time.

But I thought I'd make a page where I burp out a few of my top tips for the CPE exam.

Proficiency is Hard

If you thought going from FCE to CAE was hard you're going to HATE going from CAE to CPE. It's tough. Open a CPE coursebook - there's not a lot of grammar in there - you're supposed to pretty much know everything already.

This is the one I use with my CPE students - click the link below the picture if you want to buy it. (It's the edition with the answers in the back AND the class CDs.)


If your grammar isn't rock solid, go and buy Destination C1 and work through it. (It's also great for vocabulary, but if you don't have 6 months to prepare just do the grammar units.)

What you do get with Objective Proficiency is tons of vocabulary exercises. Dependent prepositions, phrasal verbs, idioms - oh, lordy! Hundreds of high-level new words. You'd better buy some flashcards.

As you'd expect, the reading texts are longer, and the listening texts are harder and faster.

That all leads us to the first, most important tip:

Surround yourself with English.
Create a little English bubble that you can live in at least a few hours a week. Make an English-speaking friend. Load up your phone with podcasts. And most of all, READ ALL THE TIME. Read the news in English, read The New Yorker, read The Economist. Read Reddit and 9Gag.

Oh, and important tip 2: Activate new vocab
All those words you're learning? USE them. Get words from your passive vocabulary into your active vocabulary. Use it or lose it, baby!

Now some tips for each section, the most important being the speaking test.

CPE Speaking Test Tips

Part 1

No mystery here - it's the same as in CAE but with higher expectations. The questions are a bit more varied, too.

  • Do you think people will still go to the cinema in 10 years' time?
  • If you could afford to, would you take a trip in space?

If you do a CPE course in a school, all the random questions that are in each unit of the coursebook are actually preparation for this part of the exam, so take those 'chats' seriously. If you don't plan to go to lessons, consider buying a few hours of lessons with a qualified English teacher via Skype. You can get lessons with great teachers for 10 to 20 dollars an hour. Affordable and useful.

Click on that box to learn more.

Part 2

This is like the collaborative task in CAE. As such, there are lots of the same skills needed - speculating, negotiating, comparing, agreeing and disagreeing etc. NOT describing the pictures.

It's also still important to take turns, to be a good listener, and to make sure you follow the task. Phrases like 'shall we talk about the next picture?' are still relevant. Anything that helps you manage the discussion.

You know, like you'd do in your own language.

Part 3

This is a bit different from what you're used to doing at CAE. You have to talk about a topic - on your own - for TWO MINUTES.


Here's an example task. Could you talk intelligently about this for 120 seconds?

What makes a product a best seller?

  • advertising
  • peer pressure
  • design


  1. Practice, practice, practice!
  2. Develop a strategy that will let you talk for 2 minutes in a coherent way. I created a structure for the BEC Higher exam that you could adapt. The (free) PDF is in this link.
  3. When your speaking test partner is talking, don't speak. DO listen - you'll have to join the discussion.
  4. You get 10 seconds to gather your thoughts before you have to start talking. Use them.
  5. You aren't expected to be an expert in the topic. Take the example above about why products become best sellers. You don't need to be familiar with Robert Cialdini's seminal book Influence, but even if you've never thought about that topic before you can talk about why you and your friends buy things. Make it personal and it'll be easier.
  6. The task you are given includes three bullet points. They are to help you get started but you don't have to use them.
  7. In the follow-up to the mini-presentations, when the examiner asks you some questions you can and should discuss them with your partner. The only time you shouldn't talk to your partner is when one of you is giving the mini-presentation.

There is some really annoying music in the following video but she has some good tips. Her accent is great, by the way. It took me a while to realise she wasn't a native speaker.

CPE Reading Test Tips

  • Read as much as you can.
  • Read as many different types of writing as you can - some academic, some informal, some business etc.
  • Slowly increase the length of the texts you read.
  • Stop using your bilingual dictionary - it's time to start using English-English dictionaries (if you haven't already).
  • You have to train your comprehension skills much more than in CAE. You have to understand what writers are trying to communicate. Any activity where you read a text then discuss it will be very helpful.
  • Highlight sections of texts and show them to your English teacher or a native speaker friend. Tell the teacher what you think the writer is trying to achieve. If you are in Mongolia or somewhere with no native English speakers for millions of miles, there are online communities where people will help you. Try r/English on Reddit.

CPE Use of English Tips

  • You'll recognise parts 1, 2, and 4 as harder versions of what you did at CAE. All the tips on this site still apply, though you'll need to develop more strategies of your own since I don't really cover C2 stuff here.
  • Part 3 used to be in CAE so if you have access to some old CAE books you can practice at an easier level before trying the CPE level ones. You have to put one word in three sentences without changing the word. You'll need to know phrasal verbs, collocations, and idioms.
  • Part 5 is new and different. It would need loads of my time to explain how it works - I'd recommend you try it a few times on your own then get one of the teachers with CPE experience on italki to discuss your answers with you.

CPE Writing Tips

  • The main differences with CAE is that you have 2 hours and have to write 300-350 words - that's going to be quite exhausting if you don't practice. You really need to write on a regular basis.
  • Apart from that, it's quite similar to CAE. You just need to be more accurate with your grammar and blow the examiners away with your vocabulary.
  • If you're doing a course in a school, take risks in your writing - use all the new phrases you can. Some of them won't work - you'll use them in an unnatural way. But before the exam is exactly the right time to try. You'll learn what does work in the safety of a language school, and by the time of the exam you'll have a repertoire of sexy phrases at your disposal.

CPE Listening Tips

  • The first 3 parts are just like in CAE - but tougher, faster - perhaps with accents you're not used to hearing. Can you guess what my advice will be? Listen to English all the time! Different topics, different voices.
  • Part 4 is a new one. Cambridge call it 'three-way multiple matching'. There's a man and a woman talking and you have to say if the man thinks something, or the woman, or both.
  • You need to practice how tone affects what someone is saying. If the woman says something and the man replies, 'yes, you could be right' - his tone will give you information about what he really thinks. Does he say YES, you could be right or yes, you COULD be right. (That's just a simplistic example.)
  • Listening to people agree or disagree will be helpful. Maybe some political debates? Or on Britain's Got Talent - do all the judges like the performance? What phrases do they use to show what they think? Oh! Or the interview episode on The Apprentice. That's always AMAZING. I love it.

All right, that was already much more than I planned to write. I might come back and add tips from time to time, but that's all for now.


Basically you need to do MORE of EVERYTHING.


The official Cambridge Handbook includes a description of every section of the test, a practice exam, and guidance for teachers (which students are allowed to read!). Clicking the button will open it as a PDF (it's free).