If you’re looking for advice on how to pass a foreign language exam at beginner, intermediate or advanced level, you’re in the right place.
This is the second in a three part series on language exams in general and it’s packed with essential tips you won’t want to miss. If you’re still unsure whether it makes sense for you to do an exam at all, first check out part one: “Foreign language exams for adult learners: for and against“.
I’ll draw on my recent experience of intermediate and advanced Russian and German exams but the top tips below focus on exam skills and tactics across the board, whatever your language, whatever your level.
My Russian exams were within the ToRFL/TRKI exam framework. The German one were from the Goethe-Institut.
Other such “official” exams include: the CIEF French exams DELF and DALF (French), the English IELTS (English), the Mandarin HSK exams, the WJEC Welsh exams, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, the PLDA or CILS Italian exams, the CAPLE Portuguese exams, the TOPIC Korean exams or the DELE Spanish ones.
Most offer exams from beginner to advanced. Those for European languages use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL). Most test across all four skills (reading, listening, speaking and writing).
Lots of the tips below could also be highly relevant if you are doing language exams aimed more at high school or college students. I did school a school external exams in French (“O-level” the old externally moderated exams sat at 16, which subsequently morphed into GSCE) and old Prüfung zum Nachweis deutsche Sprachkentnisse (which I needed as a foreigner to matriculate at Heidelberg University).
Let’s dive in.
1. Know your level across all four skills
To pass a foreign language exam, you obviously can’t just rely on skills and tactics.
That’s the last part of the puzzle.
First, you need to have your wider skills up to the requisite level.
If you have recently completed a course or a lower exam, you may already have a good idea of your strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise, are you really clear how good you currently are?
Otherwise, I’d really encourage you to get as thorough an assessment before you start exam preparation. What you need is a nuanced picture across the four skills.
An objective view, if anything, gets more and more important the higher up the scale you get (unless you’ve already done the exam one lower than your target).
One of the secrets of success in language learning is let becoming a speaker of the language develop into part of your identity. The danger is, though, that the further in you go – and the more effort you’ve put in over the years – the more your ego gets in the way.
Truth is, whether you want to admit it to yourself or not, you’re probably stronger in some skills than others. I had long been functionally fluent in German and Russian but I was much weaker at writing both lingos. I already knew that, but the “warts and all” assessments confirmed it.
Unlike me, some people feel better at writing than speaking. Others may be good at speaking but lag in listening skills.
Just get clear where you really stand, preferably with reference against one of the recognised yardsticks, such as the CEFRL or a US equivalent like the Interagency Language Roundtable scale.
How can you get a language level assessment?
The easiest way is to take an online automated test. All the better if it’s from your examining body. For German, there are tests from the Goethe-Institut London, for example.
UK branches of Institute Français and the Alliance Français have a joint site where you can check your level in listening, reading and grammar. You can then follow up with a 10 minute oral assessment by phone. It’s all free The Alliance Français has something similar at many of its centres worldwide. In New York, the French Institute/Alliance Français has an online test, with a follow-up phone assessment:
The most thorough option is a full-scale face-to-face assessment.
Before I started working towards my German exam, I had one at the Goethe-Institut in London. I went there for a multi-choice written and listening test and then a ten or fifteen minute one-to-one discussion with an assessor. It cost £10 which would be deducted from the cost of a course.
I very thorough assessment at the Russian Language Centre in London before they entered me for the TRKI Second Certificate and, the following year, Third Certificate exams. Again there was a fee, but this was deducted from the exam fee.
Check whether an exam provider has similar tests near you in your target language.
I’m lucky in that I live in a metropolis. If you don’t have a large language institute near you, you may find that a local langauge school offers level assessment. Otherwise, you could ask an on-line teacher to evaluate your ability. Find somebody on italki, for example.
Once you have an objective sense of your level, you can consider whether you want to aim to pass an exam your current level. That was essentially my approach with my Russian TRKI second certificate, where I was trying to bringing up any weaker skill, writing. Or, you can really stretch yourself and shoot for the stars.
There is something to be said for both approaches. I guess it comes down to when you can (or need) to take the exam, what you want it for and your personality.
Either way, if first you spend some time evaluating your level, you can decide from a position of knowledge and then prepare accordingly.
2. Know the format
Find out as much as you can about the format of the exam. How many papers are there? What type of questions are asked? What’s the length of reading passages and the required writing What are the listening and speaking sections like? Are there specific topic themes?
Don’t rely on descriptions in textbooks or third-party websites (even this one). They’re a great starting point, but they may be out of date.
Usually the current details can be checked on the website of the examining body, where you may well find model papers and even additional past papers.
For example, for French, the Centre international d’études pédagogiques makes available its DELF A1 to B2 exams and its DALF C1 and C2.
The Welsh Joint Education Committee, which sets the exams for Welsh, has past papers (among other very helpful resources) on its website.
On the basis of the official info, get to know the rubric of your exam backwards.
The substance of the questions will change each time, but the layout and type of question is likely to be pretty fixed.
For example for the Goethe C1 writing you may get a bar chart of statistics. One of these in the modal paper is showing the types of free time activities that young people like, contrasting the sexes.
You can’t predict the questions, but you can see patterns when you look over past papers.
With the Goethe C1 “chart” question, for example, you are often asked to make some general comments on the result, compare with your own country and to state your own personal position/preferences.
In the Russian TRKI elementary model paper, you have to write a short letter covering basic facts such as who you are, where you’re from, how old you are.
Let that such examples inform your preparation, but don’t get too narrow.
You should be so familiar with the format that all you have to do in the examination hall is to check that there are no surprises…. Do make sure to check – last-minute changes can always happen.
That happened in my Russian TRKI third certificate writing paper. The short third question in the model paper (and the textbooks I’d found) was the 50 to 70 word “fax”, formulated on the basis of a text. When I re-sat the paper for the second time, the familiar old fax had, without warning, became an email.
The Russian exams are something of an atypical outlier. It’s difficult to find much information on them and some of the information you find can be contradictory or out of date. Whatever your language, if you have any doubts, be sure to double and triple check the format from different sources.
3. Discover what the examiners are looking for
Now let’s move from “what” to “how”. That’s what we could call the “deep format” of the exam.
Within the strict rubrics of reading and listening tests, the what is wanted is usually clear on the very surface, even if it takes a lot of practice.
For the writing and oral parts, though, you have to produce.
The thing is, with production, you have extra freedom to get it wrong at a whole new level 😉
They probably want a fairly standard linguistic register – not high formality but not street speak and slang either.
Essay writing examiners often like to see a clear structure (intro, development of topic, conclusion).
How do you find this out?
Check any model and past exam papers as they may be some help not just as to format but as to how the question is to be answered.
In the Goethe C1 model paper, the instructions to the essay option on “Youth free time” say that “among other things” the examiners will take into consideration whether you have covered all the five required areas, how correct you write and how good sentences and sections are linked together from a language perspective.
If they are available, official notes for teachers and markers can offer a valuable insight into the deep format. Of course, since they’ll likely as not be in the target language, they may not be comprehensible to you if you’re still at the lower levels.
The obvious answer is to ask your teacher (and, if the teacher doesn’t know, ask them to find out for you).
As regards format in general, remember that not all teachers will have much experience with exams and untrained tutors or exchange partners will probably have even less. You may have to take the lead and be proactive, or try to find a more experienced teacher if you are not confident about checking out the rubric and what’s required for yourself.
Goethe-Institut published notes for examiners (“Prüfungsziele/Testbeschreibung”).
The A1 notes include useful examples of student answers to the thrity word letter question in the writing exam.
Those for C1 have a useful example of a student’s answer to the essay question on “Youth free time” with a commentary on its strengths and weaknesses according to the marking criteria (p41-42)
Another great resource for getting a sense of what you’re aiming for are vidoes of oral exams.
The Goethe-Institut has them up on its website.
So does the WJEC for Welsh (here, at upper elementary or “A2” level):
Books written specifically to prepare candiates for your exam may also be available.
For the most popular languages, such as German, there are various books avaiable at each level.
I used Deutsche Prüfungstraining Goethe-Zertifikat C1 by Gabi Baier and Roland Dittrich (Cornelsen Verlag, 2015). They give practical tips. On the bar chart essay they say: “you should not describe the statisics in detail, rather bring out and summarise trends, developments and frequency of occurance from the content” (p. 79).
4. Practise the tasks you’ll be tested on
We’ve already mentioned model papers (and real papers from previous years), which you may be able to find on the website of your exam board.
There are several years’ past papers from WJEC, for example.
You can also find papers in specialist exam preparation books, such as Baier and Dittirch for German C1. My general German textbook (Mittelpunkt) also had a full mock paper at the back.
There were far few materials for Russian, but the Zlatoust’ publishing house does publish a books for some levels which contain a couple of mock papers, with CDs and answers.
If you’re short of questions, try making up your own questions for essays and answer them following the required format. If one of the tasks is to write a precis of a text or summarise it, you can find texts of similar length and complexity to practise on.
Have it all your written work corrected by a teacher or other competent person. You’ll learn so much from your own mistakes….if you allow yourself the time to make enough of them.
5. Practise timing and plan your time out in the exam room
Timing is not an issue with the oral or the listening. In reading an writing test, though, the “auld enemy” is the clock.
How the marks are allocated may vary (see next section) First and foremost, though, you have to try to finish all the tasks. It’s no use crafting pristine earlier answers if you don’t even get round to the later ones.
Way before the exam, start practising the format under timed conditions. Be strict. Use a stop watch.
Once you get into the exam room, you should jot down at what time you need to have finished each task.
If you have a two hour exam with three questions, the first thing you should do after they start the clock ticking is to write down what time it has to be when you’ve finished the first question, when you have to move from two to three…..
The examiners may have provided some guidance with this. In the Russian TRKI third certificate written exam, the written instructions suggest that you spend 30 minutes on the essay, 25 minutes on the informal letter and 20 minutes on the fax/email.
My TRKI second certficiate grammar and lexis paper required me to answer a staggering 150 mainly multiple choice questions in 90 mins.
That’s – as I’m sure you’d already worked out – just thirty-six seconds per question.
At TRKI 3 level, things eased off a bit (no doubt in recognition of my advancing years), with a mere 100 questions in 90 mins. That’s a leisurely fifty-four seconds per question.
Given that I wanted some time left to check over all those answers, in practice I needed to move faster. The point is: there would be no sense in “getting stuck” for two or three minutes on any particular question, as each one is only worth a small fraction of the total.
I aimed to do the task in 80 minutes, to give me ten minutes checking time.
The first thing I did when we turned over the paper at, say, 11 o’clock, was to draw a line at the half way and quarter points. I needed to have completed question 50 at 11:40, forty minutes in, Q25 at 11:20 and Q75 at 12:00.
My main task was to keep up with this “timeable”, regardless.
Generally, the freer the rubric and the fewer the tasks, the more chance you’ll lose your grip on timing, so write down those milestone times before you start scribbling.
6. Effort should follow the marks
Think about how the marks cookie crumbles first at the level of the whole exam.
Is the pass mark a simple percentage or (more likely) do you have to pass a mininum threshold in each skill?
When I first sat the TRKI third certificate my results were writing 57%, listening: 80%, speaking: 82%, grammar and vocab: 77%, reading: 72%. This gave me a solid enough souding 73.6% overall result.
Very interesting, Gareth, but, we stopped listening when we saw your writing result. To pass the TRKI-3 you need to score at least 66% in all five parts. Next candidate, please.
Drilling down to within each “section” of the exam: are the marks for a task allocated to reflect certain priorities?
In the oral exam, for example, is fluency more important than accuracy or is it better to speak a bit slower but more carefully?
Are points deducted for mistakes in written work?
Will you be marked down for an essay or letter that’s too short. Ditto if it’s too long?
Try to find all this out way before the exam date and let it inform your preparation.
Don’t forget to think about the interplay of timing and marks as well.
Don’t dwell on questions that carry relatively few marks.
There would be no sense in scratching my head for two or three minutes over a single question in the TRKI third certificate grammar and lexis paper.
Each one is only worth 1/150th of the marks.
In the TRKI third certificate writing (second time round), the last question I did was the “email”. It was rushed. It was rough and ready. Still, it was finished.
I had to be finished because, in this paper, each question carries a third of the marks.
That little ol’ 50 to 70 word email, based on a text already in front of me, was worth as much as the 200 word essay I had to produce from scratch.
A key issue in written skills papers is the length limit. It’s where format, timing and mark allocation intersect.
Even if you are not directly penalised for going over length, there are two potential downsides to an over-long answer:
First, assuming that the examiners don’t just stop reading at the word limit, you are creating more scope for mistakes. If the examiners do just stop reading at the word you may still be penalised, this time for poor structure. They might not be allowed to credit your clincher conclusion or that neat ending to your letter.
Second, you’re by writing too much, you’re gobbling up time. That’s time you could be spending on the other questions and checking your work.
7. Think tactically about answer order
In an oral or listening exam, you probably won’t have any choice about answer order. Them there questions are coming at you in real time!
What about when you’re given a paper with all the questions at the beginning of a reading or writing exam, though?
They may be numbered 1, 2, 3, but – hey! – don’t be a conformist stick-in-the-mud! Whatever happened to your individualistic spirit of rebellion?
Thing is: nobody’s actually dictating which order you answer.
Don’t be afraid to shake things up a bit if it makes tactical sense to you.
On my first attempt at TRKI third certificate writing paper, I wrote the answers in numerical order: Q1 informal letter (discussing the contents of a 400 word artice); Q2 fax (abbreviating a 300 to 350 word official communication) and then, you guessed it, Q3 200 word essay (you’re given the topic in a bald sentence or two with guidance of what to cover).
For essay you have no thus have text to work with in front of you. It requires the most creativity both in language and content. For this reason it’s the most likely to fall apart if time is very short.
Time, as I should have predicted from my endless (unsuccessful) practice against the clock, was very short. With hindsight, not so clever, eh?
The following year when I retook the writing, I’d thought about it a bit more in advance.
I started with question 3, the essay, got it done on time. That’s good for the nerves.
I even had time to check the essay through (and catch several mistakes). That’s good for the nerves, too.
Then I did the letter (I my view, second most difficult). As planned in advance, the last question I did was the fax/email.
I knew from my previous year’s experience, and from my futher extensive practice runs, that I was likely to be short of time as the exam progressed.
As I’d feared, by the time I got to my third answer, I was almost as short of time as I had been the previous year. So much for several extra months solid practice 🙁
However, this time, instead of a 150 to 200 word composition, I only had to produce 50 to 70 words with much more prescription.
That was MUCH easier to dash off, which is what happened.
Yes, the email was rushed but, crucially, it was finished. It had to be done becauase it carried one third of the marks.
8. “Production” should be level-appropriate but not over complicated
When reading and listening, you’re just a consumer. In writing and speaking, you’re a creator.
Don’t, however, let it go to your head. Keep your handywork clear and simple.
Of course, when writing at the higher levels, baby steps won’t cut it. You must be level appropriate.
As part of that “deep format”, some sophistication may be required. When writing, you may be expected to use connectors and longer sentences, for example. Yes, you may pick up marks for using more complex structures such as participles. If, that is, you use them correctly.
We saw that in relation to the Goethe C1 essay (“Bei der Beurteillung wird u.a. daraufgeachtet….wie gut Sätze und Abschnitte sprachlich miteinander verknüpft sind.”). The TRKI third certificate notes for teachers has a similar stipulation.
So, show what you can do. Just don’t overdo it.
Don’t tie yourself in knots with over long and needlessly complex sentences.
This is emphatically not the time for creative experiment.
Try and stick with language as you’ve seen it used.
One aspect of this is to use familiar chunks of language or collocations (conventional combinations of words like “stand an exam” (sefyll arholiad – the Welsh equivalent of English “sit and exam”).
If in doubt – leave it out.
Another trick is to have stock phrases fitting the format, as I did for Russian. Learn how to top and tail the email. For the essay, practice set linking phrases (“first it is important to consider”…. “a final point that deserves to be mentioned is…”) and words to open the conclusion.
If your textbooks is oriented towards exams at your level, you’ll may well find that it’s plugging such phrases. Pay attention. Work with your teacher to practise them.
To my mind, when you’re speaking errors stand out less when you’re speaking.
Still, some of same considerations are still relevant.
Get the tone right. Don’t be overly colloquial. Don’t be vulgar (obviously).
At the higher levels, don’t try rhetorical flourishes and don’t try cracking jokes.
At the lower levels, you’re hardly likely to succumb to such a temptation.
More of a risk here could be overdoing the pre-learned phrases at the expense of spontaneity. You don’t want to end up sounding like a parrot, having learned stock answers.
That happened to the sixteen year-old me in my school French exam. I suspect it would have been better if I’d gone for something more genuine, mistakes, pauses and all.
9. Involve the examiners – be friendly
Pass a foreign language exam by being nice? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Still, the oral exam is the one time when you’re in a two-way live interaction with your very examiner.
Remember: examiners are people too.
More than that, they’re generally nice people dedicated to education. People who could have made much more money if they’d thought “what the heck” and gone off and done something – in fact, almost anything – else.
In general, the examiners will want to pass people if they possibly can (without compromising standards or being unfair to other candidates).
You must read the situation carefully, but there can sometimes be a place for a bit of less formal chat. That certainly lightened things towards the end of my Goethe C1 exam when it turned out that one of the examiners (like me) had studied at Heidelberg. Then the other one asked us why we weren’t doing C2 exam instead of the C1 (they hadn’t seen my written work!).
What’s that, “asked us”? Well, you see, the Goethe C1 oral format is that you are examined with another candidate (you have to debate together).
So, I also had another candidate to worry about.
It’s natural to be nervous. Try and be human as well, though.
Subject to the expectations of your target culture, get the body language right, be open and communicative. If you’re not sure you may be able to paraphrase: “so are you saying…..?” If you’re asked to argue a case, can you say things like “I don’t know whether you’d agree but I think…” What do you think?
10. Check your work
Do try to leave time to read through and check your written answers (answers to reading or multi-choice written grammar and vocab, writing skills tests themselves).
You will make silly slips in the heat of the moment. A read through is not a “nice to have”. It’s essential.
It’s a lot easier said than done, I know. In neither of my attempts at the TRKI third certificate writing did I have enough time to check the final answer properly. Second time round, I caught numerous slips when checking the fist two questions, though.
Checking your work may make that difference between whether you pass a foreign langauge exam or fail.
BONUS TIP: Enjoy the thrill of the chase!
If you’ve read this far, you’ve got what it takes to do really well at the big task of preparing for a language exam. It may feel like a slog at time, but don’t forget to enjoy the thrill of the chase! It can also be hugely stimulating and rewarding.
The sittings itself is an occasion. It’s exciting. You’re pitting your skills against the world, just like any other sophisticated, learned task under pressure: walking a tightrope, climbing a rock face, playing an instrument in front of an audience or advocating in court or clinching a sale.
At least, that’s on a good day.
If you’re the sort of person who suffers from exam nerves, the whole thing may simply fill you with dread.
If so, try to follow the tips above to remove the objective sources of worry (and let me know in the comments below if you have any more issue or tips that I haven’t covered).