ProTips and Tricks for taking English exams

While most people want to learn a language due to their need to communicate with their peers and colleagues, or to discover a fun traveling destination, it is also true that for entering some companies and institutions it is advantageous, and often required, to hold some sort of language certification that assures your proficiency in it.

We here at Travel2Language are no strangers to taking Language Level certification exams, in English and other languages as well, and we are quite adept at preparing our students to ace them. And all of them have succeeded! So, some of our students have requested our advice on the best practices for taking these standardized exams.

So, here are our best tips and tricks on how to best take a language exam successfully, and achieve outstanding top marks!!

PROTIP #1: Study for the focus of your particular exam.

This one might sound obvious, but the reality is that not all exams are designed equally, or with the same focus in mind. In particular, English certification exams do NOT focus on your grammar knowledge, but in your ability to speak, read, write and listen to text scripts and conversations. In contrast, Spanish certification exams pay a lot more attention to your grammar skills and vocabulary. So study accordingly!!

The two best known English certification exams are the TOEFL and the Cambridge exams.

The TOEFL is particularly focused on academic circumstances, texts and vocabulary, since it is mostly used for entering Universities and higher learning institutions in the United States and Canada. This exam does not have a defined passing grade for each skill. Each institution decides which is the minimum score they accept, but since this test is so focused on learning institutions, the topics of the questions tend to be much more academic and technical.

The Cambridge exams, on the other hand, are used more by the European community to certify a certain level of English proficiency, according to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). Each level is achieved by taking and passing its own unique test, or determined by the resulting score of the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam. These tests are decidedly more focused on mundane, everyday conversation and circumstances, but do get progressively more difficult, and some of the content found on the C1 and C2 level tests take a good bit of literary knowledge. Reading is key.


I can’t stress this one enough. Read. A lot. As much as you can. Make it a daily habit if possible. Watching movies and TV series in your desired language IS NOT ENOUGH.

The reason is very simple: writers and journalists are the language professionals. Their very livelihood depends on the correct use of words, sentences and correct phrasing. They do this for their whole careers, day in and day out. On top of it, they have to deal with editors and literary critics, no matter what the subject matter, and so everything must be written to perfection.

TV and movies focus too much on dialogue which must be fast and relatively simple in order to deliver a story swiftly in 30 to 60 minutes. Anyone who has read a book and then watched the film can tell you how much content must be left out in order to produce a reasonable-length film.

So, in summary: read books, novels, newspapers and their websites, magazines, academic publications, articles and professional bloggers. On any and all topics. All of them can offer expressions, made phrases, idioms, everyday and specialized vocabulary. And all of this, in its proper context. There is NO BETTER WAY TO IMPROVE YOUR LEVEL than to read regularly. Scout’s honor.

PROTIP #3: Make good use of the Practice Tests.

Once you decide to book your test, the examining institution usually provides you with at least one practice test in order to familiarize you with the kind of questions you can expect to come across during the actual exam. Don’t disregard this free test. It’s perhaps the closest you will come to the actual test itself. Practice with it and time yourself. Remember: all language level tests have a limited time for each section.

Now, training with a single practice test is not quite good enough. You will quickly learn the answers and it will loose its effectiveness. Try and and find more practice material in the institution’s website, which usually provides more free training material.

And for very best results, book a few sessions with your friendly Language teacher (wink, wink). They are well equipped with several specialized books and the knowledge of helping many previous students to successfully pass their tests. On top of it, they can help you with the more difficult vocabulary and put it in context for you.

PROTIP # 4: Rest properly before the exam.

Take this one very seriously. No partying, no drinking, no last-minute study binges, no all-nighters.

A comprehensive language exam like a TOEFL or IELTS is a very long, intense experience. Both take AT LEAST four hours to complete. Having all your mental resources and clarity available during the test is critical. So do yourself a favor and relax. The day prior to the exam, sleep properly and enough. That way, at crunch time, you will be alert and fresh, with all your hard-learned vocabulary right at your disposal.

By the way, studies show that one of the actual functions of sleep is to organize the information learned during the previous day. If you get enough sleep after a good study session, chances are you will retain that knowledge quite a bit letter.

So grab your teddy, take a glass of hot milk and go to La la land. You will face that test the next day on your best shape.

PROTIP # 5: During the test, Don’t leave any questions blank.

So it’s D-Day. Do or Die (not literally, of course…). You did your best and now you find yourself in the middle of the test. You are doing just fine when suddenly, the test throws you a curve ball. Something you’ve never seen before. What do you do?

Number one is to skip that question and immediately continue. Remember the last Tip. Time is not your friend in this one. HOWEVER… Don’t forget you left a blank question behind.

Unlike some other exams, language tests don’t penalize you if you get an answer wrong. So, when you finally reach the end of that particular section of the exam (DO NOT LEAVE THEM FOR THE END!!!!! YOU CAN NOT GO BACK!!!), return and take your best guess.

That’s right. Guess.

In my teaching experience, many of my students managed to get a question right just by eyeballing it. And that’s one more correct answer in your favor.

What happens if you get it wrong? Nothing. You didn’t know it anyways, remember? But trying to guess the answer will increase your chances just that tiny bit more.

Some final recommendations worth mentioning are to take a good pencil, eraser and sharpener with you. Nowadays, these tests are taken on computers, but you never know if your testing facility is equipped with them. Not all of them are. And standardized tests require the use of graphite lead pencils. Old-school like.

And needless to say, any cheating attempts will be met with immediate failure and removal from the premises. No refunds. So don’t even try it.

Have any thoughts? Comments? Stories you would like to share of your exam experiences? Or simply want to brag? Leave us your thoughts!!

Hope these tips help you get through your exam day successfully! Good luck!!

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