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Cambridge B2 First: Everything you need to know

When I moved to Spain I found that there are a lot of English schools and I started wondering why. What I found out is really interesting. Many parents send their children to get extra lessons because at secondary school classes are pretty bad. The teachers are not properly qualified and the children don’t learn as much as they could. On top of that, several states in Spain are changing the law and students have to show B2 level in a second language to graduate from university. Therefore, Cambridge B2 First has become more and more important, not only in Spain, but in many countries in the world. Have a look at this search map for the search term ‘FCE’ which I found online. You can see that people almost everywhere are interested in the exam.

World map with countries looking searching for 'FCE' online highlighted

Source: Google Trends

In this article, I’m going to show you what passing the FCE exam means, who should take the exam, who shouldn’t, what the exam looks like and how you can find a preparation centre close to you. This is the perfect place for you to get started if you want to find out more about Cambridge tests like B2 First or if you have already decided that you need to take the exam.

To find general information and motivation to improve your English, check out my other articles here.

What does B2 stand for?

B2 is a level on the CEFR scale designed by the Council of Europe. CEFR is an international framework that describes different English levels and what someone at this level is able to do in that language. In short, B2 means that you are an independent user of the language so you can live in foreign country without the need for much help. First of all, though, let’s have a look at the CEFR to make everything a little bit clearer (You can click here to get more information:

Illustration of CEFR language levels
Source: Council of Europe

You can see that B2 is already a pretty high level, but it is often not clear what exactly a student at A2, B2 or C1 can actually do in their second language. To understand the skills that a student at B2 level possesses we can check again with the Council of Europe:

Descriptors of B2 Level according to the Council of Europe
Source: Council of Europe

This is a detailed description of the the different skills reading, speaking, writing and listening at level B2. If you think you can do all of these things without too many problems, you might be able to take the Cambridge B2 First exam with some preparation soon. However, if you don’t think your skills are good enough, yet, you should probably wait a little longer and join classes to get you to the right level before thinking about taking the FCE exam.

If you would like to get the same information in your native language, you can click here.

Should you take Cambridge B2 First?

The FCE exam is very useful in many countries around the world and it can help you to get higher education or better employment. As a result, it has become more and more popular to take the exam in order to stand out from the crowd. Here are some specific reasons why you should take the B2 First:

1. University

If you live in a part of the world where you need to show proof of B2 level in a second language to get a  university degree, then, of course, you should do it. In so many different industries and areas, for example marketing and advertising, film and music, communication, information technology and many more, English is still the number-one language in the world. Studying English from an early age and taking Cambridge B2 First can be a big advantage if you want to go to university and, later, get a good job, which leads us to the next reason.

2. Employment

As described above, English can help you obtain a university degree and with higher education come better job opportunities. However, a second language can help even in jobs which don’t require university level education. In our globalised world more and more companies do business abroad and need employees with a good level of English or other second languages. The FCE exam is proof that you have level of English which you can easily communicate in. If I had to choose who to hire for my transportation and logistics company, I would definitely check language abilities. So, if you are looking to improve your career prospects, then yes, take Cambridge B2 First.

3. Challenge yourself

Many people want to see the world, go travelling and meet new people in the process. Others want to be able to watch American or English films in the original version without having to use subtitles or voice over. The FCE exam can be a challenge to prove to yourself that your English is good enough to survive in another country, to enjoy English-speaking art forms or to do whatever else you want to use English for. Taking an exam can be a goal to work towards and to stay motivated and, therefore, push yourself to make progress continuously. If you are one of those people, then, again, take Cambridge B2 First and show the world and yourself how good you are.

Image of a roaring lion - Prove to the world who's the king of the jungle
Prove to the world who’s the king of the jungle

Why you shouldn’t take the exam

Even though it is a great idea for many people to take Cambridge B2 First, there are also a few reasons not to take it. Let’s have a look at what these are:

1. Your English level

Many people have experience with exams even before they decide to take FCE. At school, university, work or even for your driving licence you need to pass some kind of test before you get what you want. Unfortunately, it is possible to squeeze through many of those tests and barely pass, and as they say, ‘A good horse jumps only as high as it needs to’.

With Cambridge B2 First this is definitely not the case. I have seen a lot of students who, after speaking to me, didn’t take my advice and ended up unhappy with their results. To pass you almost have to be too good for the level. The exam is exhausting, difficult and really tests your English level. If you are not a true B2 level English student with the right strategies, you won’t pass.

For this reason, don’t take the test if you are not sure about your level or if your teacher advises against it. It will be in your best interest.

2. It is simply not important enough to you

If you read this article you probably don’t fall into this group, but some people study English simply for pleasure and without any higher goals. They don’t need or want to challenge themselves too much, but instead enjoy the learning experience and study at their own pace. They might be studying English to be able to order food when they are on holidays or have a conversation with their son or daughter-in-law from the US.

I have absolutely no problem with this group of English students because very often they are more relaxed and enjoy the little success stories more than others. Taking an exam like B2 First, however is probably not the right thing for them. First of all, the exam is not cheap (more about that later) and the stress level is pretty high.

So, for all my casual English students out there, don’t worry about FCE too much. Enjoy the English journey as much as possible and good luck. :). For all the others, keep reading.

What does Cambridge B2 First look like?

Cambridge B2 First is an exam that tests the four language skills reading, writing, listening and speaking as well as grammar and vocabulary. It is broken up in four papers which I’m going to describe below:

1. Reading & Use of English

In the past the two parts were separate, but with the last FCE update in 2015 students take them together in one exam paper. In this part of the exam students have to show how well they can control different grammar and vocabulary and also deal with a variety of texts, for example newspaper articles, magazines or fiction.

There are seven parts to Reading & Use of English for which you have 75 minutes to complete. The time limit is one of the biggest reasons why many students have problems here as you get around 10 minutes for each task. You have to read quite a lot in a short time (ca. 2,200 words) so you have to be ready. Because this paper includes Reading AND Use of English it counts for 40% of your final mark.

The different parts of the Reading & Use of English paper

Now, let me give you a very quick overview of what the different parts are like. If you want to see an example exam, you can download it from the official Cambridge website here.

  • Part 1: Multiple choice cloze (A cloze is a text with gaps.). You have to fill in eight gaps by choosing from options A, B, C or D. This part tests your vocabulary, especially collocations, and phrasal verbs.
  • Part 2: Open cloze. In this part you have to fill in eight gaps in a text again, but you don’t get any options. You decide what the missing word must be. This part focusses more on grammar and some vocabulary.
  • Part 3: Word formation. You get a text with eight gaps. For each gap you get one word which you have to change so the grammar and meaning fit in the sentence. Here you have to show how well you know word families and if you can change words by using prefixes and suffixes.
  • Part 4: Key word transformation. Here you see one complete sentence and a second sentence with a gap. You have to fill in the gap so the two sentences have the same or a very similar meaning. You have to use between 2-5 words in the gap and you get one word which you have to use in the gap, but you must not change the word.
  • Part 5: Multiple choice. You read a text and answer six multiple-choice questions. The focus in this task is on many different reading skills like gist, detailed reading, the opinion of the author, etc.
  • Part 6: Gapped text. You read a text in which six sentences are missing. You have to put one sentence in each gap. However, there are seven sentences to choose from. In this part you have to show that you can find information which connects the text with the removed sentences.
  • Part 7: Multiple matching. You get a text which is broken up in 4-6 parts and ten questions. Your task is to match each question to the part that gives you the answer to the question. The focus is on reading for detailed information.

2. Writing

The challenge in the FCE writing paper is that you have to write quite a lot in a fairly short time. There are two parts and you get 80 minutes to complete them, which means that you have around 40 minutes for each writing task.

The first task is always an essay and the second one a choice from three options. Possible types of writing tasks in the second part are articles, reports, reviews, emails or letters.

Each writing task has to be between 140-190 words long, which makes 280-380 words in total. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but there are also specific requirements for each task. Students have to show that they can answer complex questions, choose the correct layout, use appropriate language, organise their text in a logical way and show a wide range of grammar and vocabulary.

For me, writing is one of the best papers in Cambridge B2 First to get good marks. You can find lots of example tasks online and practise each one of them until your fingers bleed and you run out of ink in your pens.

Quick note: If you need some writing motivation, check out this article and if you want to see an example, you can download it here from the Cambridge website (no virus, I promise).

3. Listening

The listening paper in Cambridge B2 First is another difficult one that quite a few students hate. The problem, however, is not so much the level of difficulty itself, but rather the fact that you listen for 35-40 minutes without breaks. For a lot of people it can be exhausting and with time, attention and focus become more and more difficult to keep up.

In the FCE listening test there are four parts. Each part is a little bit different in what kind of recording you listen to and what exactly you have to do and, as with the other parts, you can have a look at an example by clicking here. You listen to each recording twice so you don’t have to panic if you can’t hear an answer during the first round.

The different parts of the Listening paper

  • Part 1: Multiple choice. Students listen to eight short (35-45 seconds), unrelated recordings. For each recording there is one question with options A, B and C to choose from. The focus is on many different listening skills like gist, detail, opinions and agreement of the speakers, etc.
  • Part 2: Sentence completion. You listen to one person speaking for 3-4 minutes. You get 10 sentences with gaps and you have to fill in the gaps with 1-3 words that you hear in the recording. Here you have to listen for specific information and detail.
  • Part 3: Multiple matching. Probably the most difficult listening task. You hear five speakers talking independently about the same topic (ca. 30 seconds each). You have to match each speaker to a statement. Be careful, there are eight statements to choose from, but you can use only one of them for each speaker.
  •  Part 4: Multiple choice. Another multiple-choice activity. This time you listen to a conversation or interview between two people (3-4 minutes) and you have to answer 7 questions by choosing from options A, B or C. In this task you listen for gist, specific information, detail, opinions and general attitudes.

4. Speaking

The fourth and last part of Cambridge B2 First is speaking. In my opinion, the speaking exam, like writing, is another good way to get a lot of marks as it is always the same structure. This means that you can practise a lot to become better quickly and feel confident and relaxed on the day of the exam.

The FCE speaking paper is done in pairs or groups of three and takes around 14-15 minutes in total. In some parts you speak alone, but in others you interact with your partner(s). There are two examiners in the room with you – one is the interlocutor (That’s the person who asks you all the questions) and the other one stays in the background and takes a lot of notes to make sure that you get the right marks.

The different parts of the Speaking paper

Let me quickly explain to you what the differences between the four parts are:

  • Part 1: A conversation between the interlocutor and each candidate (spoken questions). The questions in this part ask you for general information about yourself like your home town, you hobbies, likes and dislikes, etc. This part is great way to warm up and get started and it only takes about 1 minute per student.
  • Part 2: Long turn for each candidate and a response from the other candidate. Each student gets a pair of photographs. You have to compare the photos and answer a question about them. Also, you have to briefly answer a question about your partner’s photos. Time: 1 minute to talk about your questions and ca. 30 seconds for the question about your partner’s pictures. 
  • Part 3: A conversation between the candidates. You and your partner(s) get a task with visual help to discuss and then you have to make a decision based on your discussion. You have to show that you can give your opinion, show (dis)agreement with your partner(s) and interact in an appropriate way. For the discussion part you have 2 minutes (pairs) or 3 minutes (groups). The decision part is 1 minute long for pairs and groups alike.
  • Part 4: A discussion related to Part 3 (spoken questions). The interlocutor gives you questions to discuss which are about the same topic as in Part 3. You have to show that you can support your opinion with reasons and examples, express (dis)agreement in an appropriate way and speculate about things that you are not sure about.

There are a lot of example speaking exams online for free. You can watch them on YouTube to get a good idea of how it all works. Here’s one for you:

For tips on how to improve your speaking and great ways to practise, read my article here.

Are there other B2 First exams?

There are two more FCE exams which are very similar to the traditional one. The papers are the same, but they might have different content or a different mode of delivery.

1. B2 First for Schools

This version of the exam is basically the same as the one described in this article. The only difference is that the contents for preparation and in the exam itself are more suitable for teenagers and schoolchildren. You can find more information on Cambridge B2 First for Schools here.

2. B2 First (computer-based)

For a few years now Cambridge English has been offering the B2 First exam in a paper-based and a computer-based version. The contents are exactly the same, but the delivery method is obviously different. Have a look at this tutorial video to see what the computer-based version looks like so you can make an informed decision.

Where can I find a test centre for B2 First?

There are a lot of centres all over the world where you can sign up for the exam and also book classes to prepare. Very often these centres have something in the window or on their website that identifies them as an official preparation centre:

Image of the ad used by Cambridge Preparation Centres

These schools usually offer good-quality classes to get you ready for the exam, but do your research in your area and ask the schools what their classes look like. Many schools offer free trials where you can have a look and see if you like it or not.

On the official website of Cambridge English there is also a search tool to find test centres for Cambridge B2 First in your area. Click here to get to their site.

Enjoy the journey

I know that this is a lot of information, but Cambridge B2 First (FCE) is an important exam for many people. If you decide to go on this journey and prepare for it, you need all the information you can get. I wish you all the best and success.

Lots of love,

Teacher Phill 🙂

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