1. Introduction

You have 80 minutes to write two texts. The first text will always be an essay and should be 140-190 words long. The second text can be an article, informal email or letter, a formal email or letter, a report, or a review and should be 140-190 words.

The examiners give you a grade based on 4 things:

  • Content - Did you write what you were asked to write?
  • Communicative achievement - Was your writing too formal, too informal, or just right?
  • Organisation - Did you link paragraphs and sentences? Is there a logical flow from start to finish?
  • Language - Did you show off your sparkling vocabulary or did you use basic words? Did you make lots of grammar and spelling mistakes?

Your first step should be to read this article and get the free tool it mentions:


2. Time management

The two texts are worth equal points and have the same word lengths, so you should spend equal time on them. That gives you 40 minutes per text. Spend some of that time planning and some checking. For example:

  • Planning - 10 minutes
  • Writing - 25 minutes
  • Checking - 5 minutes

You might think that's too long for the planning stage, but the more you plan the fewer problems you will have later.


3. You can't cook without a recipe

Many of my students hate the planning stage and like to just start writing as soon as possible. But the finished product is normally not very good. Imagine a chef in a restaurant - does he go into the kitchen and start throwing vegetables into pans? No - he gets a recipe and follows the plan!

So, take a deep breath, think about what you have to write, what you want to write, and how you can write it.

You can even start to think about good words you know, and advanced sentences that you can include.

Example: Before I started writing this page I listed all the sub-headings. I knew how I would start, and how I would finish. It's much easier to write with the structure already prepared.


4. Content

Now let's look at what Cambridge cares about in your writing. The first point is the content itself. If you are asked to write a letter to your friend and you write a poem - well, it doesn't matter how good that poem is. Maybe you can write the best poem in the history of the world - the examiner will be impressed, and then give you zero points.

Here's a sample FCE writing task:

You have to write about pollution and the environment, and you have to include 3 points. 2 of those points must be transport, and rivers and seas. If you don't include transport you can't get full marks in the exam. If you don't write about damage to the environment, you can't get full marks.

READ THE TASK AND DO EXACTLY WHAT IT SAYS


5. Communicative Achievement

The next thing Cambridge wants is for you to show that you understand about tone. In the previous example, you were asked to write an essay for your English teacher. How formal should that be? You're not writing to a lawyer so you don't have to be super formal, but you aren't writing to your best friend, so you shouldn't be too casual.

For that essay, you should use a neutral or slightly formal style.

That means you need to study how to write in different ways. Spot the difference in tone in this extracts from letters:

1.

Yo, John,
Guess what? I bunked off school and tramped up and down the beach all day. Great fun! I found some nearly-fresh muffins in a box, so that was lunch sorted. Free food! Niiiiiice.

2.

Dear Mr and Mrs Biggins,
I regret to inform you that we have taken the decision to suspend Jack from school for the next week. Not only did he fail to come to school today, but we received a call that he had stolen a container of confectionery from a local business.

 

In short, try to make sure that what you write is appropriate for the person you are writing to.


6. Organisation

Cambridge love when you link sentences together with words like 'whereas' and 'however', and link paragraphs with phrases like 'Firstly, secondly'.

You must learn how to use these phrases if you want a good grade.

One easy way to get a higher score in 'organisation' is to ask a question, and then answer it.


7. Language

Your writing will be more interesting and you'll get a better grade if you can use a wide variety of language. Use high-level vocabulary when you know it; don't repeat the same word too many times; don't make too many mistakes; try to use a variety of grammar (not just 'subject verb object' all the time).

You will be rewarded if you learn (and use) some appropriate phrasal verbs, idioms, and collocations. Compare these sentences:

1. The food was good and the service was good and we had a good time.

2. The food was delicious, while the service was faultless. Did we have a good time? Absolutely!

I hope you agree that the second is much nicer to read. Is it much harder to write? Not really. And if you don't know the word 'faultless' you might know a different word that would fit. Even if you said 'good' again, the sentence would get you a much better score in FCE because the 'while' connects the first two parts and the question connects the last two.


8. FCE Essays

You have to write an essay, so this is the first thing you should learn to write. Essays are about giving information and your opinions, comparing and contrasting.

Title: Use a title at the top of your essay. The title should be interesting so that someone would want to read the article. Imagine two friends share a link on Facebook. Which are you more likely to click on?

1.

Why Pollution is Bad

2.

Climate Change is Fake, and Here's Why

Most people would click on the second one! You don't have to be so provocative in your essay, but do try to make it interesting.

Structure: Use the task as the structure. In the example from question 4, you could have these paragraphs:

  • Introduction
  • The Transport Pollution Problem
  • Pollution in Rivers and Seas
  • Pollution at Home
  • Conclusion

- Try to connect the title you have chosen with the conclusion. If you call your essay 'Climate Change is Fake!' you should end by saying 'and that's why climate change is not real.'

- You should write in a balanced way - don't only say that something is good or bad. Example:

'It's clear that pollution from cars is a big problem that should be looked at. The air in some cities is not fit for humans. But the car isn't totally a villain - it's also a symbol of freedom for many people. So we need a solution that lets people drive their cars, but without being too harmful. For example, electric cars let people get to work but are cleaner than diesel engines.'

- As a minimum, move from paragraph to paragraph by using phrases like 'firstly, secondly'. But try to learn some more advanced versions, too.

- There's more help in this article:


9. FCE Reports

Often, you'll be able to choose to write a report in part 2. The reader will usually be your teacher or a group you belong to. You have to give facts and make recommendations.

Example:

A group of English students is coming to your college. Your English teacher has asked you to write a report on one local tourist attraction. In your report you should 
  • describe the attraction
  • say what you can do there
  • explain why you think students would enjoy visiting it

If I were writing that, I'd use this structure:

(Title:) Report on Old Trafford Football Stadium
Introduction
The aim of this report is to describe Old Trafford and to say why it's the best destination for students who visit our college.
Old Trafford
(a description of the stadium, its history)
Activities
(what you can do there - the stadium tour, the gift shop, touch the magical grass)
Why It's Perfect for Visitors
(the tour is given in English so it's good practice, football is universally popular, it's great for taking photos)
Conclusion
For the reasons I have mentioned, I highly recommend visiting Old Trafford with the visiting students. I'm sure they will all have a great time.

10. FCE Reviews

Reviews are quite a good choice for part 2 because you've probaby read thousands of reviews in your own language - reviews of movies, video games, hotels and so on. So you should be quite familiar with the format.

The main skills you need are: describing things, explaining, and giving your opinions.

IMPORTANT - You are allowed to lie in the exam! I personally hate the movie Titanic, but I remember quite a lot about it. If I had the task of reviewing a movie I love, maybe I would choose Titanic. The story is clear in my head, I remember the names of the actors, the director and the theme song... I can pretend to like it if it helps me pass the exam...

- Like in the essay task, I encourage my students to use an interesting title. 'Titanic - Their Hearts Will Go On'.

- Use the question to help you structure your review.

- Go to the following link for more help:


11. FCE Articles

Articles in First Certificate are usually written for English magazines or newsletters. The main thing is to make your articles interesting to read, and to give your opinions on the topic.


11. Frequently Asked Questions

Q - Do I have to use British spelling?

A - No. You can use American spelling.

Q - How important is spelling and punctuation?

A - You aren't expected to be perfect, but if a mistake stops the reader from understanding what you want to say, that's quite bad.

Q - How important is the word count? What happens if I write too many words?

A - If you do the task properly you will write the correct number of words. You won't lose marks if you write 5 words too many. Focus on writing what you have to write, and the word count will take care of itself.

Don't waste time in the exam counting how many words you have written! 

Q - My handwriting is terrible! Will I lose points?

A - Just make sure a human can read it - if you are very messy, write a little bit slower. If you usually end up with lots of things crossed out - you need to plan better!


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