049 What is the FCE exam?

What is the First Certificate in English Exam?

Welcome back to another episode of the Art of Business English. This week I am joined by my colleague and friend Abel El Haddad and we discuss the Cambridge First Certificate in English exam. What it is, who is it for, where it is accepted and how it works.

If you have every wondered what the Cambridge First Certificate Exam is and why you should consider adding it to your curriculum then today you will love our interview. You can listen or what our unscripted live interview.

If you’re an AOBE premium member then login to download the episode transcript and get a special discount code to our confidence in FCE online course.

Episode transcript


AA: Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the Art of Business English. My name's Andrew Ambrosius and today I'm joined with Abel, a colleague of mine who will be helping me on today's episode. Hello, Abel. How are you, buddy?

Abel: Hello. Thank you. It's a pleasure being here.

AA:  Yeah. It's great to have you on finally. So, Abel and I've worked together for quite a few years now. It's a pleasure having him here on the first episode. Now, today's episode is basically a shameless plug for our new course entitled Confidence in FCE. However, what we're going to be doing is explaining to you what the FCE course or what the FCE, sorry, exam is. Go into detail describing why you should consider getting this exam if you don't already have it.

And from there, we'll also be looking at how the exam works. Some of the parts that you need to cover. Then, we'll basically explain, outline, the Confidence in FCE course.

Now, before we start, I would like to just get a little introduction done here by Abel. So, Abel, can you share with the audience a little bit about who you are and just give us a bit of an introduction?

Abel: Sure. First of all, I'd like to introduce myself. My name's Abel Al Haddad. I've been working for Castells Immerscom for three years now as a full-time teacher. Before that, I had done different jobs. Actually I've been working as a teacher either part time or full time for over 20 years now. I got my degree in linguistics in 1994 and ever since I've been teaching English either to students who would prepare for international official exams, namely FCE, CAE, proficiency, TOEFL, SAT among others.

Also, I've been teaching business English as I have experience when it comes to business and this actually started early in 2001 when I was working in Belgium as a manager of a telecommunications company. I also had the chance to complete a certificate in the management of switch platforms and that was actually in Belgium.

And after that, I came to Spain at the end of 2001 to actually found my company and to start a similar business here. So, I worked as a manager and owner and of my own company for eight years. After that, I went abroad and served as a finance director in another company. Then, I came back and actually, I decided to work as a full time teacher. And my choice of [inaudible 00:03:18] was based on my conviction of actually the school reputation in the town I'm living in and also, of the policy and the philosophy of the school.

AA: Okay. And well, as you can see, Abel's got massive amount of experience in a wide range of areas, which really for me is a benefit and something that we really look for in our trainers here at Castells Immerscom. Now, what we're going to start with is we're going to basically look at what is the FCE? I mean, maybe you've heard people talk about it. What is this FCE? If you are in Europe or particularly listening here in Spain, then I'm sure you know what the First Certificate in English exam is or you've definitely heard of it.

Maybe if you're listening from South America, could be an exam that you really haven't heard of before or maybe you don't really have many notions about what it is if you have heard of it. In South America, maybe it's more popular SAT, IELTS. Yeah.

Abel: Yeah.

AA: But I mean, IE:TS for example is a Cambridge exam. So, it's in the same realm as the First Certificate. We're not going to look at IELTS today. We want to focus on the First Certificate. Basically, let's start with what is the FCE? Abel, would you like to just a quick little outline?

Abel: Actually, the FCE, which is an abbreviation for the First Certificate in English is a B2 level test that allows students or people who have this certificate actually to independently work in English speaking countries or those who want to study on courses in English, mainly in the UK or English speaking countries.

AA: Yeah.

Abel: But because it's a Cambridge exam, it's mostly recognized here in Europe and actually, the B2 level allows students to have this effective communication, expressing opinions, presenting arguments, actually, effectively. Also, it allows students, actually to write in detail about their opinions and explain the disadvantages and advantages of different topics. Also, it gives the chance because it's an important language school to students to have the ability to write live reports, articles, reviews and letters in English without any problem.

AA: Yeah. So, basically, when we say B2 level, we're talking about the European common framework for languages. So, if you are here in Europe, there's a scale where we rank courses according to levels. So, B2 is like an upper intermediate level of English. What we'd like to point out though is that if you are starting out in the world or the work world you're going to need the B2 level as minimum for your curriculum to be even considered in the selection process.

So, the First Certificate Exam for us is really important starting point and it's recognized as the minimum level that you need if you want to start out in the working world or if you need to go to university, if you're taking a course where English will be taught or if some of the subjects are taught in English, you definitely need to have this upper intermediate level of English to start from.

Now, what is it ... Sorry, where is it accepted? And what is it for? That's the next part we're going to look at. So, where is it generally accepted, the First Certificate Exam?

Abel: The First Certificate Exam I would say is accepted in most European countries including in Australia. But I would say that this FCE exam or certificate I would say because that's what you get when you take the exam is a very good criterion for not only schools, but also companies to test your proficiency in English and make sure you have this B2 level.

AA: Yeah. That's very important to point out. Nowadays, a lot of companies particularly in Spain here, they will use the certificate, the First Certificate as the first pass or first step as recognition of a certain level. What's important to note is that the First Certificate Exam does not expire. So, you may have got the exam in maybe 1990, so the certificate is still valid. However, you do need to maintain your English level because if you are applying for jobs and you do have the First Certificate, but you did get it 10 years ago, then maybe the company would expect you to do some other test just to confirm that you do have a good level.

But what's important to note is that it's generally used as a guide or as the first indication of English level. So, if your curriculum doesn't really have any certificate, so no First Certificate, no Advanced Certificate, it's going to be quite difficult for you to have your curriculum considered for a job application.

Now, the next thing I wanted to look at was who is it for? Or what is it for? So, we did mention that it's for indicating that you have this upper intermediate level English. Who is it for? Well, nowadays, especially here in Europe, it's necessary for most people to have some form of certification that shows their English level, particularly if English is not your first language or particularly if you're working in international companies.

As you know, English is the language of business now and here, particularly in Spain, people who need the First Certificate are people who are applying or graduating from university. There is certain requirement for ... this is a thing that's in process at the moment so I need to clarify it. However, the government is going to be putting into place that all students in order for them to graduate from their university degree, they will need to show that they have got the B2 level. So, it's quite important for graduating university. This exam is relevant for university students.

But not only that, it's really important for people who are going into the work place as well because nowadays jobs in Europe are quite ... how can we say? They're not domestic anymore. You're going internationally. You're going between countries. So, the candidates that are applying for jobs maybe are no longer just based in Spain. Maybe you are applying for a job in a multinational company and the candidates could be coming from all over Europe. So, it's quite important that you are able to demonstrate early on in the process, but namely in your curriculum, that you do have a minimum level of English because you will be competing against other candidates.

Nowadays many curriculums are put to one side in the descartar or the no pile if the candidate doesn't have this minimum level of English. So, I would say and correct me if I'm wrong, Abel, that the First Certificate nowadays is essential for most people who are either graduating from university, moving into the workforce and it's also important for older people as well. Because I've had some clients who are in their 40s, just to give an example, and they need not necessarily to show that they have the certificate. The certificate helps. But in order for them to be promoted internally within their company they need to have an upper intermediate to advanced level of English.

Now, it's incredibly important that nowadays 80% of jobs that are mid-tier and when we say mid-tier to directorship, we mean middle management positions to director positions, 80% of those positions in Spain require a First Certificate or higher or advanced certificate level of English. It's really important not just for younger generation. It's becoming more important for the older generation, particularly if they want to be promoted within their company. It's much easier to start and obtain this level when you're younger.

A lot of the customers who've come to me or clients or students who have come to me who are a bit older, they're really struggling and they're really suffering because they've got the experience in the business. They've got the knowledge. They've got the technical ability. They know the industry. They know their clients. They know what they need to do. They're the perfect candidate for the promotion, but they're missing this one important piece, which is this fluency or this ability to operate internationally using English.

So, the First Certificate Exam pretty much is for anyone who requires an upper intermediate heading towards advanced level of English, which nowadays, is practically the minimum that you need. Would you like to add anything?

Abel: Yeah, I just would like to add the fact that in Spain, for example, having the FCE has become a requirement by the Ministry of Education. Before you graduate, before you get your degree, you're obligated to have the FCE. Maybe not for all the degrees, but I would say for most degrees. Another thing is that when it comes to the workplace, because we are living in a globalized world and business has become globalized, a lot of employees find themselves in the obligation to get for example official certificates to be promoted.

In the past, for example, it was just a plus to have the ability to speak foreign languages, but now it's almost a requirement. And I would say it's a requirement, must be a requirement in some companies for employees to be promoted within their businesses.

AA: Yeah. That's where I've come from my experience. Okay. Great. We've covered what is the First Certificate. We've looked at where it's accepted and what is it for. Let's have a look now at what is tested on this exam. The structure. How it works.

Abel: Yeah. Well, the FCE consists of four different parts. The first part namely the written use of English tests the candidate in grammar or grammatical structure. And then, in reading. Then, we have listening that consists of four parts. The main reason is that it tests the candidate in listening skills. The third part is writing. Writing consists of two parts. The candidate should demonstrate a certain ability to write effectively about a topic where they can present the advantages and disadvantages of something.

AA: Let's look at part one.

Abel: Yeah. That's namely part one, which is part three.

AA: Yeah. Part one is compulsory. They did change the exam. In 2015, they made some changes to it. What they've done is they've made the compulsory part of the writing an essay. So, it's like an argumentative piece of writing where you need to clearly present an argument, an opinion piece and back up and support your opinion and your argument with evidence and examples. So, it's quite technical writing and very, very useful, particularly for students who are moving onto university.

So, we really put a lot of focus here at Castel's Immerse Com on this part of the exam because we think it's extremely important. And what about part two?

Abel: Part two consists of different options. You could be asked to write a report, a review, an article or a letter. And the letter or an email, could be formal or informal. And I think this is so important for the candidate to learn as a writing skill because either at university or in the workplace will be one of their needs.

AA: Let's just put that into perspective. I can see, now, when you're young you don't really see how these skills can be applied to your work. But for example, nowadays, many people need to promote their website. You've got a website. You want it to be positioned well in the search engines of Google, for example. One of the easiest ways, I mean it's not the fastest ways, but one of the best ways to position your website is to produce really compelling content.

So, how do we do that? We write an article on a blog post about something that's very helpful. So, it's really important that you can write a compelling article that is engaging and really gives value to your customer or your potential client. This is going to help you rank better in Google. Secondly, a report. I mean, every job, every employer requires their employees to report and provide reports on specific things that have happened in the company or which may be happening in the future.

So, it's really important that people or particularly younger students as they're moving to the workplace are able to effectively write a report. Emailing is of course incredibly important. The number of companies and people that I've coached and worked with, their email writing is quite poor. I mean, they are doing their best and they've taken a lot of comments or a lot of expressions and they've pooled them and they've tried to learn them through experience, but they put them together in emails and sometimes, it really is a miracle and a wonder that the other person understands clearly what the person requires.

Now, remember, the written word can be very powerful, but it can also be very destructive. So, if you're really effective at writing emails that are clear and concise, then you can get people to take action and there is less room for mistakes or margin for error. So, it's really important that you are effective at writing emails. On the other hand, if you're writing poor emails which are very unclear, really poorly structured, it's going to be very difficult for you to effectively communicate with your international or colleagues in the business.

Some jobs, if you're an engineer or if you're working on projects, if you're a designer, some of the topics that you need to [inaudible 00:18:53] or some of the changes that you need to explain via email can be quite technical in nature and what I've often found is that because people are worried about their English level, they prefer to communicate via email. They try and avoid phone calls. So, what actually happens is you're losing productivity. You're wasting time because it takes you a lot longer in many cases to write an email, especially if you're not native, it takes you a lot longer to write an email and then, clarify the email because you're making many mistakes or the email isn't clear.

These ten emails that were sent probably could have been clarified or cleared up or explained in a two or three minute phone call. So, it's really important that we are effective at communicating via email.

So, those are some examples of how powerful these parts of the exam can be in the real world practice. Just to digress for a second, there are seven parts in the reading and use of English, which you mentioned earlier. Parts one to four, they do test you on primarily grammar aspects of English language. You do have to read, but you don't need to understand lots of things like suffixes, prefixes, prepositions after verbs, phrasal verbs, collocations, fixed expressions, which if you're a common ... or if you listen to this podcast frequently or regularly, you'll notice that we do work a lot on collocations and expressions.

Then, parts five, six and seven of the reading and use of English are focused primarily on the reading aspect. So, you really need to understand how to analyze text, go through, extract key ideas and information. So, that's really good and effective skills that can then be used later in your working life, for example. If you need to find the answer or solution to a problem, where are you going to go? You're going to go to Google. You're going to search for articles or things like that and you're going to try to find the answer.

And to do that, you need to be able to quickly read through an article and extract the main information because most of us don't have time to sit and read full articles just to find the answer to a small problem. So, lots of the skills that we're learning in this exam are transferable to different areas within your working life.

Now, Abel, let's just have a look at the next part. We need to move on. What's the next part? We've looked at the reading and use, the listening and the writing. The speaking, of course.

Abel:  Yeah. The speaking is the last part that consists of four different parts, too. So, the first part is called the interview where the candidate is asked about personal issues like their hobbies, their studies, work, et cetera. This part aims at making the candidate feel more confident and a little bit calm because it's the beginning of the exam.

Then, when it comes to part two, the candidate is to talk about two photos, to compare two photos and then, answer a question about them. The aim behind this part is just to test the candidate on the way they talk or describe for example different settings through of course pictures in this part.

And then, part three, which is called the collaborative task is the part where you have five different topics or prompts related to one question and together with your partner you need to talk about these topics in relation to the question.

AA: Yeah.

Abel: Again, you need to demonstrate a certain ability that you're interactive, that you don't dominate the talk, that you give margin for your partner to express their opinions. It's one of the things I like about the way the FCE test is organized and when it comes to part four, that we call the discussion part, it's related to part three because the topic of discussion is always the same as the topic dealt with in part three.

But here, the examiner or the interlocutor asks direct questions and then, the candidate starts discussing these questions. Another point I would like to add when it comes to writing is that students, our students in this school, for example, are taught apart from the way they need for example to write an essay, a report, an article, et cetera, they are taught to adopt a very good way to polish their drafts before they opt for the final draft.

AA: Yeah.

Abel: How does this happen? I would just say that as examiners when we mark any kind of writing we take into consideration four different criteria that are so vital when it comes to marking any kind of writing.

So, the first criterion is called organization and this is so important because it shows or it teaches the student how they should write an argumentative essay. How they should write a report. Because we do not offer only language skills, but we also offer organizational skills, so that if later either at university or in the workplace, they are asked to write reports, articles or essays, for instance, they know the layout for the organization of each of these writing.

And the second criterion that they should take into consideration is called communicative achievement. This means that while writing they need to achieve some kind of coherence and cohesion so that any reader can follow their piece of writing either formal or informal without any confusion or ambiguity.

Then, there is another criterion, which is content and by content, it's simply meant whether or not all the questions are answered because sometimes the question might be tricky. It might seem to be just one question, but actually it includes or it embeds another question. So, they need to make sure that they have covered all the points they need to deal with.

The last criterion that is of vital importance, too, is called language. So, here we have two points to take into consideration. First, register. So, they need to adopt the right style. If they have to write an essay, for example, they need to know that an essay is a piece of formal text and they need to adopt formal writing or formal register. And when it comes to the second point, it's to do with accuracy and by accuracy, I mean grammatical structure. Whether or not they have problems with word order, sentence construction, the use of linking words and phrases, punctuation, spelling, among others.

AA: Yeah. Okay. Very clear. Good. Alright. So, I guess everyone's got a pretty good idea now, or we hope you've got a pretty good idea now of the different parts of the exam. Alright. I think the next point I wanted to talk about was why should you get it. I think we've pretty much made that clear.

I mean, you should consider getting the First Certificate Exam if you wanted to be moving onto university or if you're wanting to finish your degree and if you're wanting to move into the workplace or get promoted within your current workplace or if you're looking to transition into different positions.

Now, remember, maybe if you're working somewhere that is in a small company where only Spanish is required, then it's not going to be as relevant, but as soon as you start moving into other positions and definitely, moving into that middle management area, that's when you're really going to need to demonstrate that you've got the English language ability.

Now, this could be a bit scary, but you're going to have to start because at some point as the world becomes more and more globalized and as companies become more international, you're going to need to have your English level quite polished. So, we encourage anyone who really thinks that they will be working in these types of jobs in the future or if they're going to be moving into the workplace, if you're younger or if you're looking to get promoted within your company, especially if you're looking at working for multinational companies.

Then, there's the whole range of people who maybe just like English. They have a love for languages. They want to be able to travel easily. If you love traveling, if you love to go to exotic countries, everywhere you go, you're going to need English to get by comfortably unless you're in South America where you can get by in your Spanish or if you're in southern America where most people speak ... Well, no actually. If you're in New York, people speak Spanish everywhere.

But if you want to travel through Asia, if you're looking to travel around Europe, you're definitely going to need English to help make that trip easier. So, let's wrap things up. I just wanted to ... bit of a shameless plug now and explain the course, the Confidence in FCE course.

Basically, Abel and I have been spending the good part of a year, a lot of work. We've spent a good part of the year developing the course, online course called Confidence in FCE. And basically, we've combined our experience, as Abel mentioned earlier, he's been working as a teacher in many capacities for the past 20 years. I've been working as a teacher, trainer and coach as well for the past 10 years. So, together, the two of us have got a wealth of knowledge.

And what we want to do is we want to share that knowledge and try and help as many people as possible. To do that we've put our heads together. We've gone deep into the material that we have and all the resources and our experience over the years. We've put together this course called Confidence in FCE. This course will be covering all of the parts of the exam.

The course itself is divided into 25 modules. So, we look at every single individual part of the exam. So, the seven parts of the reading, use of English. The four parts of the listening. Two parts of the writing. But not only that, we look at how to write all the individual pieces of writing. We look at the four parts of the speaking, et cetera. We've got tips for how to do the exam on the day. And leading up to the exam, some tips.

We've got a lot of material, as well. A lot of resources. We've got over 200 exercises and resources for you to do and practice the different parts of the exam. We've got 56 instructional videos in the course. So, Abel and I have put together 56 live videos where you can go through and be taught all the different steps and all of the ways that you can tackle each part of the exam.

We've got about four, I think in total there are four complete, full, official exams. So, once you've done those 200 exercises and gone through those 200 resources, you can then polish and practice at the end doing official exams. And we've also got ... we've got two different forms of this course. One is a complete 100% online self taught course where you can go through. You can participate in forums with colleagues and ask questions, obviously there is some personal tuition there.

The other form of the course is that you join the course, you self study and then, you join a weekly live coaching and training session, which we hold here every week. Basically, anyone from anywhere in the world can log in and ask the trainer what your questions are, any doubts you've got and we'll be explaining grammar and different parts of the exam and going into more detail. And that's a great way to follow the course as well.

Each session is recorded. So, if you are unable to make a session because you're busy, then we upload that to our learning platform, which is also a wonderful masterpiece of technology. It's a great platform. Well organized. Beautiful in its layout and design. Really easy to follow. You just go through the different parts. One after the other. But as it's self study, you can do the parts that interest you the most first and you don't need to start at the beginning and finish at the end.

So, that's basically the Confidence in FCE online course. Would you like to add anything about the course Abel?

Abel: Actually, I just would like to add the fact that it took us quite a long time before we completed the course because we have this meticulous approach to how we should deal with each part. The aim was to make sure that it should be explained in a way that should leave no doubts, no confusion for the candidate or the student. Because we know that it will be a self taught course and that people would deal with the course on their own.

I'm positive as a linguist or as an educator that the course is well analyzed, well done and we would like to receive of crouse feedback from any candidate while they are dealing with the course to improve it if possible, but I'm positive that most candidates will find it so easy to deal with.

AA: Yeah. There's a lot of material. It's a really well organized course. I think, something I'd like to add, as well, is that we are continually adding to the course. We've got so much material. We've been working at this for so long that every time we find something new, relevant, interesting, we're going to upload that and add it. There will be more exercises and more content added over the course of this year. We just need to find the time as always. We've taken a meticulous approach to this.

If you're interested in having a look at the FCE online course, then you should come over to one of our sister sites. I'll link to it on the Art of Business English, but I'll put it ... the course is actually hosted on CI cursos punto com, which is the Castells Immerscom online platform. So, I'll be putting a link to that on the course here and on the Art of Business English. And I'll be also, if you're on our email list, you'll be getting some emails in the coming weeks just outlining, explaining that.

So, if you are interested in having a look at the Confidence in FCE online course, I'll leave you a link in the description, but also, here it is www dot CI cursos punto com. So, C-I-C-U-R-S-O-S dot com forward slash barra confidence. So, the word confidence guion FCE guion. Online guion course. So, that is confidence guion FCE guion online so, O-N-L-I-N-E guion course. So, it's the Confidence in FCE online course.

Have a look at the page there and you'll get some further information. If you do have any questions, then don't hesitate to get in touch Abel or myself, okay, guys? And just before we wrap things up, I'm also working on something very special for my listeners and my listeners only. So, if you are listening to this podcast in October of 2018, then, basically, what we're working on and what we're going to be producing in the next month is a small group coaching program.

Now, what is a small group coaching program? Basically, it's like a mini workshop for very small group of people. The maximum number is going to be eight and the minimum will be four. So, it's four to eight people. And it'll be for four weeks. So, every week there will be a two hour online session with myself, one of my colleagues called Andrew who's another Andrew. I'm Andrew one. He's Andrew two. And this small group coaching program is specifically designed for powerful presentations.

So, what we're going to be doing is we're going to be looking at how you can improve your presentation skills in English and because it's the first group coaching program that we've done, we're going to make it super, super attractive, the offer. It's gonna be just for the listeners of the Art of Business English. So, I'm just telling you this now. Stay tuned for more information. Again, you'll probably, if you're on my ... not probably, you'll definitely receive some emails about this in the coming weeks.

It's only for people who listen to the Art of Business English and it's only for people who are on my email list. So, if you haven't subscribed to the Art of Business English email list, head over the Art of Business English dot com forward slash subscribe. There you can subscribe to the podcast as well as the email list.

This small group coaching program will be looking at powerful presentations. So, how to open a presentation powerfully. How to keep your audience engaged. Looking at body language. Different techniques to make your next presentation in English super powerful, super interesting and super engaging. So, stay tuned for that. I'll be sending out some more information. And I really hope you've enjoyed this episode. It's been a pleasure having you here.

I know it's a little bit different than the normal episodes, but sometimes you've got to explain some of the fantastic products that we do offer here. Really want you guys to have a look. Fantastic value and really great courses about the FCE. Abel, thank you very much for joining me.

Abel: My pleasure.

AA: It's a pleasure. I'm sure we'll have you again on since we work very closely together.

Abel: Sure.

AA: And develop some more interesting and relevant content for the world of business English. So, stay tuned. Bye for now.

Abel: Bye.

AA: Bye, guys.


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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

Andrew Ambrosius

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