How to pass the Cambridge Writing Exam

The writing exam is 20% of your mark.

Passing the writing exam is a good way to get your B1 or B2 certificate. Writing is also the easiest skill to improve if you know the marking criteria. But most students don’t know how to pass the Cambridge Writing Exam.

And we have to be careful here, because most teachers will not mark your writing the same way that Cambridge marks your writing, because they usually emphasize grammar and vocabulary errors (with good intentions!). This is helpful, because if you have a lot of errors, it is difficult to see the other good things about your writing, but it can also be frustrating for students. You shouldn’t ignore other aspects of writing that will get you easy marks (and those additional marks on writing can compensate for a failed listening or reading exam). If you do this, you could be surprised with a higher mark on the official exam than you usually receive in class.

Marking the exam

The Cambridge Preliminary exam and the Cambridge First Certificate writing exam are similar in that:

  1. They both are 20% of your total exam mark (1 of 5 skills evaluated)
  2. They both are evaluated using 4 marking criteria (Content, Communicative achievement, Discourse Management and Language, all described below).
  3. They both include 2 of the possible formats: letters/emails and articles (but with different lengths).

Marking Criteria

  1. Content (5 marks): On the PET exam, an easy way to get 5 marks is to include ALL of the content points. The FCE requires that you explain more and give examples to develop your arguments (that is why the PET writing is about 100 words, and the FCE 160-190 words).
  2. Communicative Achievement (5 marks): This part of the mark is about the writing format (e.g. informal email, article, or essay), register (formal/informal) and conventions (especially typical expressions). If you are writing an email to a friend, does it SOUND like an email to a friend? Does it have a typical opening and closing for a letter? Is the language informal (with contractions and informal words and expressions?). Is it polite, helpful and friendly? Is your writing legible (if the examiner can’t read it easily, it’s not a good text).
  3. Organisation (5 marks): Are ideas in your sentences and paragraphs connected with pronouns and linkers? Do you organise your paragraphs clearly and logically? Is your text organised well to answer all the points in the question? Finally, Cambridge examiners want to see a good variety of linkers/connectors (‘and’, ‘but’, ‘because’ and ‘so’ are the most basic linkers, and others like ‘in addition’, ‘however’, ‘although’, ‘therefore’ and ‘as a result’ are more complex).
  4. Language (5 marks): Do you use a good range (variety) of vocabulary and expressions for the topic and each point? If there is a point about sport, and you choose football (big surprise!), do you use specific vocabulary (not only “ball” and “play”, but words like “kit”, “pitch”, “pass” and “score a goal”)? Do you have a good control of basic errors? Can the examiner understand what you are writing (are they small mistakes or is it incomprehensible)? Do you try to use more advanced grammar (you cannot pass this area if you continue to use only basic grammar, for example, the present simple). If you are at the B2 level, you should try to include a passive, a 2nd/3rd conditional and or reported speech, or other B2 grammar. PET candidates could include a 1st conditional, basic reported speech or a passive.

What is a passing mark?

PET: a pass is a 70% (14 marks average on each of the two writings, or 28/40 marks)

FCE: a pass is a 60% (12 marks average on each of the two writings, or 24/40 marks)

However, most of my students sitting the exam get 15-20% more than the passing mark, which increases their total mark on the exam (with is an average of all the skills).

So how do I do it?

Firstly, pay careful attention to models of good writing. Copying them into your notebook and underlining key phrases is an effective way to study them.

Secondly, always read the question careful and include ALL the points in your response.

Thirdly, pay careful attention to your teacher’s feedback and write another draft incorporating the changes. During exams, always carefully check your work and make sure you are finding ways to use new language you have learned.

I will include more writing tips and specific help on different writing formats in future blog posts, so make sure to subscribe and check back. Happy writing!

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