10 Tips to Succeed Brilliantly in an English-Speaking Exam

It’s the part that makes your stomach flutter and your hands sweat. Somebody said public speaking is the #1 fear of all people – #2 being death.




The major English examinations all have a speaking part in addition to the writing, listening and reading parts. The Cambridge tests like the FCE, CAE, CPE, the BEC Preliminary, Vantage, and Higher, the IELTS, PTE and TOEFL all require that you demonstrate that you can indeed speak English.


Here are 10 keys to success in any English-speaking exam.


1. Learn how your test is structured. You can go online and learn about your particular test. Cambridge has excellent sites for all their examinations. There are helpful websites for all of the main English exams with sample questions and topics. You will need to learn how the speaking part is structured and how much time is allotted to each section.


2. Don’t memorize an answer or a speech. You will probably be given a topic or question for which you haven’t memorized an answer anyway. An examiner can always recognize a memorized script. Just keep improving your English speech by listening to conversations in movies, newscasts, podcasts and such.


3. Do record yourself answering sample questions and discussing sample topics. Then listen to yourself for grammar, pronunciation and intonation. You will pick up on things that you can improve.


4. Practice with someone who can recognize your mistakes and help. It’s a simple formula. The more you practice, the better you get.


5. Don’t worry about getting the correct answer. Correct answers don’t matter. Correct English matters. Generally, you are asked your opinion on things and really, you can have whatever crazy opinion you want – just express it in your best English.


6. No dead air space. Silence is not golden when you are responding to a question in the CAE or the BEC Vantage. That is the thing to avoid at all costs. If you make a mistake, keep talking. If you can’t think of the right word, keep talking. If you get a bit lost, just wrap it up or start over but keep talking.


7. Begin speaking immediately. You can use some of the stalling language below if you need a few moments to think. You only have a short time (maybe 60 seconds) to show them what a great English speaker you are. Jump right in and don’t waste time. If you are going to have a discussion with another candidate, it is to your advantage to start speaking first. You can even begin with a question to your partner which will buy you some thinking time. “So, what do you think about…” “Have you ever been in such a situation?”


8. Body language. Without saying a word, you can portray yourself as a good communicator. When it is your partner’s turn to talk, don’t just look at your hands or the table. Turn your body slightly toward them and look at them and listen well. If you are talking about a photo as you would in the FCE, CAE and the CPE, don’t stare only at the picture. Glance up at the examiner. Don’t talk to the photo. Talk to the examiner.


9. Talk until your time is up. Don’t stop talking until the examiner stops you. He or she will kindly say, “thank you” right in the middle of your sentence. Don’t feel badly about being interrupted. It’s the perfect way to end your speaking session.


10. Emergency language and stalling phrases. Below, I've listed some of my favorite Emergency Language and phrases for when you’re Stalling for Time.

Emergency Language


You might be asked a question you don’t understand. In that case, you may ask for help from the examiner or you can just “wing it” which is to go ahead with your best guess. In some parts of some tests the examiner can only repeat the question.


When you don’t hear the question

  • I’m sorry, could you repeat that please?

  • I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.

  • Would you mind saying that again?

When you don’t understand the question

  • I’m sorry, what do you mean exactly?

  • Could you say that in other words?

  • I’m afraid I’m not quite sure what you mean.

When you don’t understand a particular word

  • What does ______ mean?

  • Does _______ mean ________ ?

  • Sorry, I’m not sure what ________ means.

When you think you understand the question but aren’t certain

  • Do you mean __________?

  • Are you asking __________?

  • Am I right in thinking you mean __________?

When you get a little bit lost while explaining something

  • What I mean is…

  • What I’m trying to say is…

  • Anyway, to get back to my original point…

When you need to finish an answer

  • Anyway, that’s my opinion.

  • Anyway, that’s all I can really say.

  • So, that’s why I think…

When you’re not sure if your answer was appropriate

  • Does that answer your question?

  • Is that what you were asking?

  • I hope that answers your question.

Stalling for Time – or what to say when you don’t know what to say


Okay… Information Management… well, the first thing that springs to mind is…

Hmmm. That’s a good question.

Well, let me think about that…

Yes, that’s an important topic / interesting subject

Okay. Let’s see… There’s…

Now, let me see… what else… would be important / a reason/ an aspect…?

Well that’s something I’ve never really thought about but, on reflection, I’d say that...

If you’re clueless about the topic you can begin with:

Well, I must confess that I’m not very familiar with this topic / area but from my understanding it seems that it would be important to …

Hmmm. Let me think about that a moment.

Okay,… well,…

That’s an interesting question. I would have to guess that…

You know, that’s not something I’ve never dealt with so I’m kind of taking a guess here…

Well, hmmmmm. The first thing I notice/observe is…

Well, I think the first thing that comes to my mind is…

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