Updated: Apr 5, 2020
So many of us are taking or have taken exams. We think we know exactly what we have to do - sit down, study and practice until we think we're ready. But what we seem to forget is that preparation takes quite a lot of time. How can you maximise the effort you put in and get that exam result as quickly as possible?
Okay, you've got an exam to pass. But in 1 month?! Seriously? Well, kid, I don't think that's ever going to happen...
This would be what most people would say to you if you tell them you don't really have much time to prepare for your language exam but you still want to pass it. Whatever the reason, no one really cares. To be honest, you shouldn't waste your time thinking about why you ended up in such a situation.
What's needed now is concentration, focus, maximum effort and tactics.
Take these steps if you need to pass an exam fast
Step 1. Know your level and take a diagnostic test
You need to be aware of your current level. Don't have high hopes that you're going to pass if your level is not close to the desired one. Frankly speaking, 1 or 1,5 months preparation time is enough to learn tactics and strategies, and to correct smaller mistakes. It is definitely NOT enough time to jump a whole level.
Taking a diagnostic test (basically taking the test for the first time without any previous preparation) is extremely useful to inform you about your strengths and weaknesses. This step will help you set up a priority list - more on that in the next step.
Step 2. Set up your priority list
This can be done in two ways: Either focus on your weakest points and leave the stronger ones for later, or decide which section of the exam carries more points and work on those more. This is already part of your exam strategy. In some exams, for example in the IELTS writing, one task is worth more points than the other, so it's not worth putting equal amount of energy into preparing for both.
You might also realise that listening is your strongest part, so focus more on the weaker sections for sure, but don't leave listening out of the equation completely! Even if a certain skill is easy for you, you still need practice in the task types.
Step 3. Practice the task types
If you don't have much time for preparation, the most you can do is familiarise yourself with the task types and practice them endlessly. Most of the time exams are not about whether you speak the language at a certain level, but about how well you know what you need to do.
It can easily happen that your level absolutely meets the exam requirements, you just don't know what's expected of you, and that's why you don't get enough points (I have several personal examples for this because I've always been impatient to look into task types). For example, in Cambridge speaking exams speaking at length is the most important thing to keep in mind. You're there to show them absolutely everything that you're capable of, not to just answer one or two questions.
Step 4. Practice every day
Let's face it - you don't have much time left until the exam. So make the most of it. My personal experience is that regular shorter practice sessions are worth much more than irregular longer ones. Download apps that help you work on your skills every day for 5-10 minutes. I'd recommend the following:
Elevate - great for learning vocabulary, synonyms, practicing style, and short-term memory for listening.
Quizlet - create your own wordlists and practice them with the help of various games
Podcasts - listen to a short episode on anything every day to practice listening skills and improve your comprehension. Try these ones, for example: 6 minute English or The English We Speak by the BBC, and Learning English Podcast by Voice of America. For Business English learners, take a look at Business English Pod. These are specifically about learning English, but whatever other podcast you find will be beneficial.
Facebook pages - follow certain news sites or any site that you're interested in, and read an article every day. When I'm learning languages, I also read these news articles out to improve my pronunciation.
Mootish.com - a great website to practice arguing. You can join any room where people argue about certain controversial topics.
Games to practice vocabulary - there are many word search and crossword apps (e.g. 94%, Word Search or 94 seconds) that you can play when you're bored but they can still boost your passive knowledge.
Freerice - a vocabulary learning/practicing website and app, which at the same time supports the World Food Programme, so while you're playing and learning, you're also supporting many people in the world!
Step 5. Study with a teacher
All the previous steps can be taken alone but you will definitely increase your productivity, efficiency and chance of passing if you find yourself a teacher. Take at least 2 lessons per week, and ask your teacher to find your weak spots (the easiest way to do this is by writing a letter or essay; these will instantly show whether you have issues with word order, articles, tenses, vocabulary, etc.) and systematically start working on getting rid of them. You can also consider the courses offered by Short and Simple English.
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