As you already know, Keep Smiling English focuses primarily on providing resources for people who work with Cambridge English exams (Preliminary, First, Advanced). All the handouts you can find on this website are downloadable as pdf documents, and they all follow the format of Cambridge English paper-based exams. However, you must know that official C.E. exams can also be taken in a computer-based format. What does this mean? We are going to see the different pros, cons, similarities and differences of each format.
How do I register for an exam?
For both paper- and computer-based exams you have to find a local registration centre near you. They will inform you about the dates, prices, courses, etc. that are available, so you can choose what suits you best. You can find your nearest exam centres here.
Where will I take the exam?
The fact that an exam is computer-based does not mean you can take it at home on your computer! Both paper- and computer-based exams take place in a venue arranged by the centre you registered with. In my experience as an invigilator and test-sitting administrator of Cambridge English exams, the venues are usually different for each exam format:
- Paper-based exams (PB): these usually take place in a relatively large venue, depending on the number of candidates. In my case, I have usually invigilated paper-based exams in hotel conference rooms, with 200+ candidates. However, this may also take place in another kind of venue.
- Computer-based exams (CB): these exams are usually arranged to take place in smaller venues, as they require places with a computer per candidate. These venues are normally language schools, academies or colleges that have previously been authorised by the local examination centre.
Where and when will I do the speaking test?
Again, this depends on your exam centre. Sometimes speaking tests take place on the same day of the exam. However, for long exams, such as First, Advanced or Proficiency, the speaking paper may take place on a different day. No matter what, the speaking test will be with two examiners, not on the computer. As for the venue, it will be chosen by your local exam centre.
Is the exam different? Is it easier or harder?
No, absolutely not. The exam is the same, it has the same format, same number of papers, items, etc. Is it easier? No. The difficulty of the content is the same. However, you may find it easier to carry out certain tasks on a computer or on paper, so it is up to you. For this reason, I strongly recommend trying both paper- and computer-based mock tests before taking the exam, as you want to feel as confident as possible on the day of the exam. For instance, some people don’t like typing on the computer. For these, I wouldn’t recommend doing the exam on a computer, as they will have to type – quickly, at times – during the Writing, Use of English and Listening papers. Other people love underlining and making hand-written notes on the margins of the exam paper. For these people, doing the Reading paper on a computer might not be very comfortable. However, if you feel confident typing and reading on a screen, computer-based exams will be just for you!
What about the timing?
The timing for each part of the exam is the same, regardless of the format you take it in. However, in my experience, candidates usually find that time is less limited during the writing paper on a computer, as typing is generally quicker than writing by hand. Furthermore, on a PC you can edit your text more easily than on paper. On paper, candidates usually write a draft and then rewrite a final version, whereas on a computer, all this happens at the same time, so it is more time-saving. However, this depends on your preference!
Something that I would point out here is that during computer-based exams you have a countdown clock on your screen that tells you how much time you have left. During a paper-based exam you will have a clock somewhere in the room, and the supervisor will warn you about the time near the end of each part. You can also ask the nearest invigilator. But remember, the timing is exactly the same.
Which is more expensive?
This depends on the exam centre you register with. So do check if there’s a difference in price before you register. In Granada (Andalusia, Spain), where I have worked as invigilator and test-sitting administrator, they both cost the same.
When do I get my results?
This is, in my view, a great advantage of computer-based exams, as the results take only 2 weeks to come out. When you take a paper-based exam, this usually takes around 4-6 weeks. Therefore, if you are in a bit of a hurry to get a certificate, you should definitely go for the computer-based format.
How do my answers reach Cambridge English Language Assessment?
When you do your exam on a computer, your answers are stored automatically every time you make a change (e.g.: answer a question, edit a sentence, etc.). These answers are stored on your computer and uploaded to Cambridge English servers at the end of each part of the exam (i.e. Reading and Use of English, Listening, etc.). When you do it on paper, you have an answer sheet that you have to fill in while you do the exam or at the end of each part. The invigilators collect this answer sheet at the end of every part, and store safely. This is later sent to a Cambridge marking facility. Personally, I believe this is an advantage of computer-based over paper-based exams, since you can make mistakes like skipping a number, marking the wrong answer, etc., while transferring your answers onto your answer sheet.
Other important considerations
- Listening: during paper-based exams the listening is played on the sound system of the venue. Some people complain about the quality of the audio, or maybe because they were seated far from one of the speakers, etc. During computer-based exams each candidate has a pair of headphones, which ensures better audio quality and, at least, the fact that you have total control over the volume during the whole exam.
- Results: in my experience, students tend to get better results in computer-based exams. This is probably only due to the fact that it suits their needs better, as the difficulty is exactly the same.
- Technical problems: although they shouldn’t occur frequently, technical problems are more common during computer-based exams. Computers are subject to hardware and software performance, while paper-based exams can hardly be affected by any technical issues besides blackouts and problems with the audio. However, in all fairness, Cambridge English takes during-exam issues very seriously, and every problem occurred during an exam is thoroughly reported and assessed in order to ensure that this does not affect the mark of any of the candidates. This, for instance, may lead to some questions being invalidated.
- Highlighting and taking notes: while on paper you can take all your notes on the exam paper with a pencil, on the computer you have the possibility of highlighting, taking notes and flagging some questions for you to revisit later. Besides, in both cases you are provided with separate sheet of paper to take hand-written notes.
Exam day tips
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