Why you can’t afford not to take an exam preparation course

By Henry, Finnbrit teacher

Often, needing an English exam seems unfair. At first, your exciting future plans are going well. A University has accepted your application (written at great length in English), or a company (operating entirely in English) has offered you a job (probably after an interview – in English). But then somewhere in the wheels of bureaucracy, some jobsworth has demanded that you need to further prove you can speak the language by coughing up almost €300 to get a piece of card. Like I say, it seems unfair.

However, being accepted to university these days is a different kettle of fish. Thousands of applications are sent from all over the world, just as they are to immigration offices, and the good old days of judging your English level from an essay you have ‘written’ is no longer convenient nor reliable. So, for want of an alternative, mass systemised-testing it is. 

I’ve been helping students prepare for exams for about seven years now. I enjoy the focused nature of the work, the clear goal and the more often than not short-term, intensive style of the teaching; it’s often more problem solving than teaching. It helps that I’ve also been an examiner. This has given me some insider knowledge, a peep behind the curtain hiding the secret world of exam marking. 

Examiners generally examine complete strangers. But sometimes, they’ll recognise the face as that of someone who has sat in front of them before. The repeat taker. These re-entrants are normally doing so for one of two reasons. The first, a nervous lower-level student that hasn’t quite managed to get the grade they needed, or the second, the somewhat embarrassed and apologetic higher-level student that messed up the exam on the first go. 

An exam preparation course would have helped both these students pass the first time. 

The most unfortunate thing is that they’ve ended up forking out the expensive exam fee twice (or more). What’s the Finnish expression, ‘I can’t afford to buy cheaply?’ Well, perhaps it’s fair to say, you can’t afford not to take an exam preparation course either. 

So, why prepare for an exam? 

For the weaker student, you’ll need every trick there is to push your grade up. This includes how to stay focused in the marathon listening tests, how to tackle the reading texts more quickly, how to include exactly the key elements and content the examiner is looking for in the writing tests, which sections to do first, which to leave to last and which to sacrifice altogether. It’s amazing what you can achieve with some clever exam preparation. As a friend of mine that passed the Finnish Language Test (YKI) recently said, “My Finnish is awful, but I’m great at taking tests”.

For the more confident language user, it’s not that your language level is the issue, it’s more that your poor exam technique won’t allow you to display your true colours (dated Cindy Lauper reference). Think of it like Zoom. For anyone even slightly computer literate, it’s easy enough to use.  But you don’t want the first time you use it to be when you give the most important presentation of your life. Likewise, a language exam. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not that straightforward either and silly mistakes will drag your grade down. 

Silly mistakes are so frustrating. Word perfect essays that completely miss the point of the question, paragraph after paragraph of opinion that the question hasn’t asked for, or entire sections of the reading or listening missed because you ran out of time. For all you know, those missed questions might have been incredibly easy, but you’ll never find out because you spent all your time struggling on the most difficult question in the test that was only worth one point anyway. Exam preparation courses allow you to make all those silly mistakes before you take the exam, so that on exam day you can truly represent your true self and get the grade you deserve. 

One final point. Preparing for a test well takes time. I can and do help people prepare over a number of days, but it’s not the best idea. Available test places also fill-up fast. So try to leave yourself time for all this to happen. Start the preparation course a month or two before the exam, so you have time to practise what you’ve learned and book your test as soon as you can. Apart from anything else, this will give you time to make sure you have all the necessary documents / find your official ID / renew your passport and figure out which bus will get you to the test centre.

Good luck. And prepare well!