Vocabulary Used in CAE Exams

Having a good knowledge of English vocabulary is very important for doing well in the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) exam. The more you know, the easier the exam will be to do.

In fact, I think that the CAE exam is more about testing your knowledge of English vocabulary than it is your knowledge of grammar.

Below I will explain what the level of the vocabulary you need to know is to do well in the exam and what type of vocabulary and topics you should focus on learning. I will also explain some things about the differences in the vocabulary in the exam as well.

This is not a short article, but I recommend you read it. It will not only tell what type of vocabulary you need for the CAE exam, but also why. And understanding why is as important as knowing what you have to learn.

Need a CAE to go to university in a English-speaking country

For students who come from countries where English is not the first language, universities in English-speaking countries require that they have at least passed the equivalent of the Cambridge CAE exam to study for a degree. Even if you aren't planning to do this, there are some reasons why it is important to know this.

Firstly, it tells you what the level of English vocabulary you are going to find in the exam (that which an 18-year-old student would be able to understand). And secondly, as universities require this qualification, the style and the topics used for most of the texts and the audio recordings in the exam are very similar to what you would find used in schools for students who are around 18 years of age.

The level of language in the exam

As I said above, the level of vocabulary you will find used in it is what you would find used in books and exams for 18-year-olds in their last year at school before going to university. So the vocabulary is quite advanced but it is not too advanced (like a university graduate would use and understand).

In my experience, the level of vocabulary used in the CAE Exam is similar to what you will find in books or courses for an upper-intermediate level of English. You may also find some more advanced vocabulary used in the exam, but not so much.

Topics and the CAE exam

The more you know about a topic/subject in your own language (e.g. pollution, literature, psychology etc...), the easier you will find an exercise to do on that topic if it is used for an exercise in the exam.

If you have done or studied for the Cambridge First Certificate of English (FCE) exam, you will have noticed that the texts and audio recordings were relatively easy to understand. One of the reasons for this is that the topics used in that exam are restricted to things that are commonly known or talked about (e.g. work, education, the environment, films etc...). So, students doing it will already have some knowledge about and/or interest in the topics used in the texts or audio recordings for the exercises.

In addition to already knowing about the topics used, to do well in the FCE exam you only have to focus on learning and remembering the vocabulary for around 8 key topic areas.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in the CAE exam.

Firstly because of the number of topics you can find used in the exam. Basically, it is a lot more. This makes it more difficult to predict what topics will be used in the exercises in the CAE exam than in the FCE exam. It means that you can't just focus on learning the vocabulary for 8 key topic areas and expect that the majority of the exercises in the exam will be on these. To do well in the CAE exam, you have to have a good understanding of the English vocabulary used in a lot of topics.

And secondly, because of the type of topics which are used. Although in the CAE exam you will find exercises on commonly known or talked about topics (like in the FCE exam), you will also find exercises on topics which are not (e.g. the history of gardens, the reintroduction of wolves to a national park, the beauty of sculptures etc...). And for some of these you are likely to have little or no interest or knowledge of them in your own language.

What this means

You need to broaden/widen your knowledge of topics. You need to read and improve your vocabulary in English of topics which you are both knowledgeable and interested in in your own language and (and more importantly) those which you are not. As I mentioned before, the more you know on a topic (and its vocabulary in English), the easier an exercise on it in the exam will be.

Although you should read things and improve your vocabulary in English which you already have knowledge about or an interest in in your own language, I would recommend that you focus especially on those which you don't.

Topics used in the CAE exam

First of all I have to say that it is difficult to predict with much certainty which topics you will find used in the CAE exam. But there are some topics which are more likely to be on the exam than others.

You will find some exercises in the exam on commonly known topics. These are the same types of topics to which the FCE exam is generally restricted to. However, in the CAE exam the vocabulary will be more advanced and the content of the texts or audio recordings will be less general and more specialised/academic in nature (e.g. the work life of a zoo keeper, the impact of the internet on society etc...) than in the FCE exam.

Click here to go to the list of these commonly known topics

However, many exercises in the exam are going to be on topics which are less commonly known. And what this means is that you have to read and improve your English vocabulary on a lot of diverse topics.

As I said before, it is difficult to predict what topics will be used in the CAE exam, but I have noticed some topics appearing in the exam. So I recommend that you make sure that you improve your knowledge and English vocabulary of the following topics:

  • Nature and the environment (climate change, changes to the environment, research into how plants and animals behave and interact etc...)
  • Science (the discovery of new theories, how scientists do research etc...)
  • The arts (reviews or artists talking about their paintings, sculptures, classical music, dance, literature/fictional novels etc...)
  • Sports (the reasons why people do different types of sports and the vocabulary connected to doing them)
  • Medicine and health (illnesses, medical treatment and things to improve our health)
  • Social issues (things that affect both how and where we lives, problems in society (e.g. poverty, lack of water etc...) and social change)
  • Work (how people do their jobs and issues related to that)
  • Business and economics (how businesses​ are set up and how they operate/work)
  • Psychology (how our minds affect who we are and what we do)
  • Inventions (how things were invented and the impact this has had on society)

The first three in particular (nature and the environment, science and the arts) are types of topics which I have frequently seen used on most CAE exams. So much sure you improve your knowledge and English vocabulary on these topics.

Topics not used in the exam

In addition to this, I can tell you what topics you won't find used in the exam and you don't have to learn the vocabulary for:

  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Sex and sexuality
  • Illegal drug use
  • War or terrorism

The same CAE exam is used in every country and to both adults and children, so any topic which could be seen as controversial or inappropriate (like the ones above) is avoided.

Types of vocabulary

In addition to both broadening your knowledge of and the vocabulary used in a large number of different topics for the exam, you also should improve specific types of vocabulary as well. This is vocabulary which is not restricted to one particular type of topic, but can be used in almost all of them. And below you will find some things which I recommend you learn and improve:

  • Feelings (vocabulary used by people to express how they feel physically and emotionally)
  • Academic research (vocabulary commonly used by academics to explain their theories or how they did their research (e.g. conduct, survey, indicate, hypothesis etc...))
  • Opinions (vocabulary used by people to express their opinions on things)
  • Probability (vocabulary used by people to express different probabilities on things happening or not)
  • Linkers (words and phrases which are used to connect sentences or two parts of the same sentence together (e.g. besides, nonetheless, since etc...))
  • Phrasal verbs (the meaning and uses of phrasal verbs (e.g. stand out, put up with, back out etc...))
  • Phrases for Writing (phrases commonly used in the different types of writing used in the exam (e.g. Yours faithfully, This report examines..., I am writing in regard to... etc...))

If you have done or studied for the FCE exam, you will already have a good knowledge of vocabulary connected to the above things. However, for the CAE exam you need to learn and know more advanced vocabulary for the above areas.

The difference between knowledge and use of vocabulary

An important thing to know is that to pass the CAE exam, there is difference between the level of the vocabulary you need to use and the knowledge of English vocabulary you need to have. Your knowledge of English vocabulary (i.e. know what words, phrases, phrasal verbs mean) is expected to be at a higher level than your use of the language (when you write and speak).

What this means is that you can pass the Writing and Speaking parts of the exam by using more simple vocabulary and grammatical structures than you will find used in the Reading/UOE and Listening parts of exam.

To learn some advanced synonyms for common words which you can use in the exam, read our article called 'Vocabulary to Improve your Writing and Speaking in the CAE Exam'.

You are not going to know every word

The more vocabulary you know, the more you'll understand and the easier the exam will be. However, even if you have a very good level of English vocabulary, you are not going to know the meaning of every word and phrase used in the exam. So, it's extremely important that you have a method to use where you can guess the meaning of vocabulary you will find on the exam that you don't know or are unsure about.

The best method that I can suggest to use, is using the context (the sentence and the topic/subject) where you find a word or phrase you don't know to guess its meaning.

To learn a method to guess meaning through context, read our article from our other English learning website called 'A method for remembering vocabulary in English'.

What to do now

Knowing that you have to broaden your knowledge of vocabulary and what level of vocabulary you need (or don't need) will mean that you will be better prepared for the CAE exam. But you also need to know both where to find the right material to do this and what to do when learning​ it.

To help you to find the right material to improve your vocabulary and (more importantly) to know what to do to make sure that you remember the vocabulary that you learn (because it is very easy to forget new vocabulary that you learn), read our article called 'How to improve your vocabulary for the CAE exam'.