What you can Do when you Have Failed your CAE Exam

The Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) exam is a very difficult to pass. Even if your overall level of English is good enough to take it, what you have to do in it and the knowledge of vocabulary you need to have, makes it in my opinion the most difficult of all the Cambridge exams to take (more difficult than the First Certificate in English or the Certificate of Proficiency in English).

So first of all, don't worry that you failed it. You are not alone, a lot of people do every year.

If you still need or want to pass this exam, there are two things/options that you have. And below I will explain what these two options are, what you should do if you choose to do each and whether I recommend if you do them or not.

Option 1

Contest the decision of the result

If you think they haven't marked your exam correctly, you can within 14 days of receiving your result statement (the piece of paper which shows your result for the exam) ask Cambridge to check (and after this, remark) your exam. This is called a 'Result Enquiry' and to do this you need to contact the exam centre where you did the exam or academy/school who you booked the exam through and ask them to do it.

In a Result Enquiry, there are two stages. And for both you have to pay to have it done. However, if as a result your score goes up enough so that you pass the CAE exam (get 180 points or over) you will get this money back.

Stage 1

The first (called 'Stage 1') is where your answers sheet (for all parts) are checked to make sure they haven't missed any marks for your final score. And that is it. They do nothing else. From asking this to be done, it will take about 5 working days until you are told if your score has gone up or not.

Stage 2

If after doing 'Stage 1' you have still failed the exam, you can ask for Cambridge to then remark your full exam paper. They will manually check the answers which you gave in both the Reading/UOE and Listening parts and remark your two pieces of writing. They will not reevaluate your Speaking exam result (that will stay the same).

It will normally take around 3 weeks before you get the result back for the remarked exam.

Of the two, Stage 2 is more expensive. It is around the same cost that you paid to do the actual exam (in Europe, that's about €200).

Should you do it?

I have to be honest, I personally know of no students who have done a 'Result Enquiry' and it has turned a fail into a pass. A few teachers I know have said they do, so it is possible.

I would probably only recommend you do it if you are really surprised with one or two of the scores you got for parts. For example, when you did the exam you didn't think that the Listening part of exam was difficult, but you got a really low score for it (e.g. 161 points). That would suggest that there was a mistake in the marking.

If you were close to passing (180 points) for each of the five areas, it would suggest there wasn't any mistake and it's your real score.

In this case, I would save your money and do the following option.

Option 2

Retake the exam

The best option to take is to just take the exam again. When you do it again depends both on how much you failed the exam by and why you think you failed.

You have to be honest with yourself about why you think you failed. Don't try to make excuses like it was a really difficult exam or I couldn't hear the listening exam very well. This is not going to help you to pass the exam when you retake it. So think of the real reason why you failed.

The 4 main reasons why people fail:

  1. You haven't got the sufficient level of English to do the exam.

  2. You have the level, but you struggle on doing some of the parts (e.g. part 6 of the Reading/UOE paper).

  3. You have the level, but you don't have a broad enough knowledge of the vocabulary of the many topics that are used in the exam.

  4. You panicked when doing a main part (e.g. Listening) of the exam.

For most people who fail the CAE exam, it's going to be one (or a combination) of reasons 2, 3 or 4.

However, I have noticed that many of the students who I have taught after failing the exam, don't really have a good enough knowledge of the English vocabulary for many of the topics (e.g. the arts, science etc...) which are used in the exam. Which makes understanding what you are reading or listening to in the exam more difficult. So for me, the main reason students fail is number 3 (vocabulary).

Learn from your mistakes

The reason why you need to be honest about why you failed the exam rather than making excuses (e.g. it was really difficult etc...) is that it helps you to identify the areas that caused you to fail. When you know the areas that caused you to fail, then you can focus on improving them before you next do the exam.

So think back to the parts in the exam that you struggled on and ask yourself why you struggled.

For example:

If you struggled on one of the parts which evaluates your reading abilities, was it because you don't know the topic used (and its vocabulary) well or you don't know how to do that particular part of exam quickly or well?

If it is the topic, then you need to read and improve your vocabulary on that topic. If it is the part you can't do well (or it takes you a long time to do), then you need to understand what it is testing you on and find a method/technique that makes it easier and quicker to do.

To learn about the type of vocabulary used in the CAE exam, read our article called 'Vocabulary Used in CAE Exams'.

Another example:

If you panicked in a part of the exam, then you need to ask yourself why you panicked and other people doing the exam didn't? Do you normally have this problem doing exams or not?

If you do, think about ways which you can stop this happening in the future (e.g. don't think you are going to fail if you struggle on one part, improve your ability on doing parts you know you struggle on, learn techniques to stay focused when you start to panic etc...).

Study by yourself or get somebody to help you?

The easiest way is going to be to get somebody to help you. That could be by joining an exam class in a language academy or doing one-to-one classes (either online or in a language academy). These will help to improve your abilities in each of the four main parts of the exam, but it is especially important if you need to improve your scores in the Writing and Speaking parts of the exam (because you need feedback on how well you write or speak).

But even if you decide to do either type of class, I would still recommend that you regularly read and listen to things in English outside of class which are right for the level of the exam and are on diverse topics.

If you only struggle on the Reading/UOE and/or the Listening parts of the exam, then you can study by yourself. If you choose to do this, you need to buy things (e.g. books or courses) which will help you improve the individual parts of these which you have problems with (explain what they are testing you on and give you techniques/methods to use to make them easier and quicker to do) and regularly read and listen to things in English which are right for the level of the exam and are on diverse topics.

If you decide to study by yourself, I would recommend in the weeks before you retake the exam that you pay for a few one-to-one classes where you can both practise and be evaluated on doing the Speaking and the Writing parts of the exam.

No matter whether you decide to study by yourself or attend a class, you need to make sure that you read articles in English on as many topics/subjects as possible. And it is especially important to read about things that you wouldn't do in your own language (because you have no interest in them) or you don't know anything about. Because if you don't, some of these are likely to be on the exam you do.

To help your reading and vocabulary for the CAE exam have a look at our eBook of 60 Advanced/CAE level articles.

Wait some time before you retake

When some people fail the CAE exam, they want to retake the exam as soon as possible. And although some people pass when they do this, many fail.

You need time to improve in the areas that you are weak in and the parts you struggle with. And the amount of time you should wait depends on both why you failed and how much you failed by.

If the reason is that you don't yet have the sufficient level of English to do the exam, then you need to wait at least 9 months until you do the exam again.

If you have the suitable level of English for the exam, but you failed because you panicked, need to improve how you do parts of the exam or need to broaden your knowledge of vocabulary, I would recommend that you wait at least 3 months. I would recommend this amount of time if you only failed by one or two points (your final overall score was 178 or 179). If you failed by more, I would recommend that you wait longer before retaking it.


As I said at the beginning, the Certificate in Advanced English is a difficult exam to pass and it is not the end of the world if you fail it. Passing this exam is not a question of intelligence, it's more about being prepared. I always tell my students that we learn more from failure than we do from success. And if you want to pass it the second time that you do it, this is what you must do too. Good luck!