Vocabulary Used in CPE Exams

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

In fact, I feel the CPE exam is more about testing your knowledge of English vocabulary than it is your knowledge of grammar.

Below you will learn 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.

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

Need a CPE to do a Master's degree at some universities in English-speaking country

To study a degree at universities in English-speaking countries, students who come from countries where English is not the first language normally need to have passed the equivalent of the Cambridge CAE exam. For studying higher level qualifications (e.g. Master's, PHD etc...), many universities require that candidates need to have passed the equivalent of the Cambridge CPE exam. 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 21-year-old university graduate would be able to understand). And secondly, as universities require this qualification, the type of vocabulary 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 degree courses at universities.

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 degrees at university. So the vocabulary is very advanced and much of it (but not all) is academic.

Although I am a university graduate and well read (I do enjoy reading and expanding my knowledge), there have been occasions when I have come across words when teaching CPE to students which I didn't know the meaning of. This goes to show what level of vocabulary you need to have to do well in the exam.

Topics and the CPE exam

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

So to prepare yourself for the exam, you need to have good knowledge of the topics/subjects you are likely to find in the exam.

If you have done or studied for the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) exam, you are not going to be surprised with the topics that you will find used in the CPE exam. They are pretty much the same (which I will list later in this article).

You will find a wide variety of topics used in the different exercises in the exam. Although some of the topics which you could find used will be on things which are commonly known and talked about by most people (e.g. friendships, holidays etc...), many of them aren't. They will be on topics which are more specialised and generally known by people who have an interest in them or have studied them (e.g. design, ballet, business 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 CPE 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 CPE exam. But there are some topics which are more likely to be on the exam than others.

So I recommend that you make sure that you improve your knowledge and English vocabulary on 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 CPE 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 CPE 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.

To quickly learn what topic areas you personally need to improve on, do our topic quiz for the Proficiency exam.

Style of writing

It's not just the level of vocabulary used in the exercises in the exam that makes the CPE a lot more difficult than the CAE exam, it is also the style used in the pieces of reading or audio.

In the CAE exam you will find that the majority of the pieces of text used are expository. This is where the purpose is to explain a subject and the writer doesn't give their personal opinion. In the CPE exam, the pieces of reading often are a lot more descriptive, opinionated and expressive in style. This makes them more complex to understand, as meaning, feeling or opinion is generally implied by the writer's choice of words and phrases rather than directly and clearly expressed.

This means that in addition to reading articles on the topics mentioned above, you also need to read articles where the authors are expressing their personal opinion on some area of the topic which you trying to improve your knowledge on. This is due to these types of pieces of writing being more descriptive, opinionated and expressive in style.

In addition, although the majority of texts are generally articles in the exam, they also use some exerts out of novels or short stories which are extremely descriptive and expressive in nature.

Types of vocabulary

In addition to all of the above, you also should improve specific types of vocabulary as well. This is vocabulary which is not necessarily 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)
  • Descriptive adjectives (Advanced adjectives used to not only express emotions, but for also describing movements, senses, personalities, objects etc...)
  • Expressions (The meaning of idioms, sayings and expressions used in English (e.g. over the moon, like finding a needle in a haystack, when pigs fly etc...). This is very important for the exam.) If you want to learn and remember some expressions that are likely to be on the Proficiency exam, read our article called '50 Expressions for the CPE exam'.
  • 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...))

If you have done or studied for the CAE exam, you will already have a good knowledge of vocabulary connected to some of the above things. However, for the CPE 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 CPE exam, there is a 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.

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 an excellent level of English vocabulary (which you will have if you are studying for the CPE exam), 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 CPE 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 CPE exam'.