Vocabulary Used in FCE Exams

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

However, you don't need to have a very high level of knowledge (like a native speaker) if you want to pass this exam. And you don't need to know vocabulary about every topic/subject either.

To help you improve your English vocabulary for the exam, below I will explain what vocabulary it is better to focus on learning and explain some things about the vocabulary in the exam which will help when doing the different parts of it.

Topics used in the exam

Although in the different exercises in the exam you can find very different types of topics used (one could be on education, another on climate change etc...), the good thing for you is that these will normally only be about things which are commonly spoken about. Topics which most people know or talk about (both in English and other languages). For example, you could find parts of the exam which talk about holidays, films, work etc...

You won't find topics which the majority of people would know little about or are controversial. So, you won't find parts of the exam which are about science (apart from the environment), politics, religion, paintings or design.

Some common topics in exams

From looking at the past exams, there are a number of topics which are often used in the exam. And below is a list of these topics:

  • The environment (vocabulary connected to the weather, climate change, pollution, recycling, animals, plants, different types of habitats (deserts, sea, urban (e.g. towns and cities) etc...)
  • Work (vocabulary connected to different types of jobs and places of work, applying for a job, what people do in work etc...)
  • Technology (vocabulary connected to the internet, social networks, using computers etc...)
  • Entertainment (vocabulary connected to films/movies, books, music, concerts etc...)
  • Travel (vocabulary connected to ways of travelling, going on holiday, problems connected to travelling etc...)
  • Social activities and hobbies (vocabulary connected to sports, hobbies, restaurants, shopping etc...)
  • Education (vocabulary connected to studying at school and university)
  • Family and relationships (vocabulary connected to family, friends and other types of relationships)

If you want to improve your knowledge of vocabulary for the exam, these are the things that I recommend that you focus on learning. It is no problem if you learn vocabulary on other topics when studying for the FCE exam, but the probability that you will find them used in the exam is going to be low.

Types of vocabulary

In addition to focusing on learning the vocabulary connected to specific topics for the exam, there is also some types of vocabulary which is commonly used in the exam as well. So, I would recommend you make sure that you know vocabulary connected to the following:

  • Feelings (vocabulary used by people to express how they feel physically and emotionally)
  • 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. although, due to, in case etc...)). If you want to learn and remember some linkers that are very likely to be on the First Certificate exam, read our article called 'Linkers for the FCE Exam'.
  • Common phrasal verbs (the meaning and uses of some commonly used phrasal verbs (e.g. find out, set up, break down))

Like with the topics, I recommend that you make sure that you have a good knowledge of these before you do the exam.

To learn more about the phrasal verbs used in the FCE exam, read our article called 'Phrasal Verbs in the FCE Exam'.

The level of language in the exam

You are not expected to have a very large knowledge of English vocabulary to pass this exam. In my opinion, the level of vocabulary they use in the exam, is very similar to what schools use when teaching subjects to around 14-year-old children in English-speaking countries. So the vocabulary that you will find used or be expected to use (in the writing and speaking parts of the exam) in the exam is not too complex or advanced vocabulary.

In my experience, the level of most vocabulary used in the First Certificate Exam is similar to what you will find in books or courses for an intermediate (B1) level of English.

The difference between knowledge and use of vocabulary

An important thing to know is that to pass the FCE 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 FCE Exam'.

To learn what grammatical structures you need to know, read our article called 'Improve your Grammar for the FCE 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 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 both what type of vocabulary and topics you need to focus on and what level of vocabulary you need to know, makes it easier for you to prepare for exam. But you also need to know where to find the right material and what to do to learn 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 FCE exam'.