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Five Tips for Confident Speaking Exams!

Speaking exams are a frightening thought for most candidates. In IELTS, you are alone with the examiner while in the Cambridge exams you may be working with another candidate who you have never met before! Add the fact that these exams can be make-or-break in terms of your academic or professional career and you can end up with a situation that feels very scary.

Read this post for five tips to help you stay calm and centred during your exam.

Give yourself plenty of time to prepare! There are many times when I have been asked to help someone prepare for IELTS ……… a week before the exam. In my opinion, this is too late for any real change or progress to take place. If you are working for an exam such as IELTS, you need to allow yourself a lot of time to get ready, possibly far more time than you realise before you begin. You will have a lot to learn and practice on the journey to exam success so give yourself plenty of time.

To help you figure out how much time you need, you can consider that in a good language school, a Cambridge exam course might last for 3 months with students doing 28 hours study a week in school plus homework. This means that it takes about 400 hours for a student who is already at the right level to prepare for an exam. You can use this rule to work out how much time you need:

400 hours ÷ hours available per week to study = number of weeks needed to prepare

Visualise your success

When we visualise something, we imagine it in our minds. I'm fairly sure that most exam candidates visualise their upcoming exam many times before it actually happens. However, I'm also fairly sure that most of this visualising is full of fear, worry and anxiety. When candidates do this, they are setting themselves up to fail. Their minds are producing negative thoughts and feelings about their exam and doing this only makes feelings of anxiety stronger. Instead, practice visualising the exam in a positive way! See yourself walking into the exam room feeling confident in your abilities. Hear yourself greeting the examiner. Feel the chair beneath you as you sit down. Use your imagination to create a picture or sense of the room and the people there. Most of all, concentrate on feeling positive, confident and focussed on your language. Make this feeling as strong as possible. Practice this every day.

Examiners are individuals (and you are not a mind reader) Candidates often worry about the examiner and the way they have responded to something the candidate said in the exam. I have heard candidates say things like:

  • The examiner interrupted me all the time

  • The examiner didn't ask me many questions

  • The examiner didn't smile at me

  • The examiner didn't like me

While there may be reasons for an examiner interrupting you (are your answers too long?) or not asking many questions (are they just listening to your English?), the truth is that all examiners are individual people. Although they have been trained to assess for their particular exam, they are still individuals with different ways of responding to the candidates they interview. On top of that, they have bad days too! They get hungry and tired just like you do! It is very easy for candidates to 'project' their nerves onto the examiner and to then interpret the examiner's behaviour as something negative. In fact, you don't know what the examiner is thinking or feeling. Instead of worrying about this, concentrate on yourself and your language.

Focus on your message, not your mistakes This is possibly the biggest problem exam candidates have! I have seen so many super-advanced exam candidates literally lose all their fluency as soon as we start doing exam practice tasks.

The reason for this?

Because instead of concentrating on communicating their thoughts and ideas, they suddenly start monitoring their language for mistakes. This slows their speaking down and actually makes them less accurate, not more! Yes, accuracy is important in speaking exams, but it is only part of your grade. Fluency and coherence are equally important and both suffer when candidates put all their attention on their accuracy. The best solution is to concentrate on communicating your thoughts and ideas and allow your accuracy to take care of itself (if you give yourself enough preparation time, this should happen naturally).

Remember to BREATHE!

When we are nervous, we have a tendency to take quick, shallow breaths. Unfortunately, those quick, shallow breaths can make us feel even more nervous and can also make our voice sound very weak. Whenever you can in your exam, perhaps when the examiner is asking a question or when your partner is speaking, see if you can take one or two slower, longer breaths. And before your exam, you can try making your outbreath slightly longer than your inbreath - this tricks your body into thinking that 'danger is over!' and therefore helps you to relax!

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