Top Tips for Preparing for the Cambridge Advanced Use of English Exam Questions

Without proper preparation and plenty of practice, the Use of English questions in the Cambridge Advanced (CAE) exam can be tricky, even for native speakers. You will need to work on your technique, as well as expand the range of language you use to get good marks.

Here are some of our favourite tips to help students improve both their exam technique and also their control and range of grammar and vocabulary.

A. Build your vocabulary using flashcards and quizlet

Many of our students who have achieved the highest marks in the final exam are those who have used flashcards to expand their vocabulary. What are flashcards? These are usually small cards that contain the vocabulary item on one side, and a sentence with a missing gap, or a definition, or a translation on the other side. For example:

Vocabulary Flashcards | CAE exam tips

With these flashcards, you can test yourself whenever and wherever you are, whether you’re on the bus, or having a quiet coffee or taking a stroll at lunchtime.

You can also make your own cards online with a great website and app called quizlet. Quizlet even has a bank of ready made flashcards that already focus on the Cambridge Advanced. These ones in particular are in the style of the Cambridge Advanced exam to help test your technique as well.

You will certainly be tested on your knowledge of collocations in the exam. What is a collocation? A collocation is a group of words that commonly go together. For example,

to pay     someone back


someone a compliment

one’s respects

someone a visit

Making regular paper flashcards is a great way to help remind you of such collocations. But Quizlet goes further and allows you to search for ready-made sets of cards. Try looking for cards using the search criteria “CAE”. That should throw up sets like this one here.

B. Building word families

The word formation part of the exam can be tricky because you may not know the change word that is needed, or you may think it’s a word that is similar to a word in your own language, but the actual answer turns out not to be the same.

So, what we suggest here at Atlas is to build word families with new words that you encounter. If you see a new word, think about the different word forms. That is, think about what the verb, noun, adjective and adverb form is… if they exist in the first place. Here’s an example.

Word Families |CAE Use of English

Here’s an extra tip when building word families. To form new words you may have to:

  1. Add a prefix: Un – Unreliable
  2. Add a suffix: -ity – Responsibility
  3. Make an internal change: Speak (verb) – Speech (noun)

In the CAE exam, you will be tested on less frequently used prefixes and suffixes, so make sure you notice and take note of them too. Here are some examples:


  • multi – e.g., multicultural
  • trans – e.g., transatlantic
  • over – e.g., overrated


  • -ish – e.g., childish
  • -hood – e.g., likelihood
  • -lessness – e.g., hopelessness

C. Know your grammar!

In the exam, you are expected to have good control of all the common grammar items you would find up to the B2 upper-intermediate level. But you will be further tested on your accurate use of grammar items that you may only have encountered for the first time at the C1 advanced level. We usually advise our students that if you move from a Cambridge B2 First class straight to an Advanced exam preparation exam without having completed a full C1 Advanced General English course, you will have difficulties getting the high scores you want in the exam. So, it’s a good idea to take a C1 general English course before preparing for the Advanced exam, especially if you passed the Cambridge First with a grade C.

Here are grammatical features that are often covered in Cambridge Advanced courses, and that you could well be get tested on in the Advanced exam:

List taken from “Exam English – Grammar to study at each CEF level

D. The tricky key word transformation

In the previous tip, we mentioned that you will need to know the grammar you are being tested on. This is particularly so when it comes to being able to form correct key word transformation answers – that’s part 4 in the Reading / Use of English paper. For this question, there are a few things to remember. First, you need to make at least two changes to form the correct sentence, but you mustn’t change the key word. It is also integral that the meaning remains the same. Also, don’t forget that this question is worth two points so, even if you only get some of it right, you could get at least 1 point. Make sure you write something, even if it is just a guess!

Let’s look at an example below:

David thought it unfair that his team resented him for not scoring a goal.


David thought it unfair that his team should ………. for not scoring a goal.

And the correct answer is:

– hold it against him

And here’s how we arrived at the answer:

  • Resent – changed to – Phrasal verb: hold against
  • Both a direct and an indirect pronoun are used – hold it against him

As a final, extra tip in the area of grammar, when doing practice papers do take a note of the grammar or language that you’re being tested on and if you’re not familiar with the structure, then you really have to do your research. Learn more about that particular language item as you may well be tested on it again. The Flo-Joe website has exercises that provide you with good practice exercises for this part of test.

E. Improve your Open/Cloze!

A mistake that some people make when trying to complete the part 2 open-cloze questions in the Reading /  Use of English paper is that you might write words in the gaps words that are really unlikely to ever be needed in that part.

Here is a list of the types of function words and some examples of each one.

 Function words  Examples
 Pronouns  You, him, her, etc.
 Relative pronouns  Which, that, where, who, etc.
 Reflexive pronouns  Myself, yourself, itself, ourselves, etc.
 Articles  A, an, the
 Determiners/quantifiers  Much, many, fewer, all, enough
 Linking words  But, however, despite, as, etc.
 Time clauses  When, while, then, etc.
 Prepositional phrases  Apply for, All of a sudden, in proximity, etc.
 Phrasal verbs  Get along, get over, get on, etc.


 Take sbd for granted, take responsibility, take a break, etc.
 Modals  must, could, should, may, might, can, ought
 Auxiliaries  do, did, does

We strongly recommend that you take note of the collocations and other chunks of language that you are not familiar with every time you do an open/cloze exercise. By ‘noticing’ in this way, you will start to see the types of function words that are required in this part 2 open-cloze exam question.

In sum, then, to score well in the Use of English parts of the Cambridge English Advanced exam you will need a good C1 level of language awareness. Work on building up the range of grammar patterns you understand and can comfortably use. But also practise as much as possible before the exam. More so than with any other paper, practising the Use of English questions will help you expand your range of language and develop your exam technique.

If you are also looking for advice on the other parts of the CAE exam make sure you follow our blog series with many useful blog posts such as our top tips for preparing the speaking exam or the writing exam.

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