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Everything you need to know about the CAE Exam

CAE Listening Introduction

The listening test has 4 parts and takes about 40 minutes. You normally have to do it after the Reading and Writing test, so you'll be quite tired. Every recording is played twice, but it's still a test of your concentration.

Here are some general tips before we look at each section in a little more detail.


Sometimes students get used to hearing their English teacher and think their listening skills are really good. But then comes the exam, and accents from all around Britain, America, New Zealand, etc. Suddenly it's not so easy! Avoid this by listening to English in all kinds of accents. Where? Movies, TV shows, Podcasts, Audiobooks.


Get used to predicting answers before you listen. Read the question, underline the key words, and then think what is the most likely answer. It doesn't matter if you're right or not - just predicting the answer helps you 'tune in' to the recording.


You might think there isn't much time management you can do in the listening test, but I disagree. Not everyone prepares for the CAE exam, so Cambridge have to explain what to do in a long, slow introduction. But since YOU know what to do, you can ignore the introduction and get started!

As soon as you are allowed to open the test paper, turn to section 1 and start underlining key words in the questions. Meanwhile, the other students will be listening to this:

“Now open your question paper and look at Part 1. PAUSE 5 SECONDS You’ll hear three different extracts. For questions 1–6, choose the answer (A, B, or C) which fits best according to what you hear. There are two questions for each extract. Extract One: You hear two friends discussing the topic of marketing. Now, look at questions one and two. PAUSE 15 SECONDS”

— Introduction to the Listening test

And you can skip the introductions to the other parts, too, when you get there.


Cambridge uses distractors to lead weaker students in the wrong direction. If you underline a key word in the answer and you hear that exact word in the recording, it's probably not the answer! Watch out for answers like 'The man lives in China' when the speaker says 'I used to live in China' or 'I always wanted to live in China'.


One of the best ways to improve (and to learn about distractors) is to read the transcript of the recording after you've done the exercise. In my experience, students never do this, and it's a real shame. Not only will you learn some vocabulary and grammar by studying the transcript, but you'll see which of Cambridge's traps you fell into.


A common mistake students make is to pick their answer and stick to it. You might be so sure that you've found the right answer, but you must be open-minded to the possibility you've fallen into a trap. You hear the recordings twice for a reason!

CAE Listening Part 1

Part 1 is a multiple-choice section. You hear people talking to each other and you have two questions about what you hear. There are three short recordings, which means a total of 6 questions to answer.

Here's a sample:

First, we have to underline keywords and predict what the answer might be.

I would be surprised if the answer was C, because who cares if the brochures look nice or not? A is more likely than C but I'm going to guess B. The point of the college brochure is to describe the courses, so that's probably what's most important to these friends.

Here is a transcript of what they say. (F = female speaker; M = male.)

Let's start by reading the transcript in terms of answer C (visually attractive). We have the words glossy brochures and trying to attract interest. These seem to be phrases about the attractiveness of the brochures, but the friends don't disagree about that, so that can't be the answer.

What about B? Well, they don't mention the descriptions of the courses at all! Almost the whole discussion is about the environmental rating system. The woman says it wouldn't impact her choice of course, but the man says he might consider it. They disagree! So the answer is A.

Remember that when you've listened twice and checked your answer to question 6, immediately turn to part 2 and start reading the questions!

CAE Listening Part 2

Part 2 is called 'sentence completion'. Someone talks on a topic for about 3 minutes. You have to show you understand what he says by filling in the gaps in 8 sentences. Like this:

Remember I said you should use your preparation time to predict answers? Let's do it now. We know that we will hear from a guy called Josh and the intro tells us he was going to research botany in South Africa. Apart from his academic writing, what else might Josh write about?

Josh planned to write a:

  • travel guide

  • website

  • article

  • some crossword puzzles

  • his autobiography

  • crime story

  • the script for a movie

Well, we haven't heard the recording yet, but we can already eliminate some of those answers. First, the answer can't be 'website' because the next part of the question is 'for a website'. He isn't going to write a website for a website! Be sure to read the whole sentence and make sure your answer fits grammatically!

Next, it can't be 'article' because the question says 'a' and article must be preceded by 'an'. The answer could be 'good article', though. Similarly, his autobiography doesn't fit.

Finally, 'the script for a movie' is too long. Answers are normally between one and three words.

Let's 'listen' to the recording.

There are three types of writing mentioned there - diary, blog, report.

Alarm! This is a classic case of Cambridge distractors! By mentioning three different types of writing they make it easy for weak students to make a mistake. Look closely - two of the possible answers are things he didn't write.

So the answer is 'report'.

Was it useful to predict the answer at the beginning? After all, we didn't think of a diary, blog, or report in the prediction stage. The answer is yes -listening for a specific piece of information is much easier than listening to the whole recording. Try it a few times and I'm sure you'll agree with me.

CAE Listening Part 3

Part 3 is another multiple choice activity (like part 1), but this time there's only one recording and it's quite long - up to 4 minutes. The format is often an interview. There are 6 questions. (In the exam the question numbers are 15-20.)


  • You hear the answers in the order of the questions. In other words, the first answer comes at the start of the recording and the last answer is at the end.

  • As soon as part 2 is over, turn to part 3 and start reading the questions. This is the section with the most text so the more time you can spend reading, the better. Start by reading the question stems and if you have time, go back and start reading the choices. Underline key words.

  • As always, Cambridge use distractors in this section. Be very suspicious of 'exact match' phrases. If option C uses the word 'abundant' and one of the speakers uses the word 'abundant', it's probably not the answer.

  • Eliminate answers that are clearly wrong. Often it's possible to eliminate 3 of the 4 choices, so you can get the answer even if you don't know the meaning of a certain word.

  • There will be words you don't know. You have to develop the skill of guessing what words mean based on context.

How to Study for Part 3

A lot of this section is about understanding how people feel about certain topics. What are their attitudes and opinions? Get out your grammar/vocabulary books and study the following things:


"Jack regretted eating his girlfriend's chocolate."

"Thierry admitted he had cheated to win."

"Sally resents being made to learn the piano."

Here are all the reporting verbs from just one practice exam: emphasise, agree, support, compare, suggest, criticise. Could it be worth an hour of extra revision on that topic?


"I'm frustrated by the poor battery life of my phone. All phones are like this nowadays, so I guess it isn't unexpected. But I hoped it would be better and now I'm a bit disappointed."


"I'm completely convinced that everyone will have a robot in the future."

"I find that doubtful. It's more likely that only rich people will have the money and the space in their homes."

Case Study

In this listening test, two journalists are talking about their work.

In the exam I'd underline some key words, (e.g. satisfied, good work, recognised) then make some quick predictions about what the answer might be. For most people the response would be D - 'I'm happy I got a new job but what if it's too hard for me? What if I can't do it?'

Here's what Jenny actually says:

Let's start by eliminating some answers. It's definitely not B because Jenny worried it would only be a short-term appointment - the opposite of relieved! And we can cross out D because she says she DID have the nerve and experience to do the job. What about A? Well, she talks about other work she had done, but there's nothing about that work being recognised. In fact, she only got the job because the previous guy had been involved in a scandal.

However she got the job, she was desperate to hold onto it and believed she had the skills to do it. The quality she expresses is determination. Boom! Another point in the listening test!

CAE Listening Part 4

Part 4 is my favourite part of the Listening test because it causes such chaos and confusion in my classes. Normally that would be a bad thing, but I can't help laughing. I hope this explanation will be clearer than the ones I give in my lessons...

Here's what the same task looks like in the Cambridge English: First (FCE) exam. You have to listen and say why each speaker changed their job.

For example, speaker 1 says, "I had to quit my job because I was working 7 days a week and I was close to burnout." Then you write 'E' in box 21. Easy, right? You'll notice that there are more possible answers than questions - there are three you shouldn't use.

Here's what it looks like at CAE level:

On the left is Task One: 'Why people changed their jobs'. On the right is Task Two: 'How they feel about their new jobs'. You have to do both Task One and Task Two at the same time.

So maybe speaker 1 says, "I had to quit my job because I was working 7 days a week and I was close to burnout. But then I started working as a janitor in a school, cleaning toilets and picking up litter. I can't believe how happy it's made me - now I can go home at 4 o'clock and all the stress I had before is gone."

In box 21 you should write 'E', and in box 26 you should write 'C' (delighted by a change in lifestyle).

Warning! This is possible: "I recently started working as a janitor in a school, cleaning toilets and picking up litter. I can't believe how happy it's made me - now I can go home at 4 o'clock and all the stress I had before is gone. I had to quit my old job because I was working 7 days a week and I was close to burnout."

It's almost exactly the same, but with the answer to Task Two coming before the answer to Task One. Just to keep you on your toes!


Some students do Task One when listening the first time and Task Two when the recording is replayed. That works for some people but I don't recommend it. It's not the optimal method - What if someone sneezes or coughs during the replay and you miss a key word or phrase?

For most students, I'd advise doing both tasks simultaneously.

Note - Cambridge have done research that shows both methods work equally well! You should try both to see which is better for you.

Case Study

Here's what speaker 1 actually says.

And here are my notes about that:

For Task One (on the left) there are distractors about colleagues (who were familiar, not unfriendly); holiday entitlement (which she got a lot of); and challenge (the job was challenging enough for her). The key phrase is that the job was 'pretty pointless'. That's the same as lacking (i.e. not having) a sense of purpose.

Task Two also has distractors. Some students would get confused about the 'early results' because they would think the feeling of calm was at the beginning (whereas actually, it was after 6 months). Some students would latch onto 'financially rewarding' and choose F (though the speaker means the opposite). And so on, until we get to D, relieved the initial uncertainty is over. That matches 'after six months of panic, I feel much calmer'.

Note that I wouldn't cross out answers A, B, D, etc as shown in this picture - they might be the answers for other speakers. It's just to show the thought process.

When Part 4 is Over

After part 4 is repeated, you get 5 minutes to copy your answers from the question paper to the answer sheet. If you have any blank spaces at this point, just guess. You never lose points for incorrect answers.

Be very, very careful to put your answers in the RIGHT SPACES. It's an easy mistake to make. Imagine you didn't know the answer to the 2nd question in part 4. That's question number 22 in the exam. You might write the answer from question 23 in the space for question 22, and then all the rest of the answers will be in the wrong place!

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