As a private EFL/ESL tutor, a good chunk of your work will come from students preparing for an English exam. Whether it be Cambridge, TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, Trinity or any other, it’s an important test.

Passing these exams means students have greater opportunities for work, study and travel in other countries, earning them better salaries and a higher standard of living. So they’re not to be taken lightly.

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However, from your point of view, they can be overwhelming. There’s a lot to think about when preparing for an exam, not to mention the expectation that you’ll make the difference between pass and fail.

If you have an exam prep class and are feeling uncertain, you’re in the right place. Here I’ll share my method for approaching major English exams. It won’t contain specific information about all the different exams, as that would make the article way too long. This is general guidance, which works in most cases.

This guide is part of my big series on how to become the best possible private EFL/ESL teacher.

Understand the aims and needs of your student(s)

Before anything else, you need to figure out a few key things:

  • When the student is taking the exam.
  • What the exact exam is (Cambridge First? IELTS? etc.)
  • What level of exam they are aiming for and if it is appropriate.
  • Why they are doing the exam.

Knowing when they will take the exam is vital for planning. Do you have a year? Or are they going to take it in one month?

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The exam provider and level of exam are important, too. Do they know which is the best company to go with, and are they sure which level they’re aiming for?

If you’re not sure, here’s a rule of thumb: If they need it for work/study in North America, go for the TOEFL. If they’re aiming for Europe or Asia the Cambridge exams (Preliminary, First, Advanced) are best, although IELTS is another good option (and also part of the Cambridge group).

And if they don’t know which level they’re at, consider doing a level test as part of your needs analysis.

Not sure what a needs analysis is? Read my article Needs Analysis for Private EFL/ESL Lessons: 12 step guide for all the details.

Also, try to figure out what motivates your student(s) to do this exam. Are they being forced to do it by school/work, or are they pushing themselves to succeed?

Establish expectations about the exam

You can’t guarantee anyone will pass an exam. As a tutor, there’s too much out of your control to ensure 100% success. Make sure your students understand this.

They’ve contracted you to help them, not to do the exam in their place. They still need to put in the work. And if parents are paying you, make sure they know you can’t guarantee anything.

Setting expectations and rules in a private EFL/ESL class is something you want to do right from the start. To learn the best way of doing it, read my article How to Set Rules & Expectations in Private EFL/ESL Classes.

And if you find yourself in the situation where someone is stubbornly set on taking an exam way above their level, let them know that they’ll have to work extra hard to pass.

But this doesn’t mean you’re free of responsibility as a tutor. Your job is to give students the best chance of success and, as a professional, you should do your utmost to help them.

Learn everything about the exam

Exams are strange beasts. While they purport to accurately test someone’s level of English, I’ve found a lot of the time, they end up testing how good you are at learning the exam.

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What do I mean by that? Here’s an example.

In the Cambridge First (formerly FCE) exam, which I’ve prepared several students for, the writing section is graded in four categories: Content, Communicative Achievement, Organisation and Language.

The last of these, Language, includes the use of grammar and vocabulary – what most people generally consider as determining the quality of English.

Content is essentially “did they answer the question?”, Communicative Achievement is about style and register (informal/formal) and Organisation is about sequencing ideas and using connectors.

This means 75% of the marks are based on things that aren’t directly related to the English language. They’re about form and style.

Without this knowledge, a private tutor might focus only on vocab and grammar. They’d inadvertently neglect the other three categories, and although the student might write an essay with extensive vocab and perfect grammar, they could still fail.

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This shows why you need to learn the exam. Here are some key things you need to research before planning anything:

  • What parts of the exam are there (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and how much do they contribute to the overall grade?
  • What’s the pass mark? Do you have to pass every single part, or is it a combined average?
  • What does the speaking test look like? Do they do it alone or with another student? What kind of tasks are there?
  • What questions appear in the reading/grammar, listening and writing?
  • How are the different parts assessed? Do some questions have double points?
  • What does the answer sheet look like. What are the word limits for writing tasks?

The major exams keep the same form and structure from year to year. However, beware of updates to the exam format, as every now and then, companies try to improve, meaning information can go out of date.

Get your hands on some practice papers

Example papers are your number one resource. Not only do they show you the format of the exam, but they give you clues about what kind of language might appear.

For most exams, you can download one or two free practice papers from the company website. If you have plenty of time before the exam, get a book. You can quite easily find an official exam prep textbook with several papers..

Before planning the curriculum, I like to do a practice paper myself. It really gets you into the mindset of what is expected in each task and what kind of language is required.

Plan your classes in waves

Preparation for the exam will depend on how much time you have. If you only have a few sessions, you’ll want to jump straight into intense study and practice exams. But if you have a year, you can take things slower.

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When I have lots of time, I like to plan in three waves. Here’s what they look like:

1st wave:

  • Start with a practice test. This tells me where students are right now and highlights strengths and weaknesses.
  • Focus on areas of grammar which are lacking for the required level.
  • Expand vocabulary (using Anki – find out more by reading my article Best Method to Improve EFL/ESL Students’ Vocabulary).
  • Slowly introduce tasks, explaining requirements and strategies. I’ll usually introduce two tasks each lesson, perhaps one reading and one listening, then the next week, one writing and one speaking.

The aim of the first wave is not to teach the exam inside out, but to make sure students have the right vocab, grammar, pronunciation and fluency to succeed.

2nd wave:

  • Do another practice test. Identify which parts are strong and which are weak. This informs what to focus on next.
  • Take a second look at each exam task, elaborating on specific strategies. Spend extra time on areas of weakness identified in the practice test.
  • Use plenty of exam material (practice paper questions) to continue adding to vocabulary and grammar. If certain words or structures appear regularly in the practice tests, they may well come up in the real one.
  • Grade speaking and writing tasks with the exam criteria. Make sure they’re confident about what type of questions will come up and how to deal with them.

For a detailed look at correcting writing tasks, check out my Best Method for Correcting EFL/ESL Writing: 9 Step Guide.

The second wave is about getting to know the exam. Making students aware of what questions will come up and how they’re graded will help them focus on the right things.

3rd wave:

  • Do several practice papers. This is where having a book of 5-6 comes in handy, as you never run out of material.
  • Focus intensely on any remaining major weaknesses.
  • Prioritise learning the exam rather than teaching broad grammar points or trying to cram lots of vocabulary.
  • Do a timed mock exam. Students need to get used to managing how long they have to do the tasks. Also, if possible, do a few mock speaking tests, recording them on video/audio and giving feedback.

The third and final wave is intense practice. It’s not particularly fun, and it’s not really teaching English anymore. You’re going all in on learning the exam.

How you use these waves depends on how much time you have.

If I have a school year (September to June) to prepare for the exam, with one class a week, I’ll spend 4 months (September to December) on the first wave, 4 months (January to April) on the second wave, and 2 months (May to June) on the third wave.

Obviously, if you only have one month, you can’t do this. Skip the first wave, and the majority of the second wave, and drill down on the third. You can’t expect to teach them masses of grammar and vocab, so assume they have enough and make sure they learn the exam.

A word of caution with the third wave. Avoid spending more than 8-10 classes at this level of intensity.

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First of all, it’s draining. With so much practice, you’re heightening stress levels. Too long like this and students will get burned out.

Also, it’s not the best type of English teaching. Personally, I’m not a big fan of it, because you’re not actually improving their proficiency with the language, just teaching them how to do an arbitrary set of questions.

Set homework, encourage self study and stay positive

Here are some final tips that you may find useful.

Set long, silent tasks as homework

I rarely have students do writing tasks in class. While it can be helpful for them to have you as a resource while writing, most of the session will be in silence without you really contributing. Get them to do writing and reading/grammar tasks for homework while you spend the class on more focused training.

Encourage students to study outside of class

You don’t have to be the only one helping them pass.

For all the major exams, there are countless blogs, YouTube videos and practice questions online for students to take advantage of. If they only have one class a week with you, what are they doing the rest of the time? Find these resources and urge them to engage with their own learning.

Stay positive throughout

With every student I’ve prepared for big exams, I’ve gone through a phase of despair. This is usually a month or two before the exam. Maybe they flopped a practice test, or just don’t quite seem to get the idea behind one of the tasks. It’s so frustrating.

But don’t give up. A lot of the time, things start to click into place when their minds are more immediately focused on the exam itself. People have a lot of things to think about, and only when the pressure is on, right before the exam, do they channel their concentration and put the pieces together.

Photo by Prateek Katyal:

What’s more, you’re their coach in this process. If you show that you’re losing confidence, your students will, too. You have to maintain that positivity and faith, just like all successful sports coaches do. Sometimes that attitude is the difference between success and failure.


Exam preparation is a journey. There are ups and downs, and a level of pressure you don’t get in other EFL/ESL classes.

It’s not my favourite thing to do. But having done it for long enough and sticking to the process I’ve described in this article, I’m pretty darn good at it now.

And it has its rewards. When students pass their exam and go on to study in their dream university, or get the promotion that lets their family afford a better lifestyle, your efforts become powerful and worthwhile. After all, that’s why we’re teachers.

Follow the links below to learn how to be the best private EFL/ESL tutor possible.
Ultimate Guide to Giving Great EFL/ESL Private Classes
Needs Analysis for Private EFL/ESL Lessons: 12 step guide
Principles of Designing Amazing Private EFL/ESL Lessons
Acing Your First Private EFL/ESL Class: 9 Steps to Success
Lesson Plans for First Private EFL/ESL Lesson (+ tips)
How to Set Rules & Expectations in Private EFL/ESL Classes
What to Do if Private EFL/ESL Students Won’t Participate
Getting EFL/ESL Exam Preparation Right: Tips for success
Give Amazing Private EFL/ESL Classes to Kids: 9 steps
7 Steps for Incredible Private EFL/ESL Conversation Classes
Teaching EFL/ESL Grammar: A guide for private tutors
5 Tips for Setting Homework in Private EFL/ESL Classes

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