The Michigan ECPE Survival Guide

How to do well in the different sections of the Michigan ECPE test of English and how best to prepare for the ECPE exam.

ECPE Listening

In general, don't underestimate the listening. It can be very difficult. To make it especially difficult the University of Michigan puts the questions for part three of the listening test (and only part three has questions) on the CD and it puts them at the end of the relevant dialog.

To improve the ease of understanding spoken English movie dialogs with American accents provide useful material. This will particularly help in parts one and two of the ECPE listening test, where the language is everyday conversational English.

For part three, with its longer and more technical dialogs, listening to discussions on news and current affairs programs or documentaries should help.

Note-taking for part three is something else that will need practice. With the long ECPE dialogs the instructions are that students can take notes and there is space on the test booklet for this. One technique is to ignore the answer choices and just try to identify and remember (and note down where necessary) the points that seem to be the most important. Another technique is to look at the answer choices while listening to the dialog and try to connect them with what is said (although the connection is not always clear). Some people will find that this technique helps them focus their listening more effectively.

Remember when taking notes to just use the shortest possible abbreviations – just a few letters and symbols (like arrows for things going up and down, for instance) instead of whole words and sentences. You just need enough to jog your memory a few minutes later. If you have three dates as the answer choices for one question, for instance, make a very brief note next to them of what they refer to so you don't get mixed up later.

Making notes can also help you keep calm and keep a clear head. It can help you focus on what is being said now instead of panicking about how difficult it will be to remember everything that was said earlier.

As general practice for taking notes (without ECPE-type questions) you could listen to part of a documentary (a five or 10-minute segment, say) and make enough notes so that you can tell your partner the most important things that were said, including the most important dates and facts.

To do well in the exam you really have to concentrate, which means you have to have a clear mind with no troubling thoughts once the examiner presses the 'play' button. If you are the sort of person that has problems keeping a clear head in situations like this you might consider following in the footsteps of Ricky Martin and doing a few yoga classes.


With 120 questions in 75 minutes (allowing time for carefully filling in the computer-marked answer sheet) students have to work at a brisk pace. Here are some points to bear in mind:

Grammar: The material tested in the 40 grammar multiple choice questions is much more limited and so more predictable than the material that can come up in the other sections of the GCVR so it is easier to do well in this section. Most students will need to get more than 65% because the mark in the vocabulary section may well be below 65%. This is a reason both for being especially well prepared and for taking a little more time over the grammar questions to avoid falling into too many of the traps so cunningly laid by the examiners at Michigan.

Cloze: Students need to realize that, in large part, this is a test of comprehension. The questions avoid tricky vocabulary but the passages are written so that students who don't have a good understanding of what is being said will get the answers wrong. Hence, it is best to have a quick look at the passage first to get some idea of what it is saying, and then, while filling in the blanks, try to piece together a detailed understanding of the meaning of the whole passage.

Vocabulary: Be prepared for quite a few words here that you might not recognize at all. When trying to build up your vocabulary prior to the exam, bear in mind that although the reading passages tend to be scientific and technical, the vocabulary tested in the GCVR is much more general. In the ECPE here is a preference for less common formal expressions.

Here are three typical ECPE questions from 2004.

She always gets what she wants because she
knows how to _____ the rules.
a. circumvent
b. desert
c. slack
d. elicit

I tried to catch the mouse, but it was too _____
for me.
a. intentional
b. obsolete
c. uncommon
d. elusive

Peter does everything himself because he
doesn't like to _____ control.
a. extinguish
b. relinquish
c. vanish
d. elicit

There is no need to panic if you have not come across: circumvent, elusive and relinquish. The chances are that you will have come across some of the other answer choices and you should be able to understand what each sentence means. With this knowledge you should quickly be able to eliminate one or two possible answers for each tricky question. If you can get the choices down to two likely words and then just guess, you may well have a 50:50 chance of getting it right, which is excellent.

Because there is not much to think about here – you either know the answer or you don't – there is no point spending extra time on this section. You should speed through the vocabulary section to leave more time to get a high mark in the final reading section. If you don't immediately know the right answer, eliminate choices that are almost certainly wrong, then guess and move on.

Reading: The four reading passages in the ECPE are very short with only five multiple choice questions each. Generally speaking, this is an area where students can get high marks, which can compensate for problems elsewhere.

The topics are often scientific and technical but they don't presuppose any advanced scientific knowledge. The comprehension exercises are really testing your ability to deal with the unfamiliar, and that's what you need to practise before the exam. Read passages that are at the limits of your understanding and try to work out what they are saying. But don't then assume that you must memorize all the new technical terms. There is a risk that if you concentrate too much on the technical terminology your general English will suffer.

To prepare for the ECPE exam it will be worth reading a fair number of short articles that briefly explain the latest scientific advances to the general reader. There are a number of sites on the web that collect articles like this. One that we use often is

In the exam the best way to tackle the reading exercises is to read the passages carefully before worrying about the questions (which will be in the wrong order anyway). The texts are very short and if you have understood what is said it should then be relatively easy to locate the parts of the text referred to by each question and choose the right answer.


Ideally ECPE students should be prepared to write both argumentative essays and descriptive pieces dealing with their personal experiences. Although it may seem easier to write about personal experiences, good descriptive writing needs a rich vocabulary and there is more of a risk that students will write rambling pieces that get low marks because they lack structure.

Seeing that there are two questions to choose from and there will always be at least one argumentative essay question, some students may make the tactical decision not to prepare to write a descriptive composition.

The University of Michigan makes so-called benchmark essays - genuine essays from past ECPE exams - available on its website so that teachers and students can see the level to aim for. These are worth looking at.

When developing their essay writing skills students should …

  • show an appreciation for some of the complexities of the topic. According to comments on the Michigan website, examiners want to see that students explore some of the complexities of the topic they have been asked to write about, so students should not think that the simplest, most superficial ideas are all they need.
  • plan – a good ECPE essay needs two or three good ideas that can be developed into paragraphs in the main body of the essay, and these need to be chosen carefully and ordered in the planning stage. Examiners will not be kind to candidates who obviously begin writing about the first idea that comes into their head and then change track or repeat themselves in the essay.
  • compose their compositions with some care. Examiners do not just look at individual sentences; they want to see a good beginning, main body and end.
  • develop their main ideas. With very short essays like this there is a risk of paragraphs being little more than lists of loosely related aspects of the topic. Instead of listing lots of undeveloped ideas it is much better to choose one main idea for a paragraph and then develop it, pointing out the consequences, the presuppositions, the problems of putting something into practice, etc, etc.
  • include a few more complex sentence structures. Students will have learnt a long list of inversions, less frequent conditionals, participle phrases and linking devices, and they should find opportunities to use two or three in their essays. (See the brief list of impressive ECPE essay structures on this site.)
  • do all this in just 30 short minutes, or preferably…
  • do it in less than 30 minutes so that there is time at the end for the quickest of checks to spot those silly mistakes that we all make when we are in a rush.


(See our long analysis of the new ECPE speaking test for details of this part of the exam.)

Students will need to practise:

  • talking about themselves
  • asking their partner about his or her interests and ambitions, etc.
  • asking the interviewer questions as part of a genuine three-way conversation
  • speaking for a couple of minutes to expand notes on a number of options
  • taking notes while their partner describes his/her options
  • discussing the pros and cons of different options with their partner
  • planning a presentation together with their partner
  • making a formal presentation of a chosen option
  • defending the chosen option in the face of criticism or skepticism

Students need to know that the priority here is fluency combined with a rhythm of speech approaching that of the native speaker. Although in other parts of the exam it is the big words that matter, in the speaking test it is better not to worry about trying to use some of those many difficult words that were learnt for the GCVR. Students should be content sticking to a simpler vocabulary if that enables them to demonstrate greater fluency.

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