The Michigan ECPE English Exam

The ECPE exam from the University of Michigan in the U.S. is intended for students who are close to achieving an excellent level of fluency in English. As the "P" in ECPE indicates, this is supposed to be a test of proficiency (as opposed to a test of mere competence, which is what the ECCE is). In the European framework the level is known as C2 and elsewhere referred to as level 5.

On this large page you will find more information to help you understand what sort of exam the Michigan ECPE is. Click the links below to go directly to the relevant sections on this page.

The C2/proficiency level

The Cambridge University handbook gives a good description of this level (and it applies to all proficiency-level exams, not just the Cambridge ones). It says that at C2 level, typical users can be expected to:

  • understand with ease virtually everything they hear and read
  • make accurate and complete notes during a presentation
  • understand colloquial language*
  • talk about complex and sensitive issues without awkwardness
  • express themselves precisely and fluently.

(*To explain: If you understand a fair amount of colloquial English and someone says to you (after you've just made someone angry) "You've really put your foot in it now," you don't look down at your shoes.)

The Cambridge handbook may seem at first sight to set the bar too high, but don't forget that C2/level 5 is meant to be the top. A good mark in a proficiency-level exam is meant to indicate that your English skills are close to those of an educated native speaker.

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ECPE Overview

The ECPE exam is relatively short, lasting only about 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Candidates are given half an hour to write a short essay, choosing from two topics dealing with familiar and not too technical issues (the environment, crime, education, etc). The emphasis here is on the ability to analyse an issue and present a brief argument that expresses your opinion.

The listening paper lasts around 35-40 minutes and has a total of 50 questions (all multiple choice) divided into three sections. In one section you hear a brief statement and then have to choose the most suitable response from a choice of three (a response that would complete a mini-dialogue). Another section consists of very short dialogues after which candidates have to choose one of three possible comments. The final section has three much longer dialogues, often about something technical (e.g. a new scientific discovery), and after each dialogue there are five comprehension questions with a choice of three answers for each. Note: the questions are heard on the CD but are not printed in the exam booklet and everything on the CD is heard only once.

This combines grammar, cloze, vocabulary and reading. Candidates have 75 minutes to answer 120 questions: 40 grammar questions, one cloze passage with 20 gaps, 40 vocabulary questions and then four short reading passages with five questions each. All the questions are multiple choice with four options. Scientific topics occur frequently in the reading passages but the vocabulary questions tend to avoid technical terminology and limit themselves to less common items from general (but challenging) English.

The oral exam (the ECPE speaking test, as it is known in Michigan) is often done on a separate day and lasts 25-35 minutes. There are two candidates and two examiners. After a short discussion about the candidates' studies/work/interests etc the two candidates have to work their way through a rather long multi-stage task which always involves choosing between four options (choosing one person for a job from a short list of four, for instance).

For more details, see our advice about the ECPE Speaking Test.

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How is the Michigan ECPE exam marked?

The passmark for each section of the ECPE is approximately 65%. Bear in mind that you need to pass every section. If you make a mess of one section, you can't make up for that by doing brilliantly in the other sections.

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How does the Michigan ECPE compare to the Cambridge CPE?

The Cambridge CPE differs in both form and content from the Michigan ECPE. As far as the content is concerned, the Cambridge exam has a taste for literature, so the reading section, for instance, will often include a passage from an English novel. The writing section of the exam includes the option to write about a novel. The expectation is that CPE students will have an interest in English literature and will have read a few novels. In my opinion, if you are not the sort of person who would genuinely enjoy reading an English novel, then the Cambridge CPE is not the exam for you.

By comparison, the Michigan ECPE doesn't include literary passages. Reading passages tend to be scientific and technical.

As for the form of the exams, the Cambridge CPE is much longer and more complex in its mix of exercises. The Cambridge exam takes 5 hours and 59 minutes - more than twice the length of the ECPE. Whereas the ECPE relies on multiple choice questions (MCQs), the Cambridge CPE includes completely open questions where candidates have to come up with their own answers (the sentence transformation exercise is an example of this).

The Cambridge writing paper is also much more demanding. Instead of one very short essay written in 30 minutes for the ECPE, the Cambridge CPE demands two longer pieces of writing written in two hours - forms of writing that might include: articles, formal letters, proposals, reports, reviews and essays.

Cambridge examiners, though, are much nicer when they are marking. If a candidate is a little weak in one part of the exam but very good in the others, there is a good chance that he or she will pass.

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How does the Michigan ECPE compare to IELTS?

Both the ECPE and IELTS have a similar academic focus, with no literary English (no extracts from English novels and no requirement to write about novels).

The ECPE is only intended for proficiency-level candidates, but the IELTS is intended to cover a wider range of abilities. Instead of awarding a pass or a fail, as in the ECPE, IELTS awards a grade from one to nine. A score of 7.5 is recognised as a C2/proficiency-level grade.

ECPE candidate who have good English but not quite good enough for the ECPE come away with nothing. With the IELTS EVERYBODY GETS A CERTIFICATE.

There is no grammar or vocabulary section in the IELTS exam. It has four sections: one to see if you can read and comprehend, a second to see if you can write an essay, a third to see if you can listen, and a fourth to see if you can have a conversation in English. Which is as it should be.

The Michigan ECPE is American (so all the speakers in the listening section tend to have American accents). IELTS is mainly British so the use of American accents is rare.

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Where can I get the official sample ECPE test papers?

Sample materials can be downloaded from the University of Michigan English Language Institute website: The University of Michigan has so far only offered one genuine past paper as a sample for future students to download and become acquainted with.

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