06 Apr. 2023

From A2 to C1 in Just a Year and a Half

Marina Meleshko & Julia Polkhov

From A2 to C1 in Just a Year and a Half

foreword by Julia

By the time we started preparing for the FCE, Marina and I had been working together for a while (we had already completed levels B1 and B2). So, I knew exactly where we stood going into the exam. Marina has always been a diligent student. She would soak up tons of vocabulary, immediately apply it in our lessons, and make massive strides in her language skills—it was a joy to watch. Achieving an excellent result was inevitable for her, but we still needed to fine-tune her extensive knowledge to perfection. In this article, Marina will share her experience of preparation, and I'll provide commentary.

Why Did You Decide to Take the Exam?
Initially, the idea of taking the exam came to me while reading similar long-form articles. It's funny, when we first started lessons and my English level was too low to even consider taking an exam, I was already aiming for B2 as the logical end goal for my learning journey. To be honest, I see limited practical applications for the certificate at this moment. Sure, I can flaunt my C1 level on LinkedIn, which I did as soon as the excitement settled. Theoretically, it could help me get a work visa in the UK, but relocating, immigrating, or furthering my studies are not in my immediate plans—although who knows? Still, I've always felt at a disadvantage for not knowing English. It seemed like all my classmates had been learning it since first grade, putting me at a perceived disadvantage. Spoiler: I was wrong.

Julia's Commentary

By the time we finished the upper-intermediate course, Marina had already solidified her B2 level. I was confident she could excel in the exam, as she had all the skills needed: her written work was strong, her command of grammar and vocabulary was excellent, and her speaking performance in lessons was impressive. So, we spent about three months preparing for the exam itself—primarily getting used to the format, working on the speaking section, and practicing writing two solid essays within the time limit.

How Did the Preparation Go?
The first thing I realized when we began preparing for the exam is how weird it felt, just like any other exam. Some of the tasks were so absurd that it made me wonder what the creators were thinking. Homework often involved listening exercises and sometimes reading, where the key to answering correctly was to grasp the questioner's line of thought rather than rely on common sense. As if real life doesn’t already give us enough of that, now homework was adding to it. We didn’t drill for the exam, but this seemed to be the very aspect that required drilling.

The second challenge was Julia's expectations. She demanded the level of performance that I was capable of, not just what would suffice for me. Go back to the previous section: I needed validation of my level without any grand plans for the certificate, not a high score.

Speaking was particularly intense in this regard. We would repeat exercises until Julia was satisfied with the result. Once, I almost reached my emotional breaking point (this was on February 3rd, exactly a month before the speaking part of the exam). I couldn’t do anything about it, and both Julia and Vyacheslav likely noticed because Julia immediately seemed to commend my effort. Overall, the frustration came from high expectations that weren't necessarily required, but would be foolish not to meet if capable. I'm willing to do a lot for skills, but not for exams.

Julia's Commentary

The last month before the exam, we focused on only two things: writing in various formats and practicing speaking. While Marina excelled at the former, composing excellent texts with idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs, complex grammar, and stylistic finesse, speaking presented more of a challenge. The difficulty with the speaking part of the exam is that you have a limited time to showcase your abilities—or at least as much as you can—while also managing stress, deciphering what's expected of you, and quickly deciding what and how to say it.

Thirdly, daily routine was a factor. My lessons started at 7 a.m. Warsaw time during winter. At one point, Julia noticed I seemed tired, and I must admit, comments like that can be demotivating and upsetting. But I did everything possible to ensure early wake-up times didn't affect my productivity: physical exercise before lessons to be in bed by 11, forcing down at least a cookie before starting, and cancelling any non-work activities requiring even the smallest mental effort.

Julia's Commentary

At some stage of the preparation, I felt like Marina was losing focus. For me, this wasn’t surprising given that we had been working intensively for one and a half years. The lessons themselves, the completion of homework, and the constant influx of vocabulary that needed immediate attention all required a certain level of effort and discipline.

In short, there were challenges. My motivation dipped and fatigue accumulated, but I felt like I had learned how to manage these issues. Learning is a marathon, not a sprint, and I was approaching the finish line. The key factors were maintaining a manageable workload—which I can't complain about, our pace was more than reasonable—along with discipline and support.

Julia's Commentary

The most challenging task for us was the first one, where you have to discuss images for a minute without merely describing them. At times, Marina struggled to grasp the situation in the images; other times, she did fairly well but could do better. We repeatedly went over each attempt, looking for more engaging vocabulary and exploring how we could play around with sentence structures. With each try, it was crucial for me that Marina give her best effort, so I relentlessly asked her to keep going, over and over again. Of course, I could see she was getting frustrated when things weren't going her way, but it didn't affect the quality of our lessons, so we just kept pushing forward.

But despite everything, preparing for the exam was incredibly rewarding. I'll never forget the first listening homework I completed without any mistakes; I had finally learned to understand what they were getting at.

I got it!

I can't help but brag about a leap I made in my writing skills. A year and a half ago, I could spend hours on the simplest text. Now, I can write a decent essay in just forty minutes. Informal types of writing—like letters, articles, and reviews—have become my favorites, especially when I get a topic I'm passionate about. I've poured my heart out writing about how much I love my iPad, what makes Schindler's List a great film, or my first impressions upon seeing the gates of Minsk.

Nothing motivated me as much as seeing my own progress, and I witnessed my growth more than once. Whenever I understood an idiom without needing a dictionary—a term I hadn't known just days before—or successfully used a sentence structure that I initially struggled with, I was absolutely thrilled.

Julia's Commentary

Before the exam, Marina was more than 100% prepared. After our final speaking practice, where she dazzled with everything I'd been asking of her for the past month and effortlessly weaved complex sentence structures into her answers, I was more confident than ever that she would blow everyone away during the test. So when she told me just two hours before the first part of the exam that she might only get a 'C'—the lowest passing grade—I was nearly floored. Marina! A 'C' on the exam! That would only happen if she showed up in a coma. Actually, no, not even then.

Duck EnglishDuck English
How did you feel the day before the exam, and how did it go?
I was as cool as a cucumber the day before the exam. All I wanted was to barely pass with a B2 level, remember? I had no doubts about achieving that. In fact, I was confident I'd score a Grade B, which is something to be proud of (although, in my opinion, there's no shame in being proud of any accomplishment). I expected to feel a bit nervous before the speaking part, but my final practice session with Vyacheslav felt far more intense than the actual speaking exam. Of course, there were a few jitters when the moment of truth arrived, but they vanished as soon as I started tackling the tasks—just like they usually do for me.

The written part of the exam was the following day, and by then, having tackled the most challenging part already, I was totally relaxed. As a little bonus, I found a spare pencil because I forgot to bring my own. Honestly, I was probably more concerned about getting my Polish right when explaining why I was at the test center and avoiding any mishaps along the way, like getting trampled by a horse or something.

During the exam, nothing happened that I didn't expect or that could throw me off balance.

The only hiccup was that my favorite pizza didn't get delivered on the main exam day.

I walked out of there as hungry as a wolf, and by the end of the listening section, I was already daydreaming about food. So, make sure to eat a good breakfast, and then some.

The result
My emotions when I saw my results were indescribable. I couldn't believe I got a Grade A! I was, of course, expecting a high score in reading and listening, but this result was something else.

 I did a great job, and Julia is a real magician.

hard work
C1 Advanced
top result

Writing is my particular pride and joy. My love for informal writing styles paid off, and the review for ATLA was bound to get me a high score. Improving my score through passive skills is incredible, but reaching a C1 level in writing too is just awesome.

I had set my sights on scoring the highest possible mark in the B2 range, but I managed to surprise even myself by exceeding that.

fly high
nailed it
hit the big time

I personally feel my proficiency is solidly at a high B2 level, but I couldn't resist boasting about my C1 score to anyone willing to listen in the first few days after the exam.

Overall, throughout my learning journey, I've come to believe that I'm capable of anything; it's just a matter of having the right resources and people around me. Realizing that learning English isn't an endless grind but something where you can actually see tangible results has been incredibly liberating. I couldn't have imagined overcoming what felt like an 11-year-long scholastic chasm (which, in reality, doesn't even exist, but that's another story).

I used to think I'd be stuck in a learning rut forever. Those limiting beliefs were shattered by Lera's approach, Julia's professionalism, and my own eagerness to learn. My results stand as living proof of that transformation.

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Duck EnglishDuck English

Julia's Commentary

When Marina shared her results, she was absolutely over the moon, and I couldn't be happier for her. The score she achieved is a true reflection of her skill level and knowledge. She earned it through immense hard work and dedication. P.S. When we were exchanging our joyful news, I texted her, saying she finally got the 'C' she had been talking about... C1.