The CEGEP English Exit Exam: Know what to expect and how to succeed

Posted on June 25, 2019

Each province and territory in Canada has its own system of education. In Quebec, students must do their first two years of postsecondary education at a CEGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel). Students in Quebec start CEGEP the same year that students in most other provinces begin Grade 12, and in some cases the CEGEP system allows for shorter university programs (three years instead of four).

At a CEGEP, regardless of the program, one has to select a language of instruction and take courses in that language in preparation for the final “English Exit Exam” or “Épreuve uniforme de français.” Every student must pass one of these exams, which are offered in May, August, and December, in order to attain his or her DEC (Diplôme d’études collégiales), the official college diploma in Quebec.

According to the Ministry of Education, the goal of the exam is to ensure that, by the end of their program, “students have acquired a sufficient level of competence in reading and writing to understand literary texts and to express a relevant critical viewpoint using correct English.”

This takes many of the students by surprise. Those looking to work in the fashion industry or hotel management, for example, don’t understand the point of learning how to write academic essays. Some struggle to succeed and are forced to repeat the exam begrudgingly numerous times.

What you need to know about the exam

This examination is no easy task: Students are given four hours to read three texts and write a formal essay of about 750 words on one of them. In general, there are two short stories and one non-fiction text. For a student who grew up in Canada, this may seem like a relatively straightforward task; however, for those who come from other countries, it can seem like an unachievable feat. International students are taught English in a specific way that doesn’t necessarily correlate with the system in place here.

The criteria for marking are divided into three areas: comprehension and insight, organization of response, and expression. Students must get at least a “C” for all three in order to pass the exam. In general, “expression” is the one that international students struggle with the most. This section includes proper use of grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. Active and retired teachers who have passed a rigorous testing and training period do the blind marking to guarantee fairness.

What you can do to succeed

There are many ways to ensure that a student succeeds in this category. Above all, it is imperative that international students immerse themselves in the language they’ve chosen. This means speaking to their peers, watching English television and films (preferably with subtitles in English), listening to English radio stations (CBC, for example) and songs, reading a variety of material (blogs, news reports, magazines, short stories, books, etc.), and obviously writing as much as possible.

While this may seem like a daunting task for many, the Internet is full of resources that can also help. The Language Portal of Canada has a massive bank of quizzes that help with specific grammar and syntax problems. These quizzes include multiple-choice questions with clear answers and explanations provided. Topics range from punctuation to subject-verb agreement. Another website that truly helps is the Collegial Centre for Educational Materials Development. The latter includes fascinating short stories, along with a myriad of questions on comprehension, literary devices, organization, and expression.

Moreover, teachers obviously want the best for their students and are great at providing additional study materials when approached. Most colleges have English language labs that provide free additional one-on-one support for those who may require it. The resources are there; all one needs to do is ask.

Reading and writing are skills not limited to teachers and professional writers. Corporate emails, mass memos, and business proposals are just a few examples of situations where one would benefit from a solid knowledge of the language. More and more businesses prefer hiring people who demonstrate effective writing abilities.

In short, while the final examination process may seem like an unnecessary hurdle in one’s academic path, it is extremely useful for one looking to work in any industry in Canada. Nobody starts out writing well, but mastering language isn’t like learning the harp: anyone can achieve a sufficient level of skill with a little ambition, persistence, and hard work.


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Nadia Helal

Nadia Helal

Nadia Helal

Nadia Helal is an English teacher at LaSalle College in Montreal. She has a B.A. from Concordia University in Creative Writing and Spanish Literature, as well as a B.Ed. and M.Ed. from the University of Ottawa. She has worked as an English teacher in South Korea, England, and Canada. She recommends the Language Portal to all her students for its various grammar quizzes, as well as its clear explanations of the answers.


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Submitted by Tom Vradenburg on June 27, 2019, at 9:29

I sympathize with graduates headed for the fashion industry or hotel management, but they need to understand that this exam isn't really about writing academic essays. I haven't seen one, much less written one, but I suspect these exit exams are founded on deeper pedagogic motives—teaching skills for critical thinking, analysis and persuading others. These skills are crucial in life and in any line of work a person may find themselves in.

Submitted by Nadia Helal on July 15, 2019, at 22:58

Yes, I definitely agree with you there. Critical thinking is, in my opinion, the most important element. It's just that students must get at least a "C" in organization and expression, and that's where the problems tend to be...

Submitted by Cyrus Chinoy on May 18, 2022, at 16:46

I found this exam to be very stressful. First off, I counted 631 words but I’m not sure how true it is since I counted very fast but do the teachers count the words? Also about the 7% that fail, what are they doing wrong? Are they using personal pronouns? Are they not quoting? Do we have to name the literary device we used in the text??

Submitted by Nadia Helal on January 31, 2023, at 22:18

Hello Cyrus, to answer some of your questions: markers count the number of words only when we suspect it to be under 750 (which is the general expectation). From the ones who fail, there are a variety of reasons: low word count, lack of main idea or thesis, lack of devices/techniques, organization issues, over-reliance on quotes, grammar/vocabulary/sentence structure errors, etc.