DELE C1: My Impressions (2013)

By Slava Borisov

It's time to report on the DELE C1 test, as promised. Although I don’t yet know the results (the official DELE web site says one should wait for three months before inquiring with them or the exam centre), I can already share my impressions of the exam itself. Just to recap: upon arriving in Santiago in February, I briefly doubted and debated myself on whether I should attempt this exam at level C1 or C2, eventually settling for (the safer/easier) C1 and registering for the May 25th exam date.

My first impression was that of surprise and I had it even before the exam began. This surprise was due to the composition of the list of examenees. The list was distributed a day or two before the exam date, attached to an email sent out to remind people of the time, place, and schedule, and tell them which room they should be going to at the examination centre. I am not really sure whom I expected to see registered – I guess, mostly gringos with a smattering of Europeans (who else would want to study Spanish, right?).

Well, no, not right. There were 23 people registered for the test on levels ranging from A2 to C2. Seventeen of the names (75%) were Asian (from what I could tell, about half of them Chinese with the balance either Japanese or Korean). Those few names that were not Asian in origin were clearly European (and they seemed to belong to people who were actually from Europe). There were no obvious Americans on the list, or I should probably say, no obvious anglos. But there was another Russian (a young woman whom I would see pass by during the final stages of the exam), attempting DELE at level C2.

I think I will dedicate a separate post to my thoughts on the possible causes of this unexpected imbalance (I ended up chatting with a couple of Japanese who were having a cigarette outside the centre and they shared some of their own ideas), but for now I just wanted to mention it.

The Exam

The exam started at 9 a.m. sharp. The supervisor explained the procedure, distributed examination sheets, and left us to our own devices. Since I already explained the structure for C1, let me just focus on the two parts that were slightly less predictable than the rest.


One was the written composition part. It started at 11:50 a.m., after the first break, and it happens to be my biggest source of doubt about how I did on the exam. I still think I passed it, but if I didn’t, this part is probably the reason why.

I have a rather unlucky history with compositions. My basic problem is that I like to make a complete draft before I commit anything to (exam booklet) paper. If you are of the same ilk, brace yourself: this is definitely the wrong strategy on such tests.

The math here is ruthless. When you have two 200-to-250-word foreign-language texts to produce and only 80 minutes to do it (including warm-up-ey stuff like reading the assignments and thinking them over), writing out anything preparatory, outside of a very brief outline, is a waste of time. Of course, I started doing it the wrong way – by writing a complete draft of my first text. Then I looked at my watch and realized I had used up almost 40 minutes already. It took me about 15 more to copy the text onto the response sheet, in nice letters, making slight modifications, and subsequently to observe that I was definitely running late.

The second assignment offered a choice of two topics. I read both options (chalk 5-7 minutes up to that activity), chose Option A (a brief memo on a tourism development strategy for Cartagena, Colombia, based on cruise passenger arrival and spending data), and started writing directly on the response sheet – frantically this time, because at this point, I had barely 15 minutes left to complete the text. I exercised almost no filtering, letting phrases flow out of me and writing them down directly, as if I were speaking. If I remember correctly, those phrases mostly decried the lack of interest in Colombian culture on the part of arriving cruise ship passengers. The visitor spending stats given with the text confirmed that, quite frankly, they didn’t give two shits about the culture, although they seemed happy to spend their money on food and drinks. I feigned outrage.

As I said, I barely filtered anything I wrote. My handwriting was probably not too legible, either. In the end, even with those corners cut, I think I may have produced about 10-15% less than the minimum length required for each text. None of the texts got a second look, much less a second read.

So, the composition part is my biggest worry. I can’t really say much about the grammar and listening comprehension sections, except that their level of difficulty felt just about right for C1. But remember that in order to pass DELE, you have to receive a passing grade on each one of the constituent parts. So, flubbing the composition effectively part means flubbing the whole thing, regardless of how well you did on the other sections.

Oral Test

Another interesting, less-than-predictable part was the oral examination. After completing the composition test, we were given individual schedules for our orals. I had mine in about an hour and a half, so I went around the corner and found some cheap place to eat lunch. It was a working class affair, kind of like a diner, with burly men for customers and a ruggedly pretty waitress well used to handling them. As for the fair-skinned señor with a notebook who meekly asked for la cuenta to be brought with his plate, he was almost below her pay grade. She looked right through me as it I were a ghost. I did get my check quickly, though.

When I reported back to the testing centre (15 minutes early), I was first asked to wait in the computer lab. A whole group of Asians were engrossed in reading something, some silently moving their lips. I imagine the were taking the test too, at a lower level. No one seemed to want to chat or even stop reading. I wondered what exactly they were trying to memorize at the last minute: DELE is an overall language proficiency test, not a history exam. Right on the clock, some dude showed up, called out my name, and invited me to take a small private room upstairs where I could prepare with no distractions. A couple of minutes later, a woman walked in and brought in the materials for the test.

In the first part of the oral test, you are given a choice of topics. Each has a text which you’ll need to summarize and talk about. I don’t remember all the options I was given, but, showing remarkable prescience (the May 25th examination date being weeks before the NSA scandal broke), I chose to read and discuss a text on “surveillance in modern society.” Once you choose your topic, you are given the actual text, on a laminated sheet, and from there you have 20 minutes to read, think, and prepare your 5-minute presentation (this is for C1 exams; I think C2 folks get 25 minutes and B-level people get less).

Twenty minutes passed and they called me in. Once I entered the examination room, I immediately confirmed my earlier hunch or, rather, a rumour I had heard: indeed, there are two people involved in oral examinations: one examiner talks to you, and another is seated behind your back and (I am assuming) takes note of every mistake you make.

I flew through the surveillance topic, first by summarizing the article in exactly 5 minutes, as required, and then, when asked to express my personal opinion, by piling up a whole heap of Obama-worthy platitudes about the need to balance privacy and security (the only thing missing was a teleprompter). I was quite proud of myself.

For the second part of the oral test ("the debate"), my interviewer and I were to argue and attempt to find a compromise about a business decision. Again, there were several options. Following a semi-overt suggestion from the examiner, I chose to debate with him about the kind of a restaurant we should open together. A few pictures were given as conversation starters, most of them obviously illustrating the various wrong types of restaurants for the target neighborhood. It was not too difficult to point out the idiocy of almost all of those choices and choose the only semi-reasonable option. Once again, 5 or 6 minutes flew by quickly. Overall, I found the oral part to be the easiest of all and I am pretty confident that I did well on it.

And that was it for my exam and, incidentally, for my 3-month visit to Santiago. I shook hands with the last examiner, who wished me good luck and invited me to come back to Santiago at some future point to take my C2 there as well. I left the city the following day.

P.S. (Oct'13 epilogue). Here are my results:


The biggest surprise here is my misplaced confidence in the oral part and equally misplaced self-doubt on the written part. Those should have been reversed! But anyway, APTO means APTO. I am on to better, brighter things. Specifically, C2.

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