In order to get a good score on the BULATS Writing test you will need to do what the two questions tell you to do, using grammar, vocabulary and functional language that is complex, accurate, easily understandable and has the right level of formality. You’ll also need to show that you understand the genre that you are producing and organise your writing well, all achieved within 45 minutes with just pencil and paper. Each of these points is dealt with below, starting with the ones that are easiest to improve.
Underline important words in the question as you read it (unlike some exams, you can write anything you like on the paper in the BULATS exam) and make sure you include absolutely everything that is mentioned in your answer.
Unlike some tests, you will lose marks if you don’t cover all three points in the question. You don’t have to spend an equal amount of time on all three, but in Writing Part Two try to avoid covering any of them in just one sentence, i.e. provide at least some support such as reasons or statistics for what you say.
Make sure your answers are within the number of words given for each task (50 to 60 words for BULATS Writing Part One and 180 to 200 words for Part Two), especially that you are over the minimum number of words. High scoring answers usually have near the maximum number of words.
If you have finished and are under the minimum number of words, you can insert extra sentences by writing them elsewhere and showing where they should go in the text with an arrow, as long as it is very clear and doesn’t make other parts of your answer difficult to read. This is usually better than adding a sentence at the end of the report, email or letter.
Tick off the things you have underlined in the question as you write about them to make sure you have covered everything.
Stay on topic. The “any other points you think are relevant/ important” it mentions in the question are optional and shouldn’t take up much space.
It is usually better to expand on the points in the question, e.g. by providing further justification for one of your views, rather than go off topic.
The questions in BLUATS are written in British English, so you might need to be aware of differences between British and American Business English to understand the question (although you can use either in your answer).
Think about the effect your writing would have on the reader, e.g. will they want to help you after reading that email or will they be likely to accept your recommendations after reading that report?
After you have underlined important words in the question, divide the things that you should cover into two or three paragraphs. This is also true for genres that might seem like they don’t need paragraphs such as informal emails. It is probably best to write this simple plan down. If you can’t think of anything better, you can usually just have one paragraph per bullet point in the question for Part Two, and combine two of the bullet points in one paragraph plus one paragraph for the other point in Part One.
In BULATS Writing Part Two, it is usually a good idea to explain the organisation of the writing at the end of the introduction to the letter or report with phrases like “In this report I will…”
Use plenty of linking phrases, including more complex ones, but be careful about how you do so. For example, make sure you use ones with the right level of formality and that you know the differences between ones which have slightly different meanings (in contrast/ on the other hand/ nevertheless, etc). Also make sure you know several options for common linking functions like contrasting and addition, and that you know which linking expressions link two ideas in one sentence and which link two sentences. Most books on grammar and business writing have exercises on these points.
Clearly mark the stages between paragraphs with a space or indent (not both), and use underlined section headings with capital letters for reports.
Make sure each paragraph is a new topic and could make sense if read on its own (which is the definition of a good paragraph in English).
Apart from the opening and closing lines of letters and emails, try to avoid one sentence paragraphs.
Show very clearly that you understand the differences between a report and a letter by putting a title and section headings in all reports and no headings in emails or letters (even if you wouldn’t necessarily do it that way in your own business life).
You should also understand the subtle differences between a letter and an email, e.g. letters being slightly more formal and the “attached”/ “enclosed” distinction, and try to show that understanding in your answer.
Learn typical phrases for starting and ending emails and reports at several levels of formality, and use the most complex suitable one that you know.
Learn typical functional language for the main body of letters, emails and reports. Functions that are mentioned in the official BULATS handbook (pdf) that are likely to be relevant to the Writing paper include asking for permission, giving instructions, predicting and describing future possibilities, making suggestions/ recommendations, expressing needs and wants, mentioning problems, giving reasons, suggesting appointments/ meetings, inviting, making offers, making enquiries/ asking for information, and making complaints
It seems unlikely that the BULATS test will still ask you to write a fax as the official handbook says, but it is probably worth knowing how to do so just in case.
It isn’t clear what BULATS mean by a “note” as a genre for Part One, but it is probably a short internal email rather than something written on a Post It. Make sure you know how to do both, but of the two concentrate more on (fairly) informal emails.
Make sure you know the difference between a conclusion and a summary and can write both.
There won’t necessarily be one report and one letter in Part Two, so you definitely need to know how to do both.
It is also worth studying different kinds of emails and reports, e.g. emails for responding to complaints and reports for giving recommendations.
Make sure you also know how to address people and sign off in emails and letters with at least four different levels of formality.
Learn at least six typical sentences for: opening emails, closing emails, opening reports, and starting conclusions/ summaries.
You can cross out, add missing words with a small arrow and even add missing sentences with a line and arrow, so don’t waste time erasing unless you have to totally rewrite a sentence or section.
If you are expecting a score of 2+ or above, get Part One over with as quickly as possible and then move on to (the much more important) Part Two. If you have fewer than 25 minutes left, have written the minimum number of words and covered all the points in the question, go straight onto Part Two however bad you think your Part One answer is.
When practising, don’t look at the question until you are ready to start your exam practice, then be very strict about the 45 minute time limit, including reading the question and editing. Write on lined paper (official BULATS exam paper if you can find it) with a pencil. When you have finished, you can then look at textbooks and your notes for ways you could have improved it.
Choose which Part Two task you are going to write very quickly, as it doesn’t really make much difference, and don’t try to change your mind and do the other task whatever happens.
Don’t waste time trying to think of great ideas, you are only judged on the language you use and how well your ideas link together.
Don’t waste time counting the exact number of words, as if you’ve answered all the points in the question with enough support you should be over the minimum. If you have some doubt whether you’ve reached the minimum, count the number of words per line in the first two full lines then the number of lines to do an approximate calculation. If you do your practice on official exam paper, you should quickly learn what a correct length looks like on the page.
Don’t try to write a draft, and you shouldn’t even need to brainstorm unless you can’t work out what paragraph structure to use.
After finishing practice writing tasks, look at books, your notes and the Internet for more complex language you could add without changing the meaning (too much).
Avoid repeating words that are written in the question. If you can’t think of a completely different word, just change the part of speech (e.g. changing “decision” to “decide”).
Avoid repeating words, as good native speaker writers rarely repeat themselves and you need to show the range of language you know to the examiner. This includes linking expressions.
Avoid whole sentences which could be used in absolutely any piece of writing such as “These are my conclusions, having examined the issues above”. Try to be more creative instead.
Ban yourself from using simple expressions that you always use, at least while preparing for the exam and probably in the exam too. Common culprits include “In my opinion,…” and “In conclusion,…”
You won’t lose marks for making small errors with complex language as long as it is understandable (although obviously you won’t get as many points as you would if it was correct!), so be ambitious.
Learn business synonyms such as “cost”, “price” and “expense”. The best way is simply to always use an English-English Business English dictionary and learn synonyms of new words you look up, but you can also find suitable lists and exercises in Business English vocabulary textbooks and on the Internet.
Avoid bullet points, even when you would use them in your real business life. In the exam, they should only be used if you’ve run out of time.
Leave one or two minutes for editing Writing Part One and two or three minutes for editing Part Two. That leaves about eleven or twelve minutes for writing Part One and about twenty five minutes for writing Part Two, once you also take into account time for reading the questions and planning.
Keep a list of mistakes you have made in previous written work and revise them at least once a week until you are sure you won’t make the same mistakes again. You can do this by keeping a list with the wrong sentences/ phrases/ collocations/ words on the left and the corrected versions on the right. Test yourself on your memory of the corrections and/ or compare your completed practice writings with the list to see if you have made the same mistake again.
It is also possible to find lists of typical mistakes, e.g. common false friends and mistranslations for particular nationalities.
The most common grammar mistakes in writing are probably determiners (a/ an/ the/ some/ etc) and prepositions, so some time spent studying these from Business English grammar books.
Don’t concentrate too much of grammar – accuracy also means using the right vocabulary, linking expressions, collocations, punctuation, etc.
For very high marks, be consistent with varieties of English such as British and American. At a basic level this could mean not spelling the same word both the American and British way, and at the next level up that could include being consistent with regular changes like “-or” and “-our” endings.
Keep copies of your old writing before it was corrected and test yourself a couple of weeks later on your ability to find the same mistakes that your teacher found.
After finishing a practice writing or homework, go through looking for just one kind of error, e.g. problems with tenses. You can then repeat the process with other common mistakes such as matching subject and verb.
The best way of reinforcing any anything you have learnt about accuracy in English is lots of reading.
For spelling mistakes, you can find lists of typical ones or if you are doing practice writing with a computer, do so with the spell check function off.
Make sure you have decided what level of formality your answer will be written in before you start writing. The main clue is who you are told to write the letter, email or report for, e.g. if it will be sent to a colleague, a boss or a client. How many people it will be read by might also be relevant. The level of formality of the writing you are responding to in Part One might also help you decide, unless of course you aren’t writing back to that person e.g. because they are asking you to write to someone else or you are responding to an ad.
You may also need to think about the function of the letter when deciding on the level of formality, e.g. a complaint is generally more polite than an invitation, even to the same person.
You should be able to write every kind of genre with at least three levels of formality: quite formal, medium, and fairly informal. Super-formal (e.g. reports that avoid the first person and use lots of passives) and very informal (similar to SMS messages to friends) are unlikely to come up.
Learn general rules of formality in English vocabulary such as phrasal verbs usually being informal and Latinate words with affixes being more formal. These rules can be found in many self-study books and internet resources, e.g. ones on business emailing.
Make sure you know the formality of abbreviations before you use them, e.g. that Latin ones like “e.g.” are fine in most writing but that many others such as “a.s.a.p” are quite informal.
Make sure you also know formality differences in punctuation, e.g. “But” starting sentence and exclamation marks being very informal.
You can learn formal and informal expressions at the same time by keeping a list with informal expressions on the left and formal equivalents on the right. Cover one of the two sides (or fold the page) and test your memory on what is written on the hidden part.
You could also try answering one BULATS task with two different levels or formality, or looking at a BULATS model answer and trying to make it more or less formal than it is.
Also check for formality as you are editing.
When reading through one more time to edit, make sure your main emphasis is on whether it makes sense or not. To get a high mark it should be easy to understand the first time it is read. The most relevant factors include the right length of sentence, clear linking between ideas, correct use of vocabulary and collocations, and grammar mistakes mainly being ones that don’t impede communication. You also need to make sure your handwriting is at least neat enough to understand on first reading.
If your attempts to be ambitious could lead to difficulty in understanding, e.g. because you might have got the meaning wrong and the correct meaning isn’t clear from context, simplify at the editing stage.
Keep most sentences fairly short unless you are sure that longer sentences make it more readable.