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What Your Students Need To Know About BULATS Writing Part One

How students can boost their score in the first part of the BULATS Writing exam.

Exam overview

BULATS is a Business English language exam that could be briefly explained as like a business version of IELTS or as the chief competitor of TOEIC. The biggest difference with those two exams is that individual candidates cannot register themselves for BULATS. Instead, it is always commissioned by organizations to test groups of people like staff, students and potential employees. The test is split into several parts which can be commissioned and taken on their own, with BULATS Writing being one.

The BULATS Writing test takes 45 minutes, with 15 minutes recommended for Part One and 30 minutes for Part Two. Candidates have to manage that time themselves.

Part One is an email/letter/message/fax based on a written prompt (e.g. an email that you should reply to or a message telling you what information that you should report to others) and some instructions. The instructions always include three points which you must include in your answer, given as bullet points. The required length is 50-60 words. Although there are not automatically points off for answers which are substantially shorter or longer, shorter is likely to mean that the task is not achieved or the required formatting and formality have been left out, and longer tasks are often off topic and wasting time which is better spent on Writing Part Two.

Candidates are judged on accurate and appropriate use of language, organization, and task achievement. All three parts of the question must be included in the answer, and appropriate use of language includes a substantial emphasis on getting the formality right and being consistent with it.

Example BULATS Writing Part One task

You picked up this pamphlet from a trade fair.


Our new office cleaning robot works is constantly available, can clean around your feet while you are working, and can work up to 12 hours a day. Because it uses less electricity than a traditional vacuum cleaner and you don’t pay it wages, it’s better for the environment and can work out cheaper too!

Write an email to the supplier asking for more details about the robot, including:

  • Price
  • After sales service
  • Money saving compared to a human cleaner

Write 50 to 60 words in the space below.

What students need to know to do well in BULATS Writing Part One

As mentioned above, students might need to write an email, letter, fax or message. It is not entirely clear what is meant by “message”, but most BULATS books take it to be a short informal internal email rather than something scrawled on a Post It note. It is also not easy to say what the correct format for a fax is, especially in these days when they are rarely sent, but one possibility is just a letter with to/from/subject at the top. Given the shortness of the required 50 to 60 words, there are negligible differences between those four formats in this part of the exam and all four can usually be dealt with together in one class.

One difference between the genres that might be worth mentioning is that letters tend to be a bit more formal than emails, and formality generally is something that is important for students to get right. When they look at the task they should think carefully about who the email, letter, fax or message is going to be read by (including if it will be just one person or more than one) and decide how formal or informal their writing will be. There are usually a range of formality choices for each task, e.g. you can imagine it’s a regular customer or new customer, and you aren’t expected to necessarily be on first name terms with your boss. However, once they decide on a level of formality, consistency is very important. As the writing is so short, this mainly means consistency in the use of salutations and opening lines, and so time spent on “Dear Sir or Madam”, “I am writing to you in connection with…”, “I look forward to hearing from you soon”, “Best regards” etc is usually time well spent.

Another thing that is difficult to show properly in such a short piece of writing but is worth some time on is formatting and paragraphing. Generally, students should link two of the three things they should write about and put them in one paragraph. The other point should be given a supporting sentence or two including background information etc in order to avoid one sentence paragraphs. The opening and closing lines should also be written as separate paragraphs, especially in more formal writing. This leads to an answer to the task above something like this:

Dear Sir or Madam

I picked up a pamphlet on your new robot cleaner at a recent trade fair and would like to know more about this product.

First of all, can you tell me about the cost? I would like to know how much I need to pay up front, and when I will be able to recoup my investment compared to a member of staff doing the job.

My other main question was about after sales service. Most importantly, can you supply a temporary replacement while our robot is being fixed?

I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Alex Case, Head of Office Affairs

(61 words)

Other things I have tried to do in the model answer above include:

  • rephrasing the question rather than reusing words that are written in the task
  • using indirect questions
  • using a few linking expressions
  • avoiding bullet points
  • making a little bit of effort to use some more advanced language

Although all of these are difficult to fit into a 50- to 60-word piece of writing, they are all also useful business writing skills and so are well worth some classroom time.

As candidates don’t always have to ask for information as in this task, you might also want to look at some of these functions (in approximate order of importance):

  • Arranging appointments/meetings
  • Inviting, accepting and refusing offers and invitations
  • Expressing needs and wants
  • Making travel enquiries, reservations, requests and complaints
  • Talking about the future
  • Thanking and expressing appreciation
  • Apologising and accepting apologies
  • Giving and receiving instructions
  • Asking for and giving permission
  • Making and receiving complaints
Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | September 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.