My motivation for passing an English Exam ? by Marc Burlereaux

Last week I took an English exam! OK, so what?

Everyone–my wife, friends, and colleagues were all surprised when I told them I wanted to prepare for an English exam.

Here’s what they told me:

  • Marc Burlereaux
    Marc Burlereaux

    You’ve worked for an English bank for 5 years, using English all the time to chair meetings, write minutes and memos

  • You’ve been a PMI® member since 2004, have prepared certifications in English, given speeches in English, and even reviewed PMI® exam questions in English
  • You’ve traveled a lot and have 2 world trips under your belt
  • You’ve been using English in your professional environment for almost 30 years, come on Marc!

Why bother? Are you lacking recognition? Do you want to earn another shiny medal, as a General of the Project Management Army?

Who doesn’t want more recognition? But that’s not what motivated me the most.

In early 2013, I had the opportunity to work in London for almost a year. I then realised that even if my English was quite good, it was sometimes preventing me from conveying the right message to senior stakeholders. I was evaluated more on form rather than substance.

In private discussions I also had some difficulties to understand every nuance : being caught in a heated discussion between a Chelsea fan and a Manchester United aficionado is a true experience, but you try to understand what they’re saying ! And last but not least, more seriously, I was not perceived by some people as a sufficiently senior Project Manager !

It was time to take the bull by the horns, action !

success go get itWhich English Exam did I choose ?

I then applied for an English course, 25 face to face sessions with an English teacher. I met Michael Briner from Bell School the 26th of August 2013 to start this journey. One of his first proposals was to take this opportunity to prepare an English exam that fit with my business needs, to have an interesting and challenging target. Done deal !

I prepared the BEC Higher from Cambridge English which offers various exams that meet different needs.

We choose together the BEC Higher exam as its goal is to « Get the practical language skills you need to work effectively at a senior level in international business.” And as Michael was kind enough to assume that I could pass it.

writing notes learnIt took me a bit less than 3 years … as I took the exam the 7th of June 2016. The first thing to consider is that it takes quite a lot of time to get prepared, depending for sure on your level.

What is the BEC (Business English Certificate) Higher ?

You can find all relevant and detailed information about all Exams proposed by Cambridge English online (including the cost). In a nutshell, the Cambridge English: Business Higher is made up of four papers to test your English skills. You can see exactly what is in each paper below:

Paper Content Marks
(% of total)
(1 hour)
6 parts 25% Shows you can deal confidently with different types of text.
(1 hour and 10 minutes)
2 parts 25% You need to be able to write a variety of different items such as memos, letters, emails, reports, and proposals.
(about 40 minutes, including transfer time)
3 parts 25% You need to be able to follow and understand a range of spoken materials, such as presentations, interviews, and discussions.
(16 minutes per pair of candidates)
3 parts 25% Tests your ability to communicate effectively in face-to-face situations. Your Speaking test will be face-to-face with one or two other candidates. This makes your test more realistic and more reliable.

How did I prepare for this exam ?

First of all, I would like to warmly thank Michael Briner, who was an efficient coach and extremely supportive in this approach. His extensive knowledge of this exam was essential.

Like with every exam you need to master the test techniques to avoid any stress on D-Day : it is quite a long and dense test indeed.

Pile of BooksThen I read books in English, watch films in English, listen to business talks : all of these are very useful to get more vocabulary, idioms, and typical English phrases.

Another excellent source was SBFG TV (Speak Better Feel Great TV) from Christina Rebuffet : I really like Christina’s videos. They’re an entertaining way of learning serious business English.  I especially like the videos that help us be sure that we stress syllables correctly.

To quote Christina « Pronunciation can make the difference between someone understanding you and someone not understanding you!

I’ve often heard French people mispronounce a word (like « apoloGIES »), and then the English speaker in front of them says « Oh, aPOLogies! Got it. » And the French person, frustrated thinks « That’s what I said!!! ») ».

I learned a lot from her video, even if I knew the definitions!

It just goes to show, that there are several aspects of « knowing a word »!

I also became a fan of TED talks as listening to keynote speakers is a great opportunity to boost my English and also to learn interesting things. Here are three that I found excellent :

You should also have a  look at this article which gives the 10 best TED talks for learning English and why they’re so good.

Last but not least, I did a lot of practice tests to make sure that during the final exam I was ready to focus on the substance only !

résultatsAnd the results ?

Tests that teachI don’t know for the moment. Even if I feel confident about how I did, I have to wait until July 19th, 2016 for the final results. This is the only downside to these tests: waiting so long afterwards! If there’s one thing that Cambridge could include it’s the time it takes to hear back from them, but I’ve heard that the Queen doesn’t have much time to mark so many essays :-).

Anyway, no matter what the final result might be, I already achieved a lot as I met great people before and during the exam and as I made some progress in English : Michael acknowledge it when correcting my last writing test, even though if William Shakespeare is not in great danger… MacMillan Testbuilders mention on their test book cover “Tests that teach” : very true indeed !

PMI® is a registered mark of Project Management Institute, Inc.




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