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BELS Revisited: Answering Your Questions About the Exam

BELS Revisited: Answering Your Questions About the Exam

Guest post by Sarah Felde

Back in October 2014, I wrote a post about my experiences taking the Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) exam ( Since that post went live, the blog has received dozens of emails and online comments asking for more information about the test. In general, readers want to know three things:

  •  What’s the best way to prepare for the exam?
  • What topics are covered on the test?
  • Do you have any tips for taking the exam itself?

Obviously, I can’t provide definitive answers to any of these questions—but in the sections below, I’ve done my best to provide potential test-takers with some advice.

Preparing for the Exam

The BELS exam is meant to gauge the breadth of your knowledge in life sciences editing. Most such knowledge is obtained through time on the job—hence BELS’ requirement that test takers have at least 2 years’ experience in the field. This is good news, because it means you’ve probably encountered many of the issues explored on the exam in your everyday job duties. However, the broad nature of the test also means it’s impossible to fully review every single topic that might be included on the exam.

Because a comprehensive pre-test cram session is impractical, your best bet is to conduct a targeted review—or what I think of as “topic triage.” My recommended approach is as follows:

  1.  Start with practice tests. The best way to determine your areas of weakness is to take one or more practice tests. BELS includes a sample exam in its official study guide, which can be accessed here: Another great resource is the AMA Manual of Style website) which offers dozens of quizzes on this page ( Although knowledge of AMA style isn’t necessary to pass the BELS exam, these quizzes cover many editorial principles that broadly apply throughout the field of life sciences editing.
  2. Carefully go over your results. Chances are, most of your wrong answers will involve certain topics or principles—say, table design or hyphenation. Keep a running list of these topics as you grade your practice tests, and add any specific editorial questions you want to look up.
  3. Do your research. Now it’s time to research the issues on your list. The easiest way to learn more is to carefully review the answer rationale for each question you missed, if one has been provided. (In fact, I’d recommend reviewing the rationale for every quiz item—even if you answered correctly—because doing so can reveal other areas where you need practice.)

If rationales aren’t given and/or you want to learn more about particular principles of editing, look them up! I’d suggest reading the pertinent entries in the AMA and APA stylebooks, as well as doing some research online. A quick Google search can link you to nearly endless content from universities, publishers, and experts across the globe.

  1. Repeat as needed. Revisit the sample exams—or perhaps try some new practice tests—to see whether your results have improved, then brush up wherever you’re still rusty. Repeat this process until you feel adequately prepared or the test day arrives, whichever comes first!

Finally, don’t overlook your colleagues! Peers are a great source of knowledge, especially if they are preparing for or have already taken the BELS exam. In addition, more senior colleagues may have valuable insight into areas where you need extra practice.

Topic Coverage

As noted in a previous post, the BELS exam touches on all manner of topics, including:


  • General rules of grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and usage: These are the basic principles that all editors everywhere are expected to understand: subject-verb agreement, active versus passive voice, capitalization, use of italics, spelling, abbreviations, etc.
  • Syntax and organization: Be ready for lots of questions that ask you to edit for brevity and clarity, reorganize for logic, and revise for parallelism and consistency.
  • Creation and interpretation of graphic content: Here, you’ll need to interpret and spot errors in existing tables. You’ll also be asked about design principles for new figures, tables, and images.
  • Math, numbers, and measurements: Before the test, you’ll want to brush up on metric units and the proper order of mathematical operations. Although you won’t be asked to do complex calculations or convert to SI units, you will need to know which units of measure are most appropriate in given situations. You should also understand how different types of numerical data are properly presented in written materials.
  • Documentation of references: The exam does not ask you to reformat citations or bibliographic information to match AMA, APA, or any other editorial style. Rather, questions involve tasks like identifying what elements are missing from a sample bibliographic entry or comparing multiple entries for consistency of presentation.
  • Ethics of publishing and scientific research: Nothing too complicated here—just be familiar with basic principles regarding fair use, permissions, acknowledgments, etc. There may be a question or two about ethical issues, but as long as you have even a minimal understanding of concepts like autonomy and beneficence, you should be okay.
  • Proper execution of the scientific process: Don’t worry; you don’t need a research background to do well on this part of the test. However, you may want to refresh your memory of the steps in the scientific method, how a hypothesis differs from a theory, and so on.


This last list entry brings up an important point: Although specialized knowledge in one or more areas of the life sciences may make some questions easier, you don’t need deep knowledge of specific scientific concepts to pass the test.

Test Day Tips

Don’t let worry—or worse yet, panic—derail you on test day! Try to manage your stress by following all the usual recommendations: get a good night’s sleep, be sure to eat prior to the test, arrive early, bring extra pencils, etc. You might also find it useful to keep the following BELS-specific points in mind:

  •  Bring your test ticket and your photo ID. You won’t be allowed in the room without them.
  • Don’t forget a calculator. Although several will be available, you don’t want to waste time waiting for one to become free. Be sure any calculator you bring is relatively simple, because the proctors won’t let you use a calculator if they suspect it has word-storage capabilities.
  • Watch the clock. Almost three hours sounds like a long time, but the test has 100+ questions, and only a handful can be answered in a minute or less. You’ll likely need the entire test period to wrap things up.
  • Eliminate obvious answers, then rank the remaining choices. For many questions on the exam, the correct response will not be immediately clear. Your best bet is to eliminate the obviously wrong choices first, then carefully reread the question. Do any of the remaining answer options seem to have one or more problematic elements? Do any seem more correct than the others? Rank the remaining choices in terms of their perceived strengths and weaknesses, then select whichever answer seems most correct.
  • Don’t be afraid to skip difficult questions and come back later. When I took the BELS exam, I spent far too long on one of the early questions. As a result, I was unable to complete the entire test. Avoid this mistake and tackle the easy questions first!
  • Try to answer every question. If you leave a question blank, you’ll definitely get it wrong. Increase your odds of a better score by answering each question, even if you aren’t 100% sure your response is correct.
  • Beware complicated question formats. Some of the test items will use the traditional multiple-choice format, but others are a bit different. For example, you may be asked to read several paragraphs then answer one or more questions about the content, or you may need to reorder all of the sentences in a given passage. Prepare yourself for questions like these by taking the practice exam in the BELS study guide.
  • Watch for repeat items. Another benefit of the BELS practice exam is that some of the questions from that test will likely appear verbatim on the exam. Commit these questions to memory for an easy score boost.


Some Final Words

Again, the above advice is by no means authoritative or comprehensive; it simply represents my approach to the test, as well as what I’d do differently if I had to take the BELS exam over again. I hope these tips give you a little peace of mind as you prepare for the test. Good luck!

  1. Thank you so much for the input. I’m taking the exam next week. Although I’ve been studying nearly daily since February, the lack of information BELS gives in their study guide made me nervous that I was studying the wrong material or overlooking something.

  2. Thanks for the helpful tips! I appreciate the updated post.

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