I had a comment recently regarding the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam, which was the reasons I started this blog in the first place. While I wrote a bit about the exam throughout the lead up to it, I didn’t give any sort of summary in terms of what turned up to be effective in actually passing the test. So over a few posts, intermingled with wine reviews, I’m going to try to organize some thoughts here in hindsight, and in particular for someone who is looking at sitting their exam in January, six months from now.
First off, set yourself a study plan. It doesn’t have to be hugely detailed, but when you have six months to go before your exam, it’s a good idea to know how that time will be divided. I’m speaking largely with regards to the theory part of the exam, but it’s also a good idea to have tasting sessions laid out in advance as well. I heard a Master of Wine explain how it should be impossible to fail the tasting section (though many, many people do so every exam), which was convincing enough that I didn’t sweat the tasting. More on that in another post.
Now when I say a study plan, essentially it’s something along the lines looking at the syllabus and assigning a certain amount of time per area. The red study guide breaks Unit 3 down into 4 elements, and though they’re not exactly of equal size, you could start by giving each element three weeks. Depending on how much time you have to study, you should be able to read through the red book for each element and all the corresponding entries in the Oxford Companion to Wine. At that pace, you would be spending three months going through it, leaving you with another three months in which to prioritize the sections that need further work. But however you do it, right now the important thing it to have a plan and a schedule to go along with it.
Second, read through past examination papers and most importantly the examiners’ reports. Do this before you do any actual studying. The questions change from exam to exam, but the format largely doesn’t. The reports give insight into what the examiners wanted for each question, and generally give an example of a really good student answer. This will let you know the level of detail you will need to provide on your answers, so as to better focus your studies.
Also it will give you a sense of the areas of study that get the most attention. For instance, I have yet to see an exam without a question relating to some part of France – my exam had two questions that were exclusively about France, and another on Merlot where knowledge of the grape in the context of Bordeaux, that is France, would have been useful. My exam had no questions where knowledge of the wines of Austria would have been remotely useful. Other exams have had such questions. The moral of the story is that if you don’t study the big topics, you will absolutely regret it. If you don’t study all the smaller topics, you may or may not regret it, but you’re taking a chance. So if you want to be smart/safe, know everything. If you can’t, be sure you know the major topics.
On a related note that I will address further with regards tips when you’re actually sitting the exam, there will typically be a question you can skip, in that you’ll be required to answer one mandatory question and then four out of five of the remaining questions. So you can plan your studies with the expectation that if you get a question on one area you haven’t covered, you can most likely skip it. However, it’s a much better idea to be prepared all around as much as you can than to chance it. From past examiners reports I made some predictions as to what the questions on my exam would be and was more wrong than right.
So that should get you started – come up with a study plan to take you up to the exam and read through the examiners’ reports. Oh, and finally one note on the January exams – they have a lower pass rate. In 2009 it was only a 6% difference, but in 2011 there was a 20% difference. I put it down to holidays just a few weeks before the exam, in that for most people taking the exam, it’s a very busy time of the year. That means if you are reading this and looking at a January exam, know that the odds are stacked against you to some extent and use that knowledge to motivate yourself to study now instead of leaving it for a few months. Six months may seem like a long time, but there’s a huge amount of material to cover. If you can go through everything once in three months, you’ll have a much better idea as to how you need to spend the following three months.
And I hope I don’t need to say this but I will anyway – even though I passed my Diploma and am now a WSET Certified Instructor, I am not certified to instruct at the Diploma level and I have no special insight into the exam or the examiners other than personal experience and what I’ve read in their reports. I hope what I share over the following posts is useful, but this is obviously just supplemental to what you should be getting from your instructors.
Next up, knowing about everywhere – what specifically?