Although I’ve never ridden a horse in my life, I feel like I’ve been bucked off the Beast (WSET Diploma D3) a few times already. And I have yet to take the actual fucking exam. After scrambling to find another school in which to take the exam back in May, only to have that exam cancelled worldwide – I’m now aiming to take it at the end of October. So Buckaroos – it’s time to get back in the saddle!
Now, it’s entirely possible that the October exam will also be cancelled – but that’s out of my control. What is IN my control is HOW I’m going to study, WHAT I’m going to study and WHEN I’m going to study it. So I put together a new roadmap to get me from now (“now” actually started a couple months ago) until exam day. And while this process is intuitive for me, I’m realizing that it’s not for everyone – primarily because I’ve gotten some questions from other wine students on this!
Here’s how I put together my study plan (aka “roadmap”) – some of these suggestions might work for you, and some won’t. There are several routes to the same destination . . .
First things first: Calculate how long you have between now and exam day. This is the easy part – figure out how many days (or weeks) you have from today until the day of your exam. I prefer to schedule my studies weekly as opposed to daily – but you might prefer otherwise. What’s important is to find what works best for you – be it on a calendar, spreadsheet, etc., but get your blank schedule in front of you.
What does your life look like from now to exam day? Make sure to account for other things going on in your life when putting together your study plan (please make sure you have other things going on in your life!!) Mark these clearly on your roadmap so that you don’t over-schedule your studies during these times.
For example, I had to wrap up my research paper on natural wine and take my Spanish Wine Scholar exam before the end of July – so Beast studies were going to take a backseat during this month. Hubs and I also took a much needed roadtrip, and I wanted to enjoy this time and not be bogged down with books. So I budgeted study time accordingly – and focused on Beast regions that corresponded with where we were driving!
Ok, now you’ve got your blank schedule with other life goings on blocked out. Let’s get to filling in the blanks – and for this part, we need to figure out WHAT to study.
What will be covered on the exam? The Beast focuses on all still wines of the world . . . so, that limits it [insert eyeroll here]. But seriously, for the best guesstimate on what will be covered on your exam – pull out your textbook and look at how it’s broken down.
For the Beast, France represents over 25% of the total text. Italy is second with 15%, followed by Spain and Australia with 7% each, and then California 6%. It therefore lends itself to reason that questions on France will come up more frequently than other regions – so obviously I should spend most of my study time on France, right? Well – yes, and no.
Let’s say – purely hypothetically – that you have a decent grasp on France, but the entire Southern hemisphere is a bit of a blur to you. If that’s the case, it might be best to spend a good chunk of your time on what you don’t know instead of cozily reviewing the 10 Cru Beaujolais for the hundredth time. Let me explain a bit more . . .
Look at what you already know and (this is very important!) analyze your weak spots. It is SO easy to focus on our strengths and review these instead of tackling the areas we’re weaker in. Of all wine growing countries, I’m probably most confident about France. (Yes, even more than my own country – unless a lot of Washington wine questions happen to pop up on the exam). Given my druthers, I’d focus on all things France and pretty much ignore the entire Southern hemisphere. So maybe the above example wasn’t purely hypothetical. 😉
You’ve got to balance reviewing what you already know with a more intense focus on what you’re less confident about. Here are some suggestions on how to go about this:
Break it up a bit. Let’s say, like me, France is your strongest point. Rather than plow through the entirety of the country over several weeks in a row – break it into smaller areas and divide these up on your schedule. This way, you’re spreading out your strength – which will (hopefully!) help keep your confidence level boosted throughout your studies.
Pair up different regions. I don’t know about you, but I get rather bored studying the same country for weeks on end. For my Beast roadmap, I decided to group regions together to study in a few different ways:
- Common threads. Chenin Blanc does well in the Loire and in South Africa (just ask Vincent and Tania Carême) so I paired those regions up in Week 12.
- Tannic red with fatty steak. One of the most traditional food and wine pairings is a big, tannic red with a juicy, fatty steak. These two balance each other out in part because the steak’s fat and protein break down the tannins in the wine. So – pick a region that is tannic and hard to swallow on its own for you. (For me, that’s Germany – it’s a jumble fucking mess in my brain with terms like flurbereinigung and pendelbogen . . . you cannot make these words up!) Now, pair this “tannic” area with a juicy, easy to digest region. I went with New York because I’ve been there, it’s relatively easy to wrap my brain around and it’s only six pages long! 🙂
- Review v. Learn. I paired up Central Italy and Australia in Week 10 – having completed the Italian Wine Scholar program, Central Italy will be more of a review for me. However, I’ve always struggled with Australia. So this week’s study session will give me a balance of refresh and review, and learning more from scratch.
Bottom line: fill in your study schedule however makes sense to YOU. If you’d rather tackle all of Italy at once before moving onto another country – do it. But know yourself and how your brain works best . . . and this will help you with this next part: figuring out HOW you’re going to study.
Be realistic about time dedication. This is tough for me because I always think I can get more done in a set time-frame than is actually possible. Hubs jokes that just because ONE time I drove from our house to San Diego in 50 minutes, that I now think that’s how long it should always take. (Note: except for that one time, it always takes about an hour and ten minutes – and that’s without traffic).
So ask yourself: how much time are you honestly going to be able to study each week, or each day? I know one Diploma graduate who treated her D3 studies basically like a full time job and studied from 8-5 every day for a few months prior to the exam. While that’s incredibly impressive – that’s just not realistic for me. The Beast will be a part-time job for me from now until exam day – probably around 20 hours per week of study time.
How in depth do you want to go? This is another question that you’ve got to ask yourself and answer honestly: do you want to pass this exam – or do you want to achieve a higher score? Diploma candidates are made up of wine students who are used to achieving high marks. Many of us received Merit or Distinction on our WSET Level 3 exams and have come to expect that level of performance from ourselves. But with the pass rate for the theory portion of the Beast hovering around 40% – you might need to reassess your goals.
Sidebar . . . When I started Diploma, and passed my first exam with Distinction, I set the bar that high. I was used to doing extremely well on exams – why should Diploma be any different? (Right now I am laughing at how naïve I was!) Then my next exam rolled in with Merit, and the next . . . a straight Pass. It was about that time I finally accepted that the Diploma is some tough shit and that I might need to lower my expectations of myself – for my own well-being.
So for ME, I’m going to be thrilled to Pass the Beast. This is my last Diploma hurdle – so if I barely clear it, who cares? I fucking cleared it and made it to the finish line. THAT is my goal right now.
This means that for my studies I’m going to focus on the concepts – and not agonize over the details. For example, regarding Bordeaux, I’ll be able to describe how and why botrytis develops in Sauternes, explain the importance of the 1855 Classification and En Primeur and detail how the various soil types impact wine styles. But I won’t bog down my brain with minimum aging requirements, permitted yields, or being able to list all the second growths. Giving myself permission to not attempt to learn everything has been incredibly freeing. However, if you’re aiming for a Merit or Distinction, you’ll probably need to focus more on those details – and allocate enough study time in order to do this.
Be Accountable. How are you going to hold yourself to your roadmap? If you slack off and miss a week, or fall behind because you burrow down too many rabbit holes, do you just say “oh well!” and create a new schedule? I suppose you could do that . . . I’ve done it. Several times. But that kinda defeats the purpose of making a schedule to begin with – doesn’t it?
To help hold myself accountable, besides weekly check-ins with Hubs, I posted my roadmap above and plan to do a few blog updates on my progress between now and the end of October. So, you all will know if I’ve fallen behind. And that’s not going to be something I’ll be super excited to admit.
Like I mentioned earlier, everyone’s roadmap will look different because we each have a different starting point. Some of us might take shortcuts along the way and others might take a much longer route. Regardless, we’re aiming for the same destination – and hopefully, each one of us will get there intact and still in the saddle. 🙂