WSET Diploma Unit 3 — Tips and Advice

Several folks asked me if I would put together some tips and advice for the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam (aka the Mother-of-all-Exams). That exam is NO JOKE. The pass rate for Unit 3 Theory in 2017-18 was a soul-crushing 40%. The pass rate for Tasting was a slightly more encouraging 75%. The Unit 3 exam was among the most stressful and grueling six hours of my life. That said, it’s not the exam that will kill you . . . it’s the prep.

I’m happy to share some prep tips and strategies that worked for me, with the caveat that everyone has to their own best way to study — what worked for me may not work for you.

Eyes on the prize.

Theory

  1. There is no substitute for time. I spent an absurd (nearly clinically insane) amount of time studying for this exam. What’s absurd? WSET recommends at least 300 hours of study time for Unit 3. I was probably closer to 500 hours.
  2. Get an online subscription to Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages. The Oxford Companion to Wine is an absolutely essential resource, and the searchable, online version is a lot lighter than the book (it’s brilliant, but no one would ever accuse OCW of being an economy of words).
  3. Join GuildSomm. Superb study guides, expert guides and compendium (yields, vine density, aging requirements, ABV, etc.). The compendium is a sanity saver.
  4. Wine-searcher.com. Great information on regions, grapes, and styles. When your brain just can’t read another TL;DR OCW entry on Xinomavro, wine-searcher.com has your back.
  5. Subscribe to Decanter and Drinks Business for news. Stay on top of recent developments in the industry, because WSET wants to see that depth of knowledge in the theory exam. WSET has discount codes on their website.
  6. If you’re a CSW, go grab your notes and review the hell out of them. They are an outstanding springboard.
  7. Review your WSET Unit 2 (Wine Production) notes. I think with the new revision, this is now Unit 1. Regardless, they’re important — they are the foundation of the theory questions.
  8. READ the WSET Specification. (This one is from May 2019. Make sure you have the most recent version.) Now read it again.
  9. READ the Candidate Assessment Guide for Theory. Now read it again.
  10. Look at the Past Papers section on the WSET Global site. WSET only makes the most recent past paper available, so print these out before they’re gone.
  11. The Examiners Report. Read it. And hope your paper never shows up in the “seriously inadequate” example section.
  12. The Study Guide. Don’t even try to talk yourself into thinking that if you know the study guide you will pass the theory exam. Not a chance. The study guide is a foundation. You have to dive deeper. Like waaaaaay deeper.
    • There are (blank) charts in the back of the WSET study guide for Statistics, Recent Developments, and Key Producers. You’ll be tempted to skip those. Don’t.
  13. Binders. Some people like flashcards, I’m a binder girl. I have one gigantic binder for theory, another for tasting. Everything is divided by country/region. And color coded by soil type and climate (yes, I’m a little OCD). My binders make sense to no one but me, but they worked.
  14. Maps. I love maps. I think in maps. And I’m convinced my use (over-use) of maps is one of the main reasons I passed this exam.
    • The maps in the back of the WSET Study Guide are essentially useless. They’re waaaay too small (you need a magnifying glass to read the print), and just plain inadequate.
    • You can download MUCH better maps from the Society for Wine Educators. Then mark the HELL out of your maps with climate, soils, grape varieties, etc. Colored pens and highlighters are your friends!
  15. Whether you have an actual class for theory or you’re doing the WSET online version, make yourself do ALL of the practice/feedback questions, and do them under “exam conditions” (no notes and timed). It’s tedious as hell, but you’ll be glad you did it.
  16. RTFQ (Read The F%cking Question). WSET is big on writing a well conceived, targeted essay. If you write a meandering “kitchen sink” essay, it won’t go over well.
  17. Know your “Key Factors” inside and out, backwards and forwards, and how they contribute to the style and quality of a wine. Use them as scaffolding for theory questions.
  18. Make a spreadsheet of soil types and where they’re found.
  19. Make a spreadsheet of climate, significant climatic factors (e.g., Mistral winds), rainfall, and significant viticultural hazards (most of which can be found in The World Atlas of Wine (which has outstanding maps, btw).
  20. Do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis for every region. Total PITA, but worth it.
  21. AAWE (American Association of Wine Economists) Infographics are awesome for stuff like “most acreage under vine”, etc.
  22. Remember (unless they changed it with the new format), there are six questions, but you only have to answer FOUR. It’s a gamble, but I made a time and stress decision NOT to devote much time to the lesser regions. Sorry, Romania.

Tasting

  1. I did a 14-week tasting class with my APP, the Capital Wine School. I had the extreme benefit of two MWs, Jay Youmans and Caroline Hermann, to mentor me. I was more than prepared for the tasting exam (and continue to be in awe of their tasting abilities).
  2. Look at Past Tasting Papers on WSET Global site. WSET only makes the most recent past paper available, so print these out before they’re gone.
  3. The Examiners Report. Read it. And hope to God your tasting note doesn’t show up in the “this is a hot mess” section.
  4. Join a tasting group. If there isn’t one in your area, start one.
  5. READ the Candidate Assessment Guide for Tasting. Now read it again.
  6. MEMORIZE the SAT (Systematic Approach to Tasting).
    • Tattoo SATABFFF (Sweetness, Acidity, Tannin, Alcohol, Body, Flavor Intensity, Flavor Characteristics, and Finish) on your brain. When you proofread your tasting notes, make sure you haven’t forgotten any of those components.
    • Here’s a chart of how the marks are allocated. For Bacchus’ sake, if you don’t get any points for something, don’t spend any time on it!!
  7. Dissect the Recommended Tasting (this is in the Specification). Anything on there is fair game.
  8. Know the testable grape varieties and their viticultural characteristics.
  9. Know the acidity, alcohol, tannin, and sweetness levels for the testable grapes/wines. Guild of Master Somm has some great charts:
  10. Be prepared to buy a shit-ton of wine to practice with. There’s no shortcut here. Spend the $$.
  11. Buy a Coravin. It’ll save you money.
  12. Practice, practice, practice.
    • Stand over your kitchen sink (or invest in a good spit cup) several times a day with three different wines and mentally compare and memorize.
    • This is especially important for THE EVIL DWARVES (Tim Gaiser’s term for the nightmare grapes that are so easily confused for one another).
    • Practice writing timed tasting notes. You get 30 minutes for each flight during the exam. Practice writing them in 20-25 minutes.
  13. There will be some wines that you really don’t like. EMBRACE them. Because if they show up on your exam, you’ll nail them. This happened to me in Spirits with Grappa {BLAARRGG} and in Unit 3 with Torrontes {EEEEEW, TORRONTES}.
  14. Assessment of Quality (aka the thing everyone is afraid of). As long as you’re practicing writing tasting notes, you’ll get into a formulaic rhythm with this, and it will start to flow.
    • BLIICC — again, tattoo this on your brain. Balance, Length, Intensity, Integration, Concentration, Complexity.
    • It’s not enough to say something is outstanding. WHY is it outstanding? Your tasting note is your evidence. Tie everything back to that (HOW do your six factors influence style and quality?) Use phrases like “due to”, “supported by”, and “as evidenced by”.
  15. REMEMBER: You don’t have to nail the variety/region to accumulate enough points to pass.
  16. Don’t forget about Pinotage. (I forgot about Pinotage on my exam, and totally missed it in the “Mixed Bag” section. Still kicking myself.)

I understand the new format for the Unit 3 exam is now two days instead of one. I’m not sure how I feel about that. While my brain was absolute MUSH after my exam, at least I walked out the door and it was done. If I’d had another day ahead of me . . . I might have completely lost my mind.

Good luck! Please reach out if you have questions or I can help in any way further.

Salud!

2 comments

  1. As one of the people who asked (begged?) you for Unit 3 tips and advice – thank you so much for this goldmine of information! And you may regret that last sentence of yours . . . I will likely be in touch as my exam gets closer. 😉

    Like

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