Updated: May 25
Tips from an Ironman triathlete on preparing for the WSET Level 3 Award in Wines!
When I decided to enroll the WSET L3 back in 2016, I was already training for my first full Ironman (IM) triathlon. Like most people, with a full-time job and a family, I could only devote a few hours a day for sport and study: So I had to get organized. Put simply, I approached the WSET preparation like I approached my IM triathlon training program. The tips I’m about to share with you have served me well: Since 2016, I passed the WSET L3 and the DipWSET and completed two IM triathlons between 12 & 13 hours.
The challenge of preparing for an IM triathlon (beside the long distances) comes from the fact that one must train in 3 different disciplines: Swim, Bike & Run.
Studying for the WSET L3 is similar in that one must prepare for 3 different exam parts: The 2-Wine Blind Tasting, the 50-Multiple Choice Questions and the 4-Short Written Answers. Each of these exam part demands a different set of skills. This means that preparation should revolve around 3 key activities: Writing tasting notes, memorizing the material and writing about it in a specific way.
Like for IM triathlon training, I followed a 3-step approach to prepare for the WSET L3:
Step 1. Design a plan
Step 2. Stick to it
Step 3. Enjoy
STEP 1. DESIGN A PLAN
Designing any plan typically starts with the end in mind: For an IM Triathlon, it means visualizing exactly what the race day is going to look like: You can typically get all of the information on the IM triathlon website: that includes the course profile, the race regulations and tons of useful tips on how to prepare adequately. For the WSET L3 Award in Wines, you absolutely need to study the specification booklet to have a very precise vision of what will be expected of you to succeed at the exam.
There are normally 3 phases in training for a triathlon: The first phase is dedicated to laying out the foundations, the second phase is designed to increasingly build strength and endurance: training sessions become longer and more intense, rest periods also become increasingly important. During the third phase the amount of training actually decreases as the competition is approaching. The taper week is designed to give you a minimum of practice in all 3 sports while getting you uninjured and fresh at the starting line.
For the WSET L3 Award in wine, you should devote a couple of weeks to build the foundations: This means to review the WSET L2 book from cover to cover, to review WSET Level 2 flashcards, to re-do WSET Level 2 practice quizzes and do some pre-reading on the first chapters of the WSET L3 book. Following this, you’ll have a few intense weeks to study the WSET L3 content and finally, a taper week to revise for the exam. The WSET suggests a minimum of 84 hours of study for the exam. Frankly, unless you are a genius, if you aim for the high marks, you’ll need to put on a few more hours. In summary, your master plan may look like this:
Typically, preparing for a triathlon as an amateur requires 3 sessions per week for each 3 sports (3 swims + 3 runs + 3 bike rides per week). This means that you should have 9 sessions per week.
I followed the same approach for the WSET: Planning 3 sessions for each of the 3 parts of the exam:
· 3 sessions on writing
· 3 session on memorizing
· 3 sessions on tasting.
A typical week looked like this:
I found that it was useful to engage more or less equally in these 3 key activities. Below is what I did and why it worked for me:
Writing: Because I wasn’t used to hand-write profusely in English, I needed to develop this skill for the 4-short written answers. I knew that I was going to be asked to write about: “The natural and human factors in the vineyard and the winery that affect wine style and character”. So, not only I needed to memorize all the possible factors affecting the style and character of a wine, I needed to memorize the specific factors for all the key wines as well as their styles and characteristics. Finally, I needed to be able to put this into written words. As a non-native speaker I had to really train myself to write for this exam. Some of the techniques I used was:
Studying past exam questions and answers that received high scores
Reviewing all the English expressions available to explain cause and effects (As a non-native speaker, I really needed that)
Practicing on answering sample WSET L3 questions with a timer (then checking my answers in the book for facts that I would have forgotten and rewrite the best possible answers)
Practicing and answering self-designed questions in writing (using existing questions as models)
Handwriting packs and packs of flashcards.
Memorizing the content of the WSET book is key to success for the part of the exam with the 50-MCQ and the 4-SWA. Everyone has his/her own preferred learning style. For me, what worked best was this:
Studying at regular hours in the same place, free of distractions and interruptions.
Reading the material and make flashcards for every key term in the book (I made both paper and digital flashcards I could review on my phone anytime)
Drawing maps and charts and other illustrations
Listening to Podcast by Lavi Dalton
Writing tasting notes: The first thing to do here (again) is to read the specifications, the related chapters in the book, and to memorize the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting the wine. There is absolutely no escaping this step, and it is best to do it before you even go to your first class. Your instructor will be of great help during the tutored tasting in class. What worked best for me was:
Trying to take good notes during tutored tasting classes
Rewriting/ cleaning-up my notes after class
Keeping tasting locally sourced wines at least once a week by myself
2 STICK TO IT
It’s one thing to design a great plan, it is another to stick to it until the end (the exam)
If you’re going to study 9 hours per week, you’ll need to steal time from a variety of other activities that are (for the next weeks at least) less important than your WSET studies: I’m talking about relaxing time on Netflix, TV or social media, hanging out with friends, shopping or whatever you do for fun. For the next few weeks, you MUST “not let what matter most be at the mercy of what matter least” (JW von Goethe). Make sure you inform your friends and family that you may “go dark” for a few hours per day, and demand their full support, so you can stick to your study plan.
You may be tempted to cut on sleeping time? Well, if you are studying hard enough, you will need more sleep, so you may as well plan for it. Rest is actually an integral part of training AND studying. You simply can’t cut on sleep, or you will regress. Research has shown that sleep as a cleansing effect of the toxins accumulated in your brain during the day. In a way, trying to study hard with too little sleep is like trying to run hard with leg muscles full of lactic acids from yesterday’s sprinting session! Give yourself a day off per week. Be careful with cramming the day before the exam too: although it does work to some extend (you can store an extra few more facts in your immediate memory), it will be at the expense of “freshness” which comes in handy if you want to be at your best for the exam. (Would you imagine a triathlete “cramming” a few more training sessions the night before the race?). No the taper week is for review and relaxing: stick to the plan.
If your attention span is short and if you get distracted easily, you’ll really need to isolate yourself for studying: I was fortunate enough to be able to devote a room for my study. I could lock myself in and study without distractions for as long as I could. On the walls: a very large white board for drawing maps, charts and writing lists. Maps of all the wine regions in the world, I even wrote on my windows. Some use music, some don’t, some use scents and aromas that helps them concentrate… it’s up to you to set up your study nest so you can focus. For me, it was also important to study at the same time every day. I typically had a daily morning session and an evening session every other day. After three weeks of struggle, it became a habit. Some people can study for a whole day non-stop; I respect that. I rarely studied more than an hour at the time (maybe only once a week). I found that a frequent routine of intense short sessions helped me stick to my study plan on the long run.
Training for an IM triathlon or studying for the WSET can be quite demanding and requires a lot of self-discipline, especially during the first three weeks. Make sure you reward yourself after each session: It can be a simple cup of coffee or tea, a refreshing shower, a nice breakfast, a session at the spa, an evening with friends or a beer! Celebrate every completed session like a mini victory. Seize every possible chance to express your gratitude for becoming increasingly knowledgeable about wine: think of all of the new interesting people you meet, the great wines you get to taste, the interesting conversations with friends, customers or business partners. This will keep you motivated and happy in your continuing studies.
Hopefully, I have convinced you that the training approach acquired in triathlon can be transferable in preparing for the WSET L3 Award in Wines: Designing a study plan, sticking with it until the end while enjoying every session. Starting on the foundations with a good review of the WSET L2 book, doing some pre-reading before WSET L3 classes, then increasing studying time and focus on the 3 key activities: writing, memorizing and tasting until the taper week: a time to revise and relax to prepare for the exam.
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