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My seven MW Rules for Exam Situations

How to master every examination situation 

You have been preparing for your exam for months. You’ve learned and tasted a lot. You have followed my rules for exam preparation, which I recommended in my last blog post. Then it’s time – exam day. And nothing seems to work. You can’t realize your potential. You panic, the clock is ticking, and in the end, you don’t finish. Game over. Does this look familiar? 

At least, that’s what happened to me on my journey to the Master of Wine. Back then, I discovered that – as I have always done in competitive sports – I have to pay as much attention to the exam situation as to my preparation of the content. Winning is, to a great extent, a mental matter – in sport as well as in the wine exam. With this finding in mind, I developed the following seven rules to master the examination situation.

Rule 1: Make sure that you get enough sleep, proper nutrition and stamina.

Novak Djokovic does it, and so does Lewis Hamilton. Many top athletes have perfected their sleep and nutrition to perform at their best. This principle is also the basis for calling up your performance in exam situations. Starving yourself and taking the exam with only a few hours of sleep can and will not work in most cases.

So, put away the learning material earlier and use the time to rest, even if it is difficult considering the upcoming exam the next day. On the eve of a relevant event, I also wear glasses with a special blue light filter to block short-wave, stimulating UV light for better sleep. I also enjoy listening to relaxing binaural music, which provides me with additional peace of mind.

Our brain needs not only sufficient sleep but also oxygen, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins for top performance. Sport improves oxygen transport and increases the ability to think sharper and to memorize better.  Wholemeal products, vegetables and nuts provide long lasting energy. Do not forget to drink. Water keeps the blood fluid, and the blood, in turn, supplies our brain with nutrients. Studies have shown that even a water deficit of 1-2% impacts negative our mental performance. 

Rule 2: Control your emotions.

From an evolutionary point of view, we are biologically focused on the fight with the sabre-toothed tiger, but unfortunately not on passing wine examinations. Our body perceives the tiger and exam in the same way as a threat. Stress hormones drive up the pulse, dampen perceptions and allow us to both, fight or flee. This reflex helps us to escape the tiger, but not to distinguish Sauvignon Blanc from Chenin Blanc. You cannot completely turn off these reflexes. They are a blessing because in many cases, they ensure our survival.

Accept them as part of you, but control and use them – instead of being dominated by them. Be awake and focused, but not rushed and panicky. Easier said than done? I learned various strategies to achieve this, which mainly come from top-class sport – first of all, the “tunnel”.

Rule 3: Move into your tunnel.

We all know the images from television of Formula 1 drivers concentrating on closing their overalls before the race, putting on gloves and helmet, sliding into the car and putting on the steering wheel. Each action is an element of a rehearsed, recurring routine. The drivers enter their “tunnel”, which reduces stress and increases focus.

I have set up my own tunnel for my MW examinations. I checked out the location the day before the exam to get a sense of the situation. On the morning of the examination, I checked my bag, walked the same way to the examination venue with sufficient time to spare, listened to “my” music (Anton Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” played by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1964).

Before entering the room, I stretched my arms above my head in a victory pose. The posture as part of the body language also influences the mindset. This idea may sound strange, but it works perfectly – at least for me. At the table, I arranged my glasses, pens, computer and timer in my specific order. I put my earplugs into position – not just to block any noise but to give me the impression to be shielded into my own world. Then, i took one more minute of conscious inhalation and exhalation. And off I went.

Rule 4: Call up your scenarios.

Are you sometimes panicking in the middle of exam situations because things are not going as you expected? You get stuck with a question, a wine flight or your computer crashes – just like it happened to me in one of my practical exams.

Face it; you will never find the ideal conditions. Something will always go wrong. But you can learn to deal with it. Face your fears. Not in the exam, but your preparation. Think through all the situations that can happen to you in the exam.

Develop scenarios of how you will handle them in the best and worst case. This strategy will reduce your fears in the long term because you actively approach them. And you know what to do if the incident occurs. You will recall the scenarios you have learned. Sounds good? Pilots do nothing else in their trainings  to get the aircraft back on the ground safely in any case of emergency.

Rule 5: Surrender does not apply.

If you are doing poorly in your exam and you want to give up, think of Brett Archibald. In 2013 he went overboard during a surf trip off Indonesia. For 28 hours he floated on the sea surrounded by sharks. He was just swimming without any equipment and no life-vest. Then he was rescued. That demonstrates: The situation may seem hopeless, but giving up is never an option. There’s always a loophole. If you don’t know an answer, can’t identify a wine or whatever. Proceed to the next wine, to the next question you can answer. The tricky wine may have opened later; you may find an approach to answer the difficult question, or at least you pushed hard.

Rule 6: Do not look back.

Never look back when things don’t go the way you want them to, but always look forward. Do not worry, for example, about not managing some part of the exam the way you intended. You cannot change what has happened, but you can change what lies ahead. This mindset is particularly crucial for examinations that last several days, such as the Master of Wine examination. In my first exam, I was struggling to concentrate on the next sections when I felt I had failed the first day. But that’s what real champions are all about, winning a game from the defensive.

Rule 7: Accuracy and time management are key.

Even if your nervousness and time pressure are extreme – accuracy and time management are crucial for your success. You should also read all questions and comments carefully at the beginning of the exam and pay attention to your time budget. If an answer is worth 20 points, do not try to get 25 points and then fail to finish in the end. Invest in a suitable timekeeping device. I bought a timer which showed two-time scales – one counting up and one counting down – to be sure to stay in time. I bought it online for just 10 Euro, and it was one of my best investments ever. Leaving blank pages is the worst case in any exam in the world. You can also only win a Formula 1 race if you cross the finish line.