For most of August 2009, the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam had been the focus of all of my mental energy. Frankly, it got to the point that I became sick of studying wine, which is probably a natural reaction when the test date looms and efforts to do some last-minute cramming redouble. What was really killing me, however, was (1) a general fear of failure and (2) not knowing what to expect from the test itself. Looking back, I probably could’ve avoided some of this general anxiety if I had spent a couple hundred bucks to become a paid member of the Society of Wine Educators (SWE), the trade organization that oversees the CSW exam.
Hey, I’m cheap. Plus, the testing fees themselves, about $400 or so, were part of a scholarship that I had won earlier this year. Therefore, I was reluctant to pay anything out of pocket, even if an SWE membership might’ve helped me prepare for the test itself. It wasn’t entirely logical, I admit, but it was the principle of the matter. Long story short, an SWE membership would have entitled me to a full 100-question practice exam, along with some other study modules that could’ve possibly streamlined my efforts. In hindsight, these materials would’ve saved me some grief, but now that the exam is successfully behind me, I certainly don’t foster any regrets about not spending that loot.
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Although I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the CSW exam, I did know a few statistics about the test, which I had gleaned from the SWE website: Namely, a 75% represented a passing score, but only 65% of the folks who sit for the exam will achieve this mark on their first attempt. Knowing that almost one-third of CSW candidates will fail the CSW exam offered me very little comfort. Even worse, the idea of paying $400 to retake the test was especially repugnant. So there I was, in limbo: Too cheap to pay for any CSW practice materials, and also a little unnerved at the idea of failing the exam.
Having searched “CSW exam” on the internet, I began to read about other people’s experiences with the test. I discovered that some people were spending the better part of a year studying, while I had only been in study mode for about one month. There were also blog comments from people who were taking the exam, attesting to the great accomplishment a passing mark represented, offering a hearty congratulations to those people who had already earned their certification. After a while, I began to wonder if the exam was going to be even more challenging than I had suspected. With the CSW just over one week away, I had a moment of panic.
Then, I resolved to make it all a non-issue, by committing as much time and effort as possible to studying. What other choice did I have? I condensed the 200-page CSW study guide into a svelte 55-page document of key bullet points, and then proceeded to internalize the entire thing through brutally repetitious reading. After considerable effort, I could list Germany’s 19 winegrowing regions, in order from west to east, as they follow the path of the Rhine River. I could also name all 36 DOCG wines of Italy, along with their respective regions, permitted grape varietals, barrel regimens, and everything else. I had memorized similar information about France, Austria, Australia, Argentina, and a host of other countries. It was mind-numbing, to say the least.
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As it turns out, a solid three-quarters of my effort was completely unnecessary, at least for the CSW exam. The day before the test, during the eight-hour review session, my instructor rattled off a litany of items that wouldn’t be covered on the CSW exam. Many of these things were some of the more obscure items that I had already studied. But even though I had spent considerable time and energy memorizing way more facts than necessary, I was frankly relieved. After a month of stress, I actually breezed through the test, and ended up with a 95 for my efforts. Next up is the CWE exam, which is a much more rigorous test (with a slim 12% pass rate for first-time candidates, I’m not a fan of those odds). Anyhow, since other folks have offered their perspective on the introductory-level CSW, I will offer my own outlook:
• First of all, I think the CSW only has a 65% pass rate because many people who take the test are, ironically, not that interested in wine. I learned that many of the folks who take this test do so under a corporate sponsorship, meaning that big companies like Southern Wine and Spirits will typically put all of their employees through this program. I’m certainly not knocking SWS for educating its staff, but there are going to be a good number of SWS employees who don’t have a specific enthusiasm for wine. For them, wine is just the commodity they happen to be peddling. Therefore, this bare statistic — the 65% pass rate — lacks some context.
Even among the group of folks who were taking the CSW along with me, I heard some of them mention that they fought and avoided this certification as long they could. Even though they were employed in the wine industry, their heart simply wasn’t in it. For them, studying wine might as well have been like studying history or accounting. This attitude is bound to have an effect on performance, and I’m pretty sure that these people will most likely comprise the 35% who fail the exam (especially if their company is going to pay for their re-test in a few months, anyhow). Therefore, for those who are genuinely interested in wine, I think the pass rate increases dramatically.
• The CSW exam is just a multiple-choice test, like any other. Whatever kind of success you have had with multiple choice tests in the past, it’s probably going to be just about the same for the CSW. Personally, I’ve always found multiple choice tests to be a little easier than other test formats, just because you can eliminate choices and take educated guesses when necessary. Plus, with multiple choice tests, you’re not committed to know the answer, so much as you have to simply recognize the answer. There is a huge difference between these two scenarios, and this format should work in your favor.
However, if you have a difficult track record with tests, then give yourself as much time as you need to become familiar with the material. I’m convinced that given the multiple-choice format of the CSW, one month of conscientious studying is enough preparation time for the average wine enthusiast to score better than 75% (again, you’re more likely to retain the material if you have a genuine interest in what you’re studying). So, if you really don’t do well with tests, or wine just happens to be your job at the moment, then allow yourself more study time.
• If you feel like you simply don’t have enough prep time, join the SWE to get the study modules and the practice test. As I had mentioned at the outset, this tip is something that would’ve helped me reduce my efforts. Having a keen sense of the actual difficulty of the CSW exam will help you streamline your approach to studying. Had I seen the practice test beforehand, I would’ve studied less material. The CSW itself is randomly generated from a pool of about 1500 questions (the 100 selected questions are then reviewed for balance and fairness). Under this system, there is a decent chance that a few of the practice questions may reappear on the actual CSW exam. If you’re really under the gun, three or four repeat questions could turn a 73% into a 76%.