You Make Your Own Luck


There is a well-known saying “The harder I practice, the luckier I get”.

This saying has been attributed to various golfers in the 1960s but its real origins are lost in the mists of time. The reason why the saying persists is because of the universal truth that it contains. If you put the hard work in you are more likely to get the result that you want. And what is true for golf is true for NEBOSH Certificate exams. If you want to do well in the exams then you have to put the hard work in before-hand. You have to revise and prepare.

At the risk of repeating myself; you have to revise and prepare.

Success in the NEBOSH exam is based on two things: having the knowledge in your head and being able to apply that knowledge to exam questions under examination conditions on the day itself. The former is determined by the amount of revision work that you do. The latter is about exam technique.

In this blog I want to focus on the first of these two topics: revision.

The first issue to address is what to revise. Which topics should you spend your time on? The answer to that question is best answered by looking at the Syllabus guide for your NEBOSH Certificate course. This can be found as a free downloadable pdf document on the NEBOSH website (look under the student/ currently studying section of the website). It can also be answered by looking at the Example examination paper and Examiner’s reports that NEBOSH have published on their website.

If you spend some time reading through, marking up and thinking about these two significant sources it can help you to decide which topics are most important and the depth of understanding required.

You have to consider this alongside your current level of knowledge and experience on particular topics. For example, if you are a radiologist you probably don’t need to spend much time reading and working on ionising radiation as a topic because your level of knowledge and understanding will be far above Certificate level already.

But at the same time you must remember that the Syllabus guide identifies the specific knowledge that you must know. It is possible to be very experienced in a particular field but be caught out by an exam question. It is easy to get thrown by a question that is based on a particular guidance note that you have not had to read or look at professionally for a very long time.

The second issue to address is how to revise.

So picture the scene. A quiet room. Your Certificate exam is two weeks away. Your eye rests gently on the first line of a paragraph of text. You read. You pause for thought. You have a nagging feeling that you have left the cat outside yet again. You read some more. The laundry is calling you. Another line or two. The pile of bills by the microwave need reconciling. You realise that you have dozed off and have completely lost the thread of the single paragraph that you were trying to read. You start again. Your eye rests gently on the first line of the paragraph…

If you recognise the above then you may well have already realised that simply trying to read course material in preparation for an exam is an exercise in futility. You have to read with a purpose. You have to be doing something with the material that you are reviewing. There has to be some activity.

For example:

  • Summarise the material by distilling ideas and key information down to skeletal bullet points.
  • Now turn over your bullet point notes and write them out again from memory.
  • Draw mind maps that summarise the contents of sections of your course. Put colour in the mind map. Draw silly/ smutty/ outrageous images on it. Make it memorable.
  • Put bullet points onto index cards with the topic title on the flip-side and test yourself for recall.
  • Prepare a slide presentation on a topic and inflict this on your work colleagues, fellow students or long-suffering family.
  • Find some more victims and do it again.
  • Draw a poster that summarises a topic that you struggle with and put this on the office wall at work or in your living room at home.
  • Record audio notes of key information so that you can revise when driving/ commuting.
  • Leave pauses in the audio recording so you can repeat key phrases or test yourself. “Ecoute et répète” (listen and repeat) as my French language-lab tapes used to say when I was at school (yes I did say tape, yes I was a fan of Ultravox, yes I did manage to smuggle Vienna into the tape player, yes I have managed to wangle 1980s’ music into yet another blog – bet you didn’t spot the references in the last one).
  • Stick post-it notes with difficult to remember info on your fridge door/ dashboard/ desk/ forehead.
  • Test yourself by looking at these revision aids and then try to recall and note down their contents.
  • Get other people by test you – get your partner to give you a pop-quiz based on your mind-maps.
  • Explain topics and ideas that you find awkward to your friends and work colleagues. While you still have them.
  • Now go back to square one and do it again.

It is not enough just to read your textbook. You have to be able to recall this information under the stressful conditions of the examination and that sort of quick, efficient recall can only come through active learning and preparation.

And through repetition, repetition and repetition.

…Think Groundhog Day but without the comedy.

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

…Or Edge of Tomorrow but without the violence (or Tom Cruise).

How was Private Cage transformed from a coward and a deserter into a hero? By reliving the same battle over and over until he got it right. Live, die, repeat.

To misquote Master Sergeant Farell:

“NEBOSH exams are the great redeemer.

The fiery crucible in which only true heroes are forged.”

… and remember …

“Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate.”

With apologies to the late, great Bill Paxton.

Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH

RRC Consultant Tutor