Social media, exams and wine: Reflections on the WSET Diploma Unit 1 Case Study

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Jun 23, 2016

Last week however many (I didn’t count this time) of us gathered at the Royal National Hotel in London to take our WSET Diploma Unit 1 Case Study exam. This, basically, is an essay. Or, in our case, four shorter essays. About a month before the exam, we were given the general topic: social media and the wine industry. We were expected to revise and read up on whatever we could get our hands on. On the day of the exam, we went in and saw the actual question(s), and given 75 minutes to write our hearts out.

So, how did it go? I found it quite straightforward. If there were any difficulties, it was in the vagueness of the questions. Or the actual writing. I feel sorry for whomever has to try to read my last question, between my normally not-great handwriting and the cramps I was experiencing.

I, and most of the people I talked to, had prepared for specific issues or topics. One person, for example, had said they expected something like ‘consider the role of social media in underage drinking.’ Instead, we were greeted with four questions, along the lines of ‘describe some different social media platforms.’ ‘What are their advantages and disadvantages for the wine industry?’ ‘Is wine particularly suited to social media’ and ‘Will social media replace regular advertising?’ Those aren’t the exact phrasings, but close.

As long as you had read even general, background stuff (to use a technical, academic term), you should have done ok. This is reflected in the pass rates over the past few years. I’m not going to work out the averages, but in general, they run between 70 and 85 percent. A few specific instances are lower, but in general, it has quite a strong pass rate.

Of course, I have to acknowledge this is my sort of thing. I mean, thinking about a topic, reading up on it, and then writing (or talking) about it. So I went into this exam much more confidently than the Unit 6 one. It was interesting, however, that one of the sommeliers I talked to before the exam was the opposite. He was much more confident about the tastings than having to write about something he probably had never given much thought to before receiving the exam question.

Speaking (or writing) of Unit 6, one thought I had was how radically different this exam was when compared to the essay part of the Fortified Wines exam. For Unit 6, you were expected to do a data dump: here’s everything I know about bottle ageing in Port, and hope it was enough to make WSET happy. I don’t see how that could happen here. Admittedly, both sets of questions are general. But they are general in different ways. The Fortified Wines questions were general in a sense that they wanted you to know everything. The Unit 1 questions were general in a way that allowed you room to manoeuvre, think and argue. Given how they were phrased, I’d argue it should be possible to pass without a whole lot of references or numbers. Not a great pass, but still pass. I found myself at times shoe-horning statistics in, just to show I’ve done the work. Given how (arguably) prescriptive WSET is on most things, whether they agree with my reading of the questions remains to be seen.

For those wondering, this is not the end of Unit 1. We also have to write, by November, a 2500-3000 word essay. As an additional note – now that I’ve survived both the Cambridge exam period (marking for me) and the WSET exam, I hope to post more regularly here.

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