What I learnt from sitting the RHS exams

Ten days ago, I sat the RHS Level 2 exams.  While I don’t find out the results until the end of April, I can’t say I’m optimistic.  Within minutes of starting the very first exam of the day, I knew I was woefully unprepared for it.

The RHS exams only occur twice a year, with a total of 8 exams spread across two days each time.  I opted to go for the first 4, which when passed lead to a certificate in the Principles of Plant Growth, Propagation and Development.  The second certificate, the exams for which occur a day later, again consists of 4 exams and leads to a certificate in the Principles of Garden Planning, Establishment and Maintenance.

I don’t have a great deal of interest just yet in Garden Design, so I didn’t study or sit the day two exams.

However, my first mistake was trying to cram all four exams into a single day.  Had I not though, I’d have to wait until later in the year to sit the next one – sitting one at a time would mean it taking two years over four sittings.  As I arrived just before 9 am though, it became apparent that those candidates that had previously tried my approach had found it didn’t work. I was the only candidate there for all 4; some were already on their 3rd attempt.

I expected to be nervous and well out of my comfort zone, but I felt oddly at ease.  It wasn’t as busy as I expected – half of the exams had only one other candidate and myself sitting, and the busiest sitting had only 8 of us there.

What did I do wrong?

It’s perhaps presumptuous to already say I went wrong, but quite frankly I’ll be the luckiest person around if I’ve achieved a pass.  I believe a combination of poor preparation, ill health and general misfortune contributed to my undoings.

In terms of preparation, I’ve previously mentioned that I signed up to do a distance learning course.  However, I only signed up for the first module.  The remaining three I ‘ self-taught’, frankly because the distance learning course was effectively doing the same thing.  I felt the course wasn’t especially guided – it was just a bunch of material to read, with a few quizzes to test your knowledge. I’ve since discovered other online courses that perhaps may have been better suited.

One of the biggest challenges I found was retaining information about things that are of little interest to me. For example, I’m passionate about growing fruit and vegetables, so I find it easier to digest information related to that. However, I don’t have a great deal of interest in flowers – so information tends to go in one ear, and out the other.

Study Books

The approach I took was to get a number of books – 4 in particular – Level 2 Principles of Horticulture, A Handbook for Horticultural Students, Botany for Gardeners and RHS Practical Latin for Gardeners.  While I learnt a great deal from these four books, I believe I didn’t soak up enough in some areas.  In a nutshell, I knew a little about a lot of things, but not enough about the things that the exams covered.

I was unfortunate in so much as the topics I did know a great deal about, and were on the syllabus, didn’t come up in the exams. Instead, they seemed to be full of things in the syllabus that I was weak on, or have less interest in.

Finally, health is something that plagues me seemingly all the time. I didn’t feel great on this particular day either. A full on cold developed the following day, so I suspect I was suffering the start of that. That, however, is of little excuse.

What I’d do differently

The first lesson I learnt is not to try to do them all at once. I’ll take away from this the lessons learnt by some of my fellow candidates.

The second is to find a way of learning that helps me retain information better. In recent days I stumbled across a colouring book, of all things, that at first glance seems to help people understand and memorise things like cells and plant structure. This way of learning would probably ‘sink in’ with me more than relying on memory alone.

Finally, by sitting the exams in February I’d hoped that the winter months would allow me time to revise more. While that’s true, it was all reliant on theory and memory. I couldn’t explore what I was learning, or practice the techniques I was being taught. In terms of propagation, in particular, real ‘practice’ would have been a significant help here. As much as cell structures, taxonomy etc are reliant on you simply memorising them; propagation is something you can actually do – if you time it right.  With that in mind, the June exams would be a much better time to sit the ‘Understanding Plant Propagation’ paper.

Will I sit them again?

Without a doubt, yes.

I’ll openly admit that I was ill-prepared and underestimated the level of knowledge required. I also overestimated my own level of knowledge.

Subconsciously, I guess I was reliant on the exam content leaning towards the areas I did have detailed knowledge about. This was, in hindsight, a gamble that didn’t pay off. I’ll read, then re-read the syllabus in future and ensure I know each of the topics inside-out. I’ll find a way of soaking those things in, even when they don’t interest me.  Next time, I’ll do no more than one at a time too.

Finally, I have a new-found respect for those that have taken and passed these with merit.


Lee Bailey

Organic Allotmenteer, RHS Student, Husband, Father & Programmer

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