In the third in a series of articles, Doreen Walker, training consultant to the Derby Evening Telegraph, offers some valuable advice to shorthand writers whatever their experience.

Preparing for the exam

Step one is simply to get your facts right! Some professions demand that their candidates undertake an examination set by a particular Awarding Body whilst others will accept any Awarding Body.

For example, stenographers seeking a job in the medical or legal profession may find that a shorthand certificate issued by the Pitman Institute or the Royal Society of Arts is acceptable, whilst journalists may find that only one, or even neither, of these Awarding Bodies is accepted - the NCTK (an awarding body in its own right) will only accept certificates of competence issued by the NCTJ.

It would be demotivating therefore if, having undertaken an RSA examination successfully at 100 wpm, you found that the profession you wished to enter did not recognise this particular Awarding Body.

Step two is Find out what the examination involves! Awarding Bodies differ in both their requirements and marking systems. One may insist on two pieces of shorthand being transcribed which have each been read for 3 minutes; another may require only 2-mintue readings. Some awarding bodies will penalise spelling mistakes, others don't. Some will allow you to take a dictionary into the examination with you - again others will not. So find out, as soon as possible what the examination consists of and what aspects of transcription are penalised.

Having addressed the two steps above you should practice doing an examination i.e. Mock Exam - the use of past examination papers are an excellent method. If you are undertaking a regular course of study at College, Training Centre or University, you tutor will ensure that you have plenty of opportunities for attempting "mock examinations". If you are learning shorthand through self-study, past examination papers, or tapes, are generally available from each of the Awarding Bodies upon request.

Please remember it is accuracy of Transcription which is being marked as well as correct application of shorthand theory - most failures in shorthand examinations are not due to incorrect shorthand outlines but carelessness in transcribing them. It has been known for shorthand notes to be submitted which are perfect yet the candidate fails simply because of transcription errors eg: putting into plural what was dictated as singular, or vice-versa; missing out full-stops; incorrect spelling or transposing words.

To avoid this, do practice writing your transcription notes rather than simply reading them. Most students dislike this approach believing it to be too time-consuming but it is well worth the effort. Try it only once and you will probably find, when checking each word against each outline you have made some errors. The shorthand notes can be penalised too - if, when reading back your notes, you discover that you have written an outline incorrectly, put a circle around it and put the correct outline in the margin. Do remember longhand notes appearing in shorthand are severely penalised by most examining bodies.

NB - Take care with your writing, if it is barely legible and the examiner has difficulty reading it you risk failure without it having been marked!

Step three - Find out WHEN and WHERE the examinations are to be held and the time limit on registration. Most Awarding Bodies have set dates and times for examinations to be held nationally, ie at the same time, on the same day, everywhere - thus avoiding a candidate going from one place to another to have a second bite at the cherry!!! The awarding bodies will not make an exception and allow you to take it earlier/later than the dates/times they have stipulated no matter what reason you may give (holiday, illness, train delays, etc).

It is important too, that you know exactly the cut-off date for registration for an examination - some Awarding Bodies stipulate 14 days before the examination date, others a month. It is no good simply hearing about an examination and turning up on the day - you will be refused entry. Also remember - there is a time limit on entry to the examination - if the exam is due to commence at 10.00am, entry to the room may be forbidden after 9.45 am. Check with the centre running the examination well in advance and make sure that transport etc is dependable for your timely arrival!

(Don't forget to check where the Examining Centre is if you have never been before and allow time for "getting lost" both outside and inside the building!")

Week before
- practice from tapes each day (but never for more than ½ hr at a time)

Night before
- get a good night's sleep (don't be tempted to go to a party or booze up)

On the day
- make sure you arrive at the centre in good time. (It is worth remembering that most centres offer a short practice session prior to an examination and it could be worthwhile considering attending in order to acclimatise yourself to the reader's voice as well as having a warm-up practice).
- check you have all you need (minimum of two pens/pencils, dictionary etc)

The exam

- try to relax, breathe slowly, smile, flex your fingers, relax your shoulders;
- think positively - I can do this!
- listen carefully to the rules and regulations that are read out by the invigilator and adhere to them;
- after the dictation DO read the pieces through from start to finish BEFORE you start to write them back. Circle any outlines lightly that you cannot read immediately but continues to the end of the piece, then go back to the words circled. This way you are reinforcing the content of the piece in your mind - if you start to write it back without having read it right through, you run the risk of complete "blank out";
- during the dictation and transcription period DO NOT cause a disturbance to others (sighing heavily, groaning, banging pen down etc) - this can be very off-putting to other candidates and can result in you being dismissed from the examination;
- finally, BELIEVE in your shorthand; if you can't read a particular outline, leave a gap and continue writing the piece.

When finished go back to the outline in question and -

  • try reading it phonetically
  • put letters of the outline down on a piece of scrap paper and treat it like a crossword (the clue is in the context of the piece!)
  • remember you wrote it, so have faith, generally most candidates who struggle over an outline because it is incorrectly written, have still managed to get either the first or final syllable right so try working out the outline from the end, it sometimes works;
  • don't panic if you have a couple of gaps, there is a percentage error margin allowed and you could still pass!

And before handing it in check every word against every outline!

There is no such thing as being lucky in a shorthand examination - luck doesn't come into it, it is your hard work and perseverance, which will achieve the goal. Therefore I won't wish you "Good Luck" but do hope that you hard work results in the success you deserve.