RHS Certificate in the Principles of Horticulture – Exam Secrets


Guest Article by Helen Vincent

As an RHS tutor with Edinburgh Garden School I’m often asked about the best way to approach the RHS exams – what are the examiners looking for? And how can you ensure you give your best performance in the exam?

I hope the following tips will be helpful:

  • First, an obvious one, good preparation is key! Avoid cramming all of your revision into a couple of days before the exam if you can. Instead work with your tutor to come up with an effective revision program spread over 3 – 4 weeks. How you revise will depend partly on your learning style and again this is something most tutors will be happy to offer advice on.
  • One element to include in your revision program is a review of past exam papers. These are free to download from the RHS website: Level 2, Level 3
  • If you work with EGS you can complete past exam papers as extra assignments. There’s no charge for this (after all it’s to our benefit to ensure each of our students achieve their best possible result!) and it’s something we definitely recommend. It gives us the chance to talk about individual exam questions and explore in depth what the RHS examiners are looking for.
  • The night before your exam try to relax and get an early night – going into the exam room fully rested will be of far more benefit to your exam performance than burning the midnight oil with last minute revision.
  • A lot of students are concerned about the timing of the exams and this is a justified concern. Even though the RHS have added extra time to the exams this year, it’s still very tight. Every minute counts, and this means that it’s more important than ever to get the basics right:
  • Before the exam work out how many questions there are on the particular exam paper you are sitting (again, if you’re not sure ask your tutor for help with this). Now divide up the time available for the exam, assigning time to each question – Longer questions will need more time (e.g, for long questions you might assign as much as 8 – 10 minutes, for shorter questions it might be just 4 – 5 minutes.)
  • If you plan out your timing before the exam, you’ll be one step ahead once you get into the exam room. If for whatever reason you are not able to do this before the exam, spend 2 minutes at the beginning of the exam planning your timing. It will be time well spent!
  • As you move to each new question spend at least 1 minute reading the question carefully to ensure you understand exactly what the examiners are looking for and planning out your answer. Again, this may sound basic but it’s surprisingly easy to forget in the pressurised environment of the exam room.
  • If you are really stuck on a question, move on to the next one and return to it at the end if you have time. Don’t spend a lot of time puzzling over an answer you are not sure about.
  • Answer the question using full sentences. In the past the RHS examiners have commented that they don’t like answers written in note form. Even if they ask for a list be sure to fill out each point of the list fully, don’t just give a couple of words.
  • Remember that one of the aims of the exam is to allow you to show your understanding. While you don’t have a lot of time or space for each answer, try to show your understanding fully within the space available.
  • The RHS examiners often talk about ‘depth of knowledge’ – this means understanding the issues around your subject and how the theory applies to practical situation. This is especially important at Level 3 but also relevant to the level 2 exams.
  • If you have worked in horticulture for a number of years, your ‘depth of knowledge’ is probably already quite good. If you don’t have this background this is an area you will need to work on during the course. Ideas for building your ‘depth of knowledge’ include: keeping up to day with gardening and horticultural news (magazines and reputable websites such as the RHS, the Telegraph garden pages, and the HDRA website are all useful here); watching gardening and horticulture programmes such as Gardener’s World; visiting garden centres and local botanic, National Trust, or RHs gardens; and gaining practical experience where possible. Many large gardens gave volunteer programs which require just a few hours commitment each month. Your tutor will be able to offer other ideas and advice on finding practical work.
  • Where possible and relevant include named practical examples in your exam answers, even if the question doesn’t answer it. This immediately adds an important extra dimension to your answer.
  • Where relevant consider adding a diagram to your answer – diagrams can put across a lot of information to your answer and help to explain ideas that are sometimes difficult to explain in words.
  • If you gave time left at the end of the exam go back over any questions you were not sure about first time. Look for places where you might be able to add more detail or fill out your answers a little more.

I plan to add to this page over the next few months. If you have any comments or there is anything you would like to add from your own experience please use the comment form below and we’ll publish it.