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Training Matters: How to achieve success in the NQJ

In this week’s blog, the latest National Qualification in Journalism award winners share their top tips on succeeding in the professional exams.

Jonathon Taylor, senior reporter at the Western Gazette and winner of the Newsquest Award for the logbook:

Preparation for the NQJ exam is hugely important. It is a long day, and there are three gruelling papers that will test all aspects of your journalistic ability.

(1) Try to reach shorthand speeds of up to 130wpm before the exam. In the news report, you will hear a passage ranging between 90 wpm and 120 wpm – and you will become unstuck if your shorthand is not up to scratch. If you walk into the exam knowing you can comfortably read back one minute at 130wpm, not only will the passage seem slow, but it will allow you precious time to listen to what the passage is about, and make sure those vital statistics read out are accurate.

(2) Advance preparation before the day is perhaps even more important than the day itself – the worst thing you can do is cram revision in on the night before.

(3) When I sat the exam we had the media law and news report papers in the morning. I then had a one-hour lunch break before the news interview. I would urge candidates not to relax too much during this hour – the news interview is equally as difficult as the other two, and preparation is everything. I quietly ate my lunch alone on the day of the exam – it’s important that you use this vital time to focus yourself on the final exam ahead, and do not worry about what has already been.

(4) Quick shorthand and a good wide knowledge of media law (especially ethics) are so important. If you walk into the exam knowing you have both of those, then you’ve done all you can in terms of preparation.

(5) A refresher course would also be advisable if possible – it certainly helped familiarise me with what the day was going to involve.

Emma Rigby, senior reporter at the Wirral Globe and winner of the Esso Award for news reporting:

(1) Don’t leave your logbook to the last minute. Getting a good mark in the logbook can really help to pull your grades up to a pass mark, so it’s really important that you put a lot of effort into it. Speak to your trainer, ask them what stories they think fit best into each category and make sure you’ve got it as near to completion as possible by the time you attend your NCTJ refresher course. That will give you the chance to have it checked over for any mistakes, and you’ll be given advice on whether cuttings would be better suited elsewhere.

(2) Remember that the exams are no different to what you do every single day. You might not answer exam-style questions on defamation and contempt, but that knowledge is drilled into your brain. Annotate your copy of McNae – use Post-it notes to pick out the relevant topics you know will come up. That way, when you get a question on privacy, you can flick straight to that section, rather than wasting valuable time trying to find it. My copy of McNae looked more like a rainbow than a text book, and it really helped.

(3) Try and carry out some face-to-face interviews before your interview exam – it will really help. At first, it feels a little odd asking a fellow journalist questions as if they’re a fire chief or a police officer, but it soon starts to feel normal – you’ll even find yourself believing the story is real!

(4) Relying on my shorthand was my biggest worry, so I made sure I did extra work on it before the exam by going back over old audio clips I used during my NCTJs and taking notes during my favourite television shows.

(5) If you have the opportunity to go on a refresher course, take it. I felt a lot more confident after the course that I did beforehand. You get to go over all of the law, get really useful pointers and you try out a couple of practice NQJ exams so you know what to expect. If you’re unable to attend a refresher, visit the NCTJ website and use their practice exam papers (

Ramzy Alwakeel, senior reporter at the Romford Recorder and winner of the Society of Editors Award for the news interview:

(1) Go on the refresher course. The law paper in particular is marked in a very specific way and the course teaches you everything you need to know. The media law practice exam I did beforehand achieved a mark of 35 (i.e. a fail); by the third day I was getting distinctions.

(2) Familiarise yourself with the logbook categories early on in your training and volunteer to cover stories that fit them as and when they crop up. It’s hard to arrange a visit from the Queen at short notice.

(3) Shortlist one or two extra stories for each category of your logbook, and have them ready to show the refresher course leader. That way, if it turns out a piece doesn’t fit the criteria, you can replace it immediately and won’t find yourself trying to sort out cuttings at the last minute.

(4) Keep a record of your news lists every week. It’ll make picking stories for your logbook loads easier – 18 months is a long time, and you might write something amazing in week one that you subsequently forget.

(5) In the months leading up to the exams, practise your shorthand by transcribing boring conversations. If a contact phones you up to waffle, spend a few minutes taking down everything he or she says before you make your excuses. You won’t exactly need to do this in the exams, but the news interview gets ropey if you can’t take down passages at speed, and verbatim transcripts are a good way to perfect the skill.