The NEBOSH General Certificate: 5 Tips for Success

The NEBOSH General Certificate has never been an easy qualification to achieve, so here are 5 tips you can implement to drastically improve your chances of success:

  • Tip 1. Don’t underestimate the challenge
  • Tip 2. Plan Your Work, Then Work Your Plan
  • Tip 3. Take Breaks
  • Tip 4. Adapt Your Approach
  • Tip 5. Use the full word count allowance

Tip 1. Don’t underestimate the challenge

The NEBOSH Certificate no longer involves an invigilated closed book exam at an examination centre, which tended to be the thing that scared most people who took the course. These days, there’s still an exam, but it’s an open book exam that you do at home, meaning no invigilator and full access to all your course materials and the internet. Also, you have a full twenty fours hours to complete it.

Sounds easy, right?


If you’re thinking that, just because it’s an open book exam and that you have all day to complete it, that you don’t have to study just as hard as for a closed book exam, trust me, nothing could be further from the truth.


Well, NEBOSH hasn’t simply decided to make these changes to the exam without also changing the format of the questions. Because they obviously know that you have access to all your materials etc. the exam questions are no longer about testing how much information you’ve managed cram into your head during your studies. Now the exam questions are looking to test you on whether you really understand the information, concepts and principles covered in the course and that you can apply them to a detailed scenario, with multiple moving parts, that you will be presented with when you access your paper on exam day.

Tackling these new format questions is more challenging than you’re probably thinking. Trust me when I tell you, that if you are not bringing you’re A-game to the table on exam day, you’re gonna start struggling pretty early on. Then you’re gonna start getting stressed as you realise that having all your textbooks and internet browsers open and available count for nothing without the ability to understand and apply it all to the task at hand. From there, it’s a downward spiral and it’s gonna be too late by then to do anything about it.

Yes. The NEBOSH Certificate is demanding, but no, it’s obviously not impossible – as long as you don’t make the mistake of underestimating the challenge!

Tip 2. Plan Your Work, Then Work Your Plan

So, now we understand that the challenge is real, it’s important that you allocate enough time and attention to learning all the information, concepts and principles that this course covers, and it’s a big syllabus, so please bear that in mind.

Everyone’s different when it comes to how quickly they learn various topics, but as a bare minimum, I would say yo need to be looking at 100 hours of study time in order to get yourself ready for the exam. That’s equivalent to two and a half weeks of a full-time job! And if you’ve already got a full-time job, you’re obviously looking at a longer time frame than two and a half weeks to get this studying in.

So, let’s say you set your sights on an exam day 3 months into the future, so that’s 12 weeks. About 8 and a half hours per week will do it. That’s not so bad. But if you don’t plan out those hours at the outset, a couple of weeks are going to go by and…oh dear – you realise that you haven’t actually clocked any hours in. If you have the typical range of responsibilities of a fully functioning adult you’ll realise all too well how this could happen.

So, from day 1 – plan the work. If it’s going to be 8 or so hours a week, are you going to do a couple of hours each week Monday through Thursday, or would it work better for you if you put a couple of mornings or afternoons in over the weekend? Only you know what’ll work best for you, so once you’ve decided on a plan, get it into the calendar, taking care to avoid any double-booking scenarios. As important as you’re studying is – probably not best to prioritise it above picking the kids up from school!

Now the hard part – work the plan! That means that if you’re scheduled for a couple of hours studying today – do it. It’s non-negotiable. If you have to split it up into an hour in the morning and another hour in the evening, fine – just make sure that you get your time in. It’ll be worth it. This qualification can open doors for you and continue to provide you with advantages for the rest of your career. Plan your work, then work your plan.

Tip 3. Take Breaks

This tip can apply to studying in general, but what I’m focussing on is the exam day itself.

According to research, most peoples concentration levels decline rapidly after about 25 – 30 minutes. So, it’s probably not a good idea to attempt to slog your way for hours through the exam without building in some breaks. It only takes a few minutes to restore your concentration levels.

You have a full twenty-four hours to complete the exam, but you’re obviously not expected to spend all that time working on it. It’s worth spending some time thinking ahead as to how you are going to structure your day. For me, I’d probably look to get a couple of hours under my belt before lunch, followed by another couple of hours after lunch, a mid-afternoon break and then a further couple of hours before tea. Whether I’d do any more work on it after tea would be something I’d decide at the time, but what I would definitely do is plan to get up early the day after and spend a good couple of hours working on it in the morning, after I’ve had a good nights sleep, before submitting it by the 9.00 am. deadline.

So, that’s 4 2-hour periods, with long breaks between them. But within each of the 2-hour study periods, I’s be taking a 5-minute break every 25 minutes. What’s useful to time this is what’s called a Pomodoro timer. There are loads of apps you can download to either your computer or smartphone. They basically prompt you to take a break after 25 mins (or, whatever you tell it). When I first used the technique I was surprised at how effective it was at maintaining my concentration levels and I also found that time seemed to go faster when I was working in this way.

Tip 4. Adapt Your Approach

The type of exam that most people are familiar with is the closed book type that you did in school where you were not allowed to bring textbooks or notes etc. into the exam hall with you. You had to have crammed all the information into your head via gruelling revision sessions and then hopefully be able to recall what you needed when tackling the exam questions. That type of exam tests your ability to memorise and recall information and so the approach to take with them utilises techniques to help with that such as flashcards and active recall etc.

Open book exams though are not about testing memory and recall though – they are more about testing your ability to critically analyse information, really understand it and then apply it to the tasks you’re given. Now that the format of the NEBOSH exams has changed to open-book, it is no longer sufficient to just be able to memorise content.

A major misconception is that an open-book exam means there is no need to study or prepare beforehand because you’ll have access to textbooks and resources. This is not the right way to think about it. The Examiner doesn’t want recalled facts but is looking for you to show a deeper understanding of the concepts, so it’s very important that you are prepared for the assessment.

Merely recalling facts is regarded as lower-order thinking as compared to understanding and applying knowledge, which is regarded as higher-order thinking. This means that in order to succeed, you must fully embrace the fact that when you’re writing your exam answers, you’re not writing to demonstrate your memorisation of the information, you are writing to demonstrate your understanding of the information and how to apply it to the scenario set out in the exam.

To do this, you will need to develop different writing skills. Summarising or restating material from other sources won’t work on its own. This is sometimes known as descriptive writing but it doesn’t show that you have a deep understanding of the content. You’re not making a point or developing an argument. You need to go beyond summary and restatement.

This is where something known as critical writing comes in, where you’re forming and communicating your own opinions and backing them up with evidence you’ve researched. To develop this approach, you need to…

consider the relevance of the information when you do your research; assess its relevance and usefulness to the exam question; think about how best it can be integrated into the point that you’re making or the argument that you are developing; identify positive and negative aspects you can comment on.

A much higher level of skill is needed for critical writing than for descriptive writing and it will take some practice to get the hang of it.

Tip 5. Use the full word count allowance

The word count allowance is 3000, with 10% leeway, so 3300 words and you should be looking to use the full amount. If you’re turning in you’re paper with less than 2,000 words (which is something that people are doing) you might as well forget it.

There are varying amounts of points available for exam questions, some are worth 10 marks, some are worth 20 marks etc., but there will always be a number in brackets to the right which tells you how many points are available for each exam question. Use this as a rough guide to how many points you should be making and how many words you should be writing for each question.

For example, if a question is worth 10 points, you should be striving to make 10 different points and writing 100 – 110 words. If you can’t do this, then you need to either take a break if you’ve been working on it for more than about half an hour because your concentration levels are probably going to be low anyway, or carry on researching your materials and thinking about how you can use that research to flesh out your answer, or even leave that question alone for now – move on to the next question and come back to the one you’re struggling with after you’ve given your brain some time to process it.

But whatever you do – don’t give up. Don’t give up on yourself. Keep going until you’ve achieved the required word count because, for you, the challenge is not over yet. You may not be a runner, but anyway, ask yourself this – do you think you’re the type of person that would begin a 3000-metre running event and then decide to just give up after 2000 metres because it was difficult? Because that’s exactly like what you’d be doing by turning in an exam paper with nearly half the words missing.

On average, there are around 15 – 20 words in a typical sentence in English and about 5 sentences in a paragraph. The simple fact is – you’re probably not going to get marks for every sentence you write, but as long as you’ve given it a reasonable effort, you’ll pick up enough points across the paragraph in order to pass the exam. Obviously, I can’t give any guarantees, expect this one…

You’re not going to get any points at all for words, sentences or paragraphs that you haven’t even written.