If you’re reading this post to get inside details of what the exam is like or what specific material was tested, you’re going to be disappointed because you won’t find it here. Not only does the Cicerone Certification Program require you to sign a non-disclosure (and I’m not risking my certification for you, #sorrynotsorry), but it would also be unfair – I didn’t have any advance inside knowledge of what to expect beyond what the Cicerone Program tells you and most people don’t. That being said, the Cicerone Certification Program does not hide the ball. There are no surprises on the exam and no information you’re expected to know that isn’t explicitly listed in the syllabus. Rather, this post is about my overall experience on the day of the exam.
One of the most important things you can do for yourself when prepping for the exam is to wrap your head around the fact that you’re going to be taking a four hour exam, which is a long exam. Depending on your educational experience and how far removed you are from that experience, it could possibly be the longest exam you’ve ever taken. Four hours is no joke, and having to concentrate intensely on one thing for that long under a time constraint is a feat in and of itself. I’ve sat for both the North Carolina and Illinois bar exams within the last five years or so, so a four hour test wasn’t that daunting to me. However, most people don’t have that experience and need to be aware that it is something for which you need to prepare your mind and body. You’re going to be writing by hand for four hours, so make sure you’re ready for that. Working through the practice exam available on the Cicerone website under the same time constraints is probably your best practice to get your hand ready for writing that much – who writes that much nowadays? – as well as giving you an idea of how much time each section will take you.
I’ve had to drive 3+ hours to each exam I took, so I had a long and stressful drive ahead of me each day. I drove to the exam each time I took it because I knew from my experience that I would be far more freaked out if I drove up the night before and sat in a hotel room all night. At least at home I had an innumerable amount of things with which I could distract myself if I felt like I was starting to freak out too much. However, it’s based completely on your preferences – one of my friends in law school drove up to the bar exam a full two days before the exam just so she could get there without having to feel too rushed and had plenty of time to do things to settle her nerves, like drive from the hotel to the testing site to make sure she knew how to get there.
I’ve heard and read a lot of stuff about what you should do and not do the day of the exam: don’t drink coffee, don’t smoke, don’t eat anything too flavorful, don’t wear perfume or otherwise noticeably scented things. Some of that I agree with and some I don’t. I’ve talked to fellow test takers who only ate a piece of dry white toast the morning of the exam because they were worried about messing up their palates.
Again, it’s totally a personal decision, but I’m a brat when it comes to being hungry. If I decide I’m not going to eat for a certain reason, such as taking a tasting exam, my entire day becomes about how I’m not allowed to eat. If I didn’t eat the mornings of my exams, not only would I be hungry and subjecting everyone around me to my loud stomach grumblings, but I would also be focused more on being hungry than on taking the exam. I would probably also rush through the exam if it meant there were snacks at the end. My day is 15% eating snacks and 85% worrying I may be too far away from snacks at any given time, so not eating the day of was not an option for me. I brought some trail mix with me, which I ate on the drive to the exam. Nothing too flavorful, but a good enough mix of fat and protein to keep me satiated for a few hours. I also brought raw, unsalted almonds and an apple in case I decided I was going to be distracted because I was hungry (see 85% of my day above). I also drank my usual amount of coffee on the drive to the exam. I drink coffee every day, so not having it on an already stressful day would make my day more stressful. I had at least a three hour drive each time, though, so I had at least an hour before arriving to the exam in which to let my taste buds reset. There are also at least three hours between the time you get there and the tasting portion of the exam, so if not eating anything or drinking coffee is going to throw you off your game, then I suggest eating a filling breakfast and having your normal coffee – just make sure nothing is so hot that it may burn your precious taste buds.
I don’t usually wear anything scented, so abstaining from being too obnoxiously fragrant was not much of a problem for me. Having long hair, I pulled it back for the tasting exam in an overabundance of caution. Also, I would advise just being gross for a morning and not washing your hands with the soap you find in any public bathroom. If you really can’t go without using soap, find an unscented kind you can bring with you. Seriously. The liquid bathroom soap that businesses use smells incredibly strong and not in a good way. And it lingers. There have been plenty of times when my husband will hand me his beer to taste after washing his hands with some restaurant or bar’s bathroom soap and all I can smell is the soap on his glass and no beer. It’s good to practice good hygiene, but one morning of not messing up an expensive and intense exam by using disgusting bathroom soap isn’t going to kill you. Or germs, but you’ll be a Certified Cicerone, so who wins there? Not the germs.
Overall, I think it’s more important to maintain at least some of your normal morning routines the day of the exam rather than skipping them for fear they’ll mess you up in the early afternoon. It’s up to you, though, and if you think you’ll feel more confident in your tasting abilities if you’ve cut out anything that could potentially mess you up, then go for it (or don’t, in this particular case). Plus, there will be crackers available for the tasting portion, so maybe you can snag a few more than you think you’ll need and make yourself a mini-meal without throwing your taste buds into a tailspin.