Too old to become a journalist: The NCTJ exams

I finished my NCTJ course at Lambeth College a couple of weeks a go (hurray! And thank God – I don’t think I could have done another day of such intensive brain cramming).

My last week was spent doing back-to-back exams. For those about to embark on the law (court reporting and general reporting), PA (central and local government) and news writing exams you have my condolences. For those thinking about doing the course here’s what I wish I had known before I sat them:

My absolute top tip? Start revising in the first week if you’re doing the fast-track course and probably if you’re on a longer course as well. That might sound obvious, but you will be so overwhelmed with learning shorthand that law can often seem like a subject to put on the back burner.

Get home from the lecture and look at your notes. Look at the handouts. Look at relevant case law in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and make a note of which case studies you’re going to learn for that particular topic. Do everything you can to get the law into your head.

Don’t be swayed by what the press are doing either: there was always fierce debate about this in class especially if a victim had been identified and, according to the law, shouldn’t have been. Go with what the book says just for the exam and leave your own opinions at the door.

Learn the strict liability rule and the elements of what makes a defamatory statement. You will need to write these out verbatim and it’s best to get them in your head early. Why not write them out in shorthand?

Attempting to learn the law syllabus is a bit like standing at the foot of Everest. The exam differs from public affairs (PA) in that you have to know it all and can’t really second guess what might come up and hope for the best.

Having said that, there are obvious headline topics: contempt, defamation etc. On my exam a lot of the questions were defamation-based so those areas would seem like the ones to concentrate on.

Go through old exam papers. The answers are quite logical, but it’s easy to miss a section of the law because you don’t realise it applies. If you’re doing a distance course you can buy past papers from the NCTJ.

Finally have a look at this YouTube video – it features Cleland Thom, who taught law and marked exam papers at various colleges and is now legal adviser to around 50 different newspapers, websites and radio stations. Here he gives his two pence on how and what to revise and how to pass. I came across this video at around 2am on the eve of my law exam when the desperation started to kick in. Hopefully it will be of more use to others.

Public Affairs
Again start looking at this early. It is so easy to put it off because of the shorthand and also because some topics are like having a conversation with the most boring person alive. The good news is that you don’t have to answer all the questions on the exam paper.

This should mean that you don’t need to bother learning some topics, but a word of warning here: make sure you do more than the bare minimum. If you’re relying on luck and probability you may get your fingers burnt. It’s good to have definite subjects that you know inside out and then have back up topics, just in case.

Getting yourself familiar with how central government is structured is also really useful. The teacher may assume that everyone in the class has a good general knowledge of things like the differences between the House of Commons and Lords so if you have no clue, swatting up can make other things easier to understand.

The exam, like law, must be handwritten. I don’t know about you, but I hadn’t written an essay with a pen for years. Get used to writing at length for long periods and do practice exam questions. Again those on the distance course can add to the NCTJ’s coffers further by buying past papers.

Good old Cleland Thom dishes out yet more advice in his handy ‘how to pass PA’ video.

To the uninitiated, you may think this will be an easy couple of hours to spend your life. Wrong. Spell someone’s name wrong and you’re likely to fail immediately.

The NCTJ try and trick you as well: my favourite one in the practice exams has to be the use of ‘Pinky and Percy’ rather than Perky for two, on-the-run parakeets (don’t ask). The younger contingent of the group didn’t have a problem with this obviously having no reference point to the cartoon. Watch out oldies.
Be careful with county and country as well. I got that in my exam and, luckily, realised at the last minute.

Apart from accuracy the most important thing to learn is what the actual news values are in the question. You will be given a press release with additional quotes from various sources. The news is often buried and not obvious and, with my exam, pretty much non existent.

Practicing writing papers and going through the marking guide and with others is the only way to get to grips with it. There might be more than one newsy element in the release so best to bung both as far at the top as possible. Also be aware that a news element can sometimes appear in one of the quotes.

And, you guessed it, Cleland Thom has even done a video on the news exam. He really, really wants you to pass.

Also watch out for the syllabus guidelines that come with the portfolio. These proved invaluable to me.

Good luck and have a holiday standing by for when it’s all over.

To read previous posts in this series, visit the ‘Too old to become a journalist’ feed.

1 thought on “Too old to become a journalist: The NCTJ exams

Leave a Reply