HSfB Blog

Passing NEBOSH Diploma Exams


There is a certain degree of stigma attached to NEBOSH exams, which is certainly not helped by the notoriously low pass rates. It cannot be denied that they are very demanding, but would the qualifications be worth obtaining if assessment were via a simple multiple-choice exam? Whatever the merits of other health & safety qualifications, it cannot be argued that NEBOSH awards are still the number one choice of most prospective employers.

Despite what some say, it is not possible to learn the course material parrot fashion for the final exam. However, with hard work and an understanding of key concepts and basic principles, there is no need for any exam paper to be the cause of nightmares. Everyone studies in their own way, but the following are some general guidelines that just may make the difference between a referral and a pass with flying colours.

The "Blue Book" (Guide to the NEBOSH Diploma)

The "Blue Book" is vitally important as it details the syllabus of the NEBOSH Diploma. It should be used to guide your studies AND revision. Your ultimate aim should be to be able to talk a little about every section of the contents. Note that we said "talk about", not write an essay on!

Exam questions are based on the expected learning outcomes detailed in the blue book, so if it's in the book, it could be in the exam.

Making Notes

When working through the course notes, you should ideally (time permitting) be making your own notes as well. Do not rewrite the course notes in full! This makes your studies become a chore to be dreaded and page after page of unbroken text will be next to useless as a revision tool. Try and make your notes light-hearted, easy to read and brief – use as many diagrams, pictures and real life examples as you can think of.

You should be using the blue book as a guide to note making – remember it details what you are expected to learn from each study unit.


If you have made good quality notes when working through the course notes, they will be invaluable when you are revising for your exams. Don't worry if the notes you made are too brief – if there's a section you don't understand, just reach for the course notes and re-read the relevant parts.

It will help things sink in if you do some "active" studying rather than just reading. Try talking things through with colleagues, making Powerpoint presentations (see picture) or making your own databases e.g. case law, disasters or legislation.

Identifying Weaknesses

Although it may be a painful exercise, work your way through the blue book and try to identify all your weak areas. If you know a subject well, you will still know it when the exams come. When you know what you're weak areas are, you can start working on improving them, so should the worst happen and an exam question appears, you'll at least be confident enough to have a go.

Exam Question Practice

The best way of preparing for what you will have to face on exam day is by practising exam questions. You can work under exam conditions if you wish, but it will be of great help to just get to know what the examiners are looking for and how to go about structuring your exam questions.

NEBOSH produce examiners reports for many exam sittings, which detail exam questions, expected answers and where many candidates went wrong. It is fair to say that certain questions (and types of question) often reappear in exams – good preparation may give you a vital head start.

If you want to have a go at some exam questions, but don't have suggested answers, many tutors will be prepared to have a look at them and give you some feedback – contact your tutor for advice.

A word of warning – don't let exam day be the first time you attempt an exam question!

Exam Technique

Finally, onto exam techniques itself. All NEBOSH questions have an "action verb" and this provides a tip to how much detail should be included in the answer:

  • Questions starting with "Outline", "Identify" or "List" indicate that little depth is required. Even so, there is a difference between the instructions. If you provide a simple list when an outline was asked for, you will be unable to pick up maximum marks.
  • Questions starting with "Describe" or "Explain" require much greater depth – a "bullet-point" answer will probably not be detailed enough to gain full marks.
  • Occasionally, exam questions will give you a specific instruction e.g. draft a management brief. In this case, marks would be available for explaining and justifying your arguments so that a person unfamiliar with health & safety would be able to understand.

For the longer questions (20 marks and above), it is important to start your answer with some sort of plan – this might be a table, flow chart, mind-map etc. It will help you make sure you cover all the points in your answer. When you are ready to start your answer, just draw a line under your plan and carry on. Don't cross the plan out – you may get some marks for it if you miss something out of your answer.

Depending on the exam you are taking, you will be allowed a certain time limit. Before you sit the exam, work out how much time this allows you for each question and STICK TO IT. Don't be tempted to keep writing and writing because you know a subject well – there are no marks for "star quality", like knowing when Lord Robens' birthday is. The majority of the marks you pick up will be in the first few sentences. Similarly, if you don't know a question, don't leave it blank. Give yourself the time you have allowed, think through it and try to structure an attempt at an answer – those 2 or 3 marks you manage to grab here might just make the difference.

Phoenix Health & Safety


Nick Higginson MSc CMIOSH Dip2.OSH SpDipEM MIIRSM