Passing The Test

A long-time operator argues that the secret to success in exams for water and wastewater licensing boils down to a single word. It starts with P.

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It’s always nice to get a response to a “Let’s Be Clear” column. Phil Bassett, a Grade IV (highest) wastewater operator at the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., sent a good one after reading the column last December about overcoming test anxiety when taking licensing exams.

Bassett moved to Tennessee from Georgia at the end of 2012 with a first-level certification. While Georgia requires exams for higher levels to be taken in sequence, Tennessee lets operators jump straight to the highest level if they can demonstrate the knowledge. Bassett tried it and passed the Grade IV test on his first try — while others around him were still failing to pass after numerous tries.

What’s the secret?

Bassett stresses that he’s not interested in bragging — only in conveying a lesson. “The reason I passed the test on my first go is that I prepared,” he says. (There’s that P-word from the headline). “The smartest person in the world can’t pass a licensing test like that if he or she hasn’t studied the material. On the other hand, I have seen plenty of people not blessed with supreme intelligence achieve advanced certification — because they did what was necessary to prepare.”

Bassett further observes, “I often talk about preparation to my co-workers who are planning to take tests. I ask them if they are studying. The answer is typically, ‘No,’ right up until days before the test. Then maybe some of them start cracking the books a bit. Then they don’t pass. I always offer to help people advance in any way they want to, and that includes helping them prepare for tests. I keep telling them the same two things, when it comes to preparing:

  1. People don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan.
  2. ‘The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.’ ” (From marathoner Juma Ikangaa.)

Cramming won’t do it

Bassett cautions against engaging in wishful thinking that you’ll “get around” to studying. Those who take that approach don’t seem to get around to it. “I see this again and again,” he says. “You have to begin studying weeks or even months in advance to successfully complete a license exam. So I start asking people weeks in advance if they have started studying. So far, no one has answered in the affirmative. The question mostly seems to annoy them if asked more than once.

“Yet they continue to fail the exam and keep going back to take it again and again. This is like getting into repeated cage matches with mixed martial arts champions without training and thinking repeated tries will eventually bring a win.”

He advocates treating a licensing test just like a project at work, with a start, a finish and a deliverable. “Plan the work, and work the plan,” he says. “Sure, there will be some deviations and unexpected occurrences, but the plan will see you through. Make one, and follow it.

“It doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be the most rudimentary of plans. It just has to be a plan, executed with some commitment and persistence. If you do this, you will go as far as you care to in professional licensure.”

What’s your experience?

Do you have a story of success or struggle with licensing exams? What did it take for you to get over the top? Feel free to share your experiences with others in the industry. Send me a note to I promise to respond, and we’ll publish comments in a future issue of the magazine. In the meantime, good luck studying — and passing.


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