Studying for your Chief Mate exams? Below, Licensed Chief Mate Alexandra Hagerty has the 10 Best Tips to get you on course!

After taking the classes for Chief Mate and accruing 360 days of sea time on various government and commercial vessels, I applied to the US Coast Guard for the approval to sit for my Chief Mate Unlimited Tonnage License. This license requires one to be physically fit (pass a physical), drug tested, complete multiple assessments both on board vessels, as well as in a classroom setting, all while holding a Second Mate’s Unlimited Tonnage License.

Once I received the approval letter, I started preparing myself for 9 3.5 hour exams. Four of which required 90% passing. I took three exams on my first day and six exams the second day.

Determination and an almost crippling fear of failing kept me on my feet!

1. Set Yourself Up To Succeed. Ask other Mates what worked for them and use the material, study guides and tips. Here are some that worked for me: 

  • A Free Mobile App – I downloaded the iPhone App, Upgrade U, on my phone where I could flip through multiple question banks in my free time without an internet connection. This was recommended to my by CM Dana Rauch. 
  • Find A Tutor – I also used the tutors available, Captain Kathleen Frels and CM Amanda Rivera. 
  • School Resources – If you are in a union or a school, use their Murphy’s Study Guide books, tutors, and classes for review.

2. Get A Routine. The hardest part about studying for your Chief Mate’s exams is being out of practice from studying. It may have been only a few years or maybe a decade.  No matter what the situation, studying takes a different mental effort and a regular schedule.

  • Treat It Like A Job – After coming off a ship, I knew that if I went straight into vacation mode for a few months, my ability to study 10-12 hours a day would dwindle. I recommend taking a few days off after a hitch, decompress and then commit yourself to a particular date. If you tell yourself that you can complete a certain amount of studying in 2-3 weeks, commit to it.
  • Give Yourself Ample Time – I realized after 3 weeks, the first week took me a while to get into the study mode and I needed a fourth week to study. I would rather study one extra week at American Maritime Officer’s Star Center with free lodging and food and pass rather than come back 90 days later (USCG requirement after failing more than 3 exams) and have to redo a month of studying. I watched a guy rush it, with two kids, got called back early to work and tried to cram the tests and failed. Again, better to add an extra week of intense studying than come back and have to redo it all over.
  • Are You Feeling Ready or Unprepared? – It’s easy to change your exam date, just call the USCG REC by phone or live chat and they will change the date. You are never “locked in” if you are not ready.

3. Positive Influences. Talk to people, family, friends that believe in you during this time period. Omit anyone that doesn’t actively and consistently support you. Use the moments when you have succeeded when challenged in the past as a bolstering proof that you can succeed. There were many people who doubted my abilities and tried to put me down. In the oilfield, I had a Captain who stood over me making photocopies for him who asked, “What’s it like to make photo copies with 2 Master’s degrees? Putting them to use?” I responded, “Captain, there is no job above or below me.” Needless to say, that shut him up quite swiftly. However, it also made me realize what he thought of me.  Unfortunately, this was a sentiment that was mirrored by the Chief Mate, who said, “Sorry Alex, I have 5 other guys taking CM classes, so, you should stay 3rd Mate for several years.” Know your competition, yet know that your success will be your quiet revenge. Don’t let anyone stop you from moving up, as anyone that does is insecure.

4. Work-Workout Balance. Don’t just sit and study all day. Take breaks and move around. Go to the gym or go for a walk or run. Studies to suggest that the average human adult can only focus for approximately 45 minutes to an hour at a time. Get up, circulate your blood, change the subject you are studying. For example, start the day out with a Rules Exam, roll into a Deck Gen A or B exam, grab lunch, then hit the math or celestial navigation in the afternoon. (Taking a page out of a study by NYU, stating that changing subjects frequently increased one’s ability to memorize copious amounts of various subject matter.)

5. Stay Focused. It is easier when you are alone, or you are no longer at work under watchful eyes, to slack off or procrastinate. Remind yourself of the long term career and life benefits of holding such a license.  What it will do for you ten, twenty or thirty years down the road? Become your own motivator – no one else can or will be able to do it for you. Make sure you get your time in.


6. Ask For Help – ALWAYS! Many people, especially guys I find, are weird about running to the tutor and asking for help. It doesn’t make you look weak or incompetent, yet a sign of maturity and strength.  It is a waste of time to sit there and not have a clue how to approach a problem, when someone who teaches it daily can help you get straight in five minutes. Don’t waste your time and sit there trying to figure something out that you have spent an hour or more trying to understand. If you are paying for a school or union dues for professors running the study, use them and ask them questions when you get stuck.

The first week, I tried to teach myself a lot of concepts I was rusty on. Once I started asking for help, I realized I wasn’t looking at the problem the right way, or that there was a minor step in a celestial navigation problem that I overlooked that the LAPWARE or the Murphy’s Study Guide books assumed. Ask for help, understand how to get the answer and keep going. You don’t have time to get stuck on something, there is a lot of material to cover. No one is judging you, except if you keep bombing the exam and coming back without getting advice.

7. Take A Break.  Hell, Take The Whole Night! If you are studying for a month, take a night out or two to unwind with friends and family. My friends and family realized I was a walking zombie after studying non-stop and helped me just take a break and talk anything else. It helped me regroup, relax and realize the bigger picture.

8. Know Your Studying Limits. If after several hours of studying and you can no longer memorize or focus on completing another exam (particularly if those practice exam scores are deteriorating) it means that you need a break. Only you know your limits and how hard you can push yourself. Most people normally increase their studying to 10-12 hours a day in the last week. It is intense and it can burn you out. Don’t get burned out before you walk in there.

9. Get A Testing Schedule. You know you will have to take ‘Rules of the Road Exam’ and obtain 90% or better on day one. If you are unsure about your other exams, start taking the exams that you scored highest on, so if you fail 2 it would be after you have passed the minimum of 7! If you are not a math whiz I recommend taking a math test like stability or celestial navigation in the morning, and an easier one like Deck Gen A and B in the afternoon.

10. CELEBRATE! Many people forget this! You just passed what some lawyers and doctors would consider harder than their board exams or bar! I had a maritime lawyer comment on my LinkedIn page who said, “I would rather take the bar again than those chief mate exams!” Celebrate! I was in shock when I passed and I went out with friends and family and it made all the difference! Reward yourself for your hard work. Do something nice for yourself. Sailors know how to work hard, we also know how to party hard. This is a time to celebrate a set of exams you will never have to take again or any large set of exams in your professional life. This will probably be the most challenging set of exams you will ever take in your career. Note it, remember it, take pictures so you can look back and tell your family what it was like and where it has gotten you today.

Good Luck! I know you will do great because you have already gotten this far!

About the Author: While working as a translator in Denmark for Aarhus Hospital, Alexandra Hagerty raced wooden tall ships in the US and Europe. She was then inspired to enroll in SUNY Maritime College in New York to obtain a Master’s Degree in International Management and an Unlimited Tonnage 3rd Mate License. Currently, Alexandra holds a Chief Mate Unlimited Tonnage License, working on government and commercial vessels. She is passionate in supporting and mentoring women in the maritime industry.

Alexandra Hagerty

About The Author: Alexandra Hagerty

Alexandra Hagerty is Master on the USNS Shughart, a Military Sealift Command Surge Sealift LMSR. She holds a two Master degrees, MS from SUNY Maritime College in International Transportation Management and MA in Cognitive Semiotics from Aarhus University of Denmark with fluency in five languages. She is a founding member of Nautical Institute’s younger members council, Vice President of International Relations with Council of American Masters (CAMM) and represents the US at the IMO on IFSMA – International Federation of Shipmasters Associations. She is an expert witness, international panelist, mentor and speaker.

She is a Maritime Administrator Candidate along with qualified Female Candidates : Ally Cedeno, Laila Linares and Susan Hayworth. Alexandra would like to see the first qualified female candidate fill the position in 2021.

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