When working with people who are preparing for national exams, like medical boards, bar exams, or CPA exams, I typically help them with study strategies, test-taking skills, confidence building, time management, and anxiety reduction. These skills are useful and necessary for success. Once these skills are mastered, most clients will learn the subject material better and, as a result, improve their chances of passing the exam.
The following is a brief outline of the steps I guide clients through. Use the steps yourself or give me a call and we can do this together. Sometimes it is nice to have a coach who can supply guidance, act as a cheerleader, and help you stay on task and on target.
- Explore your past test-taking skills, successes, and disappointments. Try to clearly and honestly identify what has worked and what hasn’t. At this point, it is important to focus on yourself and your behaviors and not on things beyond your control. Many clients complain about the test. Feel free to do that for a while, but ultimately you need to focus on yourself and your test-taking strengths and weaknesses.
- Set a test date. If this is a national exam, the date may be beyond your control, but it is important to have a target.
- Collect your study materials. By the time most people are looking at a tip sheet like this, they have already purchased practice questions and national study materials. If you haven’t, it is always important to have both practice questions and source material. Many people find that computerized practice questions are beneficial if the test is offered in a computerized format. Computerized questions can help simulate the exam. You also need study guides and source material in order to read about your subject matter in depth. No matter what your friends say, simply doing questions is usually not enough.
- Create a study plan. Use your study materials, your target date, and the information you know about yourself as a test-taker to create a solid study plan. Your study plan needs to be relatively specific but with some flexibility. If you fall behind, get sick, need to read more source material, etc., the study plan needs to be adjusted.
- Start studying. Choosing which subject to tackle first in your study plan can be difficult. Some people like to tackle their easiest subject first. In my experience, students can stay in this safe area too long. Other students choose to pick their hardest subject first in order to fill in perceived gaps. Sometimes this strategy increases frustration and procrastination. I typically suggest people choose a topic somewhere in the middle. This approach can help you experience some success while building a strong foundation of study-strategies and knowledge before tackling the harder material.
- Play to your strengths. While you’re studying, keep track of the conditions in which you feel the most successful. You may notice that you study best in certain places, during certain times of day, with your favorite highlighter in hand, or from a certain resource. Try to increase all of your good study-habits while decreases your bad ones. This seems obvious, but one bad study habit involves allowing your phone and internet access to distract you.
- Update and revise. After a period of time, revisit steps 1 to 6. Are you following your study plan? Have you performed well on the practice questions? Are you studying in a prime location with your favorite resources? Are you setting aside enough time to study? It is very easy for people to want to skip the reading and just do the questions. However, early in the studying process, most people still need to learn foundational material. Given your review of steps 1 to 6, what do you need to adjust: your test date, your study plan, your resources, or your self-evaluation? You don’t want to make too many changes, but you don’t want to stick with a strategy that isn’t getting results.
- Reduce your stress. Whether or not you experience panic while study or taking your exam, it is often beneficial to begin practicing methods of stress reduction. The more you practice these skills during your studying, the more available they will be on test day. I recommend beginning with something simple like a deep breathing exercise or stretching.
- Read the whole question. When using the practice questions, pay particular attention to the kinds of questions you often get wrong. It seems self-evident, but it is important to read the whole question. National exams often use “all are true except”, “all of the above”, and “both A and B “. The more you do practice questions, the more you will learn the types of questions that typically appear on your exam. Remember to read all of the answers before choosing one. If your question bank provides rationales for the correct and incorrect answers, read all of the rationales. If necessary, refer back to your reading materials for a more complete explanation of that subject.
- Know your exam. At some point you should also investigate whether or not your test penalizes examinees for wrong answers. There are tests that award two points for each positive answer but subtract a point for a negative answer. As a result, an unanswered question is sometimes better than a blind guess.
- Use a timed format when taking practice tests. Please follow the tips in step nine even if you might be a slow reader – like I am. Then begin practicing how to answer questions quickly. As you get closer to your test date, you should practice answering the questions in a timed format. Pick a block of questions, set a timer, and simulate the test. Some people will discover they have extra time, often because they did not read the complete question and all of the answers. Others will discover they are going too slowly and don’t finish. The more you know the material, the easier it will be to read the questions faster. Keep reading your foundational material and supplementing it with timed and un-timed questions. Remember you are learning both the material and the test-taking strategies.
- Make necessary adjustments and reduce distractions. When studying, make a mark on a scrap piece of paper every time you get distracted. Are you answering texts, buying coffee, sorting study materials? If so, try to minimize these self-made distractions. As you progress through your study plan, continue to look back at the previous steps. Focus on the behaviors and situations you can control. By now you should understand more about how you can be successful, given the testing parameters. Continue to tweak your study strategies and practice stress reduction.
- Introduce positive self-talk and images. Even when you aren’t studying, you can work on boosting your score. Imagine yourself successfully passing the test. Really picture what you look like when you are confidently answering the questions. Introduce a mantra such as “I have put in the work and can pass this exam.” Say it to yourself often. You can be working on your confidence while driving, at the grocery, in the shower, etc.
- Create a good sleep pattern. You cannot study well if you are not getting enough sleep. Attend to aspects of your physical and psychological well-being as needed.
- Build your stamina and do a practice test if possible. If your test is eight hours long, you will benefit from practicing long study days and a long test day. If your organization doesn’t produce a practice exam, create your own out of the practice questions you have. Use this practice-test day to plan your breaks and food intake as well.
- The day before the test is for a brief review and lots of rest. Continue practicing your stress-reduction techniques, your mantra, and your visualization.
- On test day, stick to your regular routine as much as possible. This is not the day to skip your cup of coffee or eat something new. You’ve got this. Now go pass that test!