We’ve all been there. You find yourself in a huge panic as suddenly you can’t see yourself passing an exam. For some it happens before you’ve even started preparing, for some when you actually book the exam, for some it might happen the night before. Feelings overwhelm your mind: “I’ll never pass…I’ve not done enough work…everyone else knows more than me…if only I started earlier” etc etc.
Expecting this to happen and then having a plan to deal with it is key. Its a very normal occurrence and can usually be easily conquered – but you do need understand your approach beforehand. If not controlled properly, preparation can quickly become haphazard and inefficient and your performance might not match your ultimate ability.
Here are 10 game-changing things that you can do at various stages of exam preparation to help conquer that uninvited, sometimes crippling fear.
Before you start preparing:
Game-changer number 1: Understand the exam format inside-out. Nothing gives you more confidence early on that understanding the exam setup before you start. Explore areas such as: what will be used to assess my performance? What question types will come my way? How long are stations and how long do I get in between each one? What is the marking scheme used to assess me?… There are often guides produced by the major institutions for exams – RCGP, GMC etc – make sure you go through these… Nothing worse than getting halfway through your preparation and then realising you’ve spent time on things that won’t really matter or haven’t helped in achieving your end-goal… Dedicate some time to understanding the exam early on – confidence is boosted before you’ve even started.
Game-changer number 2: Understand your job in the exam. We often start preparing for exams without realising what our job is. What am I supposed to demonstrate in this exam? Is it pure knowledge? Is it application of knowledge? Am I supposed to show how I can elicit information from a patient? Is this information mainly clinical or non-clinical? Am I supposed to demonstrate good communication or am I demonstrating pure medical management?… Look at the guidance about outcomes. What does a passing candidate demonstrate? What are the common reasons for failing?…If you don’t know what your job is in the first place, how will you do your job correctly?
Game-changer number 3: Make a plan and dedicate yourself to it. The famous phrase “if you fail to plan then plan to fail” is never truer than with exams. Too often we jump in headfirst without a plan, then wonder why there’s suddenly too much to do in the last few days or weeks. Fear and anxiety multiplies, confidence drops, performance is affected….PLAN PLAN PLAN. What do I need to cover and how much time do I have? Write down a timetable – where should I be with 3 months to go, 1 month to go, 2 weeks to go, 1 week to go? Make some key targets for yourself then work out how you’ll meet them… Also plan a few ‘buffer weeks’ to catch up – life happens, things get in the way, unexpected events disrupt plans – this is completely normal and a buffer week helps take the pressure of deadlines away. With good planning these things are controlled (and if you don’t need your buffer week you suddenly have extra time that you didn’t expect!)….Good planning is always key to success – don’t plan to fail, plan to win.
Game-changer number 4: Talk to those who have done it. One of the best ways to conquer fear is to hear people talk about what you fear. Find those who have taken the exam and ask them about it. What did they use? How did they prepare? What would they have changed about their preparation? What were the three most beneficial resources that they used?….There’s a wealth of knowledge in those who have already walked the path that you’re walking on. Choose wisely however – avoid the moaners and complainers – the effect can be completely opposite to what you’re looking for!…If you find the right people, whether talking face-to-face or through the huge number of social media opportunities, don’t ignore this golden chance to conquer fear and boost confidence.
When you’re having a tough day:
Game-changer number 5: Remember those that you have already passed. We all have bad days and it can be difficult to feel confident in these times. The past however can sometimes our best friend if used correctly. Take your mind back – remember the two or three most difficult exams that you got through. Remember how you felt during preparation – it is likely that you had moments where you doubted yourself then too. Remember how you did much better than expected, re-emphasize your previous exam successes to your brain – it’s amazing how it helps boost confidence. And don’t worry if you have not done any exams similar to the one that you’re preparing for now – it is the mindset that you are looking to correct – one where you realise that you’ve probably passed more exams that you can count in life up to this point! This exam is just another one that you’ll tick off as well.
Game-changer number 6: Read some positive feedback. On those days where confidence is low, give your mind a boost by reading something positive about yourself. Whether it’s a patient’s thank you letter, a positive supervisor’s report or previous exam results – remind yourself of how much you do know and have achieved, as opposed to how much you don’t know and how you won’t achieve this exam. Take a screenshot of it, print and stick on your wall, vocalise it into an audio clip on your phone – make it accessible to you wherever and wherever you need it… Our minds are easily tricked – a few negative thoughts and it suddenly all looks doom and gloom. On the other hand, our minds can also be easily influenced – a few reminders of how great you are and it can easily lead you straight to success.
Game-changer number 7: Go back to what you find easy. If you have a day where you are struggling – where nothing seems to be working – try and reset your perspective. Close the book, log-out of the question bank and go to something that you are a master of… It could be a particular clinical area of interest, it could be practicing your perfect explanation of a particular condition, it could be doing a set of questions that you know you’ll get right… Your brain sometimes needs reminding that you can find things easy; a reminder that you are good enough and that you do know your stuff!… Use this technique when you feel drained from trying to master something that is complex. Come back to in in an hour once you’ve reset your mindset – it may feel a lot simpler this time around.
The day before the exam:
Game-changer number 8: Visualise your success. Why do sprinters run through a complete race in their mind 100 times the night before the actual event – each time seeing themselves winning? Why do leaders visualise themselves giving a perfect speech a few times the night before an important conference? Why do footballers visualise themselves scoring a penalty in their mind 50 times the night before a big final? They do it to capitalise on the power of visualisation. Seeing (and then expecting) success can sometimes trick your mind out of fear… On the night before your exam see yourself passing it; see yourself walking in with confidence; imagine yourself knowing exactly what to do; watch yourself not being affected by a question or station that didn’t go so well, visualise yourself walking out afterwards feeling positive… Of course this doesn’t guarantee success the next day – but it certainly beats visualising walking in and collapsing, not knowing any answers, panicking in the first station and many other negative scenes that your mind can create… Try it, what is there to lose?
Game-changer number 9: Master three things that you struggle with. At some point in your final day consider reviewing three things that you have struggled with in your preparation. This could be remembering a certain set of guidelines, practicing a complex part of history-taking that you struggle with or drawing a genetics family tree – anything that you’ve never been confident with. Spend some time getting these right and repeat it until you feel confident to reproduce the following day. The boost that your mind gets from finally overcoming something that you’ve always struggled with is significant – knowing that if it comes up the next day you’d now get it spot on can have a huge positive effect on your fear and anxiety.
Game-changer number 10: Define your pre-sleep mindset. So often the last thing we read or revise before we sleep is something that we are trying to cram in our minds – perhaps something that we are not confident with or something that we are trying to learn short-term ‘in case it comes up’… By doing this you sleep on something that doesn’t deliver confidence. Your last few thoughts before sleeping are ones of a ‘quick-fix’or defensive policy… Consider ending your last night on three things that you find easy – three areas that you are confident with already. We don’t know for sure how these thoughts will influence your mindset the next morning (maybe it wont influence it at all), but at least you have a better chance of waking up in a positive mindset than if you’d fallen asleep worrying!
It’s important to remember that exams are meant to challenge us and they are meant to be testing. Ultimately we’re all human and we’ll all feel overwhelmed, anxious and frightened at some point with medical exams. Pick and chose the techniques above that may work for you – you may not need them all – and hopefully these feelings can be managed.
Your mind is a powerful machine that can either help or hinder your preparation. Expecting, and then finding a way to manage your fear is key – just watch how your confidence grows.