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Exam preparation: More than just studying?

Do you know of a colleague who is extremely good at their job, yet cannot pass the professional exams required to ascend the career ladder? Or an exceptionally bright friend – who seems to fall apart during exam periods? Or do you yourself struggle when it comes to final assessments? I’m sure most of us are familiar with situations like this, as they are a very common occurrence. Failure to pass specialist exams in one’s field is not down to lack of intelligence or an inability to do the job. Rather, it is usually down to inadequate preparation for the examination.

“Studying” refers to learning the knowledge competencies required by an exam syllabus or training curriculum. Contrastingly, “exam preparation” means learning to present the required parts of that knowledge clearly, in the format demanded by each component of the exam – in such a way as to demonstrate competence and confidence. A large part of this involves practice of each exam component in a simulated environment – in order to perfect performance. Further, it encompasses all the non-technical life skills required to arrive at the point of readiness to sit an exam: prioritisation, motivation, focus, support, time management, and importantly, life management.

Surprisingly, exam preparation is seldom alluded to in training or practice, and is almost never taught – the focus being on acquisition of knowledge (i.e. traditional “studying”). I often refer to practice and preparation as covering all the things no one ever tells you, yet you are assumed to know, and indeed need to know, to pass the exam!

Specific exam preparation is underrated. There is an assumption that by studying hard and having the knowledge, that you can turn up and pass the exam. What’s more, there is a feeling you deserve to do so if you have put in the hours beforehand.

‘Stretching Muscles’ by skeeze. CC0 via Pixabay.

To prepare for an exam, you must treat it as you would any other significant challenge in your life; by getting everything in place beforehand, you maximise your chance of success. Just as elite sportsmen and women show, winning is about more than the individual. Winning is the result of sustained efforts by a multi-disciplinary team. We, as academics, clinicians, or students, are no different. To succeed, you need to identify your team members and get them prepared. Decide how they each will help you and delegate roles and chores. Cleaning, cooking, and childcare should be allocated to partners, grannies or nannies, or hired external help. Paying for a cleaner each week, or to have your shopping delivered is a small cost when considered as part of the total cost of sitting (and failing!) professional exams. This is not wasted money on luxury services; this is just as much an essential part and cost of preparation as the textbooks you buy.

Next, identify the obstacles to success and plan how to deal with each of them. What will you say to those who demand your time? How can your team support you in this? What is necessary, and what is not – how can you prioritise your time to allow more for exam preparation? Can you take annual leave, study leave, unpaid leave? Can you swap nightshifts with a colleague? Can you stop aimlessly procrastinating online in your spare moments?

One of the main threats to success is maintaining motivation over a prolonged preparation period. It is important in the early days to make good, regular study habits, so that there is no room for negotiation later on. It goes without saying that to maintain your campaign, you really need to want to pass, to want to succeed so much so that you make the sacrifices required to do so.

Many students say, almost in desperation, they are 100% committed to the exam and all that it involves. On closer questioning, what they actually mean is they really want to pass but do not want to put in place the difficult measures or make the changes required to bring this about. This is often presented as “I have young kids,” “my wife works shifts,” or “I always watch football at the weekend.” These all sound entirely reasonable, and it comes down to your choice how you spend your time. Preparing for exams is much easier if you can be selfish and put yourself and your goal at the top of your list of priorities, for a few weeks and months.

Effective exam preparation is difficult in the short term but passing exams efficiently, at the first sitting, will bring many rewards in the longer term. As Abraham Lincoln once stated, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

The choice is yours but remember, nothing changes if nothing changes… and fortune favors the prepared.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Knowledge, Book, Library’ by DariuszSankowski. CC0 via Pixabay.

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