Two years ago, I embarked on this journey called PA school. Like many other PA programs, mine began in the summer and I recall spending much of my time at the university library while most of my non-PA student friends were off relaxing and vacationing.
As the weather got warmer and seemingly everyone else headed to the beach, I began to playfully calculate how to trade an anatomy or pathology textbook for sunscreen (and maybe a few adult beverages).
I’ll never forget the weekend before my first round of PA school exams and how nervous I was. So here are some tips and thoughts to help settle the butterflies:
1) Stay calm – First and foremost… r-e-l-a-x. Easier said than done, I know. However, if you let exam anxiety set in before all of your exams, you’re going to have a VERY long didactic year. Someone once taught me a trick: If you take a deep breath and exhale as you spell the word “relax,” it helps to settle nerves. I have no idea if it’s the placebo effect, but I found it helpful.
2) Get some sleep – All-nighters do not work in PA school! Don’t even try it. About 20 percent of my class gave it a shot last year for an exam, and no one would dare do it again. You need to sleep to perform on exams. Early on, it was a bit difficult for me to fall asleep because I was thinking about exams the next day. Chamomile tea helped, as did counting cranial nerves instead of sheep.
3) Avoid bubble mayhem – Bubble mayhem is when you accidentally skip a line on the Scantron answer sheet, resulting in everything afterwards being incorrectly correlated to the questions. YIKES! I would put the bubble sheet aside, then take the exam and circle my answers on the paper test. Then I would go back and check my answers page by page, transferring my paper exam answers to the answer sheet at the end of each page (so no more than about eight answers at a time). At the end, I would go back one last time and quickly double check that the paper exam answers and answer sheet answers matched.
4) Mind the clock – Make sure you’re watching the time during an exam. Most professors are fairly strict about the time limit. Even those who may give extra time typically only allow one or two minutes to finish bubbling. If you’re stuck on a question, put an asterisk on the exam paper and come back to it – but watch the bubbling if you do this!
5) Go with your gut – Yes, going with your gut may result in a wrong answer. But during my didactic year, I’m convinced my gut was correct more often than not.
6) Reason it out – Ask yourself not just why the answer you are selecting is right, but why the other options are wrong.
7) Get in your zone – Nothing would drive me crazier than walking in before an exam and hearing people talk about things I didn’t know. Pre-exam panic is never a good thing. Instead, I started listening to music. My headphones would be in my ears from the time I left my car until the time the answer sheets were handed out. I was all about Coldplay before an exam, but to each his/her own.
8) Stuff it – Your ears, that is. I get distracted easily, especially during exams. I started wearing earplugs a few weeks into my first semester, and it made all the difference in terms of focus.
9) Pick a gambling letter – Choose A, B, C or D right now. Seriously, this instant. Okay, done? Good – that’s now your gambling letter for your entire didactic year. Use it if you get to a question you don’t know. And use the same one every time. (Again, this is only when you have no idea what the answer is – which shouldn’t happen too often.)
10) Make an “oh crap” list – This one might be my best piece of advice. The week before an exam, I would spend a lot of time reviewing the things I understood because it made me feel confident, and I would tend to push off the stuff I didn’t know. That led to a false sense of security about my level of preparation. To prevent this from happening, about three or four days before an exam I would start making my “oh crap” list. Basically, if I got to a topic and went “Oh crap, I don’t know this!” it would go on the list. By the night before the exam, I would typically have two or three pages of important facts that I may have missed without it.
11) Grab the low-hanging fruit – This strategy comes from our program faculty, who said that exams are not written to trick us. They are written to assess our knowledge of what we are learning. To that extent, many questions are “easier,” low-hanging fruit. Don’t lose points on them! Make sure to study the less complicated topics so you don’t give up points.
12) Stay positive – Last but not least, the question is not if you will perform poorly on an exam during your didactic year, but when. And, if like me, one of your very first exams just happens to be that time – don’t freak out! Learn what you did wrong, and what you can do better in the future. I did, and I just completed clinical rotations—just like you will. Having done so, I can attest that you have truly amazing experiences to look forward to.
These are just my tips. I hope they help. If you have your own strategy, go with what works for you.
Stay calm. You’ll do great.
Best of luck,
Rich Bottner is a third-year PA student at Quinnipiac University, where he is the president of his class, an Urban Health Scholar and a Paul Ambrose Public Health Scholar. He also serves on the National Leadership Council of Primary Care Progress. Rich is a 2007 graduate of Babson College with a degree in business administration focused in entrepreneurship and leadership.
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