Exams are stressful. They are expensive. And they are hard.
But after working as an exam actor and as a trainer on more preparation courses than I can count for almost a decade, I have got some really valuable tips to help you through the process and give you the best chance of passing the first time. Hopefully, by sharing this experience with you I can help you avoid that crushing feeling of failing and the hit to your wallet when you have to pay to re-sit the exam a few months or more later.
Exam Tip 1 - Read the task
One of the easiest mistakes to make in an exam is to not perform the task. For most exams, you will be presented with a brief before entering the station. This will normally consist of a “set-up” explaining the situation and one or more “tasks” to perform – often the tasks will be at the bottom of the brief in bold text.
The set-up can be long or short but by focusing primarily on this, you could potentially overlook what you are being tested on.
For that reason, I highly recommend that you read the tasks at the bottom first! Then you can move on to read the set-up and be able to relate the tasks to the situation in context. By doing this you will also, automatically, start planning your structure and how you will tackle the station.
BONUS TIP: The brief will also be available to you inside the station, don’t be afraid to double check it if you feel you have lost your way during the exam. The phrase, “let me just check my notes” has the power to save you from going down the wrong track.
Exam Tip 2 - Use your reading time efficiently
Whether it be 30 seconds or two minutes, you need to use the reading time to your advantage before entering the exam station.
It is all too easy to read that task then start thinking about the previous station, second guessing your performance or worrying that you don’t have much experience in this kind of scenario. None of these thoughts are going to help prepare you for the upcoming station, however.
For many exams, such as CASC, you will be given a notepad, in others like CSA and OCSE’s, you will be able to have pen and paper with you. This isn’t to take your mind off things by doodling, they are to help you pass the exam. While you are outside that station, take advantage of the time and the chance to jot down some thoughts.
Here are some things you might want to make a note of.
1. The name of the person you are going to talk to.
2. The tasks you need to perform.
3. Some key questions you need to make sure you ask.
4. Any mnemonic’s you find useful.
If you’re anything like me, just by writing these things down, you will be much more likely to remember them. I know when I write a shopping list, half the time, I don’t need to take it out of my pocket when I get to the shop, the act of putting it on paper has cemented it in my head. So cement those key facts in your own head before you enter the exam station.
Exam Tip 3 - Don't waste time
Something I see time and time again in exams, something that I find really annoying, is when a candidate spends the first few minutes of the station eliciting the information they have just read in the brief outside. I’m not overstating things when I say I have had people use 90% of their time asking questions they knew the answer to before they entered the booth. Needless to say, they didn’t score a single mark for those questions.
You can get into the task and start working towards that passing grade much quicker if you simply introduce yourself and briefly summarise your understanding of the situation before asking an open question that moves the consultation forward.
Another way candidates waste time is by being unfocused and asking questions more than once. If you are finding it hard to keep track of the history or symptoms you are uncovering, then don’t forget that notebook. Which brings me to our next point…
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Exam Tip 4 - Take notes
You won’t need to take notes in every station, but in some, it will really help you. Especially when you’ll be reporting your findings to a relative or senior colleague.
In an exam, if you have a complicated history to take or know you will have to relay your findings to someone in the next station, then those notes will be so beneficial.
Exam Tip 5 - Be a human being
OK. I know that in an exam you have a lot going on in your head. But don’t forget that you are one human being, talking to another human being.
If you were met someone on a train and they told you about a tragic event in their lives, you would automatically be empathetic. If you met an old friend for a coffee and they told you some good news about themselves, you would congratulate them. Just because you’re in an exam, doesn’t mean you cant still be a human.
It seems to me that the first thing candidates sacrifice under the pressure of time, of being observed and being marked, is empathy. Things become robotic and impersonal and so, slow down as my responses become more and more closed.
Empathy can be thought of as the oil in your car’s engine, keeping things running smoothly. Without it, the engine and your consultation will seize up and grind to a halt.
So please, don’t forget to be empathetic.
Exam Tip 6 - Summaries can save you
I’ve blogged about the importance of summaries before, so I won’t go extensively over their many advantages again here but please feel free to read my previous post. There are a couple key points I’d like to make about summaries though.
In an exam, mini internal summaries can help move from section to section in your structure and signpost to your patient that you are moving onto a new topic. They will also help clear up any misunderstandings or miscommunications that have gone un-noticed. those exam halls can be loud, so if you misheard something your patient said, its best to find out quickly before moving on.
A closing summary can help you round things off, show the examiner how well you have performed and double check that you have covered all the tasks.
BONUS TIP 1: We’ve all had that moment where we’re in the middle of saying something and the thought just goes….. And, not to panic you but this might happen in your exam. You will just lose track of where you are in your structure and have no idea where to go next. A summary is your lifeline to get you back to safety. You can check off the things you have covered and remind yourself of where you want to go next. Seriously, a summary can save you.
BONUS TIP 2: You will say and do lots of fantastic things in an exam and the examiner very well might want to make a note of some of them. If however, you happen to say another noteworthy thing or ask an important question while they are writing down the first great thing you said, they could miss something that’s the difference between passing and failing. A summary will give the examiner second chance to tick that box and pass you.
Exam Tip 7 - Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
DISCLAIMER: This tip may seem self-serving, as I offer exam preparation tutorials but I’m going to give you a few different options to think about, some of which are 100% free, so please do read on.
Yes, it’s a cliché, but if you don’t put the work in to get ready for an exam, you are just asking to fail. You need to practice beforehand.
There are a few paid options that you can really benefit from but there are many free ones as well, let’s go over some of them, shall we?
1. You almost certainly know people taking the same exam. Form a study/support group. Talk about your worries for the exam, what kinds of stations you expect to do well on and which will be more challenging. Then work together to build the skills of each member of your group. Go over scenarios with each other, give each other feedback, steal the strategies that work from your friends. After all, what are friends for? And the best thing is, other than a few cups of tea, this shouldn’t cost you a penny. It could even be a nice excuse for a get together involving cake!
2. Your place of study may offer mock exams or prep sessions, find out about them and sign yourself up. If they don’t have anything like that available currently, see if it’s something you can get them to arrange. If they don’t know where to start, I am happy to give them some advice and help in how to put something together. While it might cost your institution some money, there’s often a budget for this kind of training and should be free for you.
3. Forums and blogs can be a great place to find out what to expect, what kind of cases come up every year in your particular exam and what kind of feedback previous candidates have received. For the price of a google search, you could get some great advice. This blog, for example, has some excellent posts that you will find useful and more will be added all the time so check back regularly.
OK, the really serious candidates out there will want to do all they can to pass their exams. And why wouldn’t they want to pass the first time? These exams aren’t cheap!!
There are many preparation courses you can pay to do and I will recommend some below. You might think that it’s an expense you can’t afford, but a re-sit can cost you a lot more, both financially and in time. So have a look at the sites of these courses and weigh up the benefit of passing the first time and what its worth to you.
For the CASC exam, I highly recommend The Oxford Psych Course. They have two and three-day courses both in Oxford and in many cities around the world. They also offer a Mock CASC exam in the same venue the real CASC is held in Sheffield, giving you a genuine taste of what to expect. Their website offers online training as well as a forum where you can find answers to your questions. They have a long list of testimonials from previous participants and the actors they use are all very experienced exam actors. I myself have worked as a trainer on this course so can attest to the work that goes into making it THE best CASC prep course you can take. You will learn skills and strategies rather than stations and stock phrases, so no matter what comes up in the exam, you will be able to tackle it with ease.
For clinical GP exams, such as CSA and Stage 3, I recommend a company called eMedica. The range of courses they offer is vast and again, on their website, you will find a long list of testimonials. Whatever stage of GP training you are at you will find the help you need to ace your exams and progress your career. The training is given in a tried and tested way, that is focused on giving you the skills you need, in a way that will stay with you, long term. eMedica also offer one to one training sessions as well as larger scale courses, both of which I have been part of personally and can guarantee that you would find them highly valuable.
Finally, I, of course, offer bespoke training and tutorials. If you are looking for a personal training session in your home or place of work/study, an online tutorial for maximum convenience at the best price possible or a group tutorial for your study club so you can spread the cost, I can give you the tailored training you are looking for. I have worked for almost a decade as an exam actor as well as providing training to people preparing to take their exams. I have been flown all over the world to help candidates gain the skills they need to advance their careers and I can do the same for you. I find it an honour to work with people so dedicated to helping their patients and if I can help you, then nothing would give me greater pleasure.
If you want to do the one thing that will give you the best chance at passing your exam,