Overcoming Exam Anxiety

with Dr. Ahmed Zaafran, MD

1. Setting Goals and Expectations

The first thing you need to know is what the minimum score is to pass and your intention to score way above that mark. Be honest with yourself and where your current knowledge level is. Once you know what level you currently stand, it will be much easier to dig in and learn what you need to master in the timeliest fashion. What do you want to score? Do you have a study plan? How long do you intend to study? What tools have you set out to use? What specialty do you want to practice? Set your goals and expectations early and you’ll find that your roadmap to success will be much easier to follow.

2. Study Agenda

Start looking at study material as you prepare for your school courses early. Sometimes the lecturer will cover outside material in order to cover the intended material for the class, but not emphasize information taught heavily for board preparation. By cross correlating between your lecture material and your board study prep, you fill in the gaps and critical information isn’t left behind. You’ll also have extensive notes already written for the critical period of time allocated for your exam.

3. Organization

If you set out a schedule for your studying, you’ll find that you aren’t reviewing material when you should be working on new material and vice versa. You’ll also have time for exercise, sleep, and down time. Some people are disorganized and as a result “study” for 10 years but yield very little retainable information at the end of the day. I know this because I was disorganized at the beginning.

Example: 3 hours for Anatomy, with 10 minute breaks every 50 minutes. Followed by 1 hour of focused questions. Review the answers and write down the solutions of why you got answers correct and more importantly, why you got answers incorrect. Then take a break. Work out, watch a show, and eat something. Focus on when your next session will start.

4. Questions vs. Reading

Some students focus heavily on questions for their studying. This is a good strategy once you have some background material. Think about it like mining for gold. You have to go through a lot of coal (data) to get the nuggets you need. If you go straight to the questions, it’s likely you’ll miss big picture concepts and the ability to sift through it properly. Questions are key. Incorporate them into your study schedule. Allocate sets of questions that are topic based so that once you finish a section of study, you reinforce the concepts with focused questions on that topic. Once you’ve completed all subject topics, now you can randomize your bank of questions to simulate the actual exam. You want to reinforce study material, but you also want to have unused questions to simulate the exam as you prepare. Keep in mind that research has shown that it is better to write out your notes than to type them out.

5. Getting into a Flow

Flow is also known as “the zone”, and is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Basically, when you are in the flow state, you are undistracted and totally absorbed. Interestingly, flow enhances learning due to dopamine release. Getting into a flow state requires concentration, a challenging task at hand, and total immersion. You likely have experienced flow before. Have you ever jumped into a task that felt like you were busy for only 5 minutes, only to find that you have been working on it for 4 hours? That’s the flow state. More and more business executives and educators are working on cracking the code of the flow state. Use it to your advantage.

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