Three Key Lessons from a Lifetime of Test Taking


Three Key Lessons from a Lifetime of Test TakingAs someone who’s spent over twenty years in school and is currently pursuing both MD and MPP degrees, I’ve taken my fair share of tests. For as long as I can remember, tests have been both milestones and gatekeepers. The first “high-stakes” tests I took were the SAT and ACT in preparation for college admissions. After many midterms and finals in college, I faced the MCAT for admission to medical school and the GRE for admission to public policy school. Since then, I have gone through three USMLE Step exams for my medical license and numerous finals during medical school. Along the way of taking all these tests, I settled on three strategies for success.

Be honest with yourself.

This is one of the most important and hardest things to do while preparing for a test. Often, I’m tempted to only review the subjects that come easily to me or to continue using comfortable learning strategies that might not be working for me. However, I’ve realized that I prepare best when I’m honest with myself about where and how I need to focus.

For example, while studying for the GRE, I knew I was more comfortable with questions in the quantitative section and so would often find myself working in that section. My scores didn’t start improving until I admitted to myself that I really needed to focus on the verbal section.

Make a schedule.

For me, the hardest part of preparing for a test can be knowing when and where to start studying. Lots of material combined with far-off deadlines can make it hard for me to focus. However, by making a schedule that breaks the studying into more manageable chunks, I find it easier to get started and measure my progress with regular milestones.

For instance, while preparing for Step 1 in medical school, I was intimidated by the challenge of reviewing the content from my first two years of medical school over the course of a sixth-month study period. It wasn’t until I made a schedule that I felt better about starting to study and believing I was making progress.

Trust your plan.

Even after creating a schedule, I often worry I’m not doing enough or am not making progress sufficiently quickly. I want the studying to get easier over time, but that’s not always how it feels. This is when I have to trust in my plan and remind myself that while there will be good days and bad days, it’s the overall progress that is important.

For example, while I was preparing for the MCAT, my mood for the day was often influenced by how I performed on a set of review questions and would be disappointed when I had a bad day close to my exam. However, I trusted in my study plan and ultimately was happy with my score.

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