3 reasons why smart doctors fail big exams

OK, quick — word association time.

I say “doctor,” and you think what? “Smart,” right?

And it’s true. Doctors are smart. But before you buy into the myth that every doctor has breezed through school and could fall out of bed with a #2 pencil and crush an exam without thinking about it, consider that over 1,100 internal medicine doctors fail their board exam every year.

And that’s just one medical specialty. When all specialties are combined, we’re talking about several thousand smart, well-trained doctors that fail a high-stakes exam each and every year. I should know. I was one of them.

The first time I took my ophthalmology board exam, I failed it.

The shame I felt was immediate and intense. How could I let this happen? I had taken and done well on so many high-stakes exams. I even taught an SAT prep course at one point in my life, so I understood how to avoid all the traps and pitfalls of a standardized test … and I still failed!

Here’s what happened: The stress and sheer terror I felt as soon as I signed in at the testing center did me in. No sooner had I logged on to the assigned testing computer station than my inner critic went to work. My negative self-talk came in fast and loud, and I couldn’t turn it off. At the worst possible time, my confidence vanished. To put it simply, I freaked out, and I didn’t have the skills to regain the focus and self-confidence needed to pass a big exam like that.

And so, I went to work on developing those skills. The exam is given only once a year, so I had time to learn how to quiet my mind and silence my inner critic, both of which are critical for not only performing well on exam day but also for having consistent, productive study time leading up to exam day.

What I learned ended up being a total game-changer. I rocked the exam the second time around, and it was all due to the mental strength skills I had developed. And here’s the exciting part: anyone can learn them.

Want a sneak peek into how it’s done? Start by learning the top three reasons why smart doctors fail big exams, and how you can avoid them:

1. Not enough time to study. Just like everyone else preparing for a high-stakes exam, I constantly worried about not having enough time to study. Fortunately, turning downtime into study time is pretty painless to do. Commuting to and from school or work, working out at the gym or running outside, and even lunch breaks are prime times to listen to audio recordings of review material — using your phone to record yourself reading your notes works great. Just remember to keep your mind actively engaged. Letting your mind drift into auto-pilot mode is a killer. Want even more study time? Learn how to conquer procrastination. Chances are, you already have all the study time you’ll need—you just need to make the most of it. That means eliminating distractions that dilute both your time and focus. We all put off doing things we fear. And studying for an exam that we’re afraid of failing will provoke plenty of fear and anxiety. Meditate and journal before you study. Yes, it will cost you a few minutes, but it will ensure that your overall study time is high-quality and free from distractions.

2. Fear of failure. Let’s face it. Most of us are driven by our fear of failure. And that drive has contributed to our previous successes and achievements. But when staring down the barrel of a big exam that you’re afraid of failing, fear of failure can be totally counterproductive. In order to absorb and recall high volumes of complex information, your mind has to be relaxed, and your emotions have to be light and bright. Think the mind can be scared and relaxed at the same time? Think again. Fear of failure will make your mind uptight and overly serious.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Have a playful and lighthearted attitude about studying. Pro-tip: right before you crack the books, take two minutes and do a simple creativity-exercise like coming up with alternative uses for a paperclip. It’ll get your head where you need it to be—and you’ll be amazed how much better you’ll learn and remember the information you’re studying.

3. It seems impossible to absorb and recall all the minutia. Believe it or not, you can take control of storing information in long-term memory centers and recalling that information with lightning-fast speed. A common mistake we all make when preparing for a big exam is thinking we need to study one topic at a time in order to do the requisite deep dive for thorough learning to occur. The truth is counterintuitive, but by studying multiple topics at the same time, you’ll rev up your processing speed, boost the amount of information you absorb, and increase your recall when you need it most—on exam day. This process of simultaneous, multi-topic review is called interleaving, and it is super effective. Think about a baseball team taking batting practice before a game. What type of practice would best prepare hitters for the unpredictable assortment of pitches that will be hurled to them during the actual game — seeing only fastballs, or seeing a random assortment of fastballs, curveballs, sliders and breaking balls? Obviously, the latter. The same goes for studying.

My life as a board-certified ophthalmologist has been amazing. But before I could live this life, I had to pass that stinkin’ exam. Whatever exam stands in between where you are now and where you want to go, trust that you can and will get the score you need. Learn the skills to make the most of your study time and boost your confidence, and you will unleash your inner beast mode come exam day!

Steve Blatt is an ophthalmologist and founder, Face It and Ace It in 90 Days.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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