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Med School Confessions: I’m a Bad Test Taker

How many times have you heard someone define himself as a bad test taker? Or worse yet, have you adopted this mentality as your own? In this post, we are going to talk about why this belief, like any, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will discuss why it is absolutely essential to shake this moniker. And, of course, we will tell you how to do so.How calling yourself a “bad test taker” is doing yourself a disservice

Forget what your actual test scores are. Whether they are off the charts or down in the dumps, put scores aside for a moment, and recite the mantra “I am a bad test taker,” OUT LOUD, over and over for about a minute. Really beat yourself up with the negative self-talk and adopt an appropriate tone of self-condemnation. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but just try it. I’m doing it now as I write).

(If you didn’t do the above before you started to read on, then GO BACK AND DO IT! C’mon, you’ve got a minute to spare. The rest of the exercise is moot if you don’t).

Now, imagine yourself standing on line with the other anxious candidates at the test center. How do you feel? Confident? Terrified? Do you think you could perform any way except poorly? Sure you might hit your stride by the second or third block, but what will your first thoughts be when question one pops on the screen?

“I am a bad test taker.”

While we’ve compressed the exercise into a minute, and gone through the pains of saying it out loud instead of in our heads, many people have been performing this exercise throughout their entire lives. Imagine that. Take the pain you received from adopting this mentality for a minute, and interpolate it over a decade. We are breaking one of the cardinal rules for procedural medicine, setting oneself up for success, by setting ourselves up for failure.

Maybe the above exercise wasn’t all that painful for you, because you do have this mentality, and it was just the standard self-talk that you are accustomed to hearing.

No matter the case, is it now clear how damaging and counter to your goals that this mindset is?

Now let’s flip the switch. Try it with some positive self-talk. Take another minute, or 30 seconds if you must, and, with encouragement and confidence, tell yourself, “I am going to ace this test.” Feel free to use whatever verbiage you would normally use…”crush,” “destroy,” “own.” If creativity is not your strong suit, just tell yourself “I am a great test taker.” Use an encouraging tone.

Now envision yourself sitting down to question one on the exam. How do you feel? The answer is probably, “Great. Excited and confident.” And even if you fall short of that, even if you feel neutral at best, you are unequivocally in a better position than you were from the first exercise.

Thoughts become reality. So define a successful path in your mind first, and then it will be far easier to achieve in real life. I am not saying that you don’t need to put in hundreds of hours of dogged study and dedicated practice as well. But your efforts will be magnified by your mindset, and your scores will follow suit.

Dropping the nickname

You are data driven and have had enough of the heady positive self-talk. I understand. You have a long lineage of poor test scores, and they define you. Objectively, the data says that you are below-average at taking tests.

What’s the plan of action rather than sitting there shouting out words that feel like lies?

As I’ve written about previously, tests are not going anywhere.  At no point that you will be done taking them. As my training comes to an end, I’ve finally achieved board certification in anesthesiology, 9 years after the start of medical school, having taken no break along the way. And what lies ahead? My echocardiography boards in 4 months time. Our mentors and senior attendings are currently studying for their own recertifications. In choosing a life of medicine, you’ve chosen a life of tests.

Because they will be unavoidable in the years to come, adopting the idea that you are a bad test taker is closing the door on improvement. It’s a total cop-out. It really reads like this:

“I’m a bad test taker. (Always have been and always will be. So I guess I’ll just do kinda poorly on them from here on out, and expect whatever fate I receive. Here’s to a mediocre life in second- or third-place.)”

It’s a defeatist attitude that doesn’t allow any opportunity for change or improvement.

At least you realize there is an issue. You’ve got some insight and can see that tests are something you struggle with. And that’s the first step.

Find out what’s holding you back from doing well on medical exams, and come up with an actionable plan to improve it.

Is it debilitating test anxiety? Start here.

Is it a lack of an appropriate study plan?

Is it avoidance of practice exams?

Are you missing the need for dedicated practice, and just fumbling through UWorld and First Aid with no plan while checking out TikTok?

Take a good assessment of yourself, identify where your weaknesses are, and address them now. Don’t accept the fact that something is always going to hinder you throughout your career. Attack the problem like Vancomycin attacking MRSA. Doing what it takes to improve your test taking skills will pay enormous dividends for the years to come.