How to succeed at exams for medics

Everyone gets nervous

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Medicine can be stressful: in very few other professions are mistakes potentially so costly. When doctors make mistakes, patients can be seriously injured, or die. Learning to cope with stress and pressure is vital if you're going to be a good doctor, and strategies that you develop to help you cope with exam stress, will serve you well throughout your medical career.


Exams (rightly, or wrongly) are a test of your performance on the day. It's often not about how clever, knowledgeable or well prepared you are, it's about how well you can hold it together under exam conditions. If you don't perform on the day, you won't pass.

Everyone gets nervous, and a little nervousness - and adrenaline - can help you perform to the best of your ability. It's how you cope with stress that makes the difference: those who can cope with stress will do well, but those who allow pressure to affect their performance, won't.

Any exam preparation strategy must include time spent improving your handling of stressful situations, and for this reason, it's important to practice under exam conditions (with a time limit and without distractions). Revising with friends and colleagues is also a good way to pile on the pressure. Ask each other questions and set a time limit for the answers. A few rounds of medical 'Weakest Link' will have you laughing in the face of exam stress.

Activity: pile on the pressure - 30 minutes

1. Find a friend or colleague to act as a revision partner.

2. Take turns to assume the role of an examiner.

3. Try to recreate exam conditions - no chatting, or messing about.

4. The examiner should set the 'candidate' a task to do; for example "demonstrate how you would carry out an examination of the knee".

5. The candidate should carry out the task (for physical examinations you could use a volunteer, or the 'examiner'). The examiner should try to ask the candidate questions as they carry out the task. It can help to have some textbooks handy to provide questions.

6. At the end of the task, the examiner should offer the candidate feedback on their performance.

Activity: Role play - 30 minutes

1. Gather together a group of friends or colleagues.

2. Assign one person the role of examinee, another person should assume the role of patient, and everyone else is an examiner.

3. The examinee should leave the room while the examiners and patient decide on which condition the patient is suffering from. The examiners and patient will need to discuss the signs and symptoms of this condition, so they know what the examinee should be looking for. Use a textbook if necessary.

4. Once the condition is agreed, the examinee should be recalled, and asked to perform an examination of the patient. The examiners should tell the examinee what he or she can see or hear at each point of the physical examination; for example "there is drooping of the left eyelid".

5. When the physical examination is complete, the examinee must offer a diagnosis, which will be confirmed or denied by the examiners. If the diagnosis is incorrect, the examiners can offer hints and further information until the correct diagnosis is reached.

6. A new examinee and patient are then appointed, and the game begins again.

Recommended Further Reading

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