Why Starting Early Matters: Exam Prep for RACGP KFP and CCE
It can be difficult to sit down and start studying, especially as most doctors already have a busy schedule. Fitting in study can feel like aiming for the impossible! So, it’s understandable that starting your exam preparation earlier than you may have planned seems unreasonable – many of you will be thinking why?
Here is why…
Starting Early Matters
We have a tendency to underestimate how much time is required to complete tasks, including preparing for an exam. Plus, life happens, as they say, when you’re busy making other plans. It’s likely that you won’t always be able to dedicate time exactly as scheduled because the unexpected will happen, and routines will need to adapt and change. Starting exam preparation earlier will build in a buffer in your time schedule, allowing you to be flexible when needed, to take into account any unforeseen illnesses or circumstances.
General practice is an area of medicine that covers a broad range of topics. Let’s face it – it covers every bodily system and disease. As the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) point out, a career in general practice offers a more diverse experience in practising medicine than any other specialty, one where you play a central role in the delivery of health care to the Australian community as the first point of contact in all matters of personal health. Two central tenets of being a General Practitioner (GP) are comprehensiveness and whole of person care. Though highly rewarding, this translates into a very complex and diverse exam subject matter range to prepare for. This means more to study, understand and remember. To be able to cover the diversity of topics needed, and do these topics justice for exam success, needs time. Starting early gives you that time.
What constitutes early, I hear you ask? Though research doesn’t guide us on an ideal amount of study hours per week or how long before an exam is ideal to commence studying, there are a few things we do know from experience and therefore suggest about exam preparation:
- The more difficult and/or complex the exam, the more exam preparation time needed. RACGP fellowship exams are complex and understanding the technique required, such as for the CCE or KFP, is important.
- The busier you and your schedule are, the better it is to start exam preparation early, with the aim to have a long slow and steady study routine in place to cover all the topics required. For example, if you can consistently dedicate 6-8 hours per week to study, start at least 3 months before your exam. If you can only dedicate 4-6 hours per week to study but it’s likely to be inconsistent due to childcaring needs, start over 4 months before your exam. This is with the proviso that you maximise your study-time during work hours with incidental learning and that you may need dedicated time-off work prior to the exam.
- If you have failed the exam you are preparing for, give yourself more time to enable you to review and adapt your exam strategy. As mentioned before, ‘unlearning’ a habit takes time. For example, those who have failed the CCE previously who are then re-siting it 6 months later should essentially start 6 months in advance!
We believe more is better. However, we are realistic and practical. Therefore, while we recommend starting your exam preparation 3 months prior to an exam (ideally 6 months for the KFP), a minimum of 2 months prior to the exam date is do-able if that’s all you can manage (e.g., aiming for a consistent study routine of 2-3 hours on 5-6 days of each week).
Tip: Plan a realistic & specific study routine (e.g., I will study 2 hours each evening on Monday, Tuesday & Thursdays after work (7-9pm) and 4 hours on Saturdays (9-1pm), with Sundays off for self-care and family time, 4 months prior to the exam) and then schedule it with reminders into your electronic diary.
Effective exam preparation includes effective study techniques – ones that enhance your memory retention so that its easier for you to recall information when you need to. Hence, learning and using good effective study and exam techniques from the get-go will create effective study habits. But habits need time to embed – to become habits. If you have only used a strategy for a short amount of time (under one month) it will unlikely be automatic under stressful exam conditions. Giving your exam techniques adequate time to become automatic will mean that when stressed, you will default to the effective exam techniques you’ve practiced for the past three or six months.
Tip: practice how you want to perform in the exam, under exam conditions. It’s true what they say – practice makes perfect!
Start Exam preparation courses early
What if you have inadvertently learned ‘bad’ study habits during your undergraduate years? You’ll likely have a tendency to want to use the same study and exam techniques that you’ve always used, whether effective or not, through force of habit. Changing long held study habits is difficult on your own and your study partners may also be using the same ineffective exam techniques. Purchasing GP exam preparation courses is a great strategy in GP Fellowship exam preparation. Not only do they tend to have great resources such as question banks, but good quality ones will also help you establish new more effective study habits, with suggestions for better study and exam techniques than what you are currently using.
Importantly, if you have gone to the expense of buying an Exam preparation course or subscription, start using it straight away – don’t wait. We occasionally hear from candidates who wait until closer to the exam before using their course or subscription or exploring all the features and inclusions, meaning they have been practicing poor techniques that they now need to try to “unlearn” before the exam. They are not making the best use of their enrolment! Once you establish one way of studying, it’s more difficult to change or get out of that routine. So start as you mean to go on. They say it takes at least 28 days to establish a habit, so imagine if you’ve been working away with your exam preparation only to find you have been using less effective study techniques, or worse, ones that will actually impact your exam performance negatively! All that wasted time and effort down the metaphorical gurgler!
Make the most use of Exam Preparation courses – you have likely spent a lot of money on them, so put them to good use. If enrolled in GPEx+ModMed courses, like Dr CCE or Dr KFP, we recommend booking your Medical Educator or Performance Coach 1:1 sessions earlier in your exam preparation journey so:
- You are not practicing poor exam techniques with your study partner (start well)
- You can take advantage of the feedback received (e,g., Medical Educators will give you feedback on your mock exam performance – give yourself enough time to implement that feedback).
- You can book in times that suit you rather than fit into remaining times/days.
- You risk low availability or sessions being sold out when trying to book only days before you wish to attend (book well in advance).
Tip: Feedback is a great strategy to improve performance, as you can’t know what you don’t know. We recommend completing Medical Educator or Performance Coach 1:1 sessions at least 4-6 weeks prior to exams so you have time to digest the feedback received, implement changes and practice, practice, practice.
Avoid Last-Minute Panic
Don’t wait until It’s too late. Negatives of starting exam preparation later or too close to the exam includes more likelihood of becoming anxious, overwhelmed, panicky, experiencing low or loss of confidence, and feelings of regret for lost time and effort, especially if you need to ‘unlearn’ any study or exam techniques.
Also, starting exam preparation late may be a sign of a bigger problem. Common reasons for late starts include:
- procrastination due to triggers like fear of failure,
- exam anxiety,
- feeling overwhelmed,
- not knowing where to start, or
- other life stressors like work, family and conflicting priorities.
When we are anxious or overwhelmed, we may try to manage these feelings by avoiding whatever is causing us to feel anxious or overwhelmed. Ironically, avoiding studying and exam preparation is only likely to make you feel more anxious and overwhelmed. This can become a vicious cycle, with ever increasing anxiety – not a great way to feel just before important exams.
Avoiding study and exam preparation, or believing you don’t have enough time to study, may also disguise itself as reasonable or justifiable. Seemingly reasonable or justifiable excuses include:
- here’s not enough time in the day
- My children/spouse/family/patients/colleagues/community need me to spend time with them (instead of studying)
- I’m too tired at the start of the day
- I’m too tired at the end of the day
- I’m too tired on the weekends
- I need time to relax and chill-out
- I’ll study after I’ve … (finished cleaning this room/sorted this cupboard/organised this trip/rung my mother/attended to life admin tasks/visited my aunt/played with the kids/relaxed watching my favourite show/played this game/watch this YouTube video, etc, etc).
We waste more time than we realise. And we can come up with the best of excuses. While no one can be a machine and work all hours of the day, you need to be honest with yourself regarding where your time is being spent and if you are prioritising exam preparation as much as you should. Note that selfcare, like sleep, exercise and mindfulness exercises are not timewasters. They are important for exam preparation.
These Fellowship exams are difficult. They cannot be fluked or taken for granted. But with dedicated exam preparation time, they are very achievable.
Tip: Be honest with yourself about timewasters like TV, social media, Youtube and gaming (or whatever your timewaster is) and how much you are indulging in them. If possible, stop while you’re preparing for exams. If too difficult, use them as a reward only (e.g., after 2 hours of study, I can watch YouTube for 20 minutes).