Exam Preparation – How Coaching Can Help You

For many people, undertaking specialty exams may be their first experience of exam failure or struggling with exams and study. 

Throughout medical school exams tend to focused primarily on assessing your recall and understanding of content. As you progress in seniority, the exams become much more focused on your capacity for application and prioritisation of information in particular circumstances. This requires a different set of metacognitive skills than recall and understanding. It means many exam components are much more focused on assessing the way you think and your processes for decision making (are you safe for independent practice) rather than your capacity to pluck the ‘right answer’ out of the air. 

For many people, this means becoming more aware of the way you organise, make sense of, and present information from a range of sources including integrating text book knowledge with clinical information from ‘this’ patient. Sometimes we do all this subconsciously – seemingly seamlessly. Yet there are great benefits to be gained from bringing your decision making into conscious awareness. Once you are more aware of the way you are thinking, it gives you much more power over managing your own internal processes.

The aim of coaching, therefore, is to help you raise your self-awareness and discover your strengths, what might be getting in the way of your performance, recognising your learning edge and coming up with a plan for improvement. 

Roles and Responsibilities

In helping you prepare for your exam it is useful to make clear what is the role of the coach – and what is the role of the candidate.

Role of the coach

As your coach, my assumption is that you are across the curriculum, content and any particular expectations for techniques/strategies for your exam format eg MCQ, short answer questions, long cases, short cases, OSCEs etc. If you are struggling in these areas then I recommend a tutor rather than a coach. This video explains the difference: Coaching vs Mentoring vs Tutoring 

In contrast, as coach, my role is help you look underneath the exam – this means guiding, challenging and helping you make new meanings and build different strategies and habits particularly focused on a range of metacognitive areas including:

  • How you organise, make sense of, access and present information
  • How you understand your strengths, weaknesses and learning edge
  • How you relate to the exam and it’s components including the story you tell yourself about their meaning and purpose
  • Your motivation for study and why the end goal is important to you
  • Strategies for managing burnout and overwhelm including time management
  • Managing performance anxiety
  • Building self-confidence and managing imposter syndrome

The importance of raising your self-awareness in enhancing your exam performance (and your work as a clinician all together) cannot be underestimated. Nobody reaches true expertise and mastery without continually working on self-awareness. Learning these skills now is an investment in your entire career. 

Role of the candidate in coaching

As the ultimate goal in coaching is increasing your self-awareness, this,  requires input from you. 

Whilst at times we may talk through questions, the goal is to consider the way you think about the question. I will not (and cannot) tell you what to do or how to answer any particular type of question – if that is the help you are seeking then you need a different type of support. Therefore, as candidate, your role is to be across the curriculum and exam format and have a support mechanism in place for addressing areas of content you don’t understand. 

In order to raise your self-awareness, it is important to come to coaching with a willingness to: 

  • Let go of your pre-conceived ideas about yourself and the exam
  • Challenge your perspectives
  • Face your vulnerabilities
  • Spend time in positive self-reflection (and learn how to do that)
  • Keeping some sort of journal to track your progress. 

One of my former clients put it like this:

“I managed to pass my fellowship exam without hiccups. A process that took a lot of hard work but also something I credit to your help throughout.

You coaching was focused on me as an individual and how my personality and the process of sitting a fellowship exam interacted.  By focusing on systems thinking, you gave me a format I could use to frame my study using my own thought processes.  I will be forever grateful I found someone who not only was able to identify differences in the way I prefer to process information but who was able to find a way to allow me to use this to my advantage.

I am so grateful to your service and your support.”