Reducing Test Anxiety in PA School: A Tutor’s Guide

September 19, 2022
Although each student is different, the PA education and certification process poses similar challenges for all individuals. As a recent graduate, I can attest that the transition to the graduate program and subsequent preparation for the board examination can be a whirlwind. If you’re struggling to feel confident going into your PA school exams, you’re not alone. Here is my comprehensive guide to tackling test anxiety in PA school, from a tutor who’s been in your shoes.

When starting your PA program, it may quickly become apparent that the strategies used in your undergraduate years may not be on par with what is necessary to be successful in your graduate program. I found myself not only struggling with the abundance of material and frequency of examinations but also with the pressure of maintaining adequate grades and modifying my undergraduate study techniques.

Test anxiety often stems from the pressure to succeed and is one of the largest struggles that PA students face. This is exacerbated by the rigorous coursework and frequency of exams in the PA education setting. If you find yourself experiencing test anxiety, I’ve found there are a few strategies that can help you surmount this.

1. Reduce stress in your daily life

With everything to worry about regarding being successful in your studies, reducing other stressors is imperative. While many stressors are beyond our control, there are also strategies to help alleviate their effect on your life. 

Exercise is a huge stress reliever. Whether you’re going on a walk or hitting the gym, do what works best to get those endorphins pumping. I recommend trying to spend time exercising four to five times a week for about 45 minutes to one hour. Spending time outside can also be refreshing and therapeutic. Even if you choose to spend your time outdoors studying, I found that this change of scenery can help reduce burnout while allowing you to get some much-needed fresh air.

Although it can be difficult, scheduling time to talk to your loved ones is also important for your mental health. Having a set time to call your mom or have dinner with a friend once per week will not only reduce your stress but will also help ensure that boundaries are respected other times during the week when you may be less available due to studying. Although it may seem counterproductive to take time off, taking some time to prioritize your mental and physical health can enhance the quality of your study time.

2. Create a plan

Have you ever sat down to study and thought, “Now what?” If you are like I was when starting the program, you may even then subsequently waste time trying to figure out where to start with the boatload of material to review. Whether you are just starting the program or preparing for your board examination, it is crucial to establish a study plan to avoid this situation. A plan will help to keep you on track and prevent the need for “cramming” in any area. A plan will also help reduce the stress associated with the daunting workload.

For your didactic year, I would recommend creating a month-by-month study plan as assignments and other items may come up. For PANCE review, you can establish a plan for as much time as you have before your test date. When establishing your plan, it is important to be realistic about the time certain tasks will take. Underestimating the time needed will cause you to get behind quickly. You also need to allot appropriate time for sleep, as an adequate sleep schedule is pertinent to promoting success and reducing burnout.

If you’re unsure of how to create a PANCE study plan, here are a few tips to get you started:

If this task feels overwhelming, I highly recommend using a PA study planner as well. This online tool curates a study schedule for you, which can save a lot of time. It is user friendly, individualized, and useful for both didactic year and board review.

3. Boost your confidence

You got into PA school for a reason. You’ve done what it takes to get this far, so whether it is your first semester preparing for your first exam or you’re on your way to taking your board examination, the same applies. Confidence is key to reducing test anxiety. The best way to establish confidence is by adequately preparing yourself. If you spend time effectively reviewing the material, you will be ready to succeed on exam day.

One way to help boost confidence is by taking practice questions. Test preparation companies including Rosh Review create PA student Qbanks that you can use to study for your exams. When preparing for my exams, I would use Rosh Review to stimulate the testing environment with timed mock examinations. This helps to establish time-saving techniques while answering questions, so you are prepared for exam day.

If you’re interested in learning more about the power of taking a mock exam before exam day, check out this 9-minute clip from the Rosh Peak Performance course:

You know what they say: “Two heads are better than one!” Studying with peers can also be helpful to collaboratively review coursework and quiz each other. In a more formal review setting, working with a PA tutor has proven to be effective for many students in helping them succeed in both the didactic setting and on the board examination.

4. Practice your test-taking habits

Whether you’re a didactic student or heading into your PANCE, your test-taking strategies should remain the same. PA programs often simulate the multiple-choice and timed setting seen on the board examination to help students practice these techniques.

Before you get to the exam, clear your head and call upon the confidence you’ve built while studying. Avoid cramming for the test, especially reviewing “last minute” materials as this oftentimes can increase anxiety and even cause confusion during the exam. When I was in PA school, students often chatted about topics with each other before entering the room before the exam. After I realized that this last-minute talk only helped to further worry me, I used that time to sit in a quiet area away from the pretest chatter. This time can be spent listening to calming music, practicing breathing techniques, or using positive affirmations to remind yourself that you are ready to be successful.

I could go on and on in regards to test-taking strategies, but I will highlight a few that I believe will not only aid in your success but also help reduce anxiety during the exam. Even the most prepared students can fall victim to changing their answers. You have heard it before, but to reiterate, go with your first choice! Second-guessing yourself is a product of anxiety. In addition, you have roughly one minute per question on the board examination and oftentimes this criterion is mirrored during didactic exams. If there is a question you are unsure of, skip it and come back to it later. This way you do not find yourself speeding through the end of the exam and perhaps making mistakes on questions you would not have struggled with otherwise.

In conclusion

If you can implement the above strategies, you will be ready to combat any exam. Give yourself time to make these adjustments and focus on weekly goals to get yourself on track. Use the many resources available to help expedite this process, and lean on your support system when you need an extra boost!

More than 85% of PA programs in the U.S. use Rosh Review Qbanks. Whether you’re looking for free PANCE practice questions or approaching your PANCE exam date and want to try a PANCE question bank, Rosh Review has something for you along your PA journey.

By Olivia Graham, PA-C

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