Everything You Should Know About Buzzwords on the PANCE and PANRE

Everything you need to know about buzzwords on the PANCE and PANRE
Historically, PA classes and exams are replete with “buzzwords”—key words or phrases that are associated with particular diagnoses. And the thinking is, if you know the buzzwords, you’ll score higher on your exams. Meanwhile, there is talk that the boards are moving away from including buzzwords in their questions. Whether this is the case or not (we’ve been hearing this for many years), let’s take a closer look at how the use of buzzwords may change and whether this is the reason why PANCE pass rates have declined (spoiler alert: it’s not!).  

Have the boards stopped using buzzwords?

The board exam writers recognized that students were memorizing buzzwords to prepare for their exams, which led to a superficial understanding of a topic. Instead of taking a deep dive into the content and gaining a greater comprehension of underlying concepts during PANCE review, students relied on these buzzwords to link vignettes to correct answers. So the board writers responded by making some changes.

For example, a question with a lead-in that included the buzzword “honey-crusted lesion” may now appear as “oozing, vesicular rash that is honey in color.” It is essentially the same information, but now your thought process goes beyond pure association and includes a greater understanding of the details. 

Are buzzwords still useful to learn?

You bet they are. Buzzwords form mental models that help develop a greater grasp of a topic. For example, “dew drop on a rose petal” helps me understand that the clinical findings of varicella-zoster virus may present as a vesicular lesion on an erythematous base.

Simply knowing that a dew drop on a rose petal is associated with chickenpox is not enough. But when you start with the concept that chickenpox is associated with vesicular lesions on erythematous bases and expand that to knowing these lesions classically appear in various stages of healing, you not only increase your chances of answering a question about chickenpox correctly on your exam, you also (and more importantly) will recognize this pattern of rash on your patient and make the correct diagnosis (yes, chickenpox still occurs despite there being a vaccine for it!).

Is this why PANCE pass rates have declined?

Nope. The updated Content Blueprint shifted the categories on the exam, which can take some time for test takers to digest. And a likely change in cutoff score just makes the passing score different. Buzzwords aren’t a factor here.


The takeaway is…invest in yourself and do the hard work. Always aim to understand the concepts you are studying during your PANCE and PANRE review. This may include learning the buzzwords in addition to connecting the “detail dots.” Investing in yourself takes more time (and often more coffee), but building a solid foundation is your greatest asset to becoming an outstanding clinician. And your patients will benefit—and be grateful.    


For more great PA content, check out these blogs:

How to increase your PANCE or PANRE score by 100 points by using these study methods
The PANCE/PANRE study plan they don’t teach you in PA school
Pummel the PANCE series
Rock Your Rotation Exam series
What to do after passing your PANCE


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