Creating a productive and stress-free study period

By Dr Penny Wilson

As someone who sat and passed the RACGP exams, I thought I’d share my experiences and give you my top tips to make your study period as productive and stress-free as possible.

Obviously, everyone has their own study methods so this may not work for everyone, but I hope it will help give you some ideas to get you started.

Learn as you go along

The general practice setting is the perfect place to inspire learning. As you come across clinical questions you don’t know the answer to, write them down and use them as a basis for further reading. Information sinks in so much better when it relates to a real-life situation so don’t waste those opportunities.

Give yourself enough time

Cramming for a week before exams might have worked back in the old uni days but I wouldn’t recommend it for the fellowship exams. With the sheer breadth of knowledge required, the last minute cram is a sure-fire recipe for panic.

The amount of time needed depends on the individual and how intensively you want to work during the study period, but most people I have spoken to agree that leaving yourself 3 to 6 months is probably about right. Some people find it useful to take a week of study leave before the written exam.

You could also take leave before the clinical exam, but you might find that it’s best to carry on working all the way up to the exam and use your patient consultations to hone your technique.

Misery loves company

Keeping in touch with other registrars who are also sitting exams has numerous advantages including; having others to bounce ideas off, having input from people with different experience or expertise, pooling of resources and ideas and being able to have a rant about work/study with those who know what you are going through. Being accountable to others is also a good study motivator.

I was in a study group of four people and the most efficient number is probably between 3 and 6. If you are geographically isolated or prefer to study on your own you can still access peer support through Skype, Twitter, or have a chat to your RLO.

Have a plan

It is my understanding that the content of the RACGP exam is theoretically proportioned according to the presentations seen in practice, based on the BEACH data. Although BEACH data is no longer being collected, it can still be a useful starting point because it is worth having an idea of what areas are likely to come up a lot in the exam (eg. respiratory) and which things might only have one or two questions.

You can then formulate a list of topics to cover. This will help you identify the biggest gaps in your knowledge, allocate your study time effectively and make sure you don’t miss anything.

We divided the topics up between us and each week prepared a couple of pages of notes on our allocated topic. We would then meet up to discuss the topics, gossip about work and take turns demonstrating our culinary skills over dinner.

It’s a pretty comprehensive list so we felt pretty well prepared for the exam and are now benefiting from having a great set of reference notes for use in day-to-day practice.

Familiarise yourself with the exam format

It would seem that exam success is partly due to knowledge and partly due to knowing how to answer the questions. I’d recommend that you attend any exam preparation workshops run by your RTO as this will help you get used to the type of questions you’ll encounter in the exam.

There are also workshops in different states run by the RACGP so check the website for details. GPRA also runs exam preparation webinars by people who have recently sat and passed the exams.

Also, do have a go at some practice exams. There are courses accessible through the RACGP online learning portal gplearning including an online practise exam and you might be able to get hold of some old papers floating around from some of the registrars who have recently done the exam.

Beware that some of the hand-me-down practice exams are quite old so the questions aren’t particularly up to date.

When it comes to the clinical exam – practise practise practise, preferably with one or two other people and a stopwatch.

The time management for short and long cases takes a bit of getting used to. Make sure you read the question carefully, as short cases might ask for history and exam, history and management, management only, interpretation of results or any combination of the above.

You won’t get points for a perfect management plan if the question does not ask for it so don’t waste valuable minutes.

For long cases, we found it helpful to have a standard template on an A4 piece of paper which you could quickly scribble out during reading time so you don’t miss anything.

For example, you might write down the following headings: HPC, PMH, allergies, smoking, drugs, medications, social history, FH, examination (vital signs, systems, MSE if relevant), investigations (bedside, lab, imaging, special investigations), management (short, medium, long term, medication, lifestyle, referral) and safety netting.

Clinical Cases for General Practice Exams by Susan Wearne is a good textbook for clinical exam practice. You can also buy The general practice clinical cases book on the GPRA website.

Also: don’t forget to enrol!

This article has been kindly provided by Dr Penny Wilson who Fellowed in 2012, from her popular blog.