Navigating study and staying sane

By Dr Shikha Chhabra

For most of us, RACGP or ACRRM exams are the culmination of a decade or more of hard work. So when the time comes to start preparing, first off, take a moment to congratulate yourself on getting this far.

Fellowship is a major milestone and it’s finally within sight. I’d like to share some of the tips and tricks that helped me back in 2012 to navigate the realm of exams and emerge out the other end successfully and, more importantly, with my sanity still intact.

Tip 1: Develop a study plan

A lot of exam stress stems from being faced with learning the entirety of the general practice curriculum. This can feel overwhelming, to say the least.

Sitting down and making a rough plan of how to tackle your study, and breaking it down into achievable blocks, will help get your thoughts in order.

Tip 2: Prioritise topics wisely

No GP ever has or ever will know everything. Focus on your bread and butter clinical cases and know these inside out. Next, focus on the serious, not-to-be-missed disorders and know these to a level of safe competence. Murtagh’s General Practice and the BEACH data are good sources to consult when formulating a list of topics you need to cover.

Focus on your weaknesses in your study time. Make a list of the presentations you would dread seeing on a Friday afternoon and start with them. Don’t get too bogged down in sub-specialty level details in any one area. Instead, make sure your understanding is broad. At the end of the day, you are trying to make sure you are a competent GP with a broad base of knowledge who is safe to practise independently.

Tip 3: Make the most of your everyday practice

Your everyday practice will provide the best opportunities to prepare for your exams, so be an active learner during your workday.

Look up guidelines for the conditions you are seeing, know them well and apply them to your patients. This will maximise your retention of the information you are learning.

Tip 4: Plan out your training with exams in mind

Some people find it easier to work closer to home in the terms they will be sitting exams so less time is wasted on commuting. If you do end up needing to commute around exams, there are plenty of educational podcasts out there which can make travel time more productive.


Tip 5: Keep your supervisor in the loop

It is always worthwhile discussing your study plans with your supervisor, as they can be a big help to you in the exam preparation process.

This could mean adjusting the number of patients you see per hour so there is sufficient time to review relevant resources after each consult.

Many supervisors are also very happy to run through practice exam questions – particularly OSCE-style (clinical exams) or StAMPS-style stations – during dedicated teaching time.

Tip 6: Make your study time count with active learning

Make sure your study sessions include practice questions and other forms of active learning. Sitting and reading may be an easy option after a hard day of work, but retention is always much higher if you are forced to actively recall and process material you have learnt.

Tip 7: Minimise distractions

Even as adult learners, many of us (myself included) often fall into the trap of trying to study while watching TV or talking to family. While this may make sitting down to study more enticing, retention and productivity will be significantly lower. Instead, do some dedicated study and then allow yourself some well-deserved time to relax.

And don’t forget the importance of a good study space. Many of us no longer have this once we’re out of university, but a comfortable and distraction-free environment can make all the difference – whether it’s a whole room, a corner of the kitchen table or even a desk in a library.

Tip 8: Make use of all resources available to you

If you actively start looking for helpful resources, you’ll find there are masses out there! To name a few:

  • podcasts
  • online question banks
  • your Medical College’s resources
  • official health guidelines
  • books (see GPRA’s Clinical Cases Volumes 1 and 2)
  • exam preparation workshops
  • other registrars – ask them for old exam papers and resources – there is many a USB of useful information floating around (just keep in mind that question styles and guidelines may have changed over the years, so use these as a general guide only)
    your training provider – remember they are there to prepare you for exams as well as for your daily practice. Attend workshops, do prereading and use the online learning platforms offered as review resources.
    comprehensive courses – often quite expensive and time-consuming, so may be more suitable for those not affiliated with a training provider or wanting more direction with independent study.

Tip 9: Join (or start) a study group

Your peers are a great source of support because they all have the same goal in mind!

Figure out what type of studying works for you and your group. I started a regular study group from early in GPT1 which focussed on practice questions and exams, though some groups would teach each other full topics didactically.

I would highly recommend a study group for the clinical or StAMPS exams, even if you’re usually dead-set on individual study. Once you’re through the written exams most of you will have the knowledge down pat, and that is the time to practise smooth clinical exam or StAMPS “performance” techniques.

The more cases you practise under exam conditions, the more you will realise how long eight minutes actually is! Getting a feel for timing becomes crucial, when I sat the OSCE (clinical exams) there were no clocks or watches in the room!

Tip 10: Take care of yourself – now more than ever

We are all great at telling our patients about how important it is to get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, eat well, exercise regularly and have some sort of relaxation practice to help us unwind; but how many of us actually practise this effectively in our daily lives?

While these things may seem the easiest to drop to make time for studying while working, they are more important than ever in helping you to perform at your best.

At the end of the day, exams are not the be-all-and-end-all. Keep some perspective and remember that there are always more important things in life.

If it’s starting to feel a bit overwhelming, don’t ever hesitate to get some help. See your own GP, chat to your supervisors and College mentors.

Your medical college may also offer free counselling – browse their website to see what is available. Good luck!