How to study for professional examinations while working

Studying for professional exams while meeting the demands of a busy clinical job can be challenging. This guide provides useful tips to help you ace your exams without letting your day job suffer.

All doctors have a wealth of experience in passing exams while in medical school. However,  doing the same while meeting the needs of a busy clinical job and a demanding training programme requires a different approach. Here are some tips from those that have already been there.

Tip 1: Think ahead 

Deciding when to take the exam is the first step. Several factors play into this decision. For one, different exams set limits on how early you can take them. You can also look at which specialties you will be on at the time – either choose one which will give you relevant experience and knowledge or choose one where you will have more time to study. 

Tip 2: Start early 

Studying while working means that it will take longer to cover the material. A 4–6 month run up is a good guide to the time needed to prepare. Generally, this is a little before you apply for the sitting you’ve chosen. 

Tip 3: Format, format, format 

Knowing how the exam is set is as important as the curriculum. For written exams, consider in detail the time you have for each question and the relative weight of different topics. For practical examinations and vivas, consider the stations, topics and key behaviours they are looking to assess. 

Tip 4: Make a plan 

Cover the curriculum in roughly the proportion that each part is allocated in the exam. It is tempting to spend more time on the topics you are most confident on. Actually, you will find a higher yield in doing the opposite. Consider the topics in the curriculum you are most worried about being asked about and spend extra time on them. 

Tip 5: Use the right resources 

Most examinations do not endorse specific courses, books or question banks. The best approach in deciding what to use is to ask your peers. Your immediate seniors will have the best idea of what worked for them. Many online resources allow free trials and your hospital library may provide free access to relevant material. If there is an official set of free practice questions, then always use this as well.

Tip 6: Slow and steady 

Short, frequent revision sessions will cover more material than relying on cramming a lot of material infrequently. Spend around an hour a day revising on the days that you have time to work. If you commute to work you can also use this time for reading or listening to podcasts.

Tip 7: Work with friends

Forming a small group with colleagues who are also taking the same exam is a good way to share the burden. Teaching each other informally is a very good way of remembering key topics and being in a group can prevent the ‘tunnel vision’ of working alone. For practical examinations, assessing each other is one of the best ways to practise your skills. 

Tip 8: Do what works 

You are an expert in the type revision that works for you. Remember to leverage the learning style that was effective in previous exams.

Tip 9: Use your budget 

Study leave and study budget policies vary by deanery and by hospital. Generally, study leave should be permitted to attend examinations, for private study and to attend relevant courses. You should check if your study budget can be used for exam fees or to pay for preparatory resources. 

Tip 10: Cruise to the finish

It’s tempting to panic in the last few days of revision. However, try not to cover new material at this point. Rather, use the time to keep revising the work you have done so far and to cover the whole curriculum. Remember, at this point most of the hard work has already been done.

Rahul Bahl, south-east representative for the RCP's Student and Foundation Doctor Network