The birth of summer brings peaches and cherries, a boost in vitamin D, children running through sprinklers, and the joy of vacation! For individuals working and living around people preparing for the Clinical Chemistry board exams, this time is usually accompanied by 5 distressed words: “I AM GOING TO FAIL!!” These words are often uttered by those frantically trying to organize every topic and lesson ever applied to the clinical laboratory. And commit it to memory. In hopes of assuaging a bit of their angst, we set out to make this list of approaches that we found beneficial on the journey to earning the prized letters “DABCC”.
1. Find the right way to study for you.
Everyone has different tricks for successful studying. For Dina, that meant starting months in advance and working for an hour or two each day. She also got herself a multipack of colored markers and a lifetime supply of index cards, which she used to catalogue everything she studied. For Amy, the best studying approach was repetition—writing, and re-writing, and re-writing topics and repeating calculations problems until they were engrained in her head. She also found the math problems from the CD-ROM included with the Kaplan book (Clinical Chemistry: Theory, Analysis, Correlation, by Lawrence A. Kaplan and Amadeo J. Pesce) very helpful.
Learn what works best for you and stick with it! Whether it’s listening to music, taking short breaks or plowing through, drawing diagrams and flow charts or reading books, memorizing or learning general concepts, just keep working!
2. Find a study-buddy.
Even though Dina and Amy were 1,000 miles apart, technology made it possible to study together! Setting up regular Skype sessions allowed us to review problems, explain concepts, to vent and to encourage each other.
Having a partner to study with can be very beneficial in many ways! Dina and Amy found that studying together let them take advantage of each other’s strengths. For example, Amy struggled with immunology and toxicology, areas in which Dina excelled, so Dina helped Amy learn those topics. In exchange, Amy helped Dina with endocrine pathways and pediatric clinical chemistry. There’s also great accountability in studying with someone else. Knowing that someone else’s time is on the line can incentivize you to work harder and longer than you may on our own. And, major bonus: when one of you hit a moment of despair, the other is there to remind you of your strengths.
If you have another test-taker in town, consider weekly meetings to review topics and teach each other difficult concepts. Get a white board to write and draw things out. This is a good opportunity for the divide and conquer approach: each person takes a topic, learns it inside and out, and teaches it to the others at the next meeting.
3. Do practice questions. Do practice questions. Do practice questions!
Find a book(s) with good practice questions and practice, practice, practice! Do the questions, then review what you go wrong (or got right by a lucky guess) and learn everything you can about that topic. Then do the questions again.
While not an exhaustive list, we found these books most helpful: the “Wu books” (Self-Assessment in Clinical Laboratory Science Iand II, edited by Alan H.B. Wu), the “White book” (Contemporary Practice in Clinical Chemistry, edited by William Clarke), the AACC Question of the Day, “Kaplan” (Clinical Chemistry: Theory, Analysis, Correlation, by Lawrence A. Kaplan and Amadeo J. Pesce), and Calculations in Laboratory Science, by Allan Deacon.
4. Pace yourself.
There’s a lot of information to get through (have you seen Tietz?!?) and it can be very daunting to get started, but pacing yourself can be very helpful. Given how much time you have before the test, make a plan for how to get through it all. Of course, it’s best to start early and do a little bit each day. We both found it most helpful to breakdown the body of knowledge into topics and conquer one topic at a time. We left a few weeks before the exam to do general review of all the topics and focus of particularly difficult concepts.
Make a lot of time to study, but don’t completely sacrifice your health and personal life. If you start to study non-stop for months before the exam, you can burn out, get sick, and/or alienate your friends and family. It will be a challenging few months, but try to maintain balance.
5. Attend the Professional Practice in Clinical Chemistry course
Another way to increase your confidence is by attending lectures that focus on bread and butter clinical chemistry topics. For example, every other year, AACC offers “Professional Practice in Clinical Chemistry”, a 4 ½ day course which reviews the fundamentals of clinical chemistry taught by experts on each subject. Many people taking the board exams attend this course for board-preparation, as it highlights many of the classic and contemporary aspects of clinical chemistry. It’s a great opportunity to remember what you know, and learn what you still need to study.
6. Take the two parts of the exams separately.
This certainly may not be feasible for everyone, and opinions may differ on whether this is a good idea or not, however if you can take part A and part B separately, it can be very helpful. By splitting up the two halves of the boards, you may give yourself the opportunity to focus your attention and time on smaller chunks at a time.
7. Don’t panic (too much).
While a healthy amount of stress can push you to study longer and harder, don’t let it damage your health or personal life! You might take to heart the words of a clinical chemist (who ultimately passed the exams on the first try), “I walked in telling myself ‘this is just a really expensive practice exam’!”
Although everyone wants to pass on the first attempt, plenty of good chemists don’t. Remember, you can always take the exams again.
8. Gain confidence.
In order to be approved to even take the boards, you have to have met certain criteria that prime you to excel. This means you’ve probably already spent at least a decade submerged in biological science. So, be encouraged! Studying and passing the boards are only the final piece of a really long journey!