Name: Abbey Ferguson, Class of 2019
Undergrad: Westmont College, CA
Hometown: Sacramento, CA
Fun Fact: I absolutely love to dance! If any of you out there are dancers in need of a new dance studio here in Denver, I can definitely hook you up!
Lab practicals are often the most terrifying and anxiety-provoking parts of physical therapy school. It is the chance for you to show your skills as a developing clinician in the most realistic setting possible, and they’re some of the only opportunities we get to practice being in the clinic before we get there. As a student who has only been in PT school for two semesters, I especially feel this weight due to our lack of clinical experience so far. However, while it may sound daunting, I have grown to love practical exams. As crazy as it sounds, I find it exciting to walk out of an interaction with a faculty member and feel like I could possibly interact with a real patient in a professional and capable way. While it took me a few exams to get there, I think I have found some ways that have made the tests manageable and exciting rather than threatening. I hope that these tips help, and always feel free to email me if you have more questions!
- Take deep breaths.
Prior to taking a practical exam, you will be given a time slot and an assigned room where you will perform your skill for a faculty grader. These time allotments begin at relatively short periods of 20-40 minutes, but as you take more classes, these can last for up to an hour or more. I’ve found that, to calm myself down before entering the exam room, taking the time to close my eyes and take a few deep breaths to simply slow my heart rate and clear my head is extremely helpful. For some reason, many of us students all cluster outside the rooms before our assigned times and stress each other out about the unknowns of the exam, and this not only invokes fear, but it makes us question our own abilities that we have developed. By simply pausing for a couple seconds before entering the room, I am able to remind myself that I am capable enough to perform well.
- Speak slowly and confidently.
As you enter the exam room you are often given a case study or a patient problem to solve, and you only have a few moments to think through a solution and then employ your plan of care. This rushed feeling can lead to stumbling over words and key phrases that need to be communicated with the grader to show them you have reasonable rationale behind your interventions. What I often do is continue to take deep breaths and think through exactly what I am going to say prior to saying it. A skill I learned when I was in high school drama class was to speak my lines in a ridiculously slow manner. While the words sounded incredibly slow to my anxious brain, what was actually communicated to the audience was a line that in a normal, even pace. Because our brains are trying to process so much at once, by consciously thinking about slowing down words and thoughts, it can come across to the grader that you are confident in what you are saying. By instilling confidence in your grader, you are much more likely to get positive reviews. You have the knowledge from the classes to perform the skill well, so show them that you believe in yourself!
- Mental AND Physical Rehearsal.
I am the kind of student who does not love to practice the same skill over and over again prior to an exam. It often becomes monotonous and boring, and I feel like I start making new mistakes every time I practice. HOWEVER, I am convinced that the more you physically practice, the more automatic the skill becomes, and the less likely you are to fumble through your skill during the exam. As reluctant as I was to practice, I was very fortunate to have fellow students who convinced me that practicing was vital to performing well, and I believe it made a difference during the exams. But this does not mean that mental practice can not be helpful as well. I found that by taking the time to sit with the material and rehearse in my head what I would say and do during the skill, I was still able to feel more confident than if I had done no sort of practice once I entered the exam. These skills can feel tedious, but I think that is the point of physical therapy school! As the skills become automatic (after they are practiced correctly), we can be more confident in a clinical setting that the interventions we are performing are done well and will benefit our patients.
- See your grader as a human, not an intimidating figure.
Perhaps it is just because I haven’t been in graduate school for that long, but I was honestly scared of my graders prior to actually being in a practical exam. Performing skills in front of experienced clinicians can be intimidating, and it becomes easy to expect them to be hyper-critical and harsh. But this misconception was debunked fairly quickly. Yes, our graders and professors are incredibly smart and know what they are doing, but they are also humans who believe in you and want you to do your best. By entering an exam setting with the mindset that your grader is there to support you and make you the best PT you can be, the fear and anxiety will be eased.
- Believe in yourself.
Confidence and believing in yourself may seem intuitive, but it really can make the difference when you are entering the exams. I know I tend to get pretty down on myself when it seems like an overwhelming amount of information is being thrown at us. However, I have realized I must have confidence in my program and professors that they have taught me well and I am prepared to show my skills in a practical exam. If you have practiced, studied, and listened in class, you know what you need to know to excel, and you can trust in yourself and in your abilities.
While these tips don’t stop my pits from sweating profusely prior to a practical, they have helped me get excited for the opportunity to show off what I have been trained to do. It keeps me from becoming overwhelmed and allows me to perform as best as I can, which is all I can really ask of myself. You will all be successful, and I’m sure you will find more strategies to add to this short list of how to survive practical exams. When you discover new things that help you, let me know, because I will always take the extra help:)