The Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX) are professional licensing exams administered by the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners. Our Naturopathic Doctor students take them twice during their course of study. What does the NPLEX mean for Naturopathic Doctor students? Find out here!
The following entry is a continuum of the blog series “The Unintentional How-To” by current student, James Munro. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of NCNM.
The Unintentional How-To:
The NPLEX Biomedical Science Exam
by James Munro, ND Student
I took the NPLEX Part 1 biomedical science exam during the summer of 2015. Ugh. In honor of the next round of students slated to take the exam in just a few short weeks, I’m dedicating this edition of The Unintentional How-To to sharing a few of my NPLEX tips.
I’ll start by saying that it was the most ridiculously stressful and frightening exam I’ve ever taken. I found some solace in the fact that it’s supposed to be stressful. It needs to be. It’s important to make sure that we can come up with correct answers in the face of tons of stress. The exam is not about simply knowing the answers. It’s about being uncomfortable and nervous and pressured and still knowing the answers. The stress is part of the exam. With this in mind, I think there are two areas to focus on for the exam: preparation and attitude.
We’ll start with the obvious. You have to study. You pretty much have to know everything. I searched the internet for every piece of advice on the NPLEX I could find and it was mostly recommended you start studying for the exam about two or three months ahead of time for about 6-8 hours a day. While I think that is certainly good advice, I did it a little differently.
I started studying for boards on my first day of school and, if you’ve been taking it seriously and passing your classes, you did too. The school term before boards ended on June 28th and boards were on August 4th, giving me about five weeks. During that time, I used the review book, First Aid for the USMLE Step 1, and the review videos by Dr. Anderson (which are available in the NCNM library). I watched all the videos once and skimmed through the book to clarify whatever I needed clarification on. I also took a weekend long biochemistry review with Meghan Taylor at NCNM.
I studied for 1-3 hours a day until 10 days before the exam. Then I studied around 3-4 hours a day for that last stretch. I spent the rest of my time exercising or convincing myself that I’d never be able to pass the exam. A week before the exam, I started answering practice questions that were given to me by a classmate. I actually have no idea where they came from.
The basis of my time studying was spent organizing all this information in my head. Like I said, if you’ve been putting the work in for your classes, you already know enough to pass the exam. The trick is making sure you haven’t forgotten it. I can’t tell you exactly how to do that but I can promise you, it’s all in there! Take this time to simply make sure you know how to find it.
The other piece of advice I read was to not study the day before the exam. The day before the exam is a self-care day. Excellent! I liked that piece of advice. I spent the morning before my exam at a Muay Thai gym working out and sparring. Towards the end of my workout, I kicked someone in the knee and broke my foot. So I spent the afternoon before my exam in an emergency room getting x-rays. It was a lovely self-care day.
In all honesty, my preparation for the exam was completely inadequate. I did as much as I was able to but I was convinced I hadn’t done enough. I woke up the morning of the exam with a throbbing, painful, broken foot and the knowledge that I hadn’t prepared enough. I realistically didn’t see how I could pass the exam.
Ok. Now that I’ve shown you what it looks like to inadequately prepare for the exam, let’s talk about my next area of focus.
In spite of my less-than-perfect preparation for the exam, I did pretty well. I’m convinced my success on the exam was due to my attitude. I’ve spent a lot of my life performing in some form or another and during those performances I figured out some general rules that have helped me perform better. I viewed the exam as just another performance. The following are a few of my little performance rules, slightly adapted for the context of the exam. They work well for me and I hope you might be able to get something out of them, too.
Forget the consequences
One of the best things I did was convince myself that it would be okay if I didn’t pass the exam. And it is okay if you don’t pass. Maybe it’s inconvenient and a bit expensive to take it again but, really, it’s okay
Not passing means you didn’t quite know the specific questions they asked or maybe you cracked a bit under the immense pressure. Neither of those things is a reflection of your years of hard work and dedication. This exam defines nothing. Failing means nothing.
Don’t let passing or failing cross your mind at any point before, during or after the exam. It’s an unhelpful waste of your time and energy which are scarce resources at this point. Do your best and deal with the next step only when you need to. Take the exam without the added pressure of worrying about the results. Thinking about the outcome while you should be performing does nothing but increase the likelihood of a negative outcome.
There will be questions where you definitely don’t know the answer. There will be questions that seem so easy you can’t believe they’d bother asking. There might be questions where you don’t even know what they’re asking about. Your reaction to each of those types of questions must be the same: Deep breath, read the entire question and answer to the best of your ability. It will not help if you have any type of an emotional reaction. Avoid the passing thoughts of, “What kind of stupid question is this!?” or “How on earth am I supposed to know that?!” or “Oh, this is SO easy!”
Rest assured, every question is reviewed by, like, a million people before your exam is graded. If there’s a bad question or you’re asked about something that is obscure or irrelevant, you have to trust that it will be dealt with in the review process. Avoid any complaints about the question-writers or the validity of the test. The easier, more straight-forward questions will be weighted more heavily, the obscure questions less so and if there are bad questions, they won’t be counted at all.
Your only job is to answer the question in front of you, whether it’s impossible, easy or totally confusing. It’s someone else’s job to worry about all that other stuff. Complaining or growing emotional at any point will do nothing but take away from your focus and impact your performance.
The same way you shouldn’t complain about the questions, you shouldn’t judge yourself or your performance during the exam. Don’t try to keep track of how many questions you think you got right or how many you think you got wrong. It doesn’t matter.
Do not allow momentum to play a part in the process. Being completely baffled by one question has nothing to do with your ability to answer the next question. Use everything you know to choose the best answer and when you get to the next question, throw away whatever arrogance or heartbreak you gained from the last question. With each new question, start over and do it again. In the midst of the exam, there is no right and there is no wrong. There is only your best answer. Whether your best answer is right or wrong is for someone else to judge.
During the test, it’s ONLY the test
I had a freshly broken foot the day of my exam. It was throbbing and painful. I didn’t feel like I prepared enough. The giant auditorium was uncomfortable and different. The NPLEX-issued pencil didn’t feel right in my hand. I was sitting next to someone I love talking to. In short, distractions were everywhere. The instant the exam started, everything disappeared. My throbbing, painful foot became comfortably numb. My preparation suddenly became more than adequate. The auditorium shrank and became like a second home. The pencil molded perfectly to my hand. The friend next to me ceased to exist.
During the exam, you will have your own version of a broken foot. There will be plenty of things that make you uncomfortable, distract you. And when the exam starts, you must make them all disappear. Putting any thought into the challenges surrounding you will take away from your performance.
Everything in your life will still be there when the exam is over. It’s okay – and necessary – to ignore all of it for a bit. During my exam, I ignored my pain and my friend. When it was over, my foot was still broken and my friend was still there – we had a nice chat afterwards. Set everything aside and make sure the only thing that exists in your universe is the question in front of you.
Assume you got them all correct until proven otherwise
I took my exam on August 4th and didn’t get the results until late September. That’s a long time to be panicking. The instant I handed in my exam, I told myself that I got every question correct. I had no significant evidence to suggest the opposite.
There were people who were looking things up immediately after the exam and even during the lunch break. I strongly recommend not doing that. If there are things you are curious about, write them down in a notebook and don’t look at it for at least a day or two. Even then, make sure you’re only doing it to satisfy your academic curiosity, not to determine whether or not you marked a correct answer.
There is a lot of stress surrounding this exam. Adding worry and anxiety to the mix won’t change anything. But it will probably diminish your happiness until you get the results. You did your best and, until proven otherwise, your best was more than enough. Believe that.
Some final thoughts
There is so much pressure and stress that comes along with this exam. It’s crazy important. It means so much. I know. It totally freaked me out. But it’s important to remember: This is what we do! When it comes to sitting quietly in uncomfortable chairs with tingling butt cheeks, surrounded by distractions and being forced to answer question after mind-numbing question, we are the elite! We have spent years perfecting this weird art of answering crazy questions by filling in little circles with a pencil. It’s a weird, stupid skill to have, but we have it! Don’t forget that. You know everything you need to know in order to succeed on this exam.
You have what it takes. I know it. I believe in your education and I believe in you. Recognize the stress and weight and importance of the exam but don’t let it dictate anything you think or feel. You have all worked so hard for so long and I, for one, am extremely impressed and proud of you. I wish you the best of luck and I’ll see you on the other side!
I’m hoping my tips helped a little but I’m sure there is plenty more wisdom floating around. If you have your own tips or tricks for taking board exams or completely disagree with anything I wrote, please write your thoughts in the comments section below!
What would you like to read about next? James will address your questions, topic suggestions or feedback of any kind.
▪ Please note that this is not a medical column and James is not yet a doctor. Please do not request medical advice here.
▪ The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of NCNM.