How to Pass an Exam (Post School)
I recently took the Principles and Practice of Engineering (P.E.) exam for the Chemical Engineering discipline. It is a nine-hour slugfest full of tricky questions after questions. It is a comprehensive exam in the sense that it not only tests for knowledge of a specific area of expertise (Chemical Engineering in this case), but also emotional maturity and physical stamina. It certainly tested me, and I had to muster up strength from deep within my reserve to pass.
As I was preparing for the exam, it quickly dawned on me that taking an exam as a professional is a different ball game than as a student. Passing an exam in school is easy, at least in my experience. The structures and resources in school such as classmates to bounce ideas off of (or commiserate with), easy access to the library, office hours for profs, tutorials, and so on are typically absent for the professional. What’s more, it is easier to learn as a youth, partly because the only responsibility many students have is studying. No bills to pay, no children to look after, no spouse to contend with.
Even so, passing an exam is possible post-school. This article shows you how.
How to pass a test when you are no longer a student:
1. Know your why. Why do you want to take this exam? The reason could be as trivial as “to challenge myself” (my reason for taking the P.E. exam) or as important as “keeping my job depends on it.” The reason is not as important as its existence. Without a reason for doing it, you will chicken out when the going gets tough. And trust me, the going will get tough at some point.
2. Know the scope. What’s in, what’s out? How deep will they probe? How wide will they look? The easy thing about exams—as opposed to real life—is that there’s usually a curriculum that defines the boundary of what will be asked. This is important because you have no time to waste, and you want to be sure that every minute you invest in preparing is on items that are fair game for the examiner to ask.
3. Understand yourself. Where are you? I ask again, where are you? Are you in a place where you can take an exam, or can this wait? What will you have to take off your plate to accommodate adding this challenge? Where can you study? How much money can you spend, for example, on study materials or test prep? There were times when I checked myself into a hotel just to study! But I had already planned for that expense.
4. Attempt practice problems. No getting around this. The best way to predict your performance is by practicing. The best way to reduce anxiety is by becoming familiar with how the items on the exam will look. Find problems that are similar to real exam questions. Solve those over and again. Practice the way you will play. As much as possible, practice under the conditions that will apply on the exam day, i.e., no distractions, with a timer, etc.
The best way to reduce anxiety is by becoming familiar with how the items on the exam will look. Find problems that are similar to real exam questions. Solve those over and again. Practice the way you will play.
5. Study. Practicing will expose areas where knowledge needs to be shored up. Take this opportunity to learn. Learning is beautiful. You may not pass through this way again, so take in all the concepts and reflect on what they mean. Study methods vary by individual, so use what best works for you. Between Open Courseware, Google, and YouTube, you should find plenty of help. If you registered for an exam prep class, the lesson materials are usually sufficient.
Take this opportunity to learn. Learning is beautiful. You may not pass through this way again, so take in all the concepts and reflect on what they truly mean.
6. Know the mechanics of the exam. Where’s the location? Go there to be sure you know how to get there. True story: For my P.E. exam, I read the address of the exam location and knew right away where it was. It was the big red building near the mall. I’ve seen it countless times. But I took my own advice and drove to the address a day before my exam. Alas, I was wrong. It was not the big red building or any building in the vicinity of the mall for that matter. The exam location was in a different part of town altogether. Imagine if I had waited until the exam morning to find that out!
Another important thing to know before you go: What forms of identification are allowed? Can you bring in food? What about jackets? And so on. You want to eliminate surprises on exam day.
7. Rest. You want to get a good night’s rest before the exam. Relax, both physically and mentally. Trust that things will work out. You want to bring in your best self. There’s nothing more frustrating than not answering correctly because of nerves. You have made it this far in life because you have passed many tests, and you will pass this one as well. Chill.
My P.E. exams tasked me in a way no other exam has ever done. In the end, the exam itself was easy and I aced it, but preparation for it was difficult. I think part of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that I didn’t have to take the exam to have a rewarding career (it was a personal challenge more than anything), but I also think having four kids and a full-time job has something to do with it, too. In the end, the tips I shared above, along with maturity, grit, and an I-can’t-fail attitude saw me through.
I encourage you to look for exams you can take in your profession and attempt one. You may find it truly fun.