Practical exams are some of the most stressful times of your dental school life. It’s not like a regular test, where you just sit there and fill in bubbles on a ScanTron and regurgitate memorized this and that whatever. A practical is a performance! You’ve actually got to do something right now! I see it all when I’m grading practicals. I see students perform exactly how I expect they will based on my observations of their assignments. I see some students rise to the occasion and do much better work on a practical than I thought they were capable of. Unfortunately, I also see that student that does great work and completely bombs out on the practical. How do you prevent this from happening?
1. Practice a few times, several if necessary. Uh, yeah, duh, thanks Captain Obvious. Hear me out. It’s better to go into the sim lab and work on something for an hour or two and then leave to do something else than it is to sit there for five or six hours working on the same thing. Three two-hour practice sessions are so much more effective than one six hour visit to the sim lab. This pricincple applies to so many other aspects of dental school training, but practical exams in particular. You don’t go to the gym and work out for 7 hours at a time if you’re trying to get in shape. Stop practicing/studying that way, it’s not effective.
2. Get up. Get up at least once during the practical. Don’t go eat a meal or anything like that, but go get a drink of water, walk around and stretch a bit. Give your eyes and your brain a quick moment to reset and refresh. Removing yourself from the stress of the situation for just a moment can help you to refocus and critically evaluate what you need to do next.
3. Quit while you’re ahead. This is really hard, but so critical. You should have a clear understanding of what the grading criteria for a practical exam is, and as soon as you’ve satisfied that, you should pack your bags and walk away. Here’s a terrible situation to be in. There’s ten minutes left in the practical. There’s just this little tiny thing you want to fix to make it”perfect”. You go for it. In the process, you accidentally mess it up. Now there’s three minutes left and you’re sweating bullets because you’ve got failing work in your hands that ten minutes ago was passing work. Your hands are shaking and you’re so mad at yourself you can’t even think straight or do what you need to do to make it right. Yeah, don’t be that guy!
I hope these tips give you some ideas on how to mentally approach your next practical exam. Good luck!