How I Prepared for and Passed the PANCE: PA Certification Exam Tips

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How I Prepared for and Passed the PANCE PA Certification Exam Tips, How to Pass the PANCE

How to Prepare for and Pass the PANCE

A PANCE study guide

If you are reading this, you probably need to prepare for the PANCE - or more to the point - pass the PANCE and get that PA-C.  The Physician Assistant certification exam can be daunting, but here, Justin Loder, PA-C, offers his personal "how to pass the PANCE" exam preparation story to help you take stock and crush the PANCE.  

For Physician Assistants / Associates about to take the PANCE -- here's my story.

Exams are stressful, they are not fun, and they are designed to make you anxious, stressed, and leave you feeling like you don't know anything. And the worst part is the way they make you feel like the pressure of your entire future is at stake and riding on this test. The culmination of all your years of training and studying (and let's not forget tuition) all boils down to this one test -- a single validation to say you are competent and ready to become a professional. Scary, right? That's the point. It's meant to freak you out, maybe as a motivator to drive you to study more than you ever have before.

Well, my story is to tell you to RELAX!  I am a certified PA-C and I passed the PANCE with a perfect score of 800.

I did not spend my last month leading up to the exam studying 12+ hours a day and stressing to a point of being dysfunctional. I don't have an eidetic or photographic memory, and trust me I'm not the smartest person in my class.

So, what is my secret to pass the PANCE?

The #1 tip is to relax and trust yourself. I'm not saying slack off and stroll in nonchalantly to tackle this beast of an exam, but do NOT spend every waking hour trying to learn that one more thing leading up to this test.

No one sits back and thinks about the fact that so many have come before us and PASSED. Every one of us has a different strategy, and most of us still pass. In fact, the passing rate is usually above 90%. Your hard work and education got you here, and that one month of cramming before the exam isn't the difference.

The second most important tip that I have used for most other exams is to know how to be a good test taker. Exams are designed to trick you, and there is no way to know everything. 

  • Can you recognize patterns?
  • Can you deduce reasoning and narrow your choices?
  • Can you look beyond the words and realize they are telling you the answer without actually telling you the answer?

Yes, you can.  And you can get really good at it.  Test questions often specifically give you all the details required to get the right answer, such as age, gender, chronicity, etc.

Most of what is in the stem is there for a reason and not just as filler. But it's up to you to look for the buzzwords that are strategically hidden and disguised.  Trust me, they are there. 

How do you become a good exam taker?

Just like with everything else you do to become proficient, PRACTICE AND REPETITION are key. Trust me when I say this. Your years of undergrad training and professional training have given you most of the knowledge needed for the content of the exam. Where the 10% fail is almost universally a lack of confidence, doubt, and inability to handle the test taking aspect and recognize how to do well. 

Everyone asks me how I got a top score and assumes I must know everything. WRONG.

I left that test feeling dumber than ever. That's the point. But I didn't second guess myself, and I just pushed through. I took one 15-minute break and finished the exam in under 3 hours. And let's not forget that on the way to the testing center at 7am in pouring rain, someone rear ended me due to hydroplaning. And yes, it was a minor accident, but boy that'll boost your adrenaline and cortisol levels, trust me. Still, despite the extra stress and delay, I got in 2 minutes before the deadline and I sat down and crushed the exam because I was ready.

Very few of us, if any, have had to sit for a 5-to-6-hour exam before. Well, with my tips of practicing you can speed up your test prep, and you can finish your exam in 1/2 to 3/4 of the time.

I had classmates and friends go to a paid review course, or buy an entire online review course, or go back through every study guide and course work from PA school and review it all.

The average time my fellow classmates spent studying was about 3 to 4 hours a day in the weeks between graduating and taking the exam. 4 out of 5 passed, and the highest score among my friends was 600. 

I didn't spend hours a day reviewing and cramming and watching lectures. I focused my time and energy into practicing! 

How I got ready for the PANCE: 

First of all, I was relaxed a few days before taking the test. I knew that there was no magic review that would give me the answers to all 300 questions.  It would be impossible to predict if the topic I studied right before the test would magically appear on the exam and, even if it did, it's only 1 out of 300 questions. Are hours of cramming worth that?! My answer is no. 

Secondly, during our last month at school we were provided with the Kaplan review course for PANCE. It came with lectures and videos and a few-HUNDRED-page study guide. I listened to the lectures we were presented (mainly because I had to), but I didn't spend any extra time reading the Kaplan study guide.

For me, the magic of exam prep came from test taking.  When taking an exam all you have to do is recall the information through multiple choice and recognition, so you are much better off taking practice tests to recognize patterns and techniques and build the stamina needed for reading stems and answering questions.

For four weeks before my exam I took a 50-question test every night. At first, I got 50% to 60% right. You heard me. 4 week before my exam I missed nearly half of the questions. Taking the practice test every day -- and reading the correct (and more importantly) the incorrect reasoning -- accumulated to 1 to 2 hours of studying per day. 

If you are determined to use a study guide, I recommend this study guide textbook, which is a really good, concise review. 

I also recommend The Final Step, which is in buzzword and quick-quiz format and covers the things you just have to know. It is not at all built like the format of the PANCE or PANRE, but a few minutes a day doing a quick quiz and buzzword recognition really shaves time off your exam.  

For me, the magic of exam prep came from test taking.  When taking an exam all you have to do is recall the information through multiple choice and recognition, so you are much better off taking practice tests to recognize patterns and techniques and build the stamina needed for reading stems and answering questions.
Justin Loder, PA-C

How to Prepare for the PANCE.

Here is a rundown of my weeks leading up to the PANCE:

4 Weeks Out - Kaplan test bank -  50-question bank per day for 7 days

3 Weeks Out -  50-question bank every other day and 100 questions on Saturday. Nothing on Sunday

2 Weeks Out - 50 questions every other day

At the end of the week, before the final week  - on the Friday leading up to the exam, I took a practice NCCPA exam. It helped get me used to the format of the test and the layout of the screen. I felt the questions were tougher on the Kaplan question bank, but it was helpful to sit for 3 hours and do a practice exam in one go. 

Then I took the weekend off and relaxed. I went to the local Harborfest in Hampton Roads/Norfolk VA, and enjoyed a mental break.

Final week leading up to the PANCE:

Day 1 - 120-question Kaplan practice test. I got 86% (remember how 2 weeks prior I only got 50-60%?). And I finished in 64 minutes!

Day 2 - I quizzed for 30 minutes to an hour on The Final Step. Also, a few times that day, just when I had a 15-minute free interval to test myself on some content knowledge, I took the HIPPO PA online free practice test, which is about 10 to 20 questions. This was just recall and recognition practice and more of a confidence booster. The questions were easier and shorter than Kaplan, but more detailed than The Final Step. I would get about 90+% correct, which made me feel good that I was recognizing and recalling material. We know more than we think we do, and fortunately we don't have to spurt it out, we just have to identify it. There are several good, large, free PA question banks out there that can serve this purpose.

Day 3 - 60-question Kaplan test

Day 4 - The Final Step and HIPPO PA quizzes off and on. Probably 1 to 2 hours cumulative throughout the day

Day 5 - One last 60-question Kaplan test

Day 6 - I finished The Final Step. I spent less than an hour studying and did nothing for the rest of the day.

Day 7 - I did nothing and just relaxed.

Test day advice - Crush it. Finish 2 blocks quickly in just over an hour to an hour and a half, and if feeling good, do 1 more section. Or take a 10-to-15-minute break to grab a light snack and use the restroom. Return and finish the exam. 

Hope this helps!

Justin Loder, PA-C 

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