by Margaret A. Fitzgerald, DNP, FNP-BC, NP-C, FAANP, CSP, FAAN, DCC
As a newly prepared NP, you are to be congratulated on your success to date. After completing a rigorous NP program, your days of study are not yet over, but continue with a new focus. You need to continue to develop expand and refine your NP knowledge base to assure success with certification. But how do you do this? Here is advice I often given in response to commonly asked questions about preparing for certification.
In preparing for certification, where should I start?
Start your study by carefully reviewing the materials from your certifying agency. The exam candidate information booklet usually contains a detailed summary of the exam content. Certification exam content will likely be broad, as is primary care practice, reflecting the mix of patients that may come through the door of an average practice over an extended period of time, such as a number of months, rather than the mix you see in an average day. At the same time, exam content is typically focused on assessment and intervention in common clinical problems, rather than the unusual or exoteric. This is an important point to remember, since many NPs have been in nursing for a number of years, often in an acute care setting. Patient problems and treatments differ greatly from the inpatient to the outpatient and primary care settings.
Once you have reviewed the information on the exam content, make a list of the areas where you feel your knowledge base is secure and where just reviewing material to refresh your memory will likely suffice. Also, make a second list of areas where you identify areas of weaknesses and where you need to concentrate your review. This will help you decide how to distribute your study time.
How do I find the time to prepare for certification? How much time should I allow?
This issue of time needed for certification preparation is unique to each exam candidate. That said, one of the biggest pitfalls in study is the failure to put aside the time to prepare. Map out the demands on your time in the first months after completing your NP program, including work hours, family, personal and professional commitments, as well as time you have perhaps set aside for well-deserved vacation. After doing this, set up a schedule of study time, Allot a greater amount of time to areas of knowledge deficit, less to areas of where you only needed to refresh your knowledge base. Make sure you cover all areas listed as possible exam content. Plan your date for certification only after a period of well-planned, systematic certification-focused study.
What about forming a study group?
Study groups can be helpful, a terrific vehicle for sharing information and resources. Alternatively, study groups can yield a poor return on time invested if all members are not similarly committed. Here are some guidelines for forming a successful study group.
All group members must treat attendance and participation as they would any other professional commitment, such as work or school.
Well in advance, set a schedule and place to meet, as well as a topic for the meeting. Plan a start and end time, with a clear objective for the session.
Study groups usually work best when a group member volunteers to research and present information on a subject at a predetermined schedule. The presentation is typically followed with a discussion of the issue and review of sample exam questions and rationales for the correct response. The leader of a given session should also assume responsibility for keeping the discussion on track, facilitating the efficient use of time and resources.
In order to help avoid the group deteriorating into a chat session, plan for a short period of socialization following high-yield study sessions.
Here is an example of a session planned by a highly successful study group.
"The session will start at 7 PM, end at 9 PM with the objective of identifying the clinical presentation, assessment and intervention in community-acquired pneumonia. Sarah is the presenter and also group-leader for the evening and is responsible for keeping us on track. A social period from 9-9:30P will follow. Ben and Helena are responsible for refreshments."
What about taking a certification examination preparation course or using other study aids?
While each person has different learning needs, many find that attendance at a certification preparation course is helpful. The course should help you identify your knowledge base strengths and weaknesses, as well as facilitate test-taking skills and set the stage for your further study. In addition, exam preparation texts, audio and computer programs enhance knowledge attainment and help increase your confidence.
Successfully passing your certification exam helps not only marks a critical right of passage, but also tangible evidence of your considerable achievement. Make sure you do all possible to maximize your likelihood of success.
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This article originally appeared in my quarterly certification column in Advance for Nurse Practitioners and is made available here by the courtesy of Advance. For other articles of interest to Nurse Practitioners, be sure to subscribe to this outstanding journal.