Physiotherapy Competency Exam (PCE) Prep: How To Manage Test Stress and Anxiety

Leading up to any big test like the Physiotherapy Competency Exam (PCE), it’s common to feel some pre-test anxiety and nerves.
We worry about forgetting the information we’ve spent weeks memorizing or encountering questions that we won’t know the answer to. Feeling nervous or anxious before an exam is something that most people can identify with, but when these feelings lead to a poor exam grade they are a much larger problem.
RELAX! ignitephysio has put together 4 key strategies to help you manage your stress as you prepare for the PCE. Read on for an 8 week PCE study timeline you can use to structure your studying, a rundown on how meditation can have a big impact on your exam success, examples of how to change negative self talk to positive, and easy tips for quality sleep you can put into action today.

1. Start With A Plan

Having a well laid plan will give focus to each study session and ensure that you don’t forget to study any important topics. Before you start studying for the PCE, written or practical components, it’s important that you devise a study plan. Using the exam blueprint provided by the Canadian Alliance of Physiotherapy Regulators, identify the fields of study you must review and their weighting.
Next, identify the anatomy, pathologies, assessment, treatment techniques, etc. you have learnt in each. Hypothesize the length of time you may need to cover each section well in advance as budgeting your study time well is important for stress management. Nothing is worse than feeling like you have to do too much last minute cramming in order to cover everything you need to. The length of time you may need to prepare varies for everyone, however most people begin preparation for the PCE one to two months beforehand.
To get you started in your study planning, ignitephysio has created an 8 week study timeline to help guide your prep. Follow it or use it as a guideline to create your own!

2. Meditate

What exactly is meditation? Meditation can come in many different forms, but at its root it is a practice of mental calm. It can be practiced solo or in a group, be led by a person or an app.
Meditation has long been thought to have a positive effect on pain, depression and stress, however more recent research also suggests it may lead to improved exam performance in students. It allows you to enhance your ability to focus for lengthy periods of time, bring mindfulness to your wandering thoughts and redirect your conscious thought back to the present. Some studies have even gone so far as to suggest that meditation increases your capacity for memorizing information.
Like most things worth doing, meditation is a skill that cannot be perfected overnight. So don’t begin meditating the night before the PCE. Start practicing a few weeks prior, alongside your studying. If you\’re interested in trying meditation check out ignitephysio’s review of the app Stop, Breathe & Think, an easy to use breathing app that guides users through personalized meditation. Happy Ohming!

3. Limit Negative Self Talk

We are our own worst critics. When the stakes are high, like they are with the PCE, we imagine things going horribly wrong, struggling through questions about topics we forgot to cover or failing the PCE altogether. Negative self talk projects negative outcomes onto our situation and can be detrimental to our confidence and our test scores. So lets stop the negativity and work on building ourselves up instead of breaking ourselves down!
As you work up to exam day, be mindful of negative talk that may be passing through your consciousness. When you catch yourself doing this, stop, write it down and immediately re-phrase the negative thought into a positive. By putting pen to paper and writing down your thoughts, you learn to identify the negative thought, find the distortion and rephrase it into a more valid response. Writing the thought down is an important step in this process as it helps you get the thought out of your head.
Here are some examples of thoughts that may be swimming in your mind leading up to the PCE and ways you can change their meaning into positive and affirming phrases to help boost your confidence.

Common Negative Thoughts Rephrased Positive Thought
“I can’t do this. There’s too much information. I’m never going to be able to memorize it all.” “I can do this! I’ve been studying hard and I’m going to nail this exam!”
“I failed my last try at the PCE. This is going to be just like that.” “I may have failed last time, but now I know what to expect and that’s going to work to my advantage.”
“I should have started studying way earlier.” “I can’t change when I started studying, but I’m going to focus and do as much as I can moving forwards.”
“I’m not smart enough.” “I’m intelligent, hard working and I’m going to do my best.”
“The worst case scenario is that I fail.” “The best case scenario is that I pass and I’m that much closer to becoming a licensed physiotherapist!”

4. Get a Good Night’s Sleep

It has long been documented in academic journals and in the media that having a good night\’s sleep before an exam can lead to better test performances. It may be tempting to stay up until the early morning hours trying to cram as much extra information as you can into your brain, but resist the urge! Students perform better on exams following a good night\’s rest. Sleep allows information to be more readily consolidated to memory. This makes your ability to remember the information you’ve worked so hard to study that much easier come test time.
Good sleep practices involve so much more than simply the number of hours of shut eye you get. Your pre-sleep routine, where you sleep and what you’ve done in your day all play an important role. To optimize your sleep leading up to the PCE, try out these 10 easy sleep tips today.

  • Keep a consistent bedtime routine
  • Aim to get 7 hours of sleep most nights
  • Try to go to bed and wake up at a consistent time
  • Consider having a light snack before bed but avoid a large or heavy meal
  • Limit your use of electronics 1 hour before bed
  • Keep a regular exercise routine in the late afternoon or early evening
  • Avoid consuming caffeinated or alcoholic beverages before bedtime
  • Use your bed only for sleeping and intimacy. Read, eat, work or study elsewhere
  • Make your bedroom a quiet, relaxing and comfortable environment
  • If you aren’t able to fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed

These strategies will help make sure that the sleep you are getting is restful and of good quality. So set your alarm and hit the hay early for the weeks leading up to your exam!

Good Luck!

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About the Author:

Andrew Koppejan, PT

Andrew Koppejan, PT

As a physiotherapist with more than thirteen years of clinical experience, I’ve travelled a unique path of self-discovery and clinical experiences that has brought me to a place of clinical flow. I help movement clinicians move from a place of frustration to flow in their clinical practice.

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