Medical student struggling on med school exams

Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable During Med School Exams

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Advice for Boards and Med School Exams 

Photo: David LaSalle, Instructor at STATMed Learning

By David LaSalle, STATMed Learning Instructor

There’s a phenomenon I’ve been warning my test-taking clients about lately; I call it comfort testing. Comfort testing during med school exams means that we expect to feel like we are always on solid ground while taking a test, and when that doesn’t happen, we manipulate the questions to make ourselves feel ok. So dangerous! Here are a few of the unfortunate manifestations of comfort testing:

Falling into the “trap of familiarity.” This is when we gravitate to a particular answer option simply because it’s one that we know the most about. Imagine you’ve been traveling abroad for a few weeks alone, and across a crowded square, you spot someone from your hometown. You’re so excited to see them that you dash across the square and throw your arms around them in a big bear hug before stopping to ask yourself the crucial question, “Is this someone I like from back home, or someone can’t stand?” This is exactly what happens with answer options sometimes. We’re so happy to have something to latch onto that we don’t stop to ask that second question. It’s good news that we are familiar with that answer because that means I know something about it. But we need to then pause and ask, “Based on what I know, does that pull me toward this answer or push me away from it?”  

“Twisting” clues: Sometimes, we don’t even make it to the answer options before we fall into the warm, cushiony, deceitful arms of comfort testing. Sometimes as we read the passage, we’ll identify a couple of clues that we can twist and manipulate to fit a theory if only certain other clues were not around. And so we explain away the inconvenient clues that would make us face to face with the reality that we don’t know what is going on in the question. It’s scary to reach the frank conclusion that I will not know the answer to the question, and sometimes we will bend over backward to avoid seeing that. We cherry-pick some clues, massage others, and lo and behold, by the time I’m done reading, I have a theory I’m comfortable with. And then, I head happily into the answer set, whistling all the way, to choose the wrong answer because I skewed the data during my reading. All so I didn’t have to face the discomfort of not knowing.

The sooner we get comfortable being uncomfortable on test day, the better off we will be as test-takers. We will have to choose answers we need to learn more about, and we will have to discard answers we like. Testing is never about how we feel. Following our comfort is excellent for a spa day or a tropical vacation; it’s a false friend on test day.  

Interested in learning more about test-taking and boards strategy? Check out the Boards Test-taking Workshop today!

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