“Not even the rigors of grad school and internship prepared me for what I face now studying to pass the EPPP.”
“I keep putting off my EPPP test preparation because it overwhelms me. I know I need to start but I don’t know where to begin.”
“My entire career has been put on hold until I pass the EPPP. The problem is that I’ve already failed once.”
“I tried to start preparing for the EPPP once before, going through hundreds and hundreds of practice questions. It only showed me how unprepared I actually was. I know I need to put together a study plan but I don’t know where to start. I feel overwhelmed with the amount of material I need to learn.”
Do any of the above concerns sound familiar? These types of anxieties represent typical feelings among those who are aspiring to become licensed psychologists.
Through almost two decades of working to prepare students to pass the Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP), I’ve listened to anxieties such as those represented above. In the process of my work, I’ve collected the following tips and coping strategies that have proven effective in helping psychology students overcome these types of fears and steer a course toward EPPP success.
- Master the Material.
It’s typical for psychologists to seek some kind of quick shortcut to EPPP success. The truth is that there is no substitute to the type of content mastery that only comes after comprehensive labor-intensive study. Realizing this early on in the process can save much heartache and useless procrastination.
One seemingly attractive shortcut is to go through hundreds and hundreds of practice questions. Make no mistake: Part of being prepared for the EPPP is being a practiced and critically thinking test-taker. The problem arises when practice tests are used as a substitute for content mastery. Often students will take so many practice tests that they simply memorize the correct answers without any real understanding of the concepts behind those answers. They discover too late that they aren’t as prepared as they imagined.
The only way to pass a test as difficult as the EPPP is through a thorough mastery of the content. Scoring well on a practice test should be the result of content mastery and not the result of merely remembering a correct answer from a previous practice test.
- Don’t Cram.
Cramming is another potentially attractive shortcut. You probably knew people at college who did well on tests but couldn’t remember the material the next semester. Some people are very good at being able to cram. They can load their short-term memory with an amazing amount of information.
The method of cramming might work well for passing tests at university level, but when it comes to the EPPP, cramming is completely ineffective. The reason cramming doesn’t work on the psychology licensure exam is the sheer volume of material you’ll be tested on. In order to pass the EPPP you need to master over 780 key terms in 11 domains. Moreover, you will be tested on these terms through multiple-choice questions that are worded in such a way to gauge authentic understanding of the fundamental concepts. To arrive at that type of understanding, you need to do more than simply cram; you need to engage your long-term memory through thoroughly mastering content.
- Prepare as Soon as Possible.
After completing your internship and postdoctoral hours, it’s easy to go into cruising mode. Ordinary life takes over and although you know you need to prepare for the EPPP, all you do is procrastinate.
The problem is that memories fade over time if a person does not have occasion to access those memories. This is known as “decay theory” and is something we discussed in Part 1 or our three-part series on procrastination. As I explained in these posts, the longer you put off studying for the EPPP, the more likely it is that you will gradually forget what you learned during your graduate studies in psychology. That’s why the length of time between when someone graduates and when they take the EPPP is actually predictive of how well they will do on the test.
In their article “Predictors of Program Performance on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology,” Brian Sharpless and Jacques Barber shared statistics from EPPP results. They found that candidates taking their EPPP less than a year after graduation had an average passing score of 579.00. Students waiting 2-3 years to take their exam had an average score of 554.33. Those students who waited 4-5 years had an average failing score of 493.60. Those waiting 6-7 years did worst of all, with an average failing score of 473.53.
Bottom line: Don’t procrastinate. In fact, it’s best to begin studying for the EPPP while you’re still doing your internship. By beginning your studies early, you will be able to capitalize on the spacing effect that is fundamental to long-term recall.
- Choose the Right Preparation Materials.
In 2010, the ASPPB (the organization responsible for the licensure exam) published the results of an EPPP exit poll. They found that those students who had studied with a commercial online company were the most likely of anyone to receive a passing score.
Of course, the most essential aspect of what constitutes the “right” materials is how you study. It is smart, then, to be aware of your own learning style and methods, and to find the study program that reflects your needs. Are you comfortable learning with a guided online program? Do you need someone to keep you accountable? Or do you like the idea of learning with peers? It’s important to ask yourself these questions while shopping around for the right materials.
- Protect Your Short-Term Memory from Distractions.
During EPPP prep, the goal is to retain as much information as possible in your long-term memory. In order for content to reach your long-term memory it has to first pass through your working memory, also known as short-term memory. Unlike your long-term memory, which can hold vast amounts of information, your short-term memory is of limited capacity. Consequently, if you overload your short-term memory it will begin to bottleneck, preventing memories from ever reaching your long-term memory.
Unfortunately, most people today study in environments that systematically overload their short-term memories. The worst contributor to cognitive overload is the distractions caused by smart-phones and email. I recently shared a report from Time Magazine that pointed out that “there’s evidence that as your brain becomes accustomed to checking a device every few minutes, it will struggle to stay on task even at those times when it’s not interrupted by digital alerts.” On top of that, switch cost (the loss of focus when we’re pulled away from a task, even if only for a split second to glance at a message) has an effect on the brain’s ability to focus that lasts up to 15 or 20 minutes.
At TSM we spend a lot of time encouraging practices of meta-attention and focus. Last year we identified 5 best practices that successful students employ for staying focused during their EPPP test preparation. Not surprisingly, the most important of these is simply turning off distractions. Successful students make sure that all audio, visual, and vibrating notifications are turned off on their devices during times of study. If they are studying on the computer, they make sure that tabs are not open for email or social media services. This enables the brain’s working memory to be entirely focused on absorbing the information it needs for passing the EPPP.
- Develop a Study Plan and Learning Strategy.
Sadly, many people’s approach to EPPP exam preparation involves little more than rote learning, which uses up unnecessary time and cognitive resources that might be better applied elsewhere. The problem isn’t that rote learning doesn’t work, but that it takes three or four times as long as a more strategic study plan.
This is something I found in my own experience preparing for the EPPP. As I explained in an interview last year with Robin Phillips, back in 1995, I had about a month to master a ton of materials for the EPPP. Like a lot of people, I went to a weekend EPPP workshop and found myself completely overwhelmed. There was just no way I could learn everything I needed to know through rote memorizing. It was like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hydrant. The workshop didn’t teach me how to take these armfuls of material and know what to do with it, how to assess my strengths and weaknesses, how to develop a course of study, and how to consolidate, retain, and recall the information needed for the test. Given the volume of EPPP study materials before me, and the very short period of time before sitting the exam, I knew I needed to do something very different in my preparation if I was going to pass. In particular, I needed a road map for how to study, together with a methodology to guide me.
Very quickly I developed a study plan and learning strategy. I drew on various theories of memory and learning to guide my study. These theories and methods, all of which have subsequently been subsequently integrated into the TSM model of test preparation, included things such as:
- Elaborative Rehearsal
- Elaborative Encoding
- Method of Loci (memory palace)
- Interference Theory
- Spaced Learning and Repetition
- Primacy/Recency Theory
- Blocks of Time Principle
- Listening While Reading
- Positive Reinforcement
- Eliminating Distractions
- Note-Taking by Hand
- Listening While Reading
- Positive Reinforcement
- Eliminating Distractions
- Note-Taking by Hand
- Mediator Effectiveness Hypothesis
- State-Dependent Learning Opportunities
- Finding Your Learning Style (Audio, Visual, Kinesthetic)
An effective learning strategy also needs to include an honest look at your schedule. When you sit down to do your EPPP studying, it’s crucial to make an action plan that will structure your studying for each day. What you want to avoid is feeling like you are swimming in a sea of information that totally engulfs you and overloads your working memory. So don’t bite off more than you can chew, but make a realistic plan of what you can commit to each day. Then try to put everything else out of your mind and just focus on that. You should also be asking yourself questions such as the following:
- When do I need to be fully prepared to take the EPPP?
- How much time each day do I need to devote to my EPPP test preparation?
- What personal sacrifices am I prepared to make to carve out the necessary time for my EPPP preparation?
- Am I relying on rote learning, or am I strategically incorporating memory and learning techniques into the study process?
- Have I assessed the ways I learn best and have I integrated these learning methods into my EPPP preparation?
- How to Succeed at the EPPP Without Ruining Your Life
- How to Develop an EPPP Study Schedule (and other advice after a two-time fail)
- How to Prepare for the Eppp Exam When You’re Not Feeling Motivated
At TSM, we have a team of researchers and engineers that have spent years studying the EPPP, as well as studying various theories of memory and learning, in order to identify the most effective ways to structure your study time. We have put together a series of online tools that can break down your EPPP studies into manageable parts that can be tailored to your unique schedule. If you haven’t already enrolled for our free trial, now might be a good time to consider doing that.