Here are 5 common things that people tend to do when preparing for a certification exam and how to avoid them.
1. Don't Study.
"Well, thanks for that deep insight!"; you might say. But wait. While this is a self-explanatory item on the list, it is something that you should consider. I've talked with hundreds of certification exam candidates, often after they have taken the certification exam and failed. Many of these operators will claim that they "studied!". Many of those will often explain; "I read every word of all the reference materials that I've been given!" or that "There was nothing on that exam that was in the course material!".
Both of those statements are typically false; especially the second one. What has happened is that people will tend to fool themselves into thinking that they are prepared, when actually they are not. The point here is that you need to make sure that you have actually prepared for the exam that you are taking.
Take advantage of practice exams from books and websites. Get a friend to ask you to define keywords or phrases or to explain how specific treatment processes work. In short, test yourself before you go. If you get a lot of questions wrong on the practice exam, go back and evaluate what you need to change about your study routine. Don't be fooled by a false sense of preparedness.
2. Don't Practice The Math.
It's safe to say that many certification candidates shy away from math. If I had a dime each time someone told me that they just "pick C" each time they have a math question, I would be wealthy. By the way, there is no statistical reason to "pick C." At the same time, other students will often get so bogged down in practicing the math, that they forget about studying the other 90% of the material on the exam.
You need to find a balance. If you struggle with math, it's still a good idea to spend some time practicing it, while at the same time don't get so focused on the math that you forget about the other exam material that you study.
Often, I suggest that students give themselves several weeks between training and exam. This leaves enough time to practice at least 1 or 2 math problems daily until the exam. You might say, "There are only a few math questions on the exam. So, why bother?" Part of that is correct. However, in understanding how to handle these math problems, we become more familiar with how these processes work. Think of the math problem as a small simulation of an actual treatment process. To solve the problem, you have to understand the process, which in-turn helps us with the other material on the exam.
3. Try To Memorize Everything.
Don't get me wrong, you need a good memory to remember the facts and keywords that you will find on a certification exam. However, what I'm talking about is memorizing everything without spending the time to understand how the different components fit and work together.
Imagine an auto mechanic that is able to identify, by sight, every part to any automobile produced, but doesn't have a clue how any of the parts work together to make the automobile work. Impressive memory, right? However, I doubt you would take your car to this person for a repair.
Many times students expect that a training class should be the memorization of the hundred facts that they have to know for the exam and then take the exam. But, that's not how it works. A training class should highlight the essential facts, as well as explain how these facts fit together into the larger picture. After you complete training, you should spend time not only continuing to memorize key concepts but also thinking deeply about how everything works together. Understanding the "how" and "why" of treatment processes will be a significant help, especially when taking the higher-level certification exams.
4. Get "Freaked Out" By The Exam Process Itself.
I've discussed this phenomenon with many students. What happens is that someone has prepared for the test. They schedule the exam and then show up to the testing center to take the exam. To hear some of these students tell it, it's as if they are being processed to enter the state prison. They are "freaked out" by the questions that the proctor asks, the I.D. check that they go through, the official paperwork that they have to sign, the turning out of pockets and near body search that they undergo, the rest of the people taking exams and then all the security cameras that are watching them the whole time.
Just realize that this is all part of it. Everyone has to go through this. Don't take it personally. The exam proctors didn't set-up all of that just because you were coming in that day. And don't think that you can change the testing location next time. They are all pretty much the same.
If you don't handle pressure very well, use a technique that many football teams use. Practice with the distractions. Football teams that are preparing to play in high energy games with thousands of fans will practice with canned crowd noise and music played through speakers on the field. Try taking practice exams in a room with lots of people or while playing some music that you find distracting. The idea is to break out of your comfort zone and learn to continue to focus on the most important thing, your certification exam.
5. Eat Poorly and Remain Sedentary.
Yep. Not the most important thing, but significant enough. I've watched the eating and/or snacking habits of thousands of prospective operators and analysts over the last 15 years, and I have noticed a link between those habits and learning. There is plenty of evidence for this link on the internet. Many times people will feel that since they are sitting and learning that they have to make themselves as comfortable as possible. Often making oneself comfortable involves having a stack of candy and at least one soft drink. Don't make this a habit.
According to a CDC report from 2017, more than 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes. Both of these conditions have been linked to impaired cognitive abilities. In other words, prediabetes and diabetes make it harder for you to learn anything. While I've met a lot of students that have the nutrition thing figured out, most students don't. If you are finding it hard to remember facts and understand the material, check with your physician. With proper diet and medication, they can get you back on track. Also, don't be afraid to get up and walk around. Get the blood flowing.
I'll also add here that while this is not an anti-drug article, the frequent use of recreational drugs or alcohol and learning does not work. Regardless of the regulations that now legalize some recreational drugs, these drugs and alcohol still impair cognitive ability and make it much more difficult to learn new material and apply that material on certification exams.
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John Cooper has been training water & wastewater operators and laboratory analysts for over 17 years in Georgia and Alabama.