September 19th, 2012

Certification Exam Prep: An FAQ

The cardiovascular board exam is fast approaching and this is about the time (some) people start making arrangements for how they are going to prepare. With the countless board review courses, online tools, books and videos currently available, it can be difficult to figure out which materials are most useful, especially when one considers the time constraints of most fellows and new faculty. After many years of schooling, most people sitting for the cardiovascular boards have a pretty good idea of how they study best. Still, I’ve been asked many questions by fellows since I took the boards last November. Here’s an FAQ that reflects my experience

How did you start preparing for the exam?

A: The first thing I did was get a good sense of the format of the exam. You can do this easily by going to the ABIM website. They will give you a breakdown of which topics will be covered and how much of the test will be devoted to that topic.

Did you put a timeline together for how you were going to prepare?

Yes. I think it is best to first identify your strengths and weaknesses based on the exam blueprint. This will help you in strategizing how to make the most out of the time you have left. If you’ve got ample time to study, consider spending it strengthening your weak subjects, but as the exam gets closer, pump up the topics you are strong in regardless of what preparations you’ve already made. I ramped up my studying so that, by approximately 2-3 weeks prior to the test, I was spending at least a couple of hours each day (if I had time) preparing for the exam.

Do you recommend any board review courses?

I watched the Mayo DVDs and went to the ACC course. I think they were both very helpful but you certainly don’t have to do both. Going to a course forces you to focus for a finite period of time but watching the DVDs from home allows you to stop and go as needed and pick the topics that you really want to hear. The important thing for me was to take my own notes on each topic. By the end of my studying, I had my own little book with tons of notes that I had obtained from various sources. I used this book to study for the last couple of weeks.

Was there a difference between the Mayo and ACC board review courses?

I thought the Mayo board review course was geared more towards people who were taking the test for the first time and was, therefore, more comprehensive than the ACC course. The ACC course, however, provided many excellent questions that were I think more similar to the actual exam content compared with the Mayo questions.

What did your colleagues think about the different courses?

Many of my colleagues, who were first-time test takers, liked the Mayo review course and said it was an essential part of their preparation. Some of my colleagues went to the Cleveland Clinic board review course and thought it was very helpful.

Did you use any other board review material?

Be sure to know the guidelines. Don’t read every detail, but focus on the items in bold or the executive summaries. Know Class I and Class III indications the best because it is hard for them to ask you a Class II question.  Have a basic understanding of the appropriate use criteria for various subjects. I also used the ACC SAP CD to help supplement topics that I still felt uneasy about after taking the board review courses.

Where did you find practice multiple-choice questions?

That was more difficult than you might expect. Unlike the internal medicine boards, there really isn’t a MKSAP for the cardiovascular exam. The board preparation courses have questions to help you prepare. The Mayo question book is a great book covering all topics. ACC SAP also has great questions. I spent most of my time right before the exam taking mock tests. Be sure to practice timing yourself.

How did you prepare for the EKG and imaging coding section?

This was slightly more difficult because most of the board preparation material out there is for the MCQs. O’Keefe is a great book for the EKG coding part but keep in mind that it might be a little more difficult than the actual exam. The board review courses have sections on how to code and will provide both EKG and imaging questions. Best to know the coding sheet nearly memorized. The reason is that you won’t have to spend much time looking for the proper code during the actual test.

How much time did you spend studying?

I started thinking about studying and how I was going to prepare for the exam in the summer but really didn’t start studying until end of August/early September. Even then, I spent little time actually studying. The ACC board review course was a week-long in early September.  After that I started devoting more of my day to studying and slowly ramped it up from there.

What would you do differently in preparing if you had to do it over again?

I would have probably spent even more time just taking mock exams. If there is an opportunity to take a proctored exam at a board review course, I recommend it. I suspect that it can give you a better idea of what the actual exam environment is like and how much time you have to complete the test. For the EKG and imaging sections, I think there is a tendency to review the EKGs/images you are most comfortable with, but avoid that temptation. Focus on finding EKGs/images that are less familiar. Google images sometimes helped if I couldn’t find it any other place.

Obviously, these suggestions might not be best for everyone, so please share here what’s working for you — or what worked if, like me, you’re already done with the boards. I wish you all the best of luck!

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