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How to prepare for success in the GPhC pre-reg exam

Have you ever stopped to think how helpful your study techniques are?

With less than a month until the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) registration exam, Buttercups Training’s Paul Johnson outlines key preparation techniques

The GPhC registration assessment is unlike any other exam you will have sat before. It may be the most important exam you will ever do.

With so much information out there, it is crucial that pre-reg trainees use the time to prepare for the assessment wisely.

Use the assessment framework to plan study

The GPhC’s registration assessment framework explains in detail which areas you will be assessed on. Weightings for each topic show what proportion of the paper they will occupy.

The “low” weighted topics, 10% of the paper, include how to act if a colleague’s conduct might risk patient care. Topics with “high” weighting, 60-70% of the paper, include assessing evidence to support safe, rational and cost-effective use of medicines.*

Print off the framework and use it to plan your study. If you’re not certain what a section means or where to look, be sure to ask your university for help. Remember, you need to know much more than what’s in the British National Formulary (BNF) and Medicines, Ethics and Practice.

Passive or active study style?

Do you like to whip out your highlighter to work your way through the BNF, colouring in all the important bits? Or maybe you like to create colourful diagrams to help you learn? Whatever your style, have you ever stopped to think how helpful your study techniques are?

Highlighting, reading, drawing diagrams and watching videos are all examples of ‘passive learning’. If you simply read, watch or re-write information, you’re likely to retain only a small fraction of the information you’re working with.

Techniques that encourage ‘active learning’, on the other hand, are likely to give much more value because they require you to think, understand and explain what you’ve just learned.

Testing yourself regularly is one of the most effective ways to retain knowledge. Testing your knowledge with friends is equally effective.

Don’t cram last minute

We all know the sort of person who does minimal work in the weeks before an exam, then stays up all night and manages to scrape through. If this is you, then think again.

The GPhC assessment is different to other exams you will have taken. You will need to think on your feet. You will need to be fresh. The night before the exam, sleep should be your priority.

If you learned something for the first time just one day ago, you are unlikely to remember all of it the next day. After learning something new, plan time to go over your learning again soon afterwards to impress it into your memory.

Flip out your flashcards

When you’re on the bus or train with a few minutes to spare, resist social media and flip out your flashcards. Whether you use real cards or an app such as Anki, flashcards are the way to keep your knowledge levels regularly topped up. Anki is a free platform where users can create digital flashcards to test themselves, available on computers as well as Android and Apple phones.

Understand why an answer is correct

Other than the example questions for the 2019 assessments on the GPhC website, you’ll come across a vast array of practice questions, mock exams and videos aimed at pre-regs on the wider internet.

However, some materials are more valuable than others and outdated questions can do you more harm than good. Mocks and practice questions can be invaluable at helping to test and identify gaps in your knowledge, but it is what you do afterwards that matters most.

Don’t simply try to remember ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers – you’re highly unlikely to ever see the exact same question again.

Instead, work out where to go to acquire the knowledge that would have helped you to answer the question correctly in the first place.

Turn your study into an enquiry

Let’s face it – ‘parrot-fashion’ revision can be boring. At university you may have groaned at the thought of learning lists of enzyme inducers. But now you’re almost a pharmacist, so it doesn’t have to be that way.

Rather than remembering facts, turn your study into an enquiry and get used to asking ‘why?’. For example, you could try to remember that among beta blockers, propranolol is more likely to cause nightmares than atenolol. But asking yourself why that is true is far more engaging.

Combine this with other techniques for effective revision using PQRST:

  • Plan carefully
  • Question: why?
  • Re-visit your learning regularly
  • Self-test.
Categorise medicines

Whether it’s drugs that cause hyponatraemia or QT prolongation, recent tables added to the BNF are a huge help to pre-regs. But learning lists of drugs is no fun and is likely to be less helpful than categorising them into easy-to-understand groups.

For example, when learning which drugs cause thromboembolism, you could try to remember a list of almost 30 drugs. Or you could ask why these drugs cause thromboembolism and then categorise them accordingly.

You’ll see they can be grouped into those that can cause thromboembolism: because of vascular toxicity; or because of oestrogenic effects, such as tibolone; because they prevent clot breakdown, like tranexamic acid; or because they increase the number of circulating erythrocytes.

When you don’t know the answer

If you’re faced with a question where the answer isn’t immediately obvious, don’t panic. Instead go back to basics and consider what you do know about that subject.

Whether it’s medicines law or methotrexate, drawing on what you know is correct can help you eliminate incorrect answers.

Plan, plan, plan

A pilot wouldn’t try to fly a plane to a new destination without working out the route and pre-regs need to carefully map out what they must cover in the time they have.

Every year there are a few surprises in the GPhC exam for many trainees, but a quick scour of the assessment framework and they soon identify which section they overlooked. Be thorough and, like a pilot, check your course regularly to make readjustments as needed.

Good luck.

Paul Johnson is head of professional development at Buttercups Training

*This article was amended on May 30 to clarify that there is more than one "high" weighted topic in the pre-registration exam.

How do you prepare for exams?

Aldosterone antagonist, Locum pharmacist

Good advice to categorize different medicines based on their side effects e.g. ones that precipitate serotonin syndrome etc

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