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6 Ways Comprehensive Exams Are Different From Other Exams

Comprehensive exams are different from other exams. Hence your preparation should be different.

I’m talking about exams you take to earn a certificate or license. You know what I mean: a high-stakes, career-critical exams that determine whether or not you will be allowed to do the job you want to do. Whether it’s becoming an insurance agent, a lawyer, or a physician, you’ll need to pass a comprehensive exam.  

From what I’ve seen, people tend to prepare for these exams in the same way that they prepared for final exams of their college courses. Unfortunately, this approach is likely to fall short.  

Here are 6 differences between a comprehensive exam and an exam of final exam of a course. 

1. Aim of the exam is different, so comprehensive exams are different

The aim of a final exam for a single course is to determine your mastery of the academic material presented during that course, over a short period of time, generally a semester (about 14 weeks here in the United States.)  

The aim of a comprehensive exam is to determine whether you are safe to do your job. All of the questions are written to determine whether you can apply your knowledge and skills safely. You won’t find many — if any — exam items that require a simple recall of facts on a comprehensive, career-critical exam.   

2. Scope of the exam is bigger

This is probably the biggest killer.   

In most college courses, if you read the textbook and other assigned readings, completed your assignments, and attended the classes, you’d probably pass the final exam. Even if you blew off some stuff, you could go back and pick up what you missed. Not so with a comprehensive, career-critical exam. 

Because they cover a wider scope, comprehensive exams are different. Beware that on a comprehensive exam, everything you’ve ever learned — or should have learned — in multiple courses over multiple years is “fair game.” Take a look at the Detailed Content Outline and see other blog posts for more on what you can expect content-wise. 

3. There are no course objectives to guide you

I know, I know, most students don’t give a fig about objectives. But let’s say you’ve got a teacher who is half-crazed about creating exam questions to reflect mastery of course objectives. (Me!)

The objectives reveal not only the topic that will be covered, but also, the level of difficulty and the ways in which the knowledge should or could be applied in your day-to-day future work.  

Comprehensive exams are different. Career-critical exams aren’t built on course objectives. Therefore, you need to scout out the content of the exam (most career-critical exams publish a blueprint with at least some level of detail) and then figure out what you’d need to know about that topic in order to be minimally competent (“safe”) in your daily work.  

4. The team that created the exam didn’t teach the course

Let’s face it. Most college students can anticipate much of what their professors will ask on their exams. When I have taught college courses, I’ve spent more time on topics I intended to cover on the final exam, and less on those that I wouldn’t. As a result, sharp, savvy students had a very good idea of what to expect on the exam.   

This isn’t the case, though, with the IBLCE exam or any other comprehensive, career-critical exam.  

5. Old exams are not predictive of future exams

We’ve all done it, right? We take a course and ask peers who have taken it before what questions were on the final exam. We presume that the professor will repeat several or many of the questions on the upcoming exam.   

That’s not the case with comprehensive exams. A different panel creates the exam from year to year. (That being said, I did sit on the NCLEX panel for two consecutive years; everyone else on the panel changed, though.) I suspect that very few — if any — old questions reappear on the upcoming exam.  

6. Specificity of the exam may be different

A college professor is likely to hammer on locale-specific issues and answers. I often hear myself saying, “In my hospital would we would …” and participants say this, too! There’s nothing wrong with driving home a point. However, on a certification or licensure exam, issues will be broader, and the correct answer universally recognized as a best practice.   

Because comprehensive exams are different from course final exams, it’s often silly — or impossible — to rely on your old preparation strategies. Just as there are differences in the exam, there are differences in how to approach studying if you’re going to achieve your goal of passing this different kind of exam. 

What steps will you use to prepare for your exam?  Tell me in the comments below!

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