The Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) is something every psychology graduate student dreads. After spending years in school, hours reading, writing, applying for internship and fellowship, and collecting clinical hours, the day has finally come for that very last step.
Of course, it’s normal to feel anxious about the EPPP. Many have said, “You feel like you’re failing it the whole time you’re taking it, but it will be fine.” Or there’s an optimistic tone of, “You’re going to be fine, you’ll do great! You just need a score of 500 to pass.”
Then there are the aftermath celebrations and Facebook updates: “I passed the EPPP!” Or, “Another step closer to being licensed!”
I found it so rare and uncommon for my peers to speak about the other possibility: What happens if you don’t pass?
Well, I’ve been there, and I’ve been there twice now. I’m here to discuss what has helped me cope with failing the test, as well as what I believe went wrong.
Coping Strategies: What to remember and next steps
1. The EPPP does not reflect your clinical skills
This failure can trigger the impostor syndrome , and it was helpful to remind myself that my professional development and clinical skill set consists of a lot more than an exam score.
I keep in mind that not knowing about different alleles or which parts of the brain process color doesn’t make me unfit to be a psychologist. I am aware of my skills, and I remind myself of all the objective pieces of evidence I have that indicate I am competent, including cards from clients and letters from mentors and supervisors.
2. You can still be employed without being licensed
Failing this test doesn’t stop you from finding a job. It limits you from practicing independently and you may be paid less than someone who is licensed, but there are still ways to find work.
- If you are in a postdoctoral position, speak to your supervisor. It may be possible to continue in that role as you continue studying for the EPPP.
- Search online for “unlicensed psychology jobs” or make use of your grad school and supervision network. There is often clinical work you can do under supervision.
There are also many jobs outside of psychology and mental health that you may have skills for. If you’re comfortable with this (or if you need the income), you can do this work temporarily until you find something in the field or until you pass the exam and obtain your license.
3. Take time to do enjoyable and meaningful things
It became really depressing to continue studying after failing the first time. I thought, “I should just keep studying, because if I don’t, I’m going to lose all of this information.”
I isolated myself for four weeks and withdrew from all my friends, family, and activities that I enjoyed. It was just me and my study materials, day after day, for weeks. No happy hours, no family gatherings, no date nights. I thought maybe I could pass this time because I actually put in the time and effort.
In case I didn’t pass, I told my supervisors that I was taking the next day off as a mental health day. I knew I wouldn’t want to be at work whether I passed or failed. I scored 490 the second time around and was devastated. I used my day off to do the things I loved and to be around friends and family.
A month later, my wife and I left the country for three weeks and I haven’t looked at any EPPP materials since. We traveled, learned about different cultures, and took a break from our daily lives. This privilege has helped me understand that this exam is just one part of many other important things in my life, which leads me to my next reminder.
4. Remind yourself there are a lot of things that could be worse
Yes, it’s very upsetting to fail this test, and yes, it’s also expensive. I cried a lot after failing the second time. I allowed myself to feel angry and sad, and I texted the news to my wife, friends, and supervisors. They texted back with their apologies, and my response was the same: “Passing this test requires more money and time. There are a lot of things that are happening in this world that are far worse and that can’t be fixed.”
I wasn’t trying to minimize my distress, but I wanted to put it in a broader context. There was a terrorist attack that same afternoon, and many people had been injured or killed.
Prepping for this test is difficult, and not passing it is awful. At the same time, there are many things that are far more detrimental and devastating. I will still be able to take the test again.
5. Find someone who is planning to take the exam at a similar date and make a plan to start studying
Because I do ultimately want to practice independently as a clinical psychologist, I have to eventually start studying again. Yes, it’s still awful and I’d rather be doing other things, but I am hoping to not repeat the same mistakes from the other two times.
A good friend is planning to take the exam in the near future, and I’m choosing to study with her because she’s pleasant to be around and has a great work ethic. I know she will help me keep my anxiety and avoidance in check, and we’ll have some good laughs along the way.
Lessons Learned: What I shouldn’t have done
1. Too much procrastination
The first time I took the exam, I delayed and avoided studying as much as I could. Before I knew it, there were only two weeks left until my exam date. There are a variety of reasons why people may procrastinate, including the task at hand , age , psychological distress , motivation [5,6], and self-efficacy . In my case, I chose to do other things and wasn’t able to maintain the discipline to commit and be consistent with studying.
2. Using only the practice exams and answer keys as study materials
I initially scored in the 40% range on the practice exams. After reviewing the answer keys, I retook them and my score would increase to the 60-70% range. I continued to study the questions I missed. My score increase was likely due to recognition, rather than having learned the material. I think this gave me a false sense of confidence and hope. I wish I had focused more on content, and not only on studying test questions.
3. Studying alone
Because I only had two weeks until the first exam, I chose to study and cram on my own. This wasn’t stimulating, and it didn’t seem to facilitate much learning, either. This process was already stressful and unpleasant. I think having a study partner could have made it more enjoyable and held me accountable.
4. Be aware of distracting life events around the exam
I thought leaving for a trip right after the exam was a good idea. I figured whether I passed or failed, I would be spending time with my wife and best friends, and we would have a long trip to celebrate or drown my sorrows. This made studying and taking the exam more difficult: the excitement about this trip added to my anxiety, and it made it more difficult to focus. Be mindful of how other life events may contribute to your mood as you schedule, study for, and take the exam.
5. Thinking I could just wing it
This exam covers a lot of material, and practice test items included some theories and content I never learned in my training. This made me think that since I’d never be able to learn enough in time, I might as well just wing it and see what happened. This was a bad idea. While it’s not possible to anticipate every exam question, if the test gets close and you still don’t feel prepared, do yourself a favor: pay the $31 rescheduling fee and save yourself the exam fee of nearly $700. Take the test at a later date, when you are feeling more confident.
References Clance, P.R., and Imes, S.A. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and Therapeutic interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice, 15, 241-247.  Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 65–94. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65  Rabin, L. A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K. E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344–357. doi:10.1080/13803395.2010.518597  Rice, K. G., Richardson, C. M. E., & Clark, D. (2012). Perfectionism, procrastination, and psychological distress. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59, 288–302. doi:10.1037/a0026643  Prat-Sala, M., & Redford, P. (2010). The interplay between motivation, self-efficacy, and approaches to studying. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 283–305. doi:10.1348/000709909X480563  Gao, Z., Lochbaum, M., & Podlog, L. (2011). Self-efficacy as a mediator of children’s achievement motivation and in-class physical activity. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 113, 969–981. doi:10.2466/06.11.25.PMS.113.6.969-981
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