When I was 16, I saw a psychologist who helped me find my way out of a depression that had developed as a result of my parents’ chaotic divorce. That experience had a profound impact on me; I hyper-focused on psychology as a career goal and never considered anything else. I didn’t stop to think about what it would take to become a psychologist. Back then in the ‘80s, to get information on a career you had to go talk to someone or visit the library rather than typing a few words into a computer and pressing return. If the information on “how to become a psychologist” had been so readily available, I probably would have turned tail and run knowing that there was a monstrous exam, the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) hiding out on the distant horizon.
But thankfully, as I pushed forward with my goal, I remained blissfully ignorant of most aspects of this test, even during graduate school. I simply acknowledged in the back of my mind that someday I would jump this hurdle.
My life took many twists and turns, including having to take an alternate route to becoming a psychologist. I finally competed my doctorate; however, due to more obstacles, I wasn’t able to earn the required supervised postdoctoral hours required by my state board until more than ten years after I had earned my PhD.
A Winding Road
When chatting about my long, strange journey with a colleague, they remarked, “Wow, you graduated in 2000? The field of psychology has gone through like 4 different iterations since then! You have a lot of catch-up to do if you are going to pass the EPPP!”
That conversation was definitely not lost on me. I was no longer in that former state of “that’s so far off in the distance, why bother to think about it?” Just like the windmills suddenly rising from the plains in the story of Don Quixote, the EPPP suddenly rose in front of me, a giant standing between myself and the achievement of a 35-year-old dream.
In addition, along the academic path that I had trodden, I had developed a performance anxiety which came with the territory of being a graduate student. There were a lot of self-doubt and imposter syndrome moments, at least one abrasive, overly critical professor and significant setbacks including false starts in selecting a dissertation topic and a change in dissertation advisor. I suffered a fantastically debilitating panic attack during one of my two comprehensive examinations. I remember hunching over for 10 minutes with my head between my knees in the bathroom trying to get my head back in the game so I could go out and write my essay.
So it’s no wonder that the EPPP appeared to me as a monster and made me feel like I was back in grad school. It got even worse once I started studying and taking practice tests. I had a hard time cracking 70% on practice exams from test prep companies such as AATBS and Academic Review.
Drawing on Past Experiences
Luckily, I had recently taken another professional exam, the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) examination. That exam consisted of 150 multiple choice questions administered in 4 hours, just like the EPPP.
Behavior analysts are the champions of applying the psychological principles of learning and my on-line program of study taught me some great strategies including the concept of programmed learning and the PEG memory system. I prepped for the EPPP using many of the concepts I learned from studying to be a BCBA.
However, the single most important thing that I learned was not that I needed to exhaustively study every single concept that found in the eight sections of the EPPP. In fact, if I had done that, I might as well have gone back to school! A few of the areas tested, such as biological bases of behavior, had seen many advances and changes since I had studied them in the ‘90s. So how was I going to pass on my first try? The answer is simple; I only needed to pass.
Sure, scoring a 659 is great but you only need the minimum score required in the states that you want to be licensed in. To do this you don’t need to know everything cold; you just need to maximize the percent of questions that you likely got right.
This is how I did it for these examinations:
1. I did all the questions in order and answered every question without leaving any blanks.
2. I used the white board you can request (how many of you really used that thing?) along with the computerized test feature that allows you to flag questions. I made three columns on the white board with the following headers: 1) 100%; 2) Rule out two; 3) Rule out one.
3. If I was totally sure of an item, I put the item number under “100%”; If I could get it down to ruling out 2 of the 4 options, then I would list the item number under “Rule out two,” and if all I could eliminate was one response option then I would add the item number under “Rule out one.” Finally, any questions on which I drew a total blank and gave it my best guess the first time through got flagged electronically.
More on Strategy
My passing strategy for the BCBA exam (and subsequently the EPPP) was this: On the BCBA examination, which also has experimental questions, all I needed to pass was a 76%, or 114 out of 150 correct answers. On the EPPP in my state, it shakes out to 157, which is 70% of 225.
By sorting the questions as I detailed above, I knew how many I was 100% certain of after going through all the questions the first time. I didn’t waste any time going back to those, but I did know how many there were in order to maximize getting to that magic number of 114. I put that total at the bottom of the “100%” column in order to keep my eye on that number.
Then, I went back to the “Rule out two” and tried to see how many I could get to feeling pretty good about. Finally, I returned to those items in the “Rule out one” and reviewed those to see how many of those I could get a good shot at.
What about those questions that were real head-scratchers? On the BCBA examination, I had time to go back my flagged, “you got me” items since there were 75 questions fewer questions on that examination than on the EPPP. I won’t lie. I couldn’t do that on the EPPP.
Two hundred twenty five questions are a lot more than 150 when you only have four hours, and on the EPPP, after following this strategy, I only had 10 minutes to go back to the total stumpers. However, since I had answered them the first time through, at least I didn’t get penalized for skipping a question.
What about the experimental questions? Yes, there were a lot more on the EPPP than on the BCBA exam. However, since they were experimental and untested, I felt that it was unlikely that you would find the bulk of them in the “100%” category that was helping me keep track of my minimum passing cut-off of correctly answered questions.
That was the one part of this strategy that worried me. However, remember, I wasn’t scoring all that well on practice tests so I needed some way to get through the entire test and maximize my chances.
The end result? I passed on my first time on both tests (the BCBA examination has an abysmally low passing rate). Since I didn’t get a super-high score on the EPPP (I’m proud of my 538), I truly believe my test-taking strategy helped me to maximize what I did know.
I studied, but I didn’t go crazy. And I cut myself a break for those “four iterations” of psychology that had passed me by since 2000. I tilted at windmills and I came out on the other side in one piece. And, unlike Don Quixote, I achieved my dream.
Interested in more tips on mastering the EPPP? Kelsey Ball, PhD shares her insights in How to Stay Positive During Your EPPP Journey.