Graduates meet the challenge of certification exams

A college degree is viewed by many as the ticket to enter the career world. However, students seeking positions as nurses, accountants, doctors or lawyers need to meet one more challenge after college graduation by passing a certification test for their fields. The investment of four or more years of college hangs in the balance based on the outcome of these intensive examinations.

"The unfair reality for law students is that graduation day is just a one day celebration," notes Ben Alba, director of the bar passage program at DePaul University College of Law. "The impulse might be to take a trip to the Bahamas to celebrate but we recommend that they begin bar review within a week of graduating. The bar exam is the equivalent of taking 23 final exams in two days." Most law student complete eight to ten weeks of review with a commercial law review company. "They are not learning," notes Alba. "They are reviewing."

Computer testing

There are many challenges connected with these advanced tests. The tests required to enter some fields are computer based. "Being able to flip through the test and pick the 20 easiest questions to answer first can't be done on computers," says Dr. Aaron Michelfelder, chair of the curriculum committee at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. In addition, the test questions on medical board exams often take high-tech formats. "There may be a video of a patient describing symptoms or a recording of heart sounds that must be evaluated correctly to answer questions. These are very challenging tests," says Michelfelder.

"Students who do well at memorizing do not always do well on these exams," says Jan Snow, dean of Chamberlain College of Nursing in Addison. "These tests require students to apply the information. Knowing the information is not enough."

Time limits also create challenges. "You have to have automatic recall," says Alba. "Part of the demand is to be able to answer a question in two minutes or less. I compare it to a marathon. You need to build speed, accuracy and endurance."

"These are high stakes exams," says Carina Wong of Kaplan Test Prep. "Some of the exams are computer adaptive tests, which means that the questions adjust based on the answers given." When a test taker answers a question correctly, he is given a harder question. A wrong answer results in easier questions. The final scores are higher based on the difficulty of the questions.

A final pressure factor is the security connected with the test taking experience. Michelfelder says that students taking board exams are finger-printed to confirm identity. A video camera mounted on the computer screen records the test taking experience. Watches, cell phones, jewelry, notebooks, water bottles and earplugs may not be brought into the testing area.

Test help

Most colleges and universities help students pass these important exams by offering seminars and peer advice. Law and accounting students are more likely to review with commercial review companies. Most medical schools offer on-campus programs to assist students since the school is often rated on the student pass rate.

"Nursing student focus on the NCLEX the entire time they are in the nursing program," says Snow speaking of the National Council Licensure Examination. "We have a very deliberate program geared toward helping students succeed. There is a center for academic success where students can get help. The dropout rate in nursing schools is very high -- about 50 percent. It is amazing how many students do not know how to take notes, study and survive test anxiety."

Students who do manage to finish the program do very well. "Chamberlain has a 95 percent pass rate," says Snow. "Although students can take the state boards several times, schools are ranked by the number of students passing the exam on the first try."

Passing is not the only focus of medical exams. Students taking Medical College Admissions Tests or MCAT are rated in terms of other students who also take the test.

"The students need to have a foundation in biology, physics and chemistry because these are all fair game on the test," says Jennifer Roberts, pre-health professions director at Lewis University. "We do seminars on MCAT preparation," says Roberts.

"Students are ranked in relation to how others taking the test performed. Someone could get 80 percent of the questions correct but still be ranked in the lower 25th percentile. You need to be in the top 20 to 30 percent of all test takers to be considered for medical school. The average medical school gets between 6,000 to 10,000 applicants and accepts between 70 and 300. About 80 percent of our students who apply to health professional schools were accepted."

Test takers

Medical board preparation programs offered at medical school usually last about five weeks. Joshua Greene, 24, is preparing to take his boards at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine.

"We have 12-hour days planned to get ready. We have lectures from teachers and student groups. The one thing that is not lacking is advice. Passing is not the issue. It is reaching the needed score to get into a residency program," he explains. "My parents sent me a rabbit's foot for good luck on my MCAT. I don't know what I will have for the Boards--maybe a lucky T-shirt."

In contrast, the Bar exam is all about passing. There are no ratings on this paper-based exam. Jordan Micklow will graduate May 16 from DePaul University College of Law and begin reviewing with BARBRI, a law review company.

"I am confident I will pass, but I am still nervous," says the 26-year-old student. "I've jumped out of an airplane before and I am thinking this could be worse."

The 2009 pass rate at DePaul was 93.4 percent, according to Alba.

Beyond the exam

Taking the CPA exam to become an accountant is a four part computer-based test that can be taken in sections over an 18 month period. It is rare that someone passes all four sections in one try, according to David Gray, assistant professor of accounting at North Central College. He notes that the first time pass rate is less than 50 percent. Since students take the test after graduation, most colleges do not offer formal preparation classes or track student scores.

"We see our job as preparing students for a 30 year career by teaching them how to learn," says Gray. "Every year, there are new changes and new things that need to be learned. Learning does not end by passing the test."

This statement applies to all of these professions in some way due to changing laws, policies and procedures. Doctors are required to complete activities to remain board certified. Accountants need to be familiar with laws and tax changes while lawyers need to remain aware of new legal issues. Michelfelder explains that "testing continues all of our lives." ¿