Tips for Taking a Board Exam

Taking a board exam can be very intimidating. Oftentimes you’re going in there to take an exam that will determine the future of your career- you’re adding credentials to your name, you need it to get that pay raise and promotion, this is what you went on to higher education to obtain. It’s a big deal!

I recently passed by boards to become a BCBA (board certified behavior analyst). I went through graduate school in applied behavior analysis (definitely not the traditional route, after going through an entire program minus finishing a thesis and then a year later enrolling at an online program and completing the entire 30 credit hour program in under 12 months) and less than two months after completing my Masters, I took my board exam.

A board exam is typically something talked about from the very beginning of your program if it is something that you need to take. It is something your professors tell you about, that they help you prep for, and that you spend hours on end studying for so you can pass. Some board exams allow you multiple attempts within a certain period of time. Some are so expensive that people can only afford that first attempt.

Every board exam is different and I can only speak on my own personal experience. I read up on posts from others regarding what they did to help them in that new environment when taking the exam and how to best prepare myself. Like I said, it can be a very intimidating experience, not just because of how much is at stake when taking the exam, but also because of the environment overall. Some exams require you to get fingerprinted, there are cameras all around you when you’re testing, the room is absolutely silent and all you can hear are your own thoughts, the squeak of your swivel chair as you fidget from side to side, and the clicking of your mouse. You pray that your computer doesn’t freeze up and you lose your progress or even worse, the exam clock keeps ticking and you aren’t able to finish.

When it came time to take my board exam, I did not go the typical way about doing so (but then again, my entire graduate school adventure was very untypical). I had signed up for a date at the end of February and on January 31, the board announced that they would begin to offer year round testing instead of four testing months throughout the year. This would change how soon you would be able to retake the exam and results would be released immediately at the testing center instead of a month after the testing cycle closed via our online portal. On January 31 at 7pm, I decided to change my testing date to February 1 at noon. I gave myself a little over 12 hours to get myself into the testing mentality and to cram for an exam I was;t planning to take for almost another month. And honestly, this was the best decision that I ever made, because I passed!

I’ve decided to include 10 tips and tricks that I found useful when taking my board exam. Hopefully you find some of these helpful for you or give you some ideas to help prepare for your own board exam.

  • Know what to expect when you get there. What paperwork will you need to bring in? What forms of identification do you need? Will you need to get your fingerprints done? How far in advance should you arrive? Will you need to power down all the electronics you bring in? Are lockers available to place your belongings? These are all important things to consider before getting to your test center. You should have all of these things prepped and ready to go the day before you test to ensure that you aren’t rushing around at the last minute as you’re trying to get out the door to get to your test on time. I knew going into my test that some people thought the testing centers were intimidating because they pat you down, have you roll up your sleeves, and check thoroughly that there is no possible way for you to cheat. My testing center even had to check out the type of hair ties that I had in my hair that day. Be prepared and know what you’l be walking into before you are there to take your test. It will help prepare your mind so you don’t get spooked and all consumed by how scary the environment is. You don’t want to psych yourself out and get into a bad mindset before you even start your exam.
  • Dress in a way that is comfortable for you. For me, I went with comfy but put together. I put on makeup and did my hair as though I was going to work, but I also wore leggings and a looser long sleeve sweater. This allowed me to be comfy in the chair (I move my legs around a lot and will put one leg up on the chair and switch positions a lot) and the looser sweater wasn’t too hot so I wouldn’t get sweaty but I could roll up the sleeves if I felt a little warm. I also usually play with the sleeves during tests and pull the sleeves down over my hands as a fidget so this allowed me to do that as well. I didn’t feel like I had just rolled out of bed, I got myself ready and this helped me feel more put together for the exam!
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to get there. I left way earlier than I needed to and ended up parking about 45 minutes before my exam started. My exam instructions said to arrive at least 10 minutes ahead of time and I needed to take the highway so I wanted to make sure I allowed myself plenty of time in the event there was a delay of some sort or I wasn’t sure where to park. While some people may not like to give themselves too much extra time to freak out in the car, I brought 1 study material with me to glance over quickly if I had extra time once I parked to refresh some terms I was not as familiar with. If you do this, do not try to cram in the car. Just bring one study material to briefly look over to review a few terms or a concept or two. If you try to review too much, you are going to psych yourself out. I also decided to walk in early and this allowed me to navigate the building, go into the bathroom to freshen up really quick, and I even started my exam a little bit early.
    • Do a dry run if possible and if this will help you be less anxious the day of. Drive to your testing location, scout parking spots, and walk the path to where you will be testing. This can help ease the nerves the day of if you already know exactly where to go.
  • Take your time! I know this is hard to do, especially with a time clock ticking and constantly reminding you of how much time you have left. Make sure to read through each question thoroughly and that you understand what is being asked. Take time to read through all of the available answers or to think through what you are going to type if it is an open response. If you know you are a slow test taker and there is no way you can manage to read the whole question and get through the entire test, read the last sentence of the question to see what is being asked and then read the first sentence. This can help to cut down on time spent reading the question and usually the information you need to answer is in those two sentences. If you don’t get a good enough feel for how to answer the question reading those sentences, then continue to read through the entire question.
  • Flag the questions you are not 100% positive on. This will help you when you go back to review the questions before hitting submit. For me personally, this helped me know which questions to just glance at when reviewing and which ones to really think about. I ended up flagging a lot more questions than I thought I would but it was very helpful when it came time to review. I am also a major numbers person so before reviewing, I calculated how many I was positive on versus the total number of questions to see roughly how I was scoring on the exam if  I missed every single one of my flagged questions.
  • Leave time to review if your exam allows this. I honestly am never one to review. I never reread a paper I write for grammatical errors (sorry to all my English teachers, I find reading my own work to be cringy at times). Let me tell you, I am so glad that I chose to review the entire exam after I went through it the first time. I found tiny little errors where I know I read the question too quickly and had marked an incorrect answer. I caught quite a few instances of this where I went too quickly. It gave me a chance to change my answers and seriously, don’t be afraid to change those answers! I know everyone says to go with your gut, and for sure do that if you’re between two and really just not sure. But if you reread a question and realize that you’re 99% sure you marked the incorrect one, change it! I’m so glad that I did!
  • Be confident in your knowledge. I had some questions where I really was just like “what the hell is this?!” and I started to doubt myself and if I was really ready for this exam. Do not negative self-talk! Be confident in what you have learned and what you know! If you need to guess, guess! But know that you have prepared for this and that you have that knowledge in your brain. Use that momentum you get after knowing several questions in a row to boost your self-esteem. You know this stuff!
  • Eat and Sleep! Make sure to get a good nights sleep and to fuel your body the day of. I went to Starbucks on my way to the testing center and had a granola bar in the parking lot. I also brought some snacks to have in the car afterwards. I personally feel my anxiety in my stomach and usually do not have a big appetite until after I finish what ever is producing these nerves so I did not bring any snacks inside with me. But no one wants to be distracted by an empty, growling stomach while their trying to concentrate on their exam! Some exams that allow you to take breaks allow you to access your locker and have a snack during your break time. While this was not something that I did, some people find this very helpful!
  • Take a break if you can and it will benefit your brain. Some people utilize the fact that breaks are allowed to their advantage. It gives you a change to walk away from the screen, change your scenery, refresh, use the restroom, grab a snack. I personally did not take a break just because that is not something I would benefit from. I like to work straight through until I am finished. Others need that break though and that is totally okay! Take that break, give your eyes a rest from the screen, splash some water on your face in the bathroom, and give yourself some positive self-talk! If you take breaks, be mindful of how much time is remaining and if your time clock will continue even when you take a break. You don’t want to come back from a break feeling more anxious because now you’re tight on time and may not finish.
  • Reward yourself when you finish! Get yourself a drink, go see family or friends, do something to reward yourself for your hard work! Whether you find out your results immediately or not, you need to do something for yourself after such a feat! It takes so much out of someone to complete these exams- it’s exhausting! Between the built up anxiety and nerves, all the brain power you just used for hours on end, and being in a confined, silent room just focusing on that one task, it takes a lot out of you! Go have a drink, relax, and spend some time with loved ones.


I’m sure there are plenty of other tips that I could come up with, but these are some of the top tips I want to give you! I would love to hear if you have any more tips and tricks that have helped you on a board exam or how your own personal experience was! Feel free to leave a comment or send me a message to let me know! Until next time!