Have you ever felt completely overcome by your own irrational worries and self-doubt while simultaneously feeling as though you’re being pulled underwater with no way to come up for air, making you want to jump out of your own skin? That’s exactly how I felt every time I’ve ever had to take an exam. So, when it came to registering for the Art Therapy Credentials Board Examination (ATCBE), the most important exam of my life, I did what most would do when faced with an anxiety provoking task or situation, I simply avoided it.
If you know anything about avoidant behaviors, you know that they are a pretty common defense mechanism. But, avoidant behaviors will only lead to more issues because they maintain the symptoms of anxiety. Knowing that you will eventually have to take the exam may cause you to experience other unpleasant symptoms such as negative and intrusive thoughts, depression, and even physical symptoms like sweating, shaking, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, and nausea. While I have personally experienced all of the symptoms mentioned above, it is important to note that test anxiety falls on a spectrum. There are mild to severe cases so symptoms may vary. However, regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, if you prepare yourself and take the right approach to studying you will still be able to do well!
As you read on, you will learn more about my experience taking the ATCBE; what worked, what didn’t, things I wish I had known prior to taking the exam, some study tools and resources that I found to be useful, as well as advice that I hope can help in alleviating some of the anxiety and stress you may be experiencing in preparation for the exam.
Postponing the ATCBE will only make you more anxious
If you’re a prospective examinee and, like myself, have some form of test anxiety, my first piece of advice to you is to put less energy into avoiding the ATCBE and more energy into preparing and studying for it. My biggest regret was that I postponed the exam for two years. After two years of successfully avoiding the exam, I was notified that my limited permit was about to expire. Due to requirements of living in New York State, I knew that in order to keep my job at the time, I would need to continue working towards my LCAT licensure, which is reliant on passing the ATCBE before its expiration in June. Since I had already exhausted all of my extension privileges, taking the exam was my only option. I could no longer be avoidant, and it was time to finally face the source of all my anxieties.
Gather and organize your materials for the ATCBE
I registered to sit for the exam in April, which would give me about three months to prepare and while three months is a sufficient amount of time to study, I had no idea where to begin. I had already been out of school for two years and had forgotten how to prepare for an exam. Around this time, I learned the importance of gathering resources and organizing study materials.
I highly recommend that you begin this process soon after registering for the exam. Having your resources and being organized will allow you to study more efficiently, which makes the experience so much easier in the long run. I found the ATCB website to be a great starting point as it provides important information pertaining to the exam. The site includes an Official Preparation Guide as well as an ATCBE Content Outline, which is the framework for subject matter included on the examination.
Because I felt that I needed guidance with organization and preparation while studying for the ATCBE, I found it necessary to have a tutor. My tutor, Elyse Miller, is a current mentor and former professor of mine from my graduate program at Hofstra University. We met once or twice biweekly for an hour via video calls. She provided me with an art therapy topics workbook, which she developed with study materials as a tool for organization and note taking. This was an extremely useful tool because it provided me with a thorough outline of all the topics that I would need to review. It also helped me to determine the areas on which to spend more time.
Once I had my workbook and a detailed outline of what I needed to study, I began to gather and organize all of my materials. I used notes and handouts that I saved from grad school as well as textbooks that I frequently referred to, including:
Ethical Issues in Art Therapy by Bruce Moon
Tools Of The Trade: A Therapist’s Guide To Art Therapy Assessments by Stephanie L. Brooke
Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition by American Psychiatric Association
Instant Psychopharmacology, 3rd Edition by Ronald J. Diamond
*It is important to use credible resources, do not rely solely on the internet.
Discover your learning style
When it came to studying, I felt as though I needed to retrain my brain on how to learn and retain information. It took some time to figure out what techniques and methods would work best for me, and unfortunately I wasted a lot of time doing so, however, once I realized that I was mostly a visual learner, I was able to move forward with my studying. Discovering your learning style is crucial when preparing for any exam. You can more easily determine the study tools and techniques that will work for you based on your style of learning.
Finding the right methods and tools that work for you when studying for the ATCBE
After determining my learning style, I was finally ready to begin studying, however, this was challenging because I forgot what specifically worked best for my learning style. While I knew I was a visual learner, I had forgotten how to apply visual learning tactics to studying and through trial and error, I would eventually learn a very important lesson. The lesson being, what may work for others may not necessarily work for you. For example, everyone I spoke to who had passed the ATCBE, said they used notecards to study. So, I figured if it worked for them, it might work for me. Unfortunately, that was not the case and it wasn’t until I completed a stack of about 500 note cards that I came to the realization that there was absolutely no way I would be able to retain anything using this method. Back to the drawing board I went…
My next attempt was more successful and would become the study method that worked best for me. I began by purchasing several spiral bound notebooks and proceeded to fill them with detailed notes using the art therapy topics workbook as a guideline. My notes included visual cues, graphs, and charts. I also came up with some mnemonic devices to help me remember the more difficult information that I was struggling to retain. I then wrote and rewrote the same notes several times until I memorized them and felt comfortable moving forward to the final step, which was to create a large scale streamlined note on a 25×30 inch post-it pad using sharpie markers. Having the large post-its on my walls was helpful as it served as a constant visual.
Maintain a healthy work/life/study balance and set time aside for yourself
My second biggest regret while preparing for the ATCBE was my lack of a work/life/study balance. I focused most of my time and energy on studying and allowed myself very few breaks in between. The fact that I only had a limited amount of time to study caused me to lose my sense of balance and also contributed to burn out.
In the words of the great Dr. Seuss, “Life is a balancing act.” We all have important commitments in our lives that keep us balanced, whether it’s work, relationships and/or time for ourselves. It is extremely important to maintain that balance when adding the task of studying for an exam. While you may think it’s most efficient to study for as many hours as possible, this can actually be counterproductive. Studies have shown that taking regular breaks aids in long-term retention of knowledge. Along with balance comes self-care. For myself, self-care includes proper sleep, exercise, time with loved ones, as well as my own creative pursuits.
Preparing for the day of the exam
A few weeks before the ATCBE, you will receive instructions from the testing provider, PearsonVue, on what you will need for the exam. Make sure you read these instructions thoroughly so that you can prepare everything you need well in advance of the exam. You may be assigned to a testing center in a location you are not familiar with, so it is important to plan your route ahead of time and make sure to leave yourself some extra time before the exam begins. Use the extra time to decompress and breathe!
Try not to study the day before the exam, and if you must, do not exceed two hours. At this point, you’ve studied enough, and your brain needs a chance to rest. Instead, try focusing on self-care and relaxation. Research suggests that doing something you enjoy on the day before taking an exam has a more positive effect than continuing to study up until the last minute.
Stay calm, be positive, and do your best
It is likely that you may feel a little anxious as you sit down for the exam, but it is important to help yourself relax by focusing on your breathing. As you work through the ATCBE, remember to be aware of time as you are allotted four hours to complete the exam, which is composed of 200 questions. If there’s a question you feel stuck on, choose the best answer and move on. If you have time, you can always go back to review. Remember, of the 200 questions, approximately 170 are used for scoring purposes, so a question you may be struggling with may be one that is not even counted.
Once you’ve handed in your exam, you will receive a printout with your raw score. It is important to note that your raw score does not determine whether you’ve passed or failed, so don’t get yourself worked up over the score you see on your paper. This is where patience comes into play as It takes several weeks to receive your grade. It’s likely that you will become obsessed with finding out your grade–I remember checking my mailbox five times a day for a month!
Remember, at the end of the day, there is more to life than the exam and regardless of the outcome, have confidence that you will be okay, and everything will fall into place.
Best of luck to all of the prospective examinees!
Lee Berenblat MA, LCAT, ATR-BC, Art Dept. Head at The Smith School