Preparing for the board certified pharmacotherapy specialist (BCPS) exam from the Board of Pharmacy Specialties takes time and planning. Here, a pharmacist who recently passed the exam provides some BCPS study tips and discusses his experience.
Authored By: Corey Frederick, Pharm.D., BCPS
Swift and dramatic advancements in pharmacotherapy as well as the medical profession have designated the need for pharmacists with advanced training in areas of specialty. Similar to how physicians seek certification in a variety of medical specialties, pharmacists too seek specialty certification after adequate clinical training following pharmacy school graduation.
Established in 1976, the Board of Pharmacy Specialties (BPS) is the foremost post-licensure certification agency worldwide for the pharmacy profession. Establishing its role within the profession, over 26,000 pharmacists have sought to become a Board-Certified Pharmacotherapy Specialist (BCPS) as of December 2015.
BPS offers board certifications in several areas including pharmacotherapy, ambulatory care, oncology care, nuclear, and critical care pharmacy just to name a few. Furthermore, BPS is looking to add supplemental specialty certification exams over the next few years in areas such as infectious diseases and cardiology.
There are several reasons pharmacists may desire to achieve BCPS status. Pharmacists that achieve BCPS certification are recognized within the pharmacy field for their enhanced level of pharmacotherapy knowledge and clinical decision making. Furthermore, BCPS certification can allow pharmacists to improve within the hierarchy of their employed institution as well as other professional organizations. Achieving BCPS designation can open opportunities to further enable these pharmacists to provide optimal levels of patient care in their practice.
To sit for a BCPS exam in pharmacotherapy specifically, BPS mandates a candidate must have graduated from an Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) accredited pharmacy school and have attained the necessary experience following graduation. This required experience qualifies as either three years of clinical practice experience, completion of an accredited PGY-1 pharmacy residency, or a passing score on the Pharmacotherapy Specialty Certification Examination.
Sitting for a BPS exam can be an overwhelming process for the pharmacist involved and it does not help to note that the passing rate in Spring 2016 was less than 70% for the BCPS exam.
As someone who has recently taken and passed the BCPS exam, I know firsthand how overwhelming the process can seem. However, there are several practices I have discovered that can be helpful when preparing for the exam. Hopefully the following may serve beneficial to others who are pursuing the BCPS designation.
1. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare
Plan out the time you intend to take the BCPS exam very carefully. The test is offered only twice a year in the spring and the fall. You can find information on deadlines, dates and fees here.
You should get an idea of what your personal and work schedule will look like during the months preceding the test. Planning for a wedding, having a baby, or other major life events may supersede the importance of studying for the BCPS exam. Make sure you will be able to devote the time needed to adequately prepare yourself or you risk wasting time and money.
A rule I had heard from other pharmacists was to start studying three to six months prior to the exam. Keep in mind this is not a “one size fits all” recommendation, some pharmacists may need more time and some may need less. Regardless, have a solid start date in your head about when to start preparing for the test. Keeping an organized schedule of when to study was a tremendous help in preparing for the exam. Here is a 4-month timeline recommended by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
Also related to preparation, have an idea of what materials you may want to obtain prior to starting your studies. Some pharmacists purchase study guides from ACCP or some folks may review old notes from school or residency. If you have been out of residency or the classroom for a little while, it may be helpful to think back on your best personal self-study habits. One of the best sources for study materials will also be your peers who have recently taken the test.
2. Identify strengths and weaknesses before you start studying
What pharmacy topics are you strong in? What areas are you weak in or do you not practice regularly? Performing an assessment before starting to study will help you identify what areas you may need to focus on.
For example if you are sitting for the pharmacotherapy exam and your practice is heavily based on cardiology, maybe you only need to review a couple of topics in this area since you utilize these skills on a daily basis. Alternately, if say, infectious diseases is something you struggle with, it may be prudent to divert more of your attention toward this topic. Identification of certain gaps in your knowledge base will ensure you are adequately prepared for the exam.
Prior to studying for my exam, I reviewed a list of all the topics that were likely to be included on the exam. I then marked each topic that I was unfamiliar with or do not utilize on a daily basis; this ensured that I would focus on these topics first when studying for the exam.
3. Do not underestimate the importance of practice tests
Practice tests should be a key component in helping prepare for any exam. You can schedule a practice exam once you have finished reviewing all of the material, once you have gotten through a bulk of it, or at baseline if you would like to identify areas to focus on. By taking a practice exam, this will help orient you towards the particular style of the test.
Answering practice questions may help identify a certain culture in regards to how the questions are asked and what answers they are looking for. Additionally, if you notice you score low on a particular set of questions, this may direct you to focus more on a particular topic that you may have not realized was a problem.
Most importantly, practice tests can help inspire confidence. By seeing yourself answer correct questions, this can provide a positive feedback loop and reinforce appropriate methods of preparing. After achieving success in these practice exams, I felt more comfortable walking into my exam on test day since I had confidence in my ability to answer correct questions.
4. Remember to study statistics
Before preparing to study for the BCPS, I had heard from other pharmacists that had taken the exam that statistics had been the bane of their existence. Many pharmacists may read clinical trials and studies on a near daily basis, but how many truly understand the rationale behind the statistics involved?
Make sure you brush up on the statistics section, regardless of your comfort level with the topic. The exam always includes several questions related to statistical methods, equations, and trial designs. Ensure you have adequate preparation materials that cover the most commonly seen topics in the exam.
I found studying this material to be invaluable after taking the exam as it served as an excellent refresher when reading and understanding new clinical trials.
If you do not study statistics, you risk failing.
5. Make sure you answer all of the questions
Taking the BCPS exam can make you feel stressed… but that is totally normal! Try your best to remain as calm as possible throughout the exam. Having a clear mind that is free from worry is imperative to achieving the critical thinking necessary for the exam.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the first few questions, it’s okay to skip them and flag for review at the end of the test. Use that moment to take a few concentrated breaths and remember all of the preparation you have done for the exam. Allow yourself to develop a rhythm and go on a roll with answering the questions.
Most importantly, make sure you answer all of the questions. Unlike other exams you may have previously taken, unanswered questions will be marked as incorrect so it is in your best interest to answer every question on the exam.
If you find yourself dwelling on one question for a while, skip it and move on to other questions. When you have finished answering the other questions towards the end of the exam, go back and select the unanswered questions. At that time, you will have an accurate assessment of how much time you can truly spend on individual questions before running out of time.
…I hope these tips enable you to adequately and efficiently prepare for the BCPS exam. As someone who has recently taken and passed the exam, I found these five points to be invaluable in the preparation for and while taking the BCPS exam. GOOD LUCK!!!
These suggestions come from commentary produced by the IDstewardship social media channels. The website editor will continue to add extra bonus tips as suggestions are made. Have another tip? Send a message to @IDstewardship on any social media platform or email IDstewardship@gmail.com.
- Join or start a study group. Having others to keep you honest about hitting those study goals may be just what you need to stay on pace.
- Try flip cards. The American College of Clinical Pharmacy (ACCP) offers flip cards to assist in studying. You can find them here.
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