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HPAT Countdown: Musings from an experienced tutor


This impending Saturday is without a doubt one of the most terrifying – yet unusual days of the year. Throughout the past years, I have uttered the phrase “The HPAT is a game” innumerous times, and now, on the brink of becoming an actual doctor (finally!) and exiting the world of HPAT, I thought I’d pass on my suggestions for this game.

Suggestion 1: Your mood is your top priority.

The HPAT is designed in such a way that your mood greatly impacts your performance. Why? Because it’s an exam of emotions, of empathy and of understanding. Feeling stressed/anxious/overwhelmed will ultimately lead to less clarity of thought and transference of your emotions onto the characters at play in Section 2. So, do a happy dance in the morning. Play some baby animal clips off YouTube during breakfast. Have a few funny memories to pull into your conscience throughout the exam. Trust me, it makes the HPAT all much more digestible.

Suggestion 2: Finish the exam, no matter what.

There are 110 questions in the HPAT exam that are split up into three sections, and it is possible that the last questions in each section will be the easiest. In the hospital, we “triage” patients. That is, we see every patient, but time and energy is distributed as per the patient. How does this apply to the HPAT? You are much better off guessing (not skipping: making an educated guess) the questions you find difficult in order to make it to the end on time, and then if there is spare time, coming back to those difficult questions later. If you’re going to get 10-20+ questions wrong regardless, it may as well be the questions you find tricky in the first place!

Suggestion 3: Take extreme care when filling out the answer sheet.

I have heard too many horror stories about one bubble being skipped and every question answered in the wrong row as a result. 

Suggestion 4: Take a bathroom break, busting or not.

This is always my most contentious rule. Here’s my rationale:

  • If you need the toilet and you don’t go, you’ll be very distracted
  • Physically walking to the toilet and stretching whilst there increases blood flow and oxygen to your brain, ultimately leading to greater concentration and performance
  • In total, that 2 minute break will make you feel refreshed for the rest of the exam

Also, I often tell students to scull a bottle of water the moment they wake up, and stop drinking much after this point. This way, you’ll need the bathroom before the HPAT starts and any bathroom break during the exam will be ultimately more of a stretch break.

Suggestion 5: Breakfast = low GI, low sugar.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll struggle without a snack during the exam. Often, the exam is delayed up to an hour, and the tummy rumbling across the hall is audible. Eat a big breakfast of low GI foods (think porridge/Weetabix instead of coco pops, or wholegrain bread instead of white). In the line while you wait, eat a muesli bar or banana.

Suggestion 6: Erasers are you new best friends (but not for the reason you think).

Ever seen those spinning cube questions and drawn a total blank of how to start? Try this: bring a bunch of erasers into the exam and turn their sides into the sides of the cube. It makes visualisation infinitely easier!

Suggestion 7: Make a friend in line.

Standing outside before the HPAT is scary, lonely and intimidating. Here’s the thing though – everyone’s feeling the same way. Chat to the people in line with you and you’ll find it makes the whole process much more comforting and less isolating. HPAT time is a goldmine for small talk! Think subjects, school, length of time to get there, how they’re celebrating etc.

Suggestion 8: The night before switch off your brain.

You can’t cram for the HPAT, so it’s not even worth trying. Enjoy a romcom or funny TV show and have an early night. Prepare everything you need in a Ziploc bag so you’ll feel ready to go the next morning.

Suggestion 9: Guessing can be an art form.

Almost everyone will have to guess at least a few questions in the exam. It’s the reality of the HPAT, and nothing to be ashamed of. However, usually you don’t need to blindly guess.

Some tips for guessing include:

  • Logical Reasoning and Problem Solving section: choose answers that include words such as “may” or “seems to” rather than more definitive words such as “must” or “will”. Choose answers that also make sense in real life (i.e. are logical in general), and choose answers that stay in the scope of the excerpt (17% of daily smokers in a study is not the same as saying 17% of Australians smoke).
  • Understanding People section: choose the answer that makes you look like a good person who is empathetic and non-judgmental i.e. don’t be too harsh. In doctor/patient interactions, always assume the doctor is subpar (until proven otherwise).
  • Non-Verbal Reasoning Section: choose the answer with the most overlap. So, if a, c, d all have a circle in the top right corner, and c, d, e all have a star and b, d, e all have a smiley face = pick ‘d’. It’s a good start.

Suggestion 10: Enjoy the process and just keep swimming!

My most poignant memory of my HPAT was at one point, sitting back and having a laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Allow yourself to simply enjoy how intense the exam is and how odd the questions are and even if you think it’s going badly – it probably isn’t. Just keep swimming, and enjoy the fact that its almost over!

Good luck, and enjoy the freedom on Saturday night! 

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