Tips for the big day of a dental assisting exam

Yes, taking a dental assisting exam is a big step, but there's no need to be nervous. Taking these testing tips to heart can help you stay calm and sit for the test with confidence.

Sep 20th, 2017
Content Dam Diq Online Articles 2017 09 Test Taking 1
Yes, taking a dental assisting exam is a big step, but there's no need to be nervous. Taking these testing tips to heart can help you stay calm and sit for the test with confidence.

This article originally appeared in Dental Assisting & Office Manager Digest. Subscribe to the monthly e-newsletter here.

The most common questions I receive from students and dental professionals who are taking a dental assisting exam are, “What can I do when I feel anxious about the test?” and “What else can I do when I feel like I’ve tried everything?” Your program probably prepared you well for the exams. But here are some tips you can apply on the day of the exam to help with nerves and increase your chances of success.

Calculate how much time you have to spend per question.

Depending on the exam you take, you may have a countdown clock that starts once you begin the exam. To ensure you have time to answer the questions, it’s helpful to do some quick math and understand 1) how many seconds you have per question, and 2) how many minutes you have for every 10 questions.

For example, the Dental Assisting National Board® Inc. (DANB®) Radiation Health and Safety (RHS®) exam is composed of 100 questions that you have to complete in 75 minutes. Let’s do some math.
• 75 minutes/100 questions = 0.75 minutes per question. In other words, you have less than a minute per question.
• For 10 questions, you have 7.5 minutes.
• For 50 questions, you have about 35 minutes.

If you have the chance to do the math before the exam, that would be ideal. Each exam has a different number of questions and amount of time. The Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) exam in California is composed of 140 questions that you need to solve in three hours. To find out the details, check out the California RDA page. To learn more about the dental assisting requirements in your state and any national or state-specific exams that you may need to pass, visit DANB's State-Specific Information page.

You need to take control of the “big day,” and this is one very simple way to create predictability!

Find the keywords in the question (at all cost).

Detectives require clues to solve cases, and so do you. Those clues are presented as keywords in the exam questions. Focusing your attention on only what is important helps you to mute the background noise and link the clues to the answers. Also, questions are made by people who leave hints, whether intentionally or unintentionally. So, identify those hints and let them lead you to the correct answers.

Strategy: Find one to five keywords in each question even if you have to read the question over and over again. The computer exam will not allow you to circle those words, so you have to rely on your brain power!

Here’s an example:
Q: Among the following options, which dental restoration material appears the MOST radiopaque?
A. Porcelain
B. Base material
C. Gold
D. Composite

In this case, the keyword is “radiopaque.” Dark radiolucent areas on radiographs are created when the x-ray beams reach the film (receptor) surface. Metallic material blocks those x-ray beams before they reach the film (receptor) surface. As a result, the corresponding area looks radiopaque. Among the choices, gold is the only metal. It’s easy to misread radiopaque as radiolucent. This happens often and I’ve seen numerous mistakes related to those words. If you can “extract” the keyword and place it forward in your mind, you will increase your chance of success by a lot.

Answer: C

Slow down (a lot).

I know slowing down is slightly contradictory to what I said in point number one about calculating how much time you have per question or per 10 questions. Often when someone goes into an exam, his or her anxiety level rises. It is a completely normal body mechanism because they’re stepping into the unknown. So, the natural tendency is to rush through the exam and be concerned about not finishing in time. As a result, the mind skips words that could be critical clues leading to the correct answer. Rushing through questions in the exam is like building a car without thoroughly reading the instructions.

Strategy: Pretend there is a speed bump after each question. When you complete a question, take a second to breathe, and then tackle the next question.

Here’s an example:
Q: The anatomical curvature of occlusion forming an upward smile line seen from the buccal aspect is called:
A. Internal resorption
B. Overbite
C. Curve of Spee
D. Curve of Wilson

The answer is C. The relationship of the upper and lower arch can be evaluated using different parameters. One of them is the Curve of Spee, an anatomic curvature forming an upward smile line. The curve is seen from the buccal aspect, therefore representing an anteroposterior curvature of the occlusal surface. The Curve of Wilson is also an anatomic curvature forming an upward smile line. This curve is seen from the frontal aspect. One clue in the question is the word "curvature." Two of the four answer choices include the word "curve." Ask yourself, might the key word "curvature" provide a clue to the correct answer?

Another thing to consider is if you rushed through the exam and incorrectly read the word “buccal,” your mind could very well translate it into “frontal.” The damage is obvious—one less question answered correctly.

Answer: C

For questions with “not,” “except,” or “false,” play the true or false game.

Have you ever made the mistake of not paying enough attention to the words “not,” “except,” or “false” in a question and then selected a “correct” statement when you were supposed to select an “incorrect” statement? In my teaching and coaching career, I’ve seen many students ask to review the question because they were certain they had answered it correctly.

Why is this mistake made so commonly? It’s because the majority of exam questions are about detecting the correct answer. So naturally, your brain is trained to recognize and choose a correct statement. But you may have to go against your normal instincts to increase your chances of passing a dental assisting exam.

Strategy: Force yourself to answer True or False for each answer choice, and find the one False statement.

Review the example below:
Q: Which of the following is NOT true regarding fluoride varnish?
A. It is not easily washed away by saliva
B. Application requires less cooperation from the patient
C. Usually contains sodium fluoride
D. Application requires light curing

First of all, you should make a mental note that you need to choose the one false statement. Now, let’s look at the answer choices. A: True, fluoride varnishes stick to the teeth and are hard to remove. B: True, the varnish is easily applied with a brush. C: True, sodium fluoride is common. D: False, fluoride never needs light curing. Therefore, the answer is D, the only false statement.

Answer: D

Quickly move away from questions you cannot answer.

Do not waste time on questions you have trouble answering because spending more time on them will not solve the problem. Instead, make a guess and move forward. Dental assisting exams can be very demanding and the clock is ticking. Since there are four or five answer choices for each question, your guess has a 20% to 25% chance of being correct. So save your precious time and tackle questions you can actually solve.

Also, it has been shown that when you start to struggle, your confidence level goes down. Do not let the negativity affect your performance, and carry on with your positive attitude. You worked so hard in your career, so be confident and move on!

Dental assisting exams may have many questions that will challenge you. We can’t blame the examiners too much, because they are trying to test us and see if we are capable of providing excellent health care. But you can bring some clarity into the challenge by performing the five tips for passing dental assisting exams I shared her. If you have any questions, email me anytime. The world needs more amazing #dentalassistants like you!


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Claire Jeong, MS, BS, RDH, is an educator and entrepreneur who founded StudentRDH and SmarterDA, which offer dental hygiene and dental assisting exam review courses. The online platform delivers content through the latest e-learning technology. According to some students, they now find studying to be addicting. Claire has visited various podcasts to speak about memory techniques and learning efficacy, topics she promotes through articles, speeches, e-books, and blogs. Claire has a Master’s degree in Administration from Boston University and a dental hygiene degree from Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene in Boston. Before her career in the dental field, she mentored students for 15 years and was an education specialist at Boston Children’s Museum. Claire is licensed to practice in the US and Canada.

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