TCM: Examination Preparation


I get a lot of questions on how to best prepare for TCM examinations. Some students will be writing solely acupuncture written exams, some will have practical stations, and some will have herbal examinations. All students will be required to write on jurisprudence and have a biomedical portion. While some of my exam preparation strategies might not be all that special, they are practical. I like to make things simple (read: understandable, duplicable, and result-oriented). Being straightforward and practical will give you the confidence to tackle the task at hand: passing your exam. Here is my five-step guide to preparing for TCM examinations:

1) Read your information package!

I know this might sound silly to some but I do get asked what sources are best. Your information package contains all the information you need to succeed in writing the exams. Probably the most important is the jurisprudence and biomedical. Acupuncture textbooks are fairly standardized. There may be some discrepancy as to whether UB23 should be needled on a 45 degree angle or perpendicularly, but most acupuncture knowledge written in the English language has been established for a long time. The difference between the acupuncture portion and the jurisprudence/biomedical portion is that individual states and provinces decide as to what is important and what is not.

If you receive your package and you are unsure of where to get the resources or what to study, it is important to reach out to your governing examination body. These examination committees are continually updating their exam content and trying to improve the process. If exam-takers are continually asking for clarification on a topic the committees will have to fix it. Always approach an examination body with respect, but don’t be afraid to ask them to provide concrete sources for the topics you will be tested on.

2) Study the fundamental texts

For acupuncture, I believe it is important to study three fundamental texts:

  1. Foundations of Chinese Medicine by Maciocia

  2. Diagnosis by Maciocia

  3. A Manual of Acupuncture by Deadman

If there was a fourth book I could recommend it would be my own workbook. The reason being is that I have included many charts to compare acupoints, all the standardized nomenclature and locations for extra acupoints, and all major conditions and their patterns. Another (cheaper!) option is to listen to my podcast where I read from my workbook. I feel quite honoured to have received a few DMs on Instagram where people praise my podcast for helping them pass their examinations. I’ve also had two people with dyslexia who use my podcast to navigate through the study of TCM.

These aforementioned texts are literally the foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, the diagnosis and then the placement of acupuncture needles to improve our patients’ quality of life. For acupoint location I highly recommend grouping points in a similar location together to help memorize their preparation, angle and depth. In regards to minor discrepancies between other textbooks it is best to adhere to one in the event you have to stand before the exam committee and defend your reasoning in an appeal.

Of course, for herbal examinations there are two fundamental texts:

  1. Materia Medica by Dan Bensky

  2. Formulas and Strategies by Dan Bensky

I should also mention that Bob Flaws has written an excellent exam preparation book called 630 Questions and Answers about Chinese Herbal Medicine. I highly recommend it to all Chinese medicine herbal practitioners.

There is a lot of information to review and cover so it’s best to plan. During TCM college you’ve likely found how best you study: with or without music, with or without small breaks, sticky notes all over the house or apartment, writing and re-writing and re-writing (my preferred method). Stick to what works best. Buy a large calendar and plan your study schedule accordingly. Perhaps you’d like to write a practice exam on Monday, and study the rest of the week, taking a break every Sunday for some forest bathing. Make it yours and keep with the plan.

3) Write a practice exam

There are many practice exams available, and even fantastic exam prep/bootcamp courses you can take. If you’ve never written such a high-profile exam before I highly recommend doing something of the like. It’s important to get a feel for the kind of questioning that will occur, and it’s also important to feel a little bit of pressure by trying to get all the questions answered in an allotted time period. Of course, when writing a practice exam there should be no distractions and it should completed all in one go. Simulation, as I will continue to wax poetic on in the next step, is one of the best ways to prepare for any type of test or competition.

When looking for a good practice exam, find one that will explain which topic has slipped your memory when you get a question wrong. Writing a practice exam is no good if you don’t know what has to be refined during study time.

4) Mock practical stations

There are some provincial and state examinations that have stations. For some, there may be two examiners with clipboards watching you carefully cup over a needle you have placed in a foam dummy. For others, there may be raw herbs scattered on a table that have to be identified. Either way, it’s important to practice the physical and verbal actions that will occur before they will happen in real-time. I attribute a lot of my exam success to this method. I spent countless hours for two weeks practicing all the verbiage that was likely expected of me, blowing out cotton balls while turned 180 degrees away from a yoga mat, and pretending to extinguish moxibustion that I had not really lit.

Other than miming stations in air, another important tool is visualization. When not studying material or mocking exams I highly recommend visualizing in your mind’s eye the entire examination process. Use a lot of detail when you do this: When will you wake up? What will you eat for breakfast? What will you pack for snacks? How will you get to the exam? What will you do when you get there and you are waiting for it to begin? Is it a multi-day event and how you will unwind from the first day and prepare for the second?

Picture yourself writing the exam - feel the emotions attached to said activity. Let them flow through you. Don’t judge. Picture yourself at the stations. Visualize saying all the things you need to say and doing all the right things. Feel any emotions attached to any station and let them flow through you - acknowledge them and know that you are a normal human being for feeling any type of sensation in your body. Everyone feels this way when being tested.

Athletes use both miming and visualization for success, and you should too.

5) Prepare a brain-dump study chart

There’s a lot to remember for any exam. However, personally, I found trying to remember all the categories of acupoints very hard. I created a BRAIN DUMP STUDY CHART that I could literally dump on a scrap piece of paper once the exam started. You can create your own. Mine includes the organ’s time, 5-Shu (Well, Spring, Stream, River, Sea), Lower-Sea, Connecting, Cleft, Front-Mu, Back-Shu, Eight Influential, Eight Confluent, and the extra-channel coalescent acupoints. If there is some part of Chinese medicine that just isn’t sticking in your brain, create a study chart you can write and re-write up until the moment of writing your exam, and then you can get rid of it! The stress of remembering all that information will melt away and you can focus on experiencing the rest of the examination process.

In Conclusion:

Writing an exam that determines your future is stressful. However, I want you to remember one thing: you already know it all. You went to college. You’ve been preparing for this moment for years. All you need now is just a lot of refinement. Don’t let me fool you: preparing for the Pan-Canadian or NCCAOM is a huge undertaking and it obviously shouldn’t be taken lightly. What is truly special is how the preparation will transform you as a Chinese medicine practitioner. Trust in this process and the rest will take care of itself.

Kenton Sefcik