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Board Stiff

A.J. Jacobs, editor at large of Esquire magazine voluntarily decided to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. He endured bleeding eyes from the tiny font size and sheer mental exhaustion from such a weighty information download. Jacobs managed to complete the feat, surviving 32 volumes and 33,000 pages of Paleolithic paintings, Plato, Rasputin, Flaubert and gagaku.

September 8, 2009  By Jules Torti

A.J. Jacobs, editor at large of Esquire magazine voluntarily decided to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. He endured bleeding eyes from the tiny font size and sheer mental exhaustion from such a weighty information download. Jacobs managed to complete the feat, surviving 32 volumes and 33,000 pages of Paleolithic paintings, Plato, Rasputin, Flaubert and gagaku. “Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World” is Jacobs’ witty narrative on his one year battle to conquer “Operation Britannica.”

Most daunting for Jacobs was how to digest all the facts and history he took in. How could he read 32 volumes of an encyclopedia and still make casual conversation with his friends? He brought water cooler talk to a whole new level, and his wife Julie was quick to protect him from evolving into an annoying word nerd.


Certainly, after completing the 2,200- or 3,000-hour massage therapy program, the question of information digestion and regurgitation is a prominent one. The board exam, which is talked about from the first day of school with natural amounts of anxiety, rapidly escalates into a nausea-inducing monster created largely by recycled rumours and exam horror stories. The dreaded oral-practical (OP) creates a kind of hysterical panic that no roller-coaster could even begin to touch. Stephen King has no idea how frightening poker-faced examiners with clipboards can be.

As David Gilmour wrote in “The Film Club”, “Steven Spielberg intuited at an early age that if you want to scare people, let their imaginations do the heavy lifting.” Spielberg produced “Jaws”(1975) and terrified audiences with a shark that remains out of sight. “You see only its effects – a missing dog, a girl pulled suddenly underwater, a buoy exploding to the surface, things which announce the presence of danger, but never give it a face.” This is the board exam at its best, a lurking, much-talked-about Jaws. As students, our imaginations eat away at us, and we scare ourselves quite successfully. In fact, the scare can spread as fast as chicken pox through a classroom. Stress is highly contagious, and if you are prone to catching it, be sure to find your quiet space away from the frenzy of last-minute hyper-talk that happens outside the exam room doors. Brad Payne, a RMT who works in downtown Toronto “was really freaked out by the board exams. Talking with classmates, I picked up on their stress.” When Payne did his exams, applicants could choose whether they scheduled the written or the OP first. Instead of following his instincts, Payne chose to do the OP first, despite an awareness of his stage fright. He knew he would excel at the written, but decided to do it after the OP, like the stressed-out masses suggested. Payne admits he struggled with the OP, but calmly took his time with the written component and passed with ease.


When the last days of school come to an end, and the studying begins for college boards, exasperation and self-doubt are normal. Where do you start? Where do you end? With two to three years of scribbled notes and highlighted, dog-eared textbooks, 630 muscle origins and insertions, piriformis and obturator stretches, the Kreb’s cycle and endless pathologies, how do you begin to prepare?

Razz Carbonara, an osteopath in St. Catharines, Ont., feels the exam “is more of a psychological hurdle than a test of practical knowledge.” He wrote the boards 15 years ago and suggests “focusing on areas of weakness prior to the exam to lessen the angst.” And sleep. Before defending his osteopathic thesis last year, Carbonara went to a Jays game, had a beer and later, a sound sleep. The next morning he was fully ready for the jury to press him.

The weight of the looming boards can be suffocating, and there is the debilitating fear of failure and its consequences. This is when you need a mantra. Mine involved a few swear words, but the basic mantra was “get it done.” I didn’t want to pay the expense twice, so that was enough of a motivator for me, plus, I couldn’t imagine having to drag out my studying (or shades of studying) for another six months. I convinced myself that I was at the top of my game and the Kreb’s cycle wasn’t going to foil my career!



Where to Begin?
Taking the massage therapy curriculum and condensing it into 300 potential questions for the written exam is much like moving into a new house. Some stuff can go to the dump. It has to, you can’t keep it all. Other things you can box up for the attic, to pull out later in your career. There’s room for more boxes downstairs, which will be more accessible than the stuff you’ve stacked in the attic. Origin and insertions belong in the kitchen, as do contraindications.

Location, Location, 

If you can avoid the magnetic pull of Facebook, Twitter, and  “Big Brother 15”, the lure of the fridge, and other distractions, you will be a successful home studier. Others find success far from the familiar distractions of home and can think more easily in a humming environment like Starbucks. Experiment with what works best for you. For two straight weeks I sat in a lawn chair on my deck (suffering a severe case of “lawnchairitis” until the sun set on the Grand River.) Big gusts of wind often blew critical notes away. But studying outdoors was better for my happiness quotient.

How to Study
By passing the gruelling standards of the college program, you have already achieved success. You have obviously found a few successful ways to retain information, but now, without the demanding schedule of school, when will you study? I tried fighting my night owl ways, believing that studying in the morning seemed more ambitious and disciplined. My REM cycle rejected the idea. Mornings would only leave me bleary-eyed, reading the same lines repeatedly with no retention or recollection.

Identify your “thriving time” and be sure to be fully present for it. Treat your study hours like a job, because these hours may very well determine whether or not you have a job in the end. Studying in chunks of time is ideal for some students, with intensities varying from 20 to 50 minutes. Take a five- to 10-minute break, and incorporate some of the remedial exercises that you are reading about. Pretend you are speaking to an examiner. Verbalizing the knowledge in my own terms made it come more accessible to me at exam time. I didn’t rehearse lines, I just made sure that I could explain the stretches in both layman and anatomical terms.

Study actively, ask yourself questions and explain concepts out loud to your cat. Discuss questions and answers with your colleagues as though you were being examined.

Secret Study Techniques From the Pros
On a few occasions I pulled out my Crayola markers and made a big mess of myself, sketching all the muscles of my forearm and lower leg. For visual learners, such exercises are strong enforcers of information.

Dustin Finucan, an Ontario RMT now living in Naples, Fla., discovered that index (cue cards) are portable, “and a great way to make the most of free time.” He separated subjects into “topic areas of 20 to 30 questions.” Along with the correct answer, Finucan also reasoned why other answers would be incorrect. Being able to differentiate between answers, and having the knowledge of why one is more correct than another makes for confident exam writing. Finucan is now the lead therapist at a five-star resort in Florida, which should inspire mass cue card carrying!

Try refining your notes, repeatedly. When studying I find that I continually narrow down the information, editing out what I solidly know. Friends laugh because I end up rewriting my notes several times This is how I absorb it all. Keep eliminating what you know, and rewrite the concepts that still irk you. Just make sure you aren’t just copying the notes.

Most importantly, be engaged and productive with your study time. This is one simple way to build your confidence.

What else can I do?

Sleep. Many students survive on a diet of caffeine, adrenaline and ambition. Wikipedia cites.

During the fourth and fifth century, “monks were known to deny themselves sleep as a from of asceticism or to heighten spiritual awareness. Vivid hallucinations, heightened senses and a feeling of incredible creativity may occur after 48 hours of sleeplessness.”

The night before the board exam is not the time to pull an all-nighter fuelled by Red Bull and a 3 a.m. goat roti. However, certain foods have been identified as “focus-enhancing.” Stimulants like coffee, and sweets like chocolate, offer short-term blasts of energy. From neurology class you will already know that the brain uses glucose as its primary source of fuel. As for choosing a pre-exam dinner high in carbs or protein, neither play an active role in brainpower. Carbs are a more immediate source of energy, as they are made available for the body to use in two to four hours. Proteins can take up to four hours to be of use.

If you’re not accustomed to coffee or energy drinks, the sweet stimulants might have an adverse affect on you in the form of uncomfortable jitters. Stick to what your body is familiar with. Now is not the time to introduce anything new and foreign to your already compromised body. Foods that may help you remember the C6 reflex and hydrotherapy for bursitis are:

  • Dark, green, leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and broccoli.
  • Fish, with its one-two punch of Omega-3.
  • Soy: tofu, milk, yogurt.
  • Fortified cereals, pasta, and bread, thanks to niacin, which is a big memory-helper.

For mental clarity and healthy brain function, ginseng and ginkgo biloba have also received a lot of press. And peppermint. In March, 2007, the National Public Radio aired a feature on Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, Md. Banking on results of a University of Cincinnati study claiming that a “whiff of peppermint helped people taking tests that required sustained concentration,” the principal of Eastern Middle decided to hand out breath mints to students before tests. Paulie Bleeker of “Juno” fame loved his orange Tic Tac’s, but for the exam crunch, why not hop on the Cincinnati study bandwagon and stick with peppermint.

Reward System
Studying is like puppy training. Of course, the ultimate reward is the long-awaited envelope from the college containing the letter welcoming you as a Registered Massage Therapist, but you need to establish rewards along the way. Book a massage. Read the entire Saturday paper, have a novel beside your bed that isn’t massage related, run with your dog – or borrow one for an hour. Ditch your notes and go to your favourite dive for a late brunch with non-massage therapy friends. Talk about something other than the cranial nerves and carpal bones for awhile.

All the RMTs that I asked for feedback agreed that reviewing weak areas (instead of ignoring them) is essential. Brad Payne went over landmarking and orthopedic testing with a partner in preparation. Dustin Finucan created subject tests for himself. He starred areas and incorrect answers that needed attention and turned them into strengths. In the end, your study habits and coping mechanisms are as personal and unique as the jeans you wear.

In the last week before I wrote the exam (circa 1999) I abandoned my school notes and read nearly all of “Marieb. “I don’t know if I ate anything yellow, but I did get a massage immediately after. I needed one to prep for all the pacing I would do back and forth to the mailbox to see if the results had arrived yet.

Like Razz Carbonara said, it is a psychological hurdle. Sleep nine hours, suck your peppermints, and visualize. One day soon you will be pulling together all those packed up boxes of information to design your beginnings in a career as a Registered Massage Therapist. Congratulations.

In her 10 year career, Jules Torti has worked at the Fairmont Royal York, The King Edward Hotel, poolside at the Sheraton and at The Wild Orange Spa in BC. To give her carpal tunnels a break, she has recently found rewarding volunteer work with chimps in the Congo and Uganda. She writes feverishly and has a well-fed blog at–

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