Passing The RD Exam: Thoughts & Tips

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As you may have noticed, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve written a blog post – and I have a darn good excuse! Last week, I officially became a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) after 5 years of school, a combined Master’s degree and 1200 hour supervised practice internship followed by long, grueling days of studying. Knowing that I passed was inexplicably joyous, not only because I could finally put away my study materials, but because I earned the necessary credentials to help others improve their health!

If you are planning to take the RD exam or have taken it already, there’s a high chance you have read other RD’s blogs with similar titles, all of whom share their seemingly perfect story of how they passed on the first try and photos of themselves celebrating. These are all wonderful posts with very useful study tips, yet rarely did I encounter a post that acknowledged what to do when things don’t quite work out as planned.

For those of you in that position, you must know that you are not alone. I intend to use this post to provide encouragement as well as tips for how I passed with flying colors the second time around. Some of what I will discuss can apply to any situation where life gives you lemons. You must learn to make lemonade.

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March and April were whirlwinds of months – I planned a wedding, got married and traveled to five different states with the love of my life. I wouldn’t have changed a single second of it, as it truly was everything I had ever hoped it would be. In spite of all the chaos, I chose to schedule my RD exam five days after we returned from our travels. I was convinced that I would be able to handle it all, trying my best to study between signing wedding contracts, unpacking in hotel rooms and on 14 hour road trips.

The study materials I used prior to my first attempt were the Breeders and Associates binder along with their flashcards and questions from rdexam.us. These materials serve as a great resource, yet are extremely detailed and require a lot focus to retain the material. Although much of the exam relies on your ability to choose the correct response based on professional judgement, it also requires you to review very small details in depth, some of which you may not have seen for years. ANYTHING you ever learned in the realm of nutrition is fair game, and repetition is key when reviewing weaker concepts. I wanted to make sure I looked at all of the material at least once, so I typed out flashcards on Quizlet while reading each page of the binder. I then answered questions from each Domain using the book, online questions and flashcards. This was all fine and well when it came to exposure to concepts, but it definitely wasn’t helping me retain the information. Typing on Quizlet wasn’t my usual study method that I used to ace tests in college, but I was already too invested to switch things up.

The night before my first attempt, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of information I still wanted to review. This wasn’t a good sign. I woke up the next morning and decided to give it my best shot. During the exam, some of the questions asked about highly specific concepts and terms that were NOWHERE to be found in my study materials and I swear had never been mentioned in my five years of schooling. Therefore, it was quite difficult to make an educated guess. Many of the situational questions were incredibly ambiguous and subjective. All of the options sounded like they could be the right answer, but you were required choose the BEST one. As for other questions, I felt I would have been more confident if I had used different study materials and approaches.

After missing the passing score by ONE point on my first attempt, I felt pretty discouraged. In the weeks to follow, there were moments where it really impacted me emotionally – I felt as though God had put my dreams on hold and that I had hit a massive road block. I would return to the blogs of other dietitian’s who successfully passed, searching for what I must have done wrong. I quickly noticed that there weren’t many blogs offering support for those who didn’t reach their goal the first time. That is why I wanted to share some encouragement with all of you who may be or have been in a similar boat. If I learned one thing from this experience, it’s that comparing yourself to others is an awful habit that will only make you feel worse. It is a difficult habit to break, but in order to move forward, you must realize that all good things happen in their right timing. No one else should determine your life path for you.

Tired of dwelling on the doubt and frustration, I decided it was time to pull myself up by the boot straps and get back on that horse (cue the words of that Chumbawamba song, “I get knocked down, but I get up again…”… yeah, you know, that one). I had to keep reminding myself of how hard I worked to get to this point, how much I really knew and that I was equipped with all of the skills to become a competent RD – I just needed a new approach with less distractions.

I kept asking God if there was something I was supposed to learn from this “setback”. Maybe He was working on something else in my life that I wasn’t supposed to know about yet, or maybe I needed a challenge. Between the ample support from family, friends and colleagues as well as some serious prayer, I dove deep into studying for round two. Here are some tips that helped me pass the second time around:

  1. Use study methods that have always worked for you. Obviously, typing important concepts onto Quizlet cards was not in cahoots with my learning style. The second time around, I chose to do what has always worked best – writing and rewriting important concepts on blank sheets of paper, doing multiple practice problems and having someone else quiz me – the combination of taking notes, repetition and auditory learning methods have always seemed to help me retain information.
  2. Make a study plan. Count the number of days between now and the Sunday before your exam. Then, decide how many days you want to spend on each Domain, or divide the number of pages in your study guide by the number of days you have (i.e. 6 pages per day). Another method is to study one Domain per week, then spend the last few weeks reviewing (this works best if you have 5-6 weeks of study time). Be realistic – I gave myself weekends off from studying with the exception of the weekend before the test. I spent the last few days before the test reviewing everything one more time and solidifying the very important concepts until I felt pretty comfortable. By the end of it, I felt like I’d go insane if I went over the diabetic exchanges one more time, but you better believe I can rattle them off now in my sleep!
  3. Try different study materials/approaches, but not TOO many. After failing on my first attempt, I scoured the internet for the best study materials. I was surprised to learn there were quite a few, all in various price ranges. Most people who passed seemed to agree upon two major ones: Jean Inman and Visual Veggies. Neither are cheap, but the splurge was SO worth it. I also ordered RD in a Flash flashcards, as well as two other study books with practice tests, but didn’t have enough time to use all of them and felt overwhelmed about which to look at first. I suggest sticking to the Jean Inman binder – it is by far a huge reason why I did so well. I spent time listening to the audio tapes while underlining important concepts on each page. Then, I would take out blank sheets of paper and write down anything that stood out as being highly important (government nutrition programs, herbal supplements, food service concepts, etc.) for each Domain. Then, I answered the Jean Inman questions for each Domain and did practice problems from Visual Veggies until I scored an 80% or better every time. There were some questions on my actual test that were straight from these study tools, so the investment was a great decision.
  4. Review, review, review. Repetition is key, especially for concepts you are weak in. I spent a lot of time reviewing Domain III and IV, since food service concepts and math were never my strong suit. Practice problems from Jean Inman as well as Visual Veggies really helped me feel more comfortable with the material in these Domains.
  5. Avoid burnout. I was so determined to pass the second time that I went a little overboard – I studied until 10 PM the night before the test and even studied the morning of while my amazing husband cooked me breakfast and dealt with my crazy pre-test self. I wouldn’t suggest this, since I found myself starting to zone out in the middle of the actual test. It was as if my brain was screaming, “Enough already! I can’t answer any more questions because you’ve exercised me too much!” I know that wouldn’t have happened if I would have stopped studying the night before at 5 PM, turned on Netflix and had a glass of wine. If you find yourself feeling “burn out” during your actual test, close your eyes for 20 seconds, think of something that makes you feel relaxed, then resume your test calmly.
  6. Use the elimination method. Let’s be real… the RD exam is not easy. Most of the questions will not have an obvious answer. Therefore, you are forced to make your best educated guess based on your experience. When you encounter a question where all the answers sound legit, use the elimination method. Try to eliminate at least two of the answers and your chances of guessing correctly greatly increase! When choosing between the last two, weigh the pros and cons of each. Try to think with the mindset of a dietitian or food service manager. Think back to how your preceptors would have handled the situation. Which would be the BEST decision to make? Don’t always think of real world influences, but consider what would be the best decision in an ideal setting.
  7. Have confidence in yourself. You are smart. You know this. You have gotten this far. You are an amazing individual. Never compare yourself to others and do not doubt your abilities – these are toxic habits! This exam does not determine your self worth, it is simply the last step to reaching one important goal in your life. Do not give up. There are some jobs that will allow you to practice under a temporary license while you are still eligible for passing, so if you must start working, there are opportunities for you until you land that passing score.
  8. Here I am, about to be stereotypical…Celebrate. Seriously, you’ve earned it. Whether you pass this time or next, you worked so hard and gave it your best shot. This is a difficult test, so reward yourself how you see fit!

Fully dedicating my life to studying for another 45 days straight took incredible patience, hope and discipline. It may sound crazy, but I am actually glad that I didn’t pass the first time for a few reasons. When I saw that ‘Congratulations!’ pop up on the screen, I was way more proud of myself then I would have been the first time, knowing that I had the courage, resilience and determination to get back up, try again and not let anything get in the way of achieving my goal. Also, I had an extra 45 days of reviewing essential concepts of dietetics, which made me feel even more prepared for my first job. Lastly, it reinforced my respect for our credential knowing just how difficult it is to earn it. Be proud, RD’s, be proud.

And with all that said, it’s your time to guac ‘n roll! You really can achieve anything you set your mind to.

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Author: Amy, RDN

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