My experience of MRCPsych Paper A - Dr Bilal Zafar

  • May 02, 2022

Are you an overseas psychiatrist taking the postgraduate route to GMC registration through the MRCPsych exams? Are you interested in sitting the exams in the future?

As part of IMG Stories, we're introducing Dr Bilal Zafar, a psychiatrist who has recently sat and passed the MRCPsych Paper A exam. Bilal will be sharing his experiences of the first of the Royal College of Psychiatrists exams, taking you through his preparation, experience of sitting the exam and sharing some hot tips for international MRCPsych aspirants.

1. Tell us about yourself... what should the IMG Community know about Bilal Zafar?

My name is Dr. Bilal Zafar and I'm from Karachi, Pakistan. I graduated from Dow University of Health Sciences (DUHS) in 2018 and cleared my FCPS residency entrance exam from College of Physicians & Surgeons, Pakistan. Currently, I'm working as a psychiatry resident at Liaquat National Hospital in Pakistan. I am also Editor in-chief at MEDizzy UK, Global Executive Member at Oli Health Magazine Turkey, and an i-act manager for mental health certified by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK. I served as an ambassador for Banja Luka International Medical Congress (BLIMC) 2019, the 25th Scientific Congress of Hellenic Medical Students and the 13th International Forum for Medical Students and Junior Doctors from Pakistan.

More recently in 2022, I excelled in the MRCPsych Paper A examination by Royal College of Psychiatrists UK.

2. What motivated you to sit the MRCPsych exams?

When I started my residency, I was originally convinced to aim for PLAB, however during my practice, I watched one of my supervisors clear all the Royal College exams. This inspired me to switch to my focus to MRCPsych.

3. At what point in your career and training did you sit the MRCPsych Paper A exam?

I took the MRCPsych Paper A exam in December 2021. For me, the timing was appropriate as I was in the second year of my residency, therefore more aware of the fundamentals. By this point, I had built enough thorough clinical experience to tackle Paper A.

4. How far in advance did you start preparing for the MRCPsych Paper A and how much time did you spend on revision?

I started studying for MRCPsych Paper A soon after clearing my FCPS entrance exam. I had initially allocated 2 hours of studying daily, but as I was at the beginning of my residency so my dedicated study time fluctuated. However, I did my best to adhere to my study plan. When I was around 6 months away from the MRCPsych Paper A exam date, I started aggressive preparation. This is what I recommend to everyone; you will never feel ready for the exam. Book a place, start your preparation and take the exam!

5. Did you benefit from speaking to senior colleagues or peers about the exam? Did you study with other candidates?

I was grateful to find very professional, concerned and co-operative senior colleagues. Their thorough guidance and support provided me with the strategy and study materials for this exam. Around 6 weeks before the exam, I joined a study group of IMGs (which I found through IMG Connect) where I found an amazing study partner. She had more than 5 years' experience in clinical psychiatry, and together we solved MCQs and discussed concepts - her experience benefited me a lot!

6.  You are one of the creators of the fantastic MEDizzy UK Journal. How has this impacted your study and practice as a psychiatrist?

MEDizzy is the world's fastest growing medical learning communities. I joined the community 4 years ago. Back then, I was doing my internship and preparing for the residency entrance exam. For me, MEDizzy is a door to non-stop medical exposure, and I've learned a lot from the app and journal. MEDizzy journal was launched in 2020 and since then I've served as Editor-in-Chief. We serve the global medical community with the latest news, medical cases, medical technology, inspirational interviews and much more. I must say, sometimes it becomes difficult to maintain a work and study balance and there's no perfect formula for this. I would say my studies have made me what I am today and MEDizzy polished me.

7. How did you manage to juggle other commitments whilst studying for the exam (without panicking)?

Sometimes I don't know, myself! After booking my exam, I created a study plan. At the same time, I had to juggle my residency, medical writing on Fiverr, MEDizzy projects and, most importantly, my wedding. It was scheduled for the day after my MRCPsych Paper A exam. I was tangled in multiple commitments and you can only imagine the difficulty. Fortunately, I could manage my personal life, residency and exam and passed the exam on my first attempt, despite the odds. The key is to remain calm and believe that nothing in this world is impossible.

8. What resources did you use to prepare and practice for the MRCPsych Paper A exam?

I relied on SPMM notes, SPMM high yield MCQs and mock exams. For my MRCPsych Paper A, I used a retro approach to studying. In this technique, I first solved the MCQs of any topic and studied the same topic later from the SPMM notes. I practiced mock exam questions 6 times. Always remember - revision is the key. You may cover a long list of topics but if you don’t revise what you studied earlier you won’t retain this information. While practicing questions, read them carefully and memorise the explanations. Lastly, I also used the Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry and Kaplan Neuroanatomy.

9. What is the single best resource you would recommend for IMGs to use when preparing for the MRCPsych Paper A and why?

SPMM and SPMM only. The mock exams and practice questions are similar to real exam questions. Take the mock exams 6 weeks prior to the actual exam and solve them in the provided time. This will give you real insight about your time management and retention and recall power.

10. Let's face it, exams are not everyone's favourite day out... so on the day of the exam, what did you do to relax?

Nobody should study on the day of exam. This makes you more anxious. For me, I was getting married the very next day and I had so much going around at home and in my mind. My exam was at 12pm, so I woke up at 7am, took a shower, got dressed, and left for the examination centre at 10:00 am. 

11. What was your experience like on the day?

My experience was overwhelmingly amazing! It was an online exam at a local examination centre. In the exam there were 3 sections of 50 questions each. We had an option to take a break after completing each section, but I didn’t take any breaks as I thought it might disturb my continuity. Most of the questions were doable for me as I had practiced mock questions. However, there were some entirely new questions as well. In every section, I gave a reasonable amount of time to at least 5 questions. The rest of them didn’t take much time. Therefore, I completed the exam in 2 hours.

12. What was the most challenging part of the exam?

The most challenging part of the exam was the EMIs. They took a fair amount of time and I had to recall my basic concepts and put them together to solve these questions.

13. In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

After the exam, I was confident about my performance. I thought I'd taken a good approach to the exam and ws confident in the results.

14. What nuggets of advice would you give to any MRCPsych Paper A aspirants?

I would recommend that you not wait for the ‘right time' or a time when you're ‘fully prepared'. There is neither a right time nor any point when you're completely prepared. Book the test, make full use of the question banks, take mock exams, start studying and sit your exam.

15. What did you do to celebrate passing the exam?

On the day the exam results were to be released, I was at home, and my wife and I were anxiously waiting for the email from the Royal College. The moment we saw “PASS” in the email, my wife literally shouted “You did it, Bilal!”. It was a priceless moment. Later that night, we arranged a gathering of close friends and family to celebrate my achievement.

16. What are your plans going forward?

So far, I am a candidate for FCPS (Psych) and MRCPsych. My plan is to take the intermediate module of FCPS in August 2022 and then take MRCPsych Paper B in September 2022. I aim to complete MRCPsych by next year. As far as MEDizzy is concerned, we aim to expand the community by initiating new projects such as the ambassador program and advancing MEDizzy Inspire where we interview the most deserving personalities from the world of medicine who can become inspiration for young healthcare professionals.

The postgraduate route to GMC registration, whilst not the fastest, can be the most rewarding in the long run. The MRCPsych exams are the central components of psychiatry training in the UK, and as an international psychiatrist, this is the route that allows you to most closely align your qualifications with the requirements of more senior roles in the NHS.

Join the IMG Psychiatrists Facebook group for access to a community of like-minded overseas MRCPsych aspirants and dedicated psychiatry recruiters.

For news and updates on all things psychiatry, including GMC registration, the Royal College and the NHS, follow us on social media and join the conversation.



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