Acing your Public Health Exams

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

Exams can be terrifying, but I find that that the best way to get over that fear is to prepare - but do it in a way that 1) means something to you and B) means something to your examiners. What I mean to say is that there's a way to capture not only what makes you unique as a future health professional through your passion but also to fit in your public health knowledge 'buzzwords' that are going to get you the grades you're after.

The tips I'm going to show you are what got me top marks and left me feeling 100% ready on the day of our oral interview/exam, but by all means make your resources for YOU and adapt them into something that is easy to interpret at a glance on the day.

When broken down, there are four key things that helped me the most in understanding the world of public health in a way that I could easily translate to others in an exam setting:

1. The textbook: Practical Public Health Nutrition by Roger Hughes and Barrie M. Margetts is your best friend.

It's hard not to overthink all the information that is in this textbook but when narrowed down to its essentials it's the most straight-forward guide on public health nutrition I've seen. Not to mention that everything is broken down into clear steps with further insight where you need it. What you should take from this incredible amount of information are the main three steps: Planning, Intervention and Evaluation - because this is how you will frame your exam answers. If you write down every detail of this textbook it's going to get messy (there are a whopping 17 steps in the bi-cycle model of the public health process). But I would perhaps expand on just those three points mentioned into the following:

  • Get more information

  • Get the right people involved

  • Planning

  • Implementation

  • Evaluation

The first two steps are really part of the planning phase, but I feel that they deserve a spot of their own because they are just that important. Exploring your issue and getting knowledge from those who have experienced it first hand alongside those in the public health sector is invaluable.

2. Public health nutrition is complex, so forget about thinking linear.

In most cases when studying, I get as much information as I can and take it on step by step. This process, however, doesn't really work when looking at complex public health problems. Complex issues I find are best solved in a mind map approach. My secret weapon for this one was Kumu, which is a site that hosts visual mapping software that makes it simple to connect common factors into one incredible mindmap (see one of mine below detailing the steps in creating a public health nutrition initiative). For me this really triggered a thought process and helped me to retain much more information than simply writing down steps - and also get in those buzzwords that will tick the boxes in an exam.

Here I looked at the key steps of delivering a public health intervention, then further broke them up into my main considerations, where I would find the information and what I would do with it.

3. Go beyond the basics - make your answer personal to your target population.

Understandng the complex theory of public health practice is one thing, but what will really show your examiners that you know what you're talking about is simple. You're talking about real people. Each problem you face in public health nutrition affects real people with different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Think about this when you frame your answer - because one of the key things an examiner will look for is your application of principles specifically to that issue. Think about your own ability to access quality nutrition. What struggles might you face (whether that be financial, a lack of transport, a lack of knowledge about certain foods) and how do they differ from other communities, groups and individuals. If you are recommending that the solution to nutritionally poor food options in canteens, for example, is to increase the amount of healthy food products - are these products accounting for the cultural needs of the school's student body? Do these students have the finiancial means to afford these foods for their lunches or snacks? Are they aware of what are the healthier options or do they need support in making these choices?

Consider the individual barriers and enablers to your suggestion and express these in your responses. It's okay to have a flawed plan, as long as you identify its flaws and establish ways to work around them.

4. Use your public health placement experience! You did it for a reason!

Utilise what you have been taught - engage your examiners in a personal experience that helps get the point across. Following the example I used earlier, if your solution to an issue is to increase healthy food options in a school canteen and this is also a strategy you used in your placement experience - tell your story of what worked and what didn't. Tell your examiner why you chose the things you did, what considerations you made and if the project wasn't a success, what would you have done differently.

Finally, be confident in your answers - you have the experience.

It was definitely tough not having much to go on for practice, so here I've provided a copy of the practice tool I used when preparing for my exam which incorporates the lessons here into a practice exam format. Just check the student Fileshare at

All the best, Julia

If you need assistance with public health exam preparation, tutoring is available on the site on the BOOK tab via online video chat or over-the-phone sessions.

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