By: Ashley Palafox
My Path to the HT:
I completed the Histotechnician Program at Merritt College in Oakland, California after deciding to go back to school and change careers. I’ve been very fortunate to spend the past several years at an excellent job in histology at a biotech company serving cancer patients, and completed an internship at a major university in the Bay Area as a part of my program.
I recently passed my HT exam after months of studying and preparation, and I’m happy to use what I learned along my journey to help others who are getting ready for their own HT.
My studying focused on organizing and absorbing the massive breadth of information contained in Frieda Carson’s Histotechnology: A Self-Instructional Text (2014). I made my way through the book more or less from cover to cover, in the order the topics appear. I took notes on each chapter by hand, because I find the physical act of writing does something to help cement information in my mind, though I know others who have typed their notes instead. Once I had taken notes, I went back through them, continuing to use the book as a reference, and created flashcards of key concepts and vocabulary. I also filled out worksheets on each fixative and stain, including the purpose, principle, control tissue, major reagents, and troubleshooting for each. I encourage you to find or create a template like this that you can fill in—the act of creating the sheets will provide helpful repetition, and once you’re done you can organize them into a binder and study out of that. It is helpful to pair example images of the stains with their respective worksheets, too.
As I made my way through the book, I tested myself using the sections of the BOC Study Guide book and NSH + Lab CE Histology Exam Simulator that pertained to what I had just learned. As I studied each new chapter, I would quiz myself on just that content for a little while, then add it to the cumulative list of things I could review using the practice tests. The Lab CE Simulator was my most-used resource, and I recommend it very highly! You can choose any of several different ways to use it, from questions on a specific subject (eg. lab operations) to full 100 question exam simulations. There is also a Lab CE app available, which meant I was able to take practice tests on my phone whenever I had some free time (many of my lunch breaks were spent this way). I did a practice test every day for several weeks leading up to my exam.
Some Study Tips:
If you can, attend a test preparation workshop at the NSH Symposium/Convention, or one local to you. I took a class taught by Jennifer MacDonald, HT (ASCP), RT (CSMLS) from Mt. San Antonio College at last year’s California Society for Histotechnology Symposium/Convention, and it was invaluable to have access to her years of knowledge and be able to ask questions alongside others who were also preparing for the test.
Study fixatives! I had a lot of questions related to fixatives on my exam, and knowing them backward and forward helped me to be confident with these questions, and also helps a lot with special stains.
Understand the mechanism of action of different reagents and stains—this will help you work out the correct answer using logic even if you may not know it from memorization.
Utilize all the free resources you can find online, including NSH’s Image Bank and Archived Webinars. I also found presentations from Sakura Finetek available on YouTube, which were great for review.
Review some test-taking strategy tips, especially if you are a nervous test taker or not naturally good at standardized tests (most people aren’t!). Read each question and each potential answer carefully before answering. Be aware of words like “always”, “never”, “only” and “except”. You may see questions with wording like, “Which of the following actions would NOT prevent the artifact seen in the image?”
Focus your studying on the highest impact areas (special stains, followed by fixation, embedding and microtomy)—there is a percentage breakdown on the ASCP Examination Content Guideline.
The day of the exam, I spent the morning relaxing instead of trying to do any last minute cramming, and I would recommend this to you, too. Arrive early-- but know that you cannot bring any study materials with you into the test center. Bring a bottle of water and use the time you wait to take some deep breaths. It’s time for all your preparation to pay off!
You can flag questions to revisit as you go along during the test. You have to answer each question before you can go on to the next, and because it is a computer-adaptive test, the difficulty of your next question will be determined by whether or not you got the previous one correct, so read carefully and give your best answer the first time.
After you have answered all 100 questions, you are given the option to review, which you can do by going back through all 100 again, reviewing only the questions you flagged, or picking questions individually from a list to review. I flagged several questions during my test, and chose to go back through all 100, paying closest attention to those I had flagged. Sometimes you will get a question later on in the exam that resolves some doubt you had about a previous answer (“Yes, that stain DOES require 10um sections”) and you can revise your answer if need be. That said, don’t change anything unless you are absolutely sure—your first instinct is usually your best, and you can get into trouble by going back and changing too much.
Happy studying, and good luck on your exam!