Fear of the GPC Exam by Thomas Assel, GPC

The GPC exam. Is it really that scary? I mean, what’s there to fear? Sure, it costs about $500, and you might fail, which would be a hit to the wallet as well as the ego. And all that time you spent preparing will have gone down the drain.

What about the exam itself? The multiple-choice questions can be scary. Those kinds of test seemed pretty easy back in high school. We had all the correct answers in our class notes or textbooks or whatever. And if we studied for a multiple-choice test back in school, the right answers would stand out like neon signs. But the GPC exam is tougher. We’re dealing with more nuanced concepts than what year the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts, or the atomic weight of chlorine, or the second derivative with respect to x of 5x+ 2x3. All those things have definite answers. Questions about grants rarely have definite answers. What’s scary about the GPC exam multiple choice is that you may read a question and have a good idea of what you believe is the right answer, but that answer isn’t a choice. You have to choose the best answer. And best can be subjective and depend on your perspective. That lack of definite right answers can be stressful, if not outright terrifying.

And now we come to the truly frightening: the essay. What’s so scary about the essay? There’s no way to prepare for it. You don’t know the topic. It’s like going out to fight a monster without knowing which monster you’ll fight. If it was a werewolf, you’d bring your gun loaded with silver bullets. If it was a vampire, you’d bring your garlic, crucifix, and wooden stakes and mallet. If it was a mummy, you’d bring…what, a flamethrower, I guess? Mummies are dry. I bet they go up like old, dead Christmas trees. The point is, your foreknowledge of the situation increases your chances of a successful outcome.

The essay allows for no such focused preparation. The only resources you have are your skills as a writer, your general knowledge of grants, and your real-world experience in applying that knowledge. You don’t know what topic within the grant development process you’ll be asked about, and you certainly don’t know the context in which you’ll have to apply that topic. You may have spent your whole career in domestic violence services, and the essay portion asks you to write about an animal rescue shelter or a community center. And you may not be given all the information you feel you need to adequately address the topic. So, you may be asked to write something you’re not used to writing, about a field in which you’ve never worked, and that requires information you haven’t been given. No wonder the essay is a scary beast to face, let alone conquer!

So what do we do? I like to start with advice from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic. We must relax if we hope to receive and understand a writing prompt, process what info we’re given, make reasonable assumptions where we must, and effectively respond to the prompt. We can also improve our general knowledge of grants beforehand. Write as many grants as you can to as many different funders as you can. Read a book or two about grants. I recommend The Only Grant-Writing Book You’ll Ever Need by Ellen Karsh, and Grant Writing for Dummies by Dr. Bev Browning. Know the different elements of grant proposals. Attend an exam study group (which will also help you on the multiple-choice portion). Develop your background knowledge of the grant-seeking process, and then, on test day, trust that knowledge.

Also, don’t be afraid to let your creativity shine through on the essay portion. You can make reasonable assumptions to answer the prompt to your satisfaction. And the best part is this: no development director, finance director, or executive director will tell you they can’t implement what you’ve written. Assume everything in your essay world is free from dysfunction, and then revel in that fantasy.

There are plenty of things a reasonable person can fear. There are monsters in this world who look like everyday people. Disease, death, and other disasters can turn our existence into a nightmare in a heartbeat. But we keep going. We must be courageous if we’re to slay monsters, and we must remember that courage is not the absence of fear, but it is instead our perseverance in the face of that fear. The GPC exam is no exception. There’s no shame in being afraid of wasting time and money on an exam you might not pass. But with solid preparation and a positive attitude, you can and will slay the beast.