Oral exams pose great challenges. That being said, preparing for an oral exam is no joke either.
Not everyone has to go through studying and performing in an oral exam, but those who do know how tough it can be to impress the examiners.
Your knowledge must be on point, as there is little time to think. Sometimes, it is advisable to dress or act in a certain way. On top of all that, most people feel anxious and stressed before their oral exams. Now try to condense all that in just 3 days!
Speaking anxiety may indeed decrease your performance, but I believe the number one challenge in oral exams is time pressure. On the one hand, you need to master the material in a couple of weeks. On the other hand, you don’t have time to think which alternative is the correct one, you need to say something. Describing phenomena, listing possible causes for a specific situation, explain your view on the solution to a problem and so on.
So, there’s more to it than just knowing the material, you need to achieve a certain level of fluency in order to comfortably talk about it. That extra requirement means extra preparation work; remember this is not an MCQ test.
Last Thursday, I performed at my last oral exam (possibly last exam ever). I like to say perform because it is, indeed, almost like putting up a show. In this case, you need to entertain and please the examiners with your knowledge. A great performance means a good grade.
I finished my Internal Medicine rotation and this oral exam was meant to wrap it up. In short, it consisted in interviewing and examining a patient and then discussing the diagnoses with the teachers – Dr. House style.
The main challenge with this exam was the density of content we were supposed to cover. In theory, my patient could have any disease, from cardiac failure to liver cancer.
I also had very little time to get things done, only 3 days. I could have (ok, I should have) studied at least a couple weeks in advance, but other projects and work here on The Student Power kept me busy. 3 days would have to suffice to get at least passing grade.
The Game Plan
After some quick thinking about the challenge ahead, I laid down a simple strategy.
- Use a quality source. The book Current Diagnosis and Treatment lists the most important diseases affecting each system of the human body. All the information is extremely well organized, mainly with bullet points and simple pointers to which tests and treatments you should prescribe.
- Divide my study time into well-defined blocks. I had to be efficient – this time studying boils down to cramming. I used 45 minutes studying actively and 10-15 minutes break (checking social, taking a break, chatting with roommates, getting some food).
- Look for mnemonics to accelerate the process. I came up with my own mnemonics for content hard to memorize. There is also some quality material online in sites like Medical Mnemonics.
- Pray to Asclepius, the father of Medicine, born in Ancient Greece.
It was now time to send in the troops. The war against forgetting was about to start.
I ended up studying the main diseases from the main systems, increasing the probability of interviewing a patient suffering from a disorder I was familiarized with. This selective approach, coupled with guesstimating which diseases are most prevalent in my sector, yielded great results.
But the key studying methods I used were mnemonics and visualization. I used small, usually funny acronyms to retain lists of items, such as Indications for Dialysis, Causes of Pneumonia, Complications of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
By visualization, I mean mind maps and selective memorization. It’s of no use to memorize every detail of a chapter. Instead, I tried to visualize how different concepts relate to each other, like a mental mind map, if you will.
In Medicine, this is particularly risky to do, because most of the content must be memorized no matter what. But this was not and MCQ test nor a written test. During an oral exam, you’re better off if you quickly apply theoretical principles and talk about how to apply them in practical situations.
Since simply reading and reciting content is considered to be a relatively low yield study strategy, from the second day onward, I moved away from theory and went into practice. Instead of just reading my way to the final exam, I picked a clinical case book and started solving a few of them.
This is one of the easiest ways to learn something – problem solving. Not just studying for an exam, but really learning. Multiple choice questions about varied clinical cases made me think about the concepts I just revised and ask “Why is this so?”, “Why this antibiotic and not the other?”, “Why does this exception apply on this patient?”.
Unsurprisingly, solving clinical cases about simple and common disorders (such as cardiac failure, respiratory failure, asthma, diabetes and so on) taught me much more than hours of reading and studying.
The Big Day
In exam day, I showed up in the hospital early so I would have time to calmly interview and examine the patient. I was a bit unlucky, as his case was quite complex. Not even the doctors responsible for that patient knew his diagnosis yet.
It was up to me to speculate about his diagnosis during the exam. I had to support my claims on data collected from the patient and on my own observations.
One doctor presided the exam and another one helped with an extra question or two. Solving clinical cases was a smart move, as their questions focused on the reasons WHY I would ask for exam X or Y. Similarly, they asked me to explain my reasoning behind each diagnosis I came up with.
In the end, the balance was positive. I still don’t know my grade, but it went very well. I was never paralyzed when answering to their questions, not even when addressing the toughest ones. Some advice:
- Usually, it’s ok with teachers to take some time to think after each question. Use that pause to plan a compelling answer. Your conclusions should be deducted logical from clear premises, preferably based on the sources you studied from or your own observations.
- Don’t fight teachers during an oral exam, even if you’re 100% sure you’re right. It’s a recipe for disaster, remember that they are still the ones grading your work.
- Don’t get nervous if something goes wrong. Even if you start off really badly, the examiners usually conduct the test in a structured way. They start with moderately difficult questions and then move to easier ones if your performance is weak. These questions are the ones awarding passing grades (just make sure to get these right).
- Stay away from drugs! Some students take beta-blockers or even benzodiazepines (!) before taking oral exams. That is surely the pharmacological recipe for disaster – the risk is not worth the apparent reward.
Take Home Messages
- Preparing for an Oral Exam is never easy. Try to prepare well ahead of time (and not 3 days before).
- Note that preparing for an oral exam is not the same as preparing for any other type of written test. Act accordingly and work on your fluency and complete grasp of the concepts.
- Diversify your study sources and try to solve problems that force you to apply theoretical principles to real-life examples.
- Don’t get too nervous. It’s just you in front of 1-3 teachers talking about what you know about something you studied for. Only one thing can go wrong: failing the exam. This is no tragedy, as you can always try again.