The Oral Board Exam:  I'm Here, Now What?

Obviously, I’m not allowed to say anything about the actual content of the oral board exam.  However, I thought I’d at least discuss some of the logistical aspects of the oral board exam from my experience.  The challenge in describing the experience is that for most people, taking the oral board exam is a once-in-a-lifetime deal.  Additionally, everyone has their personalized rituals and detailing what I did is in no way the only or right way of doing things.

In this article, I will try to recall step-by-step what I did from the time my flight landed to the time I left for the airport.  I won’t go into details about how I registered for the test or anything else like that, I intend to cover that in a separate article.  I don’t know if it will help anyone, but perhaps it can at least answer some of those logistics questions that the ABO doesn’t include on their otherwise fairly comprehensive info sheet.

My Test Schedule

Since everyone is grouped into different testing blocks, I think it would be helpful to discuss my test schedule and travel itinerary.

From what I gathered, the candidates are split into one of 4 testing groups.  Once I arrived, I “registered” for the test at a specific time prior to the actual test:

Test Block






Saturday AM

Saturday PM (me)

Sunday AM

Sunday PM

Registration Time

Friday PM

Saturday AM

Saturday PM

Sunday AM

I didn’t include actual times, as I imagine the actual time window is subject to change, and may be affected by other variables such as last name.

I was extremely paranoid that I would miss my window for registration, so I booked a flight that would arrive the day prior to registration (Friday night).  My return flight left the day after (Sunday morning), so I wouldn’t feel any additional stress or pressure time-wise while I was taking the test.

I realize travel arrangements can become extremely expensive (especially on a recent residency graduate/fellow), and perhaps another good article would discuss ways to save as much money as possible preparing for and taking the test.  Some of my friends, for financial reasons, booked flights that arrived the same day as their test and left within 2-3 hours of completing their test so that they would not have to spend any money on a hotel room.  This doesn’t work well for everyone (after all, flight schedules are terribly finicky), but for me, I didn’t want travel stress to compound the already stressful situation of taking the board exam.  I shared a room with one of my fellow residents to help offset the cost of the hotel expenses.

Arriving At The Airport

I chose not to check any bags (my paranoid self didn’t want to end up in a situation where the airlines lost my luggage or something).  So after I got off the plane, I decided to take public transportation to get to the hotel (the ABO handout provides some resources for mapping out travel arrangements).  About 45 minutes-1 hour later, I arrived at the hotel.

Checking Into The Hotel

While some braver souls than I may choose to find cheaper lodging near the hotel where the actual oral board exam is being held, I decided it would be logistically easier to stay at the same hotel as the exam.  Since this is a pretty big event, the ABO and the hotel posted signs everywhere showing where to go.

For those people staying at the hotel, I just told the concierge at the front desk I was with the ABO to make sure that I got a room in the block – though it was probably not necessary since the group price was marked when the room was booked.  Since I didn’t have to register for the exam until the following morning, I met up with some friends for dinner and went to bed early.

Morning Of The Test

I woke up super early that morning.  I live in the Eastern time zone, and the test was being administered in San Francisco, so my body thought it was 7:00am when it was 4:00am local time.  Unfortunately nothing was open for an early breakfast.  I tried to go back to sleep but as I’m sure many of you can relate, it’s a bit difficult to go back to sleep given the circumstances.  So while I waited for breakfast and for registration time, I did some last-minute review.  I flipped through my PowerPoint flashcards and I looked over some mnemonics of differential diagnoses.  After breakfast, I went down to register.

Test Registration

In one of the conference rooms at the hotel, test registration takes place.  There is no dress code for the test registration, though many people were already in their test attire.  I looked like slob, dressed in my T-shirt and jeans, but basically I brought a photo ID and picked up my registration packet.

There wasn’t any major secret from what I recall about the registration packet; it contained my name tag and the room assignment/times for my test.  As the ABO website states, there are 6 separate exam rooms.  The packet also specified the order of subject material being tested, though I doubt it really matters too much from a preparation standpoint.  It was nice to have an idea of what to expect in each room, though.  After doing some more reviewing, I decided to take a break and eat lunch with my roommate for the weekend and then got dressed for the test.

Test Time

Aside from your name badge and being dressed in business attire, I left everything else in my hotel room – of course, that’s a bit trickier for those folks leaving immediately after the test and have to check out of their rooms prior to the exam.  But since you’re not allowed to carry pretty much anything into the exam, I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of handing my stuff over to someone else to watch while I took the test.

The testing rooms are the actual hotel rooms in which the examiners are staying.  All of the examiners are situated on the same floor in adjoining rooms.  Chairs are positioned outside each room, and each candidate sits in that chair prior to going into the exam room.  The candidates are arranged in groups of 6, and you basically rotate through the adjoining 6 rooms to take the test.  If you get done with a section early, you leave the room.  There is usually a short 5-ish minute break between each section to go use the restroom or get a refreshment.  Unfortunately, there were no public restrooms on the floor where we were testing, but there were 2 suites open for “hospitality” where there were granola bars, juice, coffee, sodas, and other sorts of snacks.  The suites had single bathrooms, and so with the several hundred people taking the test, 5 minutes sometimes wasn’t enough time to wait in line for the bathroom and then get back to your seat for the next test.  If you take too long for your break, it eats into your test time.

The examiner will sometimes be accompanied by an “examiner in training” – basically someone who is learning how to administer the test.  They are simply observing so it really doesn’t affect the overall test experience.  With each room, you and the examiner(s) will greet each other, and then sit at a table across from each other.  You will then go through the test.  Once you are done with the section, you exit the room.  When you are done with the entire exam, you are free to leave.  The test moderators go over all of these instructions with you prior to the exam and will try to help with some of the logistics questions you may have; however, they are limited in some of the information they can provide since the goal is to have a very consistent testing experience.

Test Aftermath

After talking with my friends afterwards about the experience, we all concluded that we had no idea how well or poorly we did on the test afterwords.  The scoring system is secret, and even during the test there was no indication of what were right or wrong answers.  But I do think that the ABO’s suggestions for preparation are accurate – while it’s important to have a good amount of base knowledge, what helps you get through the test is practicing the oral cadence you need to have in order to work through as many cases as possible.

After I completed the test, I went out to dinner with my friends and commiserated.  I packed up my bags (since my flight left early in the morning), and stopped by the bellhop station to verify that I could catch a cab to the airport in the morning.  Then I went to sleep, woke up, then went to the airport.

What was your oral board exam experience?  Do you have a particular routine or want to share any tips that seemed to work for you?  Do you have any specific questions about the oral board exam experience? Send me a message!