Preparing For The Ophthalmology Oral Board Exam:  An Overview

The oral board exam tests clinical knowledge differently than the written board exam in several ways.  The ABO’s website does a very nice job of explaining how the test is set up, how you will be prompted, how much time you will have per section, etc.  To summarize, there are 3 categories of ophthalmic knowledge/critical thinking that are tested:

Data acquisition

The cases are presented in vignette/”props”, which may be a written case, picture, or diagram, and questions will be asked about that particular situation.

Translation:  Because this is a timed test, pattern recognition is crucial and can be refined to be as quick as possible.  Delays in recognizing the clinical scenario can limit your performance.  The image description on the oral board exam is different than struggling through describing a photograph in Grand Rounds, where you find stalling words as you struggle to figure out what in the world you’re looking at.  If you stall, you lose time.  The description should be short and sweet.

My study strategy:  For me, flashcard studying worked out as the best way for me to build up my speed in recognizing cases.  I made PowerPoint presentations with full-screen images of various diseases and exam findings that I found by searching Google, from the online atlases/resources I found, or from my textbooks (I will post an article detailing the textbooks I used to study for the oral boards eventually and link it here).  I would then mix them up in random order, then try to flip through them as quickly as possible, just naming the diagnosis.  I was able to load the PowerPoint presentations onto my iPhone, so I could quiz myself quickly during lunch or if I was waiting for a patient’s pupils to dilate.


If I understand the ABO’s description of this section, they want board-certified ophthalmologists to be able to formulate a diverse enough differential diagnosis as well as being able to arrive at the correct diagnosis.

Translation:  For any given case, be prepared to give a list of things that may mimic an exam finding or perhaps list some of the major causes of that exam finding.

My study strategy:  For every case I studied, I spent time creating a differential diagnosis that I could then memorize as I built my PowerPoint “flashcards.”  So after I optimized my rapid recognition skills, I then honed my recognition + differential diagnosis speed.


For this section, I think the ABO is trying to assess how logical and reasonable your approach to diagnostic workup and treatment is.  I’ve heard a lot of folks say something along these lines:  “the written board exam tests your level of ophthalmology knowledge; the oral board exam tests to make sure you will be a safe ophthalmologist.”

Translation:  This is what you do every day with every patient.  You explain the diagnosis, discuss the plan for additional testing (if warranted), your recommendation for treatment, and the prognosis.

My study strategy:  Although most young ophthalmologists should feel pretty comfortable reciting the workup plan and treatment option in order of least-invasive to most-invasive without much preparation, I tend to blank in test situations unless I have something prepared ahead of time.  So I added sections on diagnostic tests, treatments, and prognosis to my flashcards and then practiced shortening the timing on my recitation.

What do you think?  Do you have any different strategies for studying for the oral board exam?  Send me a message!