The Oral Board Exam:  Resources

In this part, I will address some resources for studying for the oral board exam.  This is a very frequently asked question.  While there are plenty of review books and tools available to prepare for the OKAP and written board exam, the oral board exam can feel more foreign to us in comparison to the multiple-choice tests we've been taking for the previous 4+ years (if you count all previous standardized testing, it would be close to a decade's worth of multiple choice tests), and as such, we wonder if we should be preparing differently.

Again, my list of resources is but one of many options out there.  I am also working on more detailed reviews of every study resource I can find.  But in terms of studying for the oral board exam, it is important to carefully choose what resources you use in order to maximize the quality of information you need to know and optimize your study time.


While there are TONS of textbooks and review books out there, I firmly believe that a simple approach is necessary when it comes to studying for the board exams - both written and oral.  While there are definitely pros and cons to each resource available, the worst thing you can do is become book-rich and time-poor.  After all, for most of us studying for the written and oral board exams, we are also navigating the beginnings of our careers as attending ophthalmologists, building up our patient base, networking with our colleagues, and reconnecting with our families after the lengthy grind of residency and fellowship.  So after careful consideration, here are the top 3 book resources I think you definitely should have for oral board study:

  1. Ophthalmology Clinical Vignettes:  Oral Board Study Guide, 2nd Edition (New Release!)
    • Summary:  If you haven't heard about it before, John Pemberton, et al have put together 113 clinical vignettes covering some of the common topics in ophthalmology.  It includes optics questions, and has a nice format for the information so that you can start organizing everything for the oral exam.  I think that for most people preparing for the oral board exam, this is a must-read book.  The new edition was JUST released, so I have not gotten a chance to look at it myself.  But it looks shiny and blue, so it's definitely worth checking out!
    • Pros:
      • Image prompts for most cases
      • Format for each case follows a logical order for how to discuss each disease in the oral board exam
      • Oral board exam-style optics questions are included
      • Essential information about each disease is listed
    • Cons:
      • Only 113 cases
      • Some answers are more detailed than others
      • No citations for the information (I didn't double check the information in comparison with other texts, so hopefully all of the information in the book is accurate!)
      • Some of the pictures are very small and of poorer quality (which actually may be helpful for preparing for the oral exam)
      • No digital version
    • How I used this resource:  I preferred to study using flashcards, so I allocated some time to create PowerPoint slides based off the information in the Pemberton book as a starting point (and adding other cases), then I used those PowerPoint slides to study.
  2. The Wills Eye Manual: Office and Emergency Room Diagnosis and Treatment of Eye Disease
    • Summary:  This is another helpful book. While not as "must-have" as the Pemberton book, it has far more conditions and is formatted in a similar fashion.  It is more detailed than Pemberton, is extremely practical on the management and workup side, and is a good secondary resource to "fill in the blanks."
    • Pros:
      • More cases
      • Many pictures of ocular disease
      • Format is still very similar to the order of presentation in the oral board exam
      • Digital version available
    • Cons:
      • No optics section
      • Because the manual is geared towards clinical practice rather than oral board exam study, there still needs to be some distilling of the information
    • How I used this resource:  I used this book a lot to get the details about the common diseases and help review workup and treatment.  As part of making my review PowerPoint, I studied extensively off the workup and treatment sections.
  3. Basic and Clinical Science Course (BCSC): Complete Print Set
    • Summary:  Of course, the American Academy of Ophthalmology's comprehensive set of basic ophthalmology knowledge should probably included in this list.  At the same time, unless you plan to study a full year (or more) for the oral board exam, I think it would extremely ambitious to read through the entire series before the exam, especially if you haven't read through it before.  However, if you've been following the BCSC reading schedule and hopefully have read through the entire BCSC series at least once before, this is a great resource to review as another "fill in the blank" sort of reference.
    • Pros:
      • Highly detailed
      • Digital format available
      • Contains most everything you need to know about each disease
    • Cons:
      • Probably too detailed for the oral board exam
      • Extremely cumbersome to read through in its entirety in preparation for the oral board exam (if you knew enough to pass the OKAPs and written qualifying exam, reading through the entire BCSC is probably going to be a waste of your time)
      • The information is not organized for the oral board exam - because it is geared towards the beginning ophthalmologist, there are plenty of obscure/uncommon diseases as well as discussion of fundamental principles that simply won't be tested on the oral board exam (like Section 2)
    • How I used this resource:  Honestly, I think I cracked open only one of the BCSC books the entire time I studied for the oral board exam.  I had taken extensive notes on all of the ophthalmology topics throughout residency and fellowship (which I am slowly converting on this site and hopefully will have formatted eventually into a multi-volume book), so I didn't really need to look at the texts again while I was studying.  At the same time, I'm sure many people prefer to take notes within the margins of their books, or are simply very fast readers.  Since the oral board exam tests less minutia than the OKAP and WQE, I think the BCSC should be used sparingly for oral board exam review.  Of course, that's just my opinion.
  4. Last-Minute Optics: A Concise Review of Optics, Refraction, and Contact Lenses, 2nd Edition
    • Summary:  For the oral board exam, the optics section is less about drawing ray diagrams and more about being able to concisely discuss optics concepts.  Drs. Hunter and West use a question-answer format to present this information in a short and sweet manner.
    • Pros:
      • Short and concise
      • Discusses the common optics concepts
    • Cons:
      • The oral board exam questions seemed to be very different from the way this book was organized
    • How I used this resource:  I read through this book the week before the oral board exam to recall the major optics concepts.  Honestly, I don't recall the questions from the oral board exam at all, so I can't say for sure whether or not reading this book was helpful.


Because the oral board exam format is designed to have many image prompts, it is crucial to be able to quickly identify pathology on an image you may or may not have ever seen before.  Obviously, this becomes second nature to us in our clinical practice - we've been doing this already for 4-6 years in residency and in our first years of practice, but for some reason looking at clinical pictures in a test setting can be more daunting than when you're sitting in the exam room talking with a live patient.  For this reason, I recommend having at least 1 good atlas that you can use as a resource to look at as many images as possible.  How I utilized this was taking advantage of the atlases I owned and the fact that they came with a CD of all of the images so that I can import them into a PowerPoint flashcard file.  I also looked at the many free online resources (I discussed this in a previous post) that have thousands of images of various eye diseases and diagnostic test results.  Then, on my flashcard file, I would quiz myself with short clinical vignettes and these images.

  1. Atlas Of Clinical Ophthalmology, 3rd Edition
    • Summary:  Spalton's Atlas of Clinical Ophthalmology is a great comprehensive atlas.  There really aren't many other atlases out there that are both comprehensive and also carry the same level of detail and description of clinical findings.  If you're going to own only one atlas, I think this one is head and shoulders above any other atlas.  Again, that's just my opinion.
    • Pros:
      • TONS of images
      • Explanations and diagrams of each image
      • Covers most common ophthalmology diseases
    • Cons:
      • Does not discuss management or workup in detail
      • Most recent edition is from 2005
    • How I used this resource:  I used the images in this atlas in my PowerPoint presentation.
  2. Cornea Atlas, 3rd Edition
    • Summary:  Krachmer and Palay have written the definitive texts in Cornea.  This brand-new edition of their Corneal Atlas looks really good.  I have the 2nd edition, which is also super awesome - tons of amazing high-quality images, and the new edition has online access.  Granted, this atlas is limited in its scope, but the number of corneal images makes it worthwhile to have for your personal library, even if you decide not to use it to study for the oral board exam.
    • Pros:
      • Extremely high-quality images
      • Images available on CD and online
      • Labels and captions that help point out the objects of interest
    • Cons:
      • Scope limited to cornea only
      • No details about management and workup
    • How I used this resource:  I used the images in this atlas in my PowerPoint presentation.


In recent years, there have been a few mobile apps that have been developed and may potentially be useful for studying.  I personally did not use any of these apps - it was not part of my study plan - but it might be intriguing for you.  I will update this sometime after I have done some more research on those apps, so that you can consider this as an option for your study plan.

Do you have any other resources that helped you study for the oral board exam?  Send me a message!