12 Tips from Neel Burton for Acing Your OSCEs

  1. Don’t panic. Be philosophical about your exams. Put them into perspective. And remember that as long as you do your bit, you are statistically very unlikely to fail. Book a holiday to a sunny Greek island starting on the day after your exams to help focus your attention.
  2. Read the instructions carefully and stick to them. Sometimes it’s just possible to have revised so much that you no longer ‘see’ the instructions and just fire out the bullet points like an automatic gun. If you forget the instructions or the actor looks at you like Caliban in the mirror, ask to read the instructions again. A related point is this: pay careful attention to the facial expression of the actor or examiner. Just as an ECG monitor provides live indirect feedback on the heart’s performance, so the actor or examiner’s facial expression provides live indirect feedback on your performance, the only difference being – I’m sure you’ll agree – that facial expressions are far easier to read than ECG monitors.
  3. Quickly survey the cubicle for the equipment and materials provided. You can be sure that items such as hand disinfectant, a tendon hammer, a sharps bin, or a box of tissues are not just random objects that the examiner later plans to take home.
  4. First impressions count. You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. As much of your future career depends on it, make sure that you get off to an early start. And who knows? You might even fool yourself.
  5. Prefer breadth to depth. Marks are normally distributed across a number of relevant domains, such that you score more marks for touching upon a large number of domains than for exploring any one domain in great depth. Do this only if you have time, if it seems particularly relevant, or if you are specifically asked. Perhaps ironically, touching upon a large number of domains makes you look more focused, and thereby safer and more competent.
  6. Don’t let the examiners put you off or hold you back. If they are being difficult, that’s their problem, not yours. Or at least, it’s everyone’s problem, not yours. And remember that all that is gold does not glitter; a difficult examiner may be a hidden gem.
  7. Be genuine. This is easier said than done, but then even actors are people. By convincing yourself that the OSCE stations are real situations, you are much more likely to score highly with the actors, if only by ‘remembering’ to treat them like real patients. This may hand you a merit over a pass and, in borderline situations, a pass over a fail. Although they never seem to think so, students usually fail OSCEs through poor communication skills and lack of empathy, not through lack of studying and poor memory.
  8. Enjoy yourself. After all, you did choose to be there, and you probably chose wisely. If you do badly in one station, try to put it behind you. It’s not for nothing that psychiatrists refer to ‘repression’ as a ‘defence mechanism’, and a selectively bad memory will do you no end of good.
  9. Keep to time but do not appear rushed. If you don’t finish by the first bell, simply tell the examiner what else needs to be said or done, or tell him or her indirectly by telling the patient, for example, “Can we make another appointment to give us more time to go through your treatment options?” Then summarise and conclude. Students often think that tight protocols impress examiners, but looking slick and natural and handing over some control to the patient is often far more impressive. And probably easier.
  10. Be nice to the patient. Have I already said this? Introduce yourself, shake hands, smile, even joke if it seems appropriate – it makes life easier for everyone, including yourself. Remember to explain everything to the patient as you go along, to ask them about pain before you touch them, and to thank them on the second bell. The patient holds the key to the station, and they may hand it to you on a silver platter if you seem deserving enough. That having been said, if you reach the end of the station and feel that something is amiss, there’s no harm in gently reminding them, for example, “Is there anything else that you feel is important but that we haven’t had time to talk about?” Nudge-nudge.
  11. Take a step back to jump further. Last minute cramming is not going to magically turn you into a good doctor, so spend the day before the exam relaxing and sharpening your mind. Go to the country, play some sports, stream a film. And make sure that you are tired enough to fall asleep by a reasonable hour.
  12. Finally, remember to practise, practise, and practise. Look at the bright side of things: at least you’re not going to be alone, and there are going to be plenty of opportunities for good conversations, good laughs, and good meals. You might even make lifelong friends in the process. And then go off to that Greek island.

Adapted from the new sixth edition of Clinical Skills for OSCEs.

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