With These 5 Steps, You CAN Pass Your Specialty Board Exam

The road to veterinary specialization is a long, arduous one.  First, you have to get into vet school and excel there. Then you do post-graduate training: an internship (for clinical disciplines) and then a residency.  Towards the end of your residency, you have to submit your credentials to demonstrate you are qualified to take the specialty exam. Everything leads up to the exam, which, if you pass, makes you a Board Certified Specialist.

Many board exams have a pass rate of around 50%.  So even AFTER all that arduous training, as well as studying for the exam, your odds of passing are like flipping a coin.  Even very smart people sometimes don’t pass boards. Some people, unfortunately, never pass their board exam. Fortunately, passing is not random, and you can take steps to maximize your chance of success.

1) Kick ass during your residency.  “Those who do the work do the learning.”  This is an oft-repeated phrase for classroom teachers, but it applies here.  If you phone in your rounds participation or your resident prep topics, you will have more to study prior to boards.  Take every opportunity to learn during your program. Notice I don’t say ‘work harder’- everyone works hard during their residency.  YOU can work smarter. You are earning low pay in a time-consuming, soul-crushing training program: get what you can from it.

2) Get perspective.  I only spent 3 weeks at a human hospital during my residency, but I learned a tremendous amount during that time.  My experiences during an anesthesia externship in Dublin and a critical care externship in Colorado dramatically improved my understanding of important, universal concepts.  As much as possible, seek out opportunities to learn from a wide spectrum of people during your residency.

3) Get time off.  No matter what job you get after your residency, you NEED to negotiate for time off to study.  This should be time off from clinics, teaching, and most other responsibilities. You need to be able to dedicate a solid 6-10 hours a day to studying, and you can’t do that if you’re preparing for a classroom course or covering on-call time.  This needs to be IN WRITING before you accept any job.

4) Study seriously.  Get organized. Don’t blow off days.  Make progress every day. Find an accountability program or app if you need to.  It seems redundant for me to say “be motivated,” but I have met many people studying for boards who do not seem particularly motivated.  If this describes you, come up with some mechanisms which work for you. Play Minecraft and, during the Minecraft night, study. Read a Cracked article for every hour you study.  Whatever you need to motivate you, do that.

5) Practice.  Cooperate with others preparing for boards and give each other questions.  They can also help hold you accountable. Ask your mentors (or former mentors) for any practice questions they may have.  When the anesthesia college used to do oral exams, my impression is that most people failed because they didn’t have a strategy, not because they lacked the knowledge.

The specialty board exam is the culmination of at least 10 years (and often much more) of higher education.  Why would you not dedicate every single resource at your disposal to successfully passing? Work smart, learn from many people, have dedicated time to study, be serious about studying, and practice.  It does not guarantee passing, but it’s the best chance you have, so why not take it?

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