Education Lessons Nonfiction Observations

The Oral Exam (VII).

It looked a little bit like those sporting events where the two teams meet in the middle and shake hands with each other prior to the start of the game.

The eight examiners stood on one side of the wall; the seven examinees stood on the other side of the wall. Four examiners and four examinees peeled away to the other end of the hallway; the three of us remained with the leftover four examiners. We all shook hands with each other. I forgot their names the moment they finished the last syllables.

The rules of the exam were explained to us. We were to sit in the chair outside of the room until instructed to go inside. We would spend 12 minutes in the room and complete the task. Then we would have three minutes to move over to the next room. This would occur four times, for a total of one hour.

“Good luck!” the nasally man said to us. “Remember, your examiners want you to pass.”

All right, all right, so we’ve heard.

The three of us sat in the chairs and idly looked around as the examiners filed into their individual rooms. A petite woman wearing a charcoal grey skirt suit clicked down the hallway in her petite heels and peeked into all of the rooms.

“Okay. You may go inside.”

“I am going to read this vignette to you,” she said. Her English had a distinct Asian accent. “This is a treatment vignette, so all the questions will be related to treatment.”

She read the scenario with the excitement of someone reciting a grocery list. She then asked me for treatment recommendations.

After I supplied my succinct suggestions, she chuckled quietly. “No, no. Tell me about pharmacological treatment recommendations.”

I paused, my eyebrows reflexively furrowing. I wouldn’t recommend any pharmacological treatments in this scenario. I stuck to my guns: “One might consider using this or this, but I still would recommend What I Originally Said.”

She laughed quietly again, nervously looking at the timer on the table. “Okay, okay, we’ll come back to that question. Let me move on.”

The second examiner wore glasses and sported a warm smile on his face. He spoke evenly and seemed genuinely interested in me. Under different circumstances, I imagined that he was a well-liked teacher. However, these were not different circumstances and I had to stop imagining so I could get on with the test.

“I will play a clip from this DVD,” he said, “and this vignette will test your diagnostic skills.”

The video showed a faceless, male psychiatrist in a light brown tweed suit with those leather-like patches over the elbows interviewing a woman with a remarkable appearance (that I won’t repeat here for fear of receiving a “cease and desist and stop helping people cheat” letter from the board). I scribbled down some notes about the interaction.

“Question number one. Tell me about….”


“Number two. What would you consider….”


“Number three….”


(You didn’t think an oral board exam would sound like a Batman cartoon, didya?)

“Sit down, take your time, we’ve got plenty of time,” the third examiner said to me. He spoke with a Southern drawl. His hands were large. One hand could have easily crushed my face. (What? What do you mean I sound intimidated?)

As he read the vignette to me, I silently willed him to read faster. He was taking a leisurely jaunt along a lazy river, pausing frequently to smell the flowers, look up and pick out animal shapes in the clouds, and take in deep breaths of fresh mountain air.

I squashed the urge to begin bobbing my leg up and down.

“Any questions about that?” he finally concluded. I was sure six minutes had already passed.

“Nope,” I answered.

“Okay. So this is a treatment vignette. Tell me what risk factors this patient has for….”

I reviewed the sheet of paper and provided my answer, albeit interspersed with a few “um”s.

“What about this modality?”

“Oh, right,” I said, feeling my face flush. “This and That are also options.”

“Very good,” he said, turning the page. He would redirect me two more times.

After we easily got through the rest of the questions, the first examiner did eventually return to the first question. I repeated the same answer for the third time. I was that confident (foolish?) in my response. I don’t know if she finally agreed with me or resigned to my stubbornness, but she ultimately said, “Okay. Time is up.”

The last examiner also wore glasses, though his face was all serious and no smiles. His posture and style of dress was consistent with his facial expression.

“The questions for this vignette are focused on diagnosis,” he began. “I will read this to you.”

I don’t remember much more about this interaction, save that he spent at least three minutes asking about infectious diseases.

The petite woman in the charcoal grey suit saw us treading out into the hallway.

“You guys are all done! You can go back to the buses now!” she said brightly.

I lingered in the hallway while the other two examinees walked away. I pulled out a bottle of water and took a few gulps. After a stop at the restroom, I swung my bag over my shoulder again and began my exodus from the building.

No one else was around. The sunlight gleamed on the tiled floor and I caught a few specks of dust floating in the warm air. I felt the cloth of my suit sticking to the back of my neck. I began to walk faster, eager to feel fresh air on my face.