Basic survival guide to part one of board exams

scattered papers on desk with computer

Basic survival guide to part one of board exams

Board exams are done and real life can finally resume! That pretty much sums up the spring term of third year in one sweeping sentence.

After Christmas break, my schedule was trimmed down to focus solely on boards exam studying. Aside from attending classes and clinic, I spent the rest of my days over-accommodating my eyes in front of a computer or a book. After what feels like a stroll near the brink of my academic death and back, I’d like to share what I learned that no one ever told me. Of course, these are just my experiences. I understand that others have different modes of facing major exams, so please don’t take it all too seriously! These are just things I’ve learned that worked for me.

It’s Never to Early to Study

While I don’t consider myself to be a crammer, starting to study for an exam 6 months ahead of time did not feel like it would be productive and I did not begin my “real” studying until Christmas break. However, as hindsight is always 20/20, I truly wished I had at least eased myself into the process starting from fall semester. Simple tasks like watching educational videos are a very helpful way of passive learning that begins to jump start the brain cells and bring back memories of long lost anatomy acronyms from first year. If you are a vivid and dedicated visual learner who cannot memorize anything unless you draw it in 5 different colors first like I am, starting a little early is always a good idea as the complicated cardiac and renal systems aren’t going to draw themselves!

Test Prep Services Can Help

How did most of my classmates and I prepare? We signed up for the KMK Educational Services program. This program is similar to the Kaplan preparatory courses except it was started by optometrists and is specifically geared towards tackling the NBEO boards exams. There is no affiliation between KMK and the College and you have complete freedom to either participate or abstain from the program.

If you have taken fabulous notes throughout the years and have them handy by spring term of your third year, then you are a magical person and I bow to your academic rigor! However, if most of your notes have been scattered throughout your room and you can’t, for the life of you, keep any of your cranial nerves and their subdivisions straight…a program like KMK can really help put things in an organized and summarized manner. The cost of the course was worth it in my opinion!

Create a Study Schedule

Angela and a friend in front of board that says one more day.

After metaphorically pulling out all my hair at the end of the day from practice exams and flash card questions that asked every detail of every topic, it was easy to get discouraged by the realization that I simply could not fit all the knowledge I needed into my brain. I am an over-analyzer by nature and tend to overthink every problem asked on exams so it was easy for me to get anxious and overwhelmed during the studying process.

One of the most beneficial things I found was a realistic academic study schedule created by one of my classmates. Their timetable focused on one topic a week throughout the semester and allowed for one week of review prior to the exam. Following this schedule allowed me to concentrate on one topic at a time, knowing that I would have plenty of time to accomplish all topics.


Not all Studying Happens at Home

While some people might have dreaded having class while studying for a major exam, I found it helpful to have ocular disease and pediatric classes concurrently with studying because some of my studying could be done by simply attending class! Class also fed the over-analyzer in me by teaching not only the “what,” but also the “why” and “how” of many ocular diseases, which helped me understand the topic instead of simply memorizing. The test itself is not meant to trick you, but it was not unexpected that easily confused concepts and things that professors have stressed repeatedly popped up on the exam as well!

At NECO, we have our regularly scheduled courses concurrently while studying for board exams. This can be tricky as midterms fall about a week before the boards exam. However, the school has taken measures to make it as smooth a transition as possible.

First, there are only two classes in the spring of your third year that have actual written midterm exams. Other courses have group projects or presentations that fall throughout the semester to even out the workload.
Second, if students plan ahead they can finish all elective courses by the fall semester, which will lift another weight from your course schedule in the spring semester!
While midterms are pretty challenging, I found studying for them actually quite helpful for boards exam studying. Ocular disease is considered a heavyweight topic for the board exam, so studying for the midterm at the same time actually provided me a much better foundation and preparation than simply reviewing the summaries from the KMK program.

Emails and Pep Talks

Angela running with dog.While studying for such a big exam can be isolating, some of our faculty rallied together and gave us a pep talk about a week before the exam. Many of the faculty either sent us e-mails to boost our confidence or participated in a small presentation to our class during midterms week. This made me feel a little bit more at ease because they just seemed to have such faith in us, not only as their students, but as their future colleagues.

When professors came to talk to us about boards, they gave us realistic pep talks about how these exams are a mental marathon. They encouraged us to think of the Boards as a right-of-passage for all optometry students. They recommended getting plenty of sleep, continue to participate in activities and hobbies that would help relieve stress, and to be kind to each other as everyone’s emotions are high-strung and on edge! My stress-relieving hobby was borrowing my classmates’ dog for a run along the Esplanade!

Most importantly, they stressed that while this exam may feel like the pinnacle of our entire existence, it truly did not define us as people or future doctors. Yes, it’s an important obstacle, but even if we have to try more than once, that certainly did not speak to our knowledge or the level of care we can provide patients. Basically, the summary was “take a deep breath, get sleep, get breakfast, and try your best.” It sounds cheesy, but I appreciate when faculty acknowledge what students are going through.

There were days when I sat in the same study room with the same 5 people and I had entirely forgotten who else was in my class! So it was definitely spirit-lifting to congregate with all my long-lost classmates who have each been hiding in their own study cave and hear that we will come through in the end. One of my classmates, Jesse Hogan, even designed a class T-shirt that we could wear after it was all over! It’s a “punny” (pun + funny) that ties in the great Star Wars with our board exams struggles, I agree that studying for a major exam is about as intense as intergalactic space battles!

Getting Back to Business

While the waiting game for Board results has begun, it feels like we are being jolted back into reality. Third year students now have a business project due in a few weeks that requires an in-depth business plan and financial analysis as well as laboratories where we are learning injections and scleral depression techniques. It’s a nice change of pace to learn about non-optometry subjects as well as participating in labs again.

I truly wished we had more time to learn the business aspect of optometry as I feel its importance is equal to the medical side, so I’m trying to absorb as much knowledge as I can from our business class. Cash flow statements, balance sheets…it’s all still a foreign language to me, but I’m hoping to gain more knowledge as the semester continues and through my private practice rotation this summer as well! My mother is very “money-savvy” and her teachings along with my previous doctor’s recommendation all push me to believe that while optometry school teaches us how to be doctors, it is our financial decisions that will keep us employed, provide the ability to pay back our loans faster, and keep us financially stable in the future! If you’ve come this far in life and almost about the graduate or you’re considering graduate school, I’d highly recommend also making time for side reading on finances. Whether it’s about investing or savings, we all want to be the most prepared for adulthood!