Before enrolling in an Italian university, I had never considered the possibility of sitting an oral exam for any subject other than a language. For a language it makes sense, I mean you need to hear pronunciation, annunciation, fluidity, structuring on the fly, but for anything else? How is a student meant to take an oral exam for architecture or engineering, where complex models and equations are needed?
I think when every student, who is not accustomed to this method, first hears about orals they are filled with dread and hesitance. This idea that is so foreign to them is daunting. The pressure of being face to face with a professor, the anxiety of freezing up, the nerves of having fellow students listen in.
I’ve talked to many prospective students who want to make their university choice based on the requirement of oral exams, fuelling this irrational phobia created by themselves without ever trying them. So, here I am today with the simple goals of revealing some truths about oral exams in different universities, why oral exams are absolutely essential for a good foundation in medicine, and why it’s a great system to score better. I promise you that there is nothing to fear, and hopefully by the end of this article you will agree with every student who now knows the truth.
First of all I want to break the hard truth to all of you. Every university in Italy, for medicine, is required legally to examine their students by oral examination. There are some resources online, as we have all seen I’m sure, stating that certain universities have less oral exams than others, or not requiring them at all. This information is completely false and incorrect. No matter what university you enrol into, you will have to sit oral exams. From subject to subject the format of exams will change with a few options; a written exam must be passed to continue to the oral exam, only an oral exam for the subject, or continuous assessment with written parts eventually leading to one final oral exam (think in terms of subjects that continue for more than one semester). Now that the band-aid has been removed, and you’ve accepted that this is an unavoidable reality, let’s try to ease your panic about it.
Oral exams are an essential part of preparation for any future doctor. Do you really think when examining a patient, or talking to their family, trying to explain their situation to them you will be allowed to take out an MCQ? As a doctor you will be required time after time to deal with stressful conversations with patient after patient, inquiring you on topic after topic. You will be required to explain diseases, treatment plans, medication options sometimes in heart-wrenching conditions, and sometimes with angry and distraught families. Is there a better way of preparing you for stressful face to face inquires covering such a broad topic list other than a strong foundation of similar experiences starting from 1st year? I mean really think about it, by having to do these oral exams you’re essentially preparing yourself for stressful, on the spot inquires. Oral exams are the best way to prepare for your future role in patient interactions. If you can’t explain a disease to a professor who’s an expert on the topic how will you explain it to someone who has no knowledge of it?
Some oral exams are undoubtedly harder than others. The truth is though that the better prepared you are, and the more you talk, the better grade you’re going to get. A typical question during an oral examination is “Tell me about X topic” (Yes this vague and broad). You are then given the freedom to talk about everything and anything you know about that topic. You direct and control the conversation, you choose the parts of the topic to talk about. You might get unlucky and be asked on a topic you don’t know very well, but the chances of you being able to avoid this by going into detail about other aspects of the topic that you do know, and scoring high is way higher than having to answer on a written question with only one correct option.
Professors want you to pass, it’s very normal that during an exam if you’re drawing blanks while talking about a topic the professors will start giving you hints, or try to start the conversation by talking a bit about the topic. Youre never going to get that on a MCQ. Overall the orals have definitely allowed me to raise my grade from the written counterparts, and have taught me they are nothing to fear.
Finally the best part of having oral exams is that you receive your grade for that subject instantly so don’t have to wonder for weeks whether you failed or not.
Now that you have learned how the oral examinations work, the next step is to find out what to expect on a typical exam day. This includes the structure of the exam, how the ordering system for exams work and how students are expected to be examined.