Winter Brings Snowstorms and Board Exams

This week, courtesy of Winter Storm Juno, I had two days off from clinic. I’ve been enjoying being back in Boston with my NECO friends, taking advantage of all of the amazing things the city has to offer. It looks particularly nice covered in snow, as I observed on a winter walk today–the city looks welcoming and cozy under a snowy blanket, although the need to shovel out my car is less than ideal. From the perspective of a Buffalonian, it’s strange not having snow until January, but I’ve heard that we’ll be getting more than enough in the next few weeks to make up for lost time.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, my third and current rotation is taking place at a community health center in the city. After being the sole student at my previous rotation sites, it’s been great having other NECO students to work with in clinic—I think that clinical education benefits significantly from patient analysis and discussions with colleagues. Working as a team compels you to utilize collaborative thinking on the diagnosis and treatment of ocular conditions, and at the clinic we see a number of urgent care visits in addition to contact lens fittings, pediatrics, dry eye disease, and diabetic patients. We also work with an ophthalmologist twice per month, at which time we see patients who have been referred for glaucoma management as well as evaluations for potential cataract extraction and laser procedures. It’s great working with a diverse patient population, and I have been able to hone my existing skills while working with several different supervising doctors.

This winter also brings, for the majority of fourth years, Part 3 of the National Board Exams. Unlike Part 1, which you take during the spring of your third year of optometry school, and Part 2, which is taken in December of fourth year, students can schedule Part 3 at any point during their fourth year of optometry school. However, the majority of students tend to schedule the exam during the winter, after we have already been exposed to a substantial amount of full-time clinical work. Another aspect that sets Part 3 apart from previous Board exams is that it is not taken at a testing site in Boston with the rest of your classmates; instead, students must travel to Charlotte, North Caroline, to a national testing site.

Although exams in general, and board exams in particular, tend to evoke feelings of stress in optometry students, Part 3, also known as the Clinical Skills Examination, is the test that students seem to find the most intimidating. The majority of the exams that we take during high school, college, and optometry school are written, and the idea of a two-hour-long practical exam that is videorecorded can be extremely daunting to students. It’s not as though this is our first practical exam, however; we take proficiency exams periodically during first and second year at NECO to assess our clinical skill set. These exams are observed and graded by preceptors and encapsulate the various skills we will practice every day as optometrists–not to mention that those same skills are tested later on Part 3 of Boards.

I’ve found over and over again in optometry school that the key to stress management, especially where exams are concerned, is preparation. NECO provides a room for fourth year students to practice in that contains the same equipment used at the testing center in North Carolina, and preclinic laboratory rooms are also available for Part 3 practice. What helps most of all is being surrounded by a supportive community, however, and this is where I have found that NECO truly excels. By fourth year you know your classmates well, and intrinsic to the bond you share with them is the knowledge that your fellow students are colleagues, not competition. When preparing for Part 3, I found that my classmates were very generous with their time–we sit as patients for one another and grade each other based on the Boards guidelines. Like studying, like all exams, Boards are something that NECO students get through together–even if we take them separately.