With your exam day approaching, you probably have questions about what to expect on that day. Even if you’ve been through this before, it’s been awhile. We hope this preview, along with some tips, will alleviate any anxiety about the unknown and help get you ready to be at your best.

Registration

Approximately 30 minutes

Session 1

Up to 2 hours

Break

≤80 minutes total for two breaks

Session 2

Up to 2 hours

Break

≤80 minutes total for two breaks

Session 3

Up to 2 hours

For the ABIM recertification exam, you’ll spend approximately 8 hours at the testing facility, although the exact time varies from person to person. The test is made up of three sessions; in each session, you have up to 2 hours to answer up to 70 questions. You have the option of taking a break after each session, and you are allowed up to a total of 80 minutes of break time.

ABIM recommends arriving 30 minutes before your appointment time and warns that late arrivals risk losing their spot. So, be sure to double check your appointment time, confirm the address of the testing center (because some cities have multiple test centers), and allot ample time for driving and parking.

Logistics at the ABIM Exam Testing Center

When you enter the test center, you’ll receive test rules to review that will help orient you to the exam procedures. Be prepared to produce two forms of identification: The first must be a government-issued ID with a photo, such as a driver’s license, passport, or military ID. The second ID needn’t have a photo but must have a signature; examples include a Social Security card, ATM card, or credit card. The names on the ID cards must match the name that ABIM has for you.

Security in each test center is tight and multilayered. You will sign in on a digital signature pad, place your hand on a palm-vein scanner for biometric identification (or be scanned with a wand at some centers), and have your photo taken. The test room is continuously recorded with audio and video devices. Also be aware that exams other than ABIM certification may be going on while you are there.

You’ll receive a key for a storage locker and be asked to empty your pockets into it:

  • Purses, wallets, cell phones, pagers, and watches are not allowed in the testing room.
  • Snacks and drinks also go in the locker, which you can access during breaks.
  • Outerwear, such as jackets and coats, are not allowed in the testing room, but sweaters are permitted.
  • Earplugs or headphones to block out noise are provided on request, but you’ll be asked to leave your own (other than disposable earplugs) in your locker.

As you enter the testing room, you will be handed an erasable board to make notes on. An administrator will escort you to your work station and launch your exam. Once seated in front of the computer, you will be prompted to review exam and security rules and pledge to follow them.

Save Time and Mental Energy: Do the ABIM Exam Tutorial at Home

The next step is an optional 30-minute online tutorial that shows you the features of the exam. This tutorial is available on the ABIM website. Watching this in advance is a valuable 30 minutes of your preparation time.

If you are recertifying, you may not have taken an exam in a decade. During this time, ABIM exams converted from paper-and-pencil to computers. Even if you are familiar with computer-based testing, the tutorial will help you acclimate before exam day. Being accustomed to the electronic features in advance is likely to increase your efficiency during the exam and to remove a potential source of anxiety that day.

Key features of the tutorial include how to make notes, change answers, flag questions to revisit later during the session, and use the navigator window to see which questions you made notes on or marked for review. Other features let you highlight and strike-through content as you go. The tutorial also shows you a Session Review Screen, which is displayed automatically after you answer the last question in each session and lists any questions you left blank or flagged earlier for review. (Note that once time runs out on a session, you cannot return to the questions in that session.)

It’s ideal to watch the tutorial early on in your board preparation, so that you have it in mind as you study and prepare. Then review it again shortly before exam day to remind yourself of simple essentials, such as how to access the calculator and the table of normal laboratory values. On exam day, it’s up to you whether to watch it again in the exam center or get right to the exam.

Once the Exam is Under Way

All questions are multiple-choice, with one correct answer and four distractors. Each section is likely to have a mix of patient-based case questions, which predominate, and a few shorter questions that address specific knowledge points. Some questions may have figures, video, or audio (headphones are provided). A single question may have more than one figure or video, so be sure to view each one. ABIM also reminds you to watch each video to its completion, as there is no warning signal if you navigate away before it ends.

As you go through the exam, keep in mind these basic test-taking tips:

  • Answer every question, even if you must guess. This is a pass–fail exam based on your performance on the entire exam. Unanswered questions are scored as incorrect.
  • Don’t get bogged down with a single question. If you’re spending too much time on one question, make a good guess, flag it for later, and move on.
  • Don’t flag too many questions per session, or you won’t know which ones to prioritize if you have time at the end.
  • For the short questions that are not case-based, you likely will know the answer outright or you won’t. If in doubt, apply the standard strategy of eliminating answers you know are wrong, then make your best guess among those remaining.

For specific strategies to help you address the complex case-based questions that make up most of ABIM recertification exams, see “Strategies for working through ABIM board questions.

Anxiety Control

Although physicians are veteran test takers, a little anxiety is to be expected. You can always count on the tried-and-true tactics: Get a good night’s sleep (or two) beforehand, dress comfortably, plan your route and parking ahead of time, arrive early, and know your tools and resources.

Here are a few other anxiety reducers for before and during the exam:

Go in with a plan to pace yourself. Each testing room has a wall clock. Your computer screen also has a clock icon that indicates the time remaining in the session and that turns yellow to warn you when just 5 minutes remain. A “progress indicator” on the screen shows which item you are on and the total number of items in the session. Both the clock and the progress indicator can help you pace yourself — but if you find these desktop reminders more distracting than helpful, you can turn them off.

A good pacing strategy is to check your progress every 20 minutes to make sure you are on track during the session. If you find yourself ahead of your intended pace, force yourself to slow down. It may be that you are simply a brilliant exam taker, but it’s possible that you are not reading each question carefully enough.

If you need an unscheduled break during one of the sessions, your raised hand will signal the proctor to help you pause the exam, but the 2-hour clock for the session continues to run.

During scheduled breaks between the 2-hour sessions, you may leave the test center for a meal or snack or to stretch your legs. By all means, do so if that’s your preference — but avoid talking about the test with others, and especially do not rehash any particular question. Neither you nor your colleagues will have accurate recall of the question details, and discussing them could distract you and undermine your confidence for the next session.

Finally, remember that it’s okay not to know everything. Every exam is intended to have a mix of hard and easy questions, which is part of the science of exam creation and best practices in testing. Your exam may also include some “pretest” questions that will not count toward your score; you won’t know which ones they are, but these questions are being tested for use in subsequent exams. You also will not know going into the exam what percentage of correct answers you need in order to pass. ABIM notes that the minimum passing score reflects an absolute standard for that particular exam, and it depends partly on the mix of questions and their difficulty. For more specifics on how ABIM develops questions and sets standards, see the ABIM website.

On Your Way Out…

You may notice that some people may receive a scored report upon exiting. ABIM test takers will not. Typically, before ABIM test reports are processed, a psychometric analysis is performed on exam data to delete any questions that did not perform well and to establish a minimum passing score. Within 3 months of the exam (but often earlier), you will receive an email notification that your results have been posted on the ABIM website, where you can log in to learn your pass–fail status. Your scored report will come through the mail, with a breakdown of how you fared by specialty.

Good luck to all ABIM exam takers! Before or after your exam, take a moment to share below any tips that helped you prepare for and take the ABIM recertification exam.