If you are planning to sit the upcoming ABO exam a lot is riding on your performance.  What exactly can you expect? How should you prepare?

Good ABO study should be comprehensive. 

On one of the forums I frequented recently, one of the exam candidates posted a query: 

“There won’t really be a question about… a ptosis crutch, will there?”

And the answer, of course, is:

“YES!  Why not?  And watch out for a whole lot more!”

The truth is that there is no telling just what will be on the ABO exam.  The tests are different each testing period.  What we do know is that, out of thousands of test takers nation wide, about 37% fail to get the passing grade of 70Which is significant.  Only 63% are passing, possibly with just enough to scrape by.  Why is that? 

There are three possible reasons:

  1. The test takers aren’t smart enough.
  2. The candidates didn’t bother to study.
  3. The exam is harder that people expect it to be.

We can rule #1 out right away!  Anybody sitting for the ABO has been working in the field for at least a year.  If they were too stupid to do the work they would have been laid off, fired, or strongly urged to consider other careers long before they were in a position to sign up for the NOCE!  So the test takers have BRAINS.  Did they just not study? 

We can probably rule that out too.  Since we already know these candidates have brains, we can deduce that they wouldn’t have spent over $200.00 on a major exam and not study for it. Or at least try to study for it.  They’re doing something, reading someone’s notes, following a test-prep manual, asking questions.  So what does that leave? 

The exam is probably harder than expected.  And THIS is the problem people are having. They are WORKING in the field.  They are PRACTICING optics.  They expect the test will reflect the knowledge they need to do their jobs every day, and it just isn’t so.  The sorts of experiences most opticians encounter are routine.  The National Boards will test to MORE than routine.  You really have to go beyond the basic in your study. 

But… if you only need a 70 to pass, why worry? 

Why worry indeed!  If only 63% are getting a 70 or above, odds are VERY good that about 20-30% of those only just passedTheir victory may have depended upon 2 or 3 questions, and if they had made just one or two more mistakes they may not have made it.  They may have simply just got lucky. 

But what if you don’t want to trust in luck?  How do you sharpen your odds?

Study strategy:  the probable structure of the ABO test.

While the questions asked could literally be anything, there is going to be some kind of pattern.  In an earlier article, What Should you Study for your ABO Exam I mentioned the structure of content, but there is an implied structure of difficulty as well.   The 100 questions on the ABO exam are going to be of varied difficulty.  Some are going to be easy, some will be medium, and some are going to be challenging.  What will be the likely ratio? 

First off, there will be have to be about 10 questions which will be stupid easy.  These are the questions they are GIVING to you. You are guaranteed to get AT LEAST a score of 10% no matter what else! 

  • What is the definition of a lens?
  • How many millimeters in a centimeter?
  • Where does sight occur?

Secondly, there will be about 10 crazy difficult questions that they really don’t expect many people to get.  If you miss these but get everything else right you’ll still pass with an A score of 90.

  • Where are the nodal points located?
  • What are conjugate foci?
  • How would you identify a bal-grip mounting?

Back in the mid ’80’s when I took my test we were advised to “pass over” any questions concerning mirrors, and telescopes.  These would have fallen into this 10 question brain buster category.  You can afford to let these go.

The next grouping, the critical grouping, is your CORE DIFFICULTY questions.  Considering that 10 questions have already been identified as “stupid easy” that leaves, roughly, 60 questions of medium difficulty that will bring you right up to your “magic” number of  70 to allow you to pass and get your certification. 

Now, I don’t work for the ABO/NCLE, but it would be logical to assume that there actually are 70 questions that the average person could answer correctly provided they studied.  The good folks at ABO/NCLE don’t want everyone to fail their exams, yet they’re not going to make it easy.    

So these 60 questions are the ones you have to get.  They are ATTAINABLE if you have studied. These are questions that may have the most to do with your day-to-day office practice.

  • The following job is 3mm off in the Pd.  What is the prism and does it pass?
  • Give the image jump for the following Rx if filled in a kryptok lens.
  • Which of the following frames would be best for the given Rx and Pd values?
  • Give the inset and seg drop for the following job.
  • Which eye structures are included in the “neural tunic?”
  • What would be the value in diopters of a lens with a focal length of 500 millimeters?
  • Given these patient parameters, which frame must NOT be chosen if your lens blank is 70mm?

That just leaves the last 20 questions.  These will be challenging, but not as “crazy hard” as the last 10.  Here, you will be asked question concerning:

  • Multiple step calculations
  • Pathologies and aberrations
  • Crossed cylinder and other archaic notation
  • Archaic bifocal styles
  • Seldom used terminology
  • More challenging mathematical formulas
  • Odd or archaic frame materials/styles

You will be able to reason some of these out even if you don’t know them outright, but chances are, these are going to stump you, and THESE are the questions you probably haven’t studied for. 

The best way to ensure a passing ABO score.

Probably the best way to ensure a passing score on your ABO is to attend optical college since colleges tend to teach “to the test.”   But not every optician today goes to school.  If they did there would be a passing rate of 80% or more.  So what are today’s candidates studying from, and are they doing it all on their own?

When I was an apprentice, we all knew that the ONE BOOK you had to have, the source that had IT ALL, was System for opthpthalmic Dispensing, by Brooks and Borish, and we all went out and obtained this book on our own.  Today’s optical candidates don’t seem to be doing that. 

Nowadays there are lots of other choices for study material out there.  Several companies have test-prep manuals, on-line courses, flash cards, or other multi-media combinations.  These sources are all good.  They contain core optical material that is presented in an easy to use format (and System, for all it’s virtues, is NOT easy or simple!) Yet this very simplicity can be detrimental. 

All of these “study programs” and easy to use test-prep manuals are only aimed at getting you to PASS.  They are primarily concerned with those 10 super easy and 60 core questions.  All you are going to find in those study guides is the ABSOLUTE MINIMUM you need to achieve your 70% passing grade.  But what’s wrong with that? 

You might get one or two questions wrong. 

It’s that simple.  All you have to do is miss ONE of your core difficulty questions and get NONE of your challenging 20-30 questions and you lose. End of story.  Back to square one.

I’ve met many apprentices in the last decade who have missed passing the ABO by one or two questions.  It’s heartbreaking.  “I almost made it! I was so close!” I’ve met candidates who got “this close” four times in a row!  If you have to wait six months between each test, four tries equals TWO YEARS! Ouch!  If you need the extra salary that certification can bring you, two extra years is a lot of money! 

So, obviously, the best way to MAKE SURE you get that passing score is to study beyond the basics. Don’t take one study manual as the last word in ABO readiness.  Don’t assume the in-house optician training program offered by the corporation you work for is going to be enough.  Some programs are adequate.  Some may even be good.  A few will be terrible.  I’ve coached students from some of these programs.  You really want to do more. 

The best strategy is to use more than one source. Compare study programs.  Buy, or rent, an honest-to-goodness TEXTBOOK that the optical college students will be using. THEY are going to pass with 80% or above, and the difference is all those more difficult, more technical, questions the study-prep manuals won’t cover.  You need to at least have read or seen some of the technical ideas and terms.  It will give you a chance to be able to figure out some of the more challenging questions.

Taking practice exams is a great strategy too.  Every test at www.passyouropticalboards.com is structured according to variety of difficulty as well as content.  You can expect each test to have 10 super easy questions, 10 super hard questions, 20 moderately easy questions, 20 moderately hard questions, and 40 questions of medium difficulty.  Taking a series of our tests can really help you assess your readiness to take your ABO exam!