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New Timelines Introduced for Written, Oral Examinations

A new examination timeline in place at the American Board of Ophthalmology provides graduating residents with the opportunity to achieve board certification within nine months.

The Written Qualifying Examination (WQE), traditionally given in the spring, has been moved to September. The Oral Examination, previously offered two times per year, will be held once annually in March, starting with the 2020 administration.

Under the old certification timeline, graduating residents registered for the written examination as early as 10 months before their testing date. Following success on the written examination in the spring, certification candidates would then wait for several months, or as much as a year, before the next available oral examination. The timing of these examinations meant it typically took candidates between 16-24 months to achieve board certification in ophthalmology.

Timing Matters

By reducing the time between residency program completion and the first assessment of a candidate’s clinical ophthalmic knowledge, the ABO is likely to get an accurate picture of the breadth and depth of knowledge acquired during training. ABO Psychometrician Sarah Schnabel, PhD, explained that, in general, statistics show that the longer a candidate waits to take initial certification exams for the first time, the lower the success rate. For example, while there is little difference between taking the exams 1-2 years following graduation, the pass rate decreases from year to year after that point, particularly when candidates wait as much as 5, 6, or even 7 years to sit for the written test.

“There is a statistically significant difference in pass rates on the WQE between those that take it 1-2 years after graduation as opposed to those that take it 3 years after graduating,” Dr. Schnabel said. “We see a similar trend with the Oral Examination: pass rates are highest among those attempting the Oral Examination within 2 years of passing the WQE. After 2 years have passed, the pass rate dips significantly. While this doesn’t mean that candidates will necessarily perform poorly on examinations they have deferred to a later time, the numbers we see suggest a correlation between testing soon after graduation and a positive outcome.”

Changes to the Oral Examination

While moving to a once-per-year Oral Examination, the ABO sought to identify a location that could not only accommodate the size and scale of the exam, but a facility that offered hotel rooms with separate sleeping and living room spaces. The clear division between the rooms allows examiners, who are often using the room for the duration of the exam weekend, as well as candidates entering the room for their exam to feel more comfortable in the space. Ease of travel from various points in the country, along with travel to and from the airport itself, also factored into the ABO’s decision. The Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort in Phoenix, AZ, which has been home to the American Board of Plastic Surgery’s oral examinations for the past two decades, was selected to host the ABO’s 2020 and 2021 exams.

Other changes related to the Oral Examination include efforts to improve the experience, both for examiners and examinees. Examiners will begin a new training program in the fall designed to provide more resources and support for administering a consistent, standardized examination to every candidate. On the examinee side, the ABO will introduce an educational course at the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s 2019 Annual Meeting to “peel back the curtain” on the Oral Examination process and help candidates better understand what to expect. The course will be held on Monday, October 14 from 11:30 AM to 12:30 PM in the Moscone Center, South 204, and led by ABO CEO George Bartley, MD, Examination Development Chair Steve Gedde, MD, and Career-Long Competence and Professionalism Committee Chair Jane Bailey, MD.

Board Eligibility Designation

In conjunction with the change to the certification timeline, the ABO introduced a new Board Eligibility policy in 2019 that creates an official designation for the period between program graduation and the achievement of board certification. Program graduates are now designated as “Board Eligible,” and reported as such on the ABO website, for up to seven years following graduation. The seven-year window was chosen to allow sufficient break time for the pursuit of personal and professional endeavors, including subspecialty fellowship training, without the loss of status. The designation also creates a clear distinction for the public between practicing physicians who have never obtained board certification in ophthalmology and newly graduated professionals.

Future Test Dates

In addition to direct candidate outreach, the ABO encourages its network of diplomates, volunteers, and champions within each residency program to spread the word about the new timeline so that graduates plan their path to certification according to the schedule that best fits their post-graduation needs.


Exam Date: September 14, 2019

Registration Deadline: August 1, 2019 (late)

Exam Date: September 15, 2020

Registration Deadline: June 1, 2020 / August 1, 2020 (late)

Oral Examination:

Exam Date: March 19-21, 2020

Registration Deadline: November 15, 2019

Exam Date: March 18-20, 2021

Registration Deadline: November 15, 2020


The ABO welcomes your feedback and recommendations regarding the initial certification experience and timeline, particularly from diplomates who train residents and fellows as well as those who employ newly graduated residents. To share your suggestions for the certification process, please write to

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