Free Article : Purpose, Planning, Preparation, Practice and Performance

28 Apr 2023 Institute News

For many oral exam candidates, the MCA oral exam can present a particularly stressful challenge, seeming to offer both high stakes and high potential for embarrassment.

Our motivation is to encourage individuals to adopt strategies for revision that have a positive impact on their engagement and learning.

This article will not speculate on aspects of the exam that are beyond the candidates’ influence – who is allocated as their examiner; the precise questions they will be asked; or a preference for face-to-face vs online exams. Instead, it will focus on those aspects that are within the candidate’s control.

We wish to empower candidates to take charge of their own learning and, in turn, become more confident and stronger in their abilities. When we talk about confidence, this is not to be confused with complacency or an over-inflated sense of our own abilities. Rather, we want candidates to approach the oral exam with confidence in the subject matter and their ability to get the right answer across to the examiner.


Through our extensive experience of oral exams, we have come to appreciate their value as a mechanism to test a candidate’s ability to effectively communicate a command of essential applied knowledge and understanding. This is critical for success in any professional setting and preparing properly for the oral exam will stand candidates in good stead for the rest of their careers.

Effectively, candidates are given around an hour to prove that they’re competent enough to drive a ship while everyone else is asleep or, if they are being assessed for a higher ticket, to run that ship safely and compliantly. Candidates are not expected to know everything, nor are they expected to have experience beyond their years. They are, however, expected to keep everyone safe.


The amount of information that a candidate preparing for their oral exam needs to learn is, frankly, vast. This can feel overwhelming and leave many candidates unsure where to start and when to start. Our advice is to start early and don’t put it off. Although it will vary, for the most part four to five weeks of intensive study is normally sufficient. If a candidate is trying to work while studying, then they will need to double that.

Candidates are not expected to know everything, nor are they expected to have experience beyond their years. They are, however, expected to keep everyone safe

The key thing is allow time to get comfortable with the content and to gain confidence explaining yourself aloud. Although intensive prep courses are offered by various organisations, these tend to only be successful where candidates have put a lot of the groundwork in ahead of time and are using the course to add polish. If a candidate views the intensive prep course as a zero-to-hero approach, they tend to fail.

It is really important that candidates plan their revision carefully to ensure that they maximise the time available, ensure that all areas are covered and allow time to practice verbalising. It’s best to break down the syllabus into set learning goals or subjects/topics which are to be covered (and then re-covered) over the days and weeks ahead. Having said that, don’t forget to allow a sufficient buffer. Life has a habit of getting in the way and it’s also important to take time off to relax and refresh.

Without a plan, it is very easy for candidates to follow a root and branch approach to revision, where they head off in a random direction and dig further and further into a single topic. This can mean that they have studied far too deeply on one subject and not nearly enough on another.

To develop a sense of the level of detail expected, look at as many oral reports as possible relevant to the given syllabus and go through them in a systematic way, identifying which topics are covered and in what depth. This provides an awareness of how many questions repeat themselves and the level of detail in the questions. However, be very careful not to read too much into any one report because they are, by definition, a biased and partial view of the exam.


Having planned carefully, by this point candidates will have a list of all of the topics that might be potentially asked about. It is then helpful to divide the main topics into sub-topics in order to logically work through the content. As a simplified example, a breakdown of MARPOL may include Annex I – Oil > Discharge Requirements > Inside/outside special areas, equipment requirements and record keeping.

Candidates should take each section and start adding content to it in a methodical way before moving on and doing the same with each section, until they have comprehensive notes for all topics. To assist with this, candidates must ensure that they have access to engaging, comprehensive and, importantly, up-to-date resources. They should avoid relying on web pages of unknown provenance or notes of dubious quality.

Verbalising and learning are two sides of the same coin

It’s also important that candidates recognise and embrace their own revision style at this stage. They should make their notes in whatever manner works best for them, using whatever media they prefer. On the subject of notes, for most people the act of creating the notes (ingesting information, processing it and formulating it into their own words) is a critical part of the revision process. It is highly recommended that candidates don’t rely on borrowed/bought flashcards, etc. but spend the time creating their own.

Throughout this process, candidates must maintain focus on the most important parts of the syllabus, which brings the focus back to planning. It can be useful to arrange the topics in a pyramid or concentric circles, with the most important, safety-critical subjects at the top/in the centre

For example, as a Deck OOW candidate, Colregs, buoyage and safety-critical content such as ECDIS and enclosed spaces would be the most important. The next layer would include, for example, watchkeeping, passage planning and emergency response, etc. Then, perhaps, MARPOL, SOLAS, MLC, etc. Then, other regulations and, if you’re doing an Unlimited ticket, cargo operations. As candidates make and revise their notes, they should ensure that they keep returning to those core topics.


It is important that candidates do not forget that they are sitting an oral exam. This may sound obvious, yet if candidates are used to written exams as the primary form of assessment, they may not recognise that verbalising their answers in a convincing manner is a skill that must be developed.

It is all too common to find candidates who have spent weeks or months creating reams of beautifully highlighted notes but are, sadly, unable to synthesis that information into a coherent sentence.

At the risk of overstating the point, one of the strongest indicators of whether a candidates will pass or not, alongside when they start revising, is whether they start practising verbalising their answers early in their revision process. Those that view verbalising and learning as two sides of the same coin and as an ongoing process of improvement over time tend to pass easily. Unfortunately, candidates who put off practising speaking until they feel ‘ready’ (which may well be never) or in a high-stakes mock exam a day or two before tend to struggle.

There are several reasons for this. Spending time verbalising answers obviously helps the candidate to learn how to articulate what they have learnt but it’s also a vital part of helping them to find their weak areas, hone their revision plan and build confidence in their knowledge and their ability to answer questions under pressure. The most effective strategy is to seek support from an organisation which is experienced at preparing candidates for their oral exam. This may be a maritime college, if the candidate is attending a college prep course, or it may be a private MCA oral prep provider. When selecting who to work with, candidates are recommended to consider only those with a strong track record, that offer a range of study options (including up-to-date resources and tutor-led sessions) and who have a team of tutors/lecturers. Some candidates spend many hours with only one tutor, which leaves them overly comfortable with that tutor’s style and favourite questions, and unprepared to face an unknown examiner.

In addition to seeking professional support, it is absolutely vital to find a group of peers with whom to prepare. This will occur naturally at a maritime college, but good private prep providers will also support you to find peers with whom to revise. Having a small group with whom to spend time studying, practising answering questions and supporting each other through the tough times is invaluable.

If a candidate struggles to find a group of peers to revise with them, they should at least ensure that they verbalise their answers to their partner, parents or friends. Failing that, they should practice speaking to themselves in the mirror or record themselves answering questions on their phone.

Whichever approach the candidate takes, the more practice that they have verbalising, the stronger their answers will become and the more confidence they will develop.


After weeks or months of study, eventually the sun will rise on the day of the exam. Successful candidates will have put a huge amount of work in, but they will also have allowed themselves some time to breathe and decompress. Studying should cease in the afternoon on the day before the exam and candidates are advised to find something else to focus on, be it exercise, hobbies or dinner with family. Cramming late into the night the day before the exam is a recipe for failure.

Again, candidates are not expected to know everything and are not expected to have experience beyond their years. They are, however, expected to be safe. This results in an examination that, aside from safety-critical areas, is not strewn with trip-wire questions which immediately fail a candidate, despite the rhetoric. Leaving aside those safety-critical subjects, most of the exam is a holistic assessment of the candidate’s competency. The candidate is likely to get things wrong but if they maintain their composure and if the examiner believes that they meet the standard overall, they will pass. This is why it is very important for candidates not to fret over every weak answer; those that do can enter a downward spiral of self-recrimination which only harms the next answer and so on.

Remember also that it is impossible for the examiner to ask a candidate everything in the space of an hour or so. Consequently, the examiner is likely to focus on key areas and keep their questioning to a fairly high level, unless the candidate’s answers indicate a weakness in their knowledge on the subject. Candidates that have prepared to answer these key questions confidently, precisely and concisely are likely to find that the examiner swiftly moves on.

Those that study carefully and diligently, and that gain confidence verbalising what they know will be prepared for the oral exam and sit it with confidence.

Learning to respond eloquently to whatever one is asked is driven by the ability to interpret, evaluate and synthesise under pressure. This is an ability that everyone seeking employment or professional advancement ought to have, and one which well-conducted oral exams are particularly well suited to assess and develop. This is no different in a maritime context and that is why we are enthusiastic advocates for well-conducted oral exams.

Carole Davis is Emeritus Professor Warsash Maritime School Solent University & Senior Consultant Carole L Davis Associates Paul Naranjo-Shepherd is a Master Mariner and Director of Whitehorse Maritime Academy