REVIEW: 2017 ABR CORE Exam (June 8-9, 2017)

Yep you read that right, another non-financial post in less than 3 weeks.  Apologies to my regular readers but I wanted to write this one down while it's still fresh in my mind.  The following post is written for radiology residents.  Feel free to skip if that doesn't interest you. Or read on if you're curious how your radiology colleagues are certified.  This post is based on my experience taking the ABR Core exam at the Chicago testing center from June 8-9, 2017.  Your mileage may vary.

Intro to the ABR Core Exam:

Despite what you may have heard from your non-radiology attendings or colleagues, your friendly neighborhood radiologists are actually REAL doctors.  As such, we have to satisfy American Board of Radiology (ABR) requirements in order to become certified professionally.  For D.O.s, their counterpart to the ABR is the American Osteopathic Board of Radiology (AOBR).  The CORE Exam is the initial one of two tests that's required to obtain ABR certification in Diagnostic Radiology.  See exam timeline below:

Source: ABR.  MOC = "Maintenance of Certification".

Source: ABR.  MOC = "Maintenance of Certification".

The Core exam represents the first major standardized test of competency for radiology residents. (There is an annual in-service exam but that's entirely inconsequential).  And just like how you stressed about the USMLE Step 1 when you were a medical student, most radiology residents are keenly interested in whether or not they're going to pass.  Whether or not that fear is justified is a whole separate discussion altogether but for now, just know it's a BIG deal to us.

My experience

Before I start, I must give credit to Ben White and his writings about the Core exam.  The following 4 posts on the Core exam can be considered the Gold Standard.  If you are a radiology resident studying for the Core exam, you should read them:

  1. Approaching the Core Exam
  2. Resources for the Core Exam
  3. Core Exam Qbanks Review
  4. The Core Exam Experience

I will share my personal experience with brief opinions.  Refer to Ben's work for a more comprehensive review of the entire process.

PREPARATION:

Being an applicant for IR fellowship this cycle, I started a little later in my Core Exam preparations.  I began putting serious time into board review starting in March of 2017.  I had access to the following resources, those I used heavily are bolded:

  • RadPrimer - Comprehensive.  Too comprehensive for board review.  Did not use.  However, if you can complete and absorb the material in all >6000 RadPrimer questions, you will be an amazing radiologist.  I do know someone who went through all of the RadPrimer questions.  I am 200% certain he performed better than I did on the exam.
  • Board Vitals (Q Bank) - I purchased BV in January during a sale but really started doing the questions in March.  I went over all the questions at least twice.  Very good resource.  Question styles are similar to those on the actual exam. [Use Coupon Code FUTURE10 for 10% off your purchase].
  • Qevlar (Q Bank) - Questions are of similar quality to Board Vitals.  The user interface is actually better with scrollable images.  A big pro being extremely cheap - $49 for 3 months!  I purchased this one 2 weeks before the exam and went through the questions twice.
  • Crack the Core (Books) - One of the best exam preparation resources available.  There were some MRI concepts that I simply could not understand until I went through Prometheus' book.  We were fortunate that our program purchased these for us.  Otherwise the entire set of Crack the Core books including the Case Companion and the Physics War Machine comes in at just under $200.  Several of my colleagues went through all of the books multiple times.  Highly recommended.
  • Core Radiology (Book) - $114 on Amazon.  The First Aid for the Core exam.  Great resource for rapid review.  If you used nothing but this book, you probably will still pass the exam.  But I recommend supplementing your understanding with one of the other resources listed here.  
  • Huda Physics Review Course - Dr. Huda is a great educator and I thoroughly enjoyed my review course experience.  But in retrospect, most of the material was covered in other review resources.  The fact that the review course costs $775 (not including travel/hotel costs) makes it difficult for me to recommend.
  • RSNA Physics Modules - The great part is this is a FREE resource.  The bad part is the modules vary drastically in quality.  For example, I personally hated the Fluoro modules whereas the MRI modules are rather fantastic.  My residency program required completion of these modules during 1st and 2nd year so I ended up doing them all.  But I did not use them to study for the Core exam.
  • Physics 300 (Q Bank) - The cheapest review product at $4.99.  300 physics questions offer a quick review of the most commonly tested concepts.  Good for rapid review right before the exam but not sufficient by itself to get you through the test.  I did this the week of the exam, actually made me feel pretty good about my level of physics knowledge.
  • Titan Radiology Boards Buster (Review Course) - This is the online review course version of Crack the Core.  By far the most expensive board prep material I've purchased ($417 for 3 months), but also the one I utilized the most.  I really enjoyed hitting the gym and putting on one of the videos.  You can even play them at different speeds.  The materials covered parallels that in the Crack the Core books.  Given its high cost, I can't really recommend it for everyone.  But if money is no issue or you're seriously worried about failing, it's well worth it.
  • Official ABR Core Practice Exam - It is FREE and a MUST.  I did this once in January before I started studying and once the week before the exam.  It will help familiarize you to the official testing user interface.  Not to mention several of the questions showed up verbatim on the actual exam (no clue how that's allowed).
  • ABR Noninterpretive Skills Resource Guide 2017 - Suppose to be good.  I did not use it since the subject was covered well in the Crack the Core books and Boards Buster videos.

LOCATION:

The official ABR hotel for this June was the Hilton Rosemont/Chicago O'Hare.  At a contracted rate of $184/night, I had no gripes about the accommodations.  The rate even includes complimentary breakfast!  Although the fitness club was quite small and disappointing for such a mid-high end establishment.  The area surrounding the hotel has plenty of restaurants/bars and entertainment venues after a long day of testing.

On each morning of the 2-day exam, you will sign in for your testing session in the first floor ballroom area and catch a 5-minute bus ride to the ABR testing center located at 5440 N Cumberland Ave, Chicago, IL 60656. I wouldn't bother showing up early since the lines were quite long and I heard some people were delayed by as much as 1 hour getting to the testing center.  Personally I was only delayed by ~30 mins on the first day.

EXAM EXPERIENCE:

I have to commend the ABR on the exam experience overall, especially for the way they handled breaks.  Instead of having to sign in and out every time you leave the exam center, you just click a button, get up and do your thing.  There is a piece of paper you can take with you to remind you of your station number.  The exam questions and computer setup are adequate, similar to what you would experience at your local Prometric center.  Earplugs and water are provided free of charge.  But you do need to bring your own food in a zip-lock bag (they also provide bags during the check-in process if you forgot one).  

However, there was a hiccup during my exam, and a big one at that.  I found it quite strange that I finished the first day 4 hours early (the exam was suppose to last 7.5 hrs).  It turns out there had been a computer glitch and the majority of people during my testing session were not tested on the entire section of breast imaging.  I would go into the details but this post is already getting entirely too long.  So please refer to Ben's post ABR totally botches 2017 Core Exam for additional details.

Final thoughts

Given that this is my first and only Core exam experience, I don't have anything else to compare to except what Ben posted before.  However, as a trainee, I was somewhat aware of the controversy surrounding the ABR CORE exam.  I suppose the transition to an entirely computerized exam was inevitable given our current realities and I don't see the ABR ever returning to the written + oral exam format.  Overall, my experience of the June 8-9, 2017 administration of the Core exam was positive.  However, the computer glitch that caused the entire breast imaging section to disappear from the test is concerning.  While I'm sure that will be remedied in some fashion, I can't help but feel some anxiety as to how it will be factored into my pending test results...

Update (7/13/2017):

After much anxious waiting, I finally received an email addressing the debacle surrounding the June 8-9th Core Exam.  See below:

I'm definitely not looking forward to taking another exam module (assuming I didn't fail outright).  But I have to say that the ABR was up against an impossible task.

  • They can't pass everyone who did not take the breast imaging section because that would be entirely unprofessional and unfair to all practicing radiologists and other radiology trainees who took the full exam.
  • They can't afford to pay for everyone to travel back to Chicago to take the breast section. Or perhaps they can but just doesn't want to.
  • They can't force candidates or programs to pay for travel and lodging expenses when we have done nothing wrong.

All things considered, this was probably the only way for ABR to proceed.  Although I find it interesting that they tossed in this line:

There are no candidates for whom the presence of the breast imaging module was responsible for a pass or fail result. In other words, people who failed did poorly enough in multiple areas that even a stellar performance on the breast module would not have allowed them to pass.

Pretty harsh... 


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Future Proof, MD

Dr. Bo Liu is an aspiring radiologist-in-training and the founder and editor of the White Coat Money Blog.  He has an interest in interventional radiology and helping his medical colleagues get ahead in this mad world of medicine and money.  When he's not crushing the list at the PACS station or typing up your next favorite blog post, you can usually find him at the local badminton club, movie theater or the most recently opened restaurant.