What’s the MCA Oral Exam really like?

What's the MCA Oral Exam like?
The MCA oral exam is like an interview… but you have to pay for the pleasure.

You’ll be invited into a room filled with nautical knick-knacks, offered a glass of water and given around an hour to prove that you’re good enough to drive a ship while everyone else is asleep. You are not expected to know everything, nor are you expected to have experience beyond your years or ticket. You are, however, expected to keep everyone safe. That is why safety-critical areas, such as COLREGs, buoyage, emergencies, enclosed spaces, etc. are very much tripwire questions. However, non-safety, non-COLREGs areas are more often an assessment of whether, on balance, you know enough.

There are some awkward Examiners but the majority are nice, reasonable people who want you to pass. There’s also no way that they can ask you everything you’ve learnt in the space of an hour or so, so they will commonly focus on key areas and keep their questioning to a fairly high-level. They are also likely to move on very quickly if you appear competent in a certain area.

Imagine a skimming stone…

The point of skimming stones is to get them to “bounce” as many times as possible and go as far as you can make them. Imagine that your answers are the water, the Examiner is skimming the stones and every time the stone touches the water, that’s a question.

We’ve agreed that the Examiner can’t cover everything, so they will try to cover as much ground as possible. The Examiner will ask a high-level question (“What is MARPOL?”), you give your strong, high-level answer, they are impressed and the stone skims onto the next subject. If your answer is weak or hesitant, the Examiner is likely to want to see how much you know (or don’t know). The stone stops skimming and starts sinking deeper and deeper into that subject, which is where things get awkward.

That’s why, when we’re planning our revision, we must make sure that we have a solid, high-level answer for every likely question.

Give it a gentle push.

To extend the analogy a bit too far, the water can sometimes have a small say in which direction the stone bounces. Ok, I’ll stop talking about stones now. My point is there are often two ways of examining a candidate. The first is that the Examiner has the questions they want to ask and they go through them one by one. Not much we can do there. The second type tends to take more of a storytelling/”voyage of disaster” approach, where the answer to a question can guide the next. This is by no means a foolproof strategy but what it may mean is that you can bring the conversation onto a topic you’re hot on, and subtly steer away from one you aren’t.

I tend to do our mock orals in the latter way. I’ll ask a vague, open-ended question and dig into whatever I fancy along the way. If I ask “you’re joining your new ship and you’ve just got out of the taxi”, then I’m expecting to hear something about the ship’s condition, mooring ropes, load lines, gangway, security, blah, blah, blah. Anywhere through that answer, I might ask a pointed question about a particular thing (maximum angle for the gangway, say) or something vague (“tell me about the security procedures onboard”). With this style of examination, you may be able to steer it by not mentioning the load lines if you aren’t confident with them. Conversely, you could spend a lot of time talking about the security watch at the top of the gangway, in the hope that I’ll ask you more questions.

I must stress that this is by no means a foolproof strategy, but it might be something to consider if the Examiner adopts that style of questioning.

Can I go now?

In your MCA oral exam, it’s common for the non-COLREGs part to come first and make up around 2/3 to 3/4 of the exam. COLREGs and buoyage then brings up the rear. This is not guaranteed though, so don’t worry if your exam takes a different direction. One oddity about the oral exam is that there’s no set length. Most exams are about 45 minutes to an hour long, although some people are out in under half an hour and others are in there for a lot, lot longer.

Don’t despair if your exam goes on longer than normal; this is not a bad sign. If exams drag on it is invariably because the candidate wasn’t particularly strong but they also weren’t a clear fail. The Examiner is actually trying to give you more of an opportunity to make it over the line. If they wanted to fail you, they would have already done so.

Stand up, brush yourself off and keep going

You will make mistakes in your exam. I guarantee it. The question is what are you going to do afterwards.

If you screw up one of the tripwire subjects, you may have fluffed it, but don’t give up just yet. Assuming that you realise your mistake, correct yourself immediately. Then, apologise and expect a serious grilling in and around the subject. If you’ve performed well but made a silly mistake on something important, the Examiner could ask you the same question again a while later; don’t just blurt out your last answer but instead think very, very carefully.

If you mess up a non-tripwire question, try not to let it get to you. This part of the exam is often assessed on a holistic view of your overall competency, not any one question. Maybe that last question didn’t go great. Don’t worry; take a breath, have a sip of water and treat the next question as a new exam. Trust me, fretting over something you said half an hour ago isn’t going to help you tackle the next question.

On a similar note, if you don’t know something, please don’t try to bullshit the Examiner. If you’re not sure what they want, ask them to clarify or rephrase the question. If you simply don’t know, just say but perhaps reference where you would find out or what else you know about the subject. They will be much more impressed by someone who knows what they don’t know and asks for help, rather than someone who’ll try to bluff their way through.

By the way, always take orals reports and candidate’s recollections with a pinch of salt. It’s a traumatic experience and things often get half-remembered, especially after a night or two of celebrating.

Look good, sound good

Finally, we always say that this exam is 50% confidence and 50% competence. While that might be a slight exaggeration, what is true is that confidence and presentation matter enormously. We’ve said it before in the Practice Out Loud blog but you must make sure that you sound and look good. Practice sitting up straight, looking at the Examiner (not too much, weirdo…), confidently laying out your answer and shutting up. I don’t want this to sound like a sales pitch, but getting some external one-on-one/group help can be invaluable. We provide 5* rated tuition, either in person or remotely using FB Messenger/Skype/etc and our clever online whiteboard.

You’ve got this…

This blog isn’t meant to scare you. Quite the contrary, I figure that forewarned is forearmed.  Now you have an idea of what the MCA oral exam is really like, hopefully you’ll feel more in control of the experience.

Let me know if it worked…

…and we’ve got you!

Whether you just want to put yourself to the test with a realistic mock orals or need some help getting your head around the content, we’re on your side. You can read more about our orals prep services or just get in contact.

(1) Comments

  1. HI Paul, a very accurate. Summation to the exam, love the skimming stone similie, very apt. Your tripwire question/topic, my killer question. A dip here reduces confidence thinking of the last question when the next question comes, spiralling confidence down. Water… Stop think… Breathe ,!!
    Very good.!

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