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Preparing for the OSCEs in Medical School: The Complete Guide
  • 09 Mar 2023
  • Medical School

If you're a medical student in the UK, you're probably familiar with the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE). These comprehensive exams evaluate your clinical knowledge and skills, including your ability to apply theoretical knowledge in real-life scenarios. In this guide, we'll cover everything you need to know to prepare for the OSCEs.

Do all UK Med Schools have OSCEs?

There are currently 41 medical schools in the UK, and most of them do use OSCEs in some form or another. However, the exact format and timing of the OSCEs can vary between schools.

For example, some medical schools, like the University of Manchester and University of Liverpool, use OSCEs as part of their final year exams. Other schools, like the University of Warwick, use OSCEs earlier in the curriculum, in the second or third year.

There are also some medical schools, like the University of Buckingham Medical School, that do not use OSCEs as part of their assessment strategy. Instead, they use other assessment methods, such as written exams and practical skills assessments.

Overall, while OSCEs are a common assessment tool in UK medical schools, it's important to research the assessment strategies of individual schools if you're considering applying to medical school or are currently a medical student. Each school has its own unique approach to assessment and it's important to be aware of this when preparing for exams.

Does the OSCE exam vary between different Med Schools?

Yes, the OSCE exam format can vary between medical schools in the UK, although there are some commonalities across institutions. Here are some of the ways that OSCEs may differ between schools:

  1. Number of stations: The total number of stations can vary between medical schools. Some schools may have as few as 10-12 stations, while others may have up to 20 stations.
  2. Length of stations: The length of each station may also vary. Some last for 5-7 minutes, while others may have stations that last for up to 15 minutes.
  3. Content of stations: While all OSCEs will cover the key clinical skills and competencies required of medical students, the specific content of stations may vary between schools. For example, some schools may place a greater emphasis on communication skills, while others may focus more on procedural skills. Another factor that may influence the differences in OSCE exams between medical schools is the specific clinical specialties and departments that are available at each institution. For example, a medical school with a strong cardiology department may include a cardiology station in the OSCE, while a medical school without such a department may not include this station.
  4. Scoring: The scoring system used to assess performance in OSCEs can also vary. Some schools may use a numerical scoring system, while others may use a pass/fail system or a combination of the two. There is no universal standard for what constitutes a "good" score. However, in general, a score above 70% is considered to be a strong performance, while a score above 80% is exceptional.
  5. Timing: The timing of the OSCE exam can vary between schools. Some schools may have their OSCEs early in the clinical years, while others may have them later in the course.

It's worth noting that the General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates medical education in the UK, sets standards for the content and format of the OSCE exam, and all medical schools are required to meet these standards. However, within these guidelines, schools have some flexibility to design their own OSCEs.

What is the format of the OSCE exam?

OSCEs are a series of timed stations that test different aspects of your clinical knowledge and skills. You'll be presented with a scenario and given a limited amount of time to complete a task, answer questions, or demonstrate a clinical skill. The stations are typically timed, and you must move from station to station in a specific order. The time you spend at each station varies depending on the type of exam and the content of the station. The exams can be paper-based, computer-based, or a combination of both.

The OSCEs are divided into six categories, each designed to test a specific aspect of your knowledge and abilities:

  1. History Taking: Taking a patient's history and gathering relevant information to form a diagnosis.
  2. Examination: Physical examination skills and your ability to perform various clinical procedures such as measuring blood pressure, checking reflexes, and examining the ears, nose, and throat.
  3. Communication Skills: Communicating effectively with patients, relatives, and other healthcare professionals.
  4. Data Interpretation: Interpreting and using clinical data such as X-rays, ECGs, and blood test results.
  5. Clinical Problem Solving: Diagnosing and managing real-life clinical problems.
  6. Procedural Skills: Performing various procedures such as suturing, intubation, and cannulation.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of each of the type of stations:

History Taking

The History Taking station in the OSCE is designed to evaluate the candidate's ability to take an accurate and comprehensive medical history from a patient. This station is critical because a thorough and accurate history is the foundation for making an accurate diagnosis and developing an appropriate management plan.

During the History Taking station, the candidate will be presented with a patient case and will be asked to take a history from the patient. The case may involve a patient with a particular symptom or condition, or it may be a more general case in which the candidate needs to elicit a complete history.

The candidate will be assessed on their ability to communicate effectively with the patient, gather relevant information, and use appropriate questioning techniques. They will also be evaluated on their ability to use clinical judgement to determine which questions to ask and to recognize important clues in the patient's history.

To prepare for the History Taking station, it's essential to practice taking a patient's history and using effective communication techniques. It's also helpful to become familiar with common conditions and their presentations, so you can recognize important clues in the patient's history. Finally, you should practice using clinical judgement to determine which questions to ask and how to follow up on important information.


The Examination station is designed to test a candidate's physical examination skills and their ability to perform various clinical procedures. In this station, candidates will be required to perform a focused physical examination on a simulated patient, while being observed by an examiner.

The station may include one or more of the following clinical procedures:

  1. Blood pressure measurement: The candidate will be required to measure the patient's blood pressure using a sphygmomanometer, a device that consists of an inflatable cuff, a bulb for inflating the cuff, and a gauge for measuring the pressure. The candidate should follow standard protocol for taking blood pressure, including positioning the patient's arm at heart level, selecting an appropriately sized cuff, and taking two or more readings.
  2. Pulse measurement: The candidate will be required to measure the patient's pulse rate and rhythm. This can be done manually by palpating the patient's radial pulse at the wrist or using a digital pulse oximeter. The candidate should be able to accurately count the pulse rate and identify any irregularities in the rhythm.
  3. Respiratory examination: The candidate will be required to examine the patient's chest and lungs, and check for any abnormalities such as wheezing or crackles. The candidate should start by visually inspecting the patient's chest, then use a stethoscope to auscultate the lungs in several areas. They should also ask the patient to take a deep breath and cough to assess air movement and identify any abnormal sounds.
  4. Abdominal examination: The candidate will be required to examine the patient's abdomen, and check for any abnormalities such as tenderness or masses. The candidate should begin by visually inspecting the abdomen, then palpate each quadrant for any lumps or tenderness. They should also listen for bowel sounds using a stethoscope.
  5. Cranial nerve examination: The candidate will be required to examine the patient's cranial nerves, such as the optic nerve, using appropriate tests. This may involve testing vision, hearing, facial sensation, and movement of the eyes and face. The candidate should be familiar with the appropriate tests for each cranial nerve and be able to perform them accurately.
  6. Joint examination: The candidate will be required to examine the patient's joints, and check for any abnormalities such as swelling or restricted movement. The candidate should start with visual inspection and then palpate each joint for tenderness or swelling. They should also test range of motion and stability.
  7. Examination of ears, nose, and throat: The candidate will be required to examine the patient's ears, nose, and throat, and check for any abnormalities such as redness or swelling. This may involve using an otoscope to look inside the ear, a nasal speculum to inspect the inside of the nose, and a tongue depressor to view the throat. The candidate should be able to perform each of these examinations accurately and identify any abnormalities.

During the examination, the candidate will need to demonstrate a good understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the relevant body system, and use appropriate techniques and tools to perform the examination. They will also need to communicate effectively with the simulated patient, and show empathy and professionalism throughout the process.

Candidates should prepare for the Examination station by reviewing the relevant anatomy and physiology, and practicing the clinical procedures with a partner or mentor. They should also familiarize themselves with the tools and equipment used in the physical examination, and understand the correct techniques for each procedure. Additionally, candidates should be prepared to communicate effectively with the simulated patient, and show empathy and professionalism throughout the examination process.

Communication Skills

The Communication Skills station is designed to assess your ability to effectively communicate with patients and their families. It's an important part of being a good healthcare professional and is essential for building trust, rapport, and a positive patient experience.

During the Communication Skills station, you may be presented with scenarios that require you to demonstrate your ability to:

  1. Establish rapport: You may be asked to introduce yourself to a patient, engage them in small talk, and make them feel comfortable and at ease.
  2. Gather information: You may be required to gather relevant information from the patient, such as their medical history, symptoms, or concerns. This requires active listening, open-ended questioning, and empathic responses.
  3. Provide information: You may be asked to provide the patient with information about their condition, treatment options, or follow-up care. This requires clear and concise communication that is tailored to the patient's needs and level of understanding.
  4. Provide support and reassurance: You may be required to provide emotional support and reassurance to the patient, particularly in situations where they are anxious, scared, or uncertain.
  5. Handle difficult conversations: You may be presented with scenarios that require you to handle difficult conversations, such as breaking bad news or addressing sensitive issues.

During the station, you will be evaluated on your communication skills, including your ability to:

- Build rapport with the patient.

- Gather information effectively.

- Provide information clearly and accurately.

- Demonstrate empathy and active listening skills.

- Respond appropriately to the patient's emotional needs.

- Handle difficult conversations with sensitivity and professionalism.

To prepare for the Communication Skills station, it's important to practice your communication skills regularly. This can be done by role-playing scenarios with colleagues, seeking feedback from patients, or using communication skills training materials.

It's also important to be aware of your body language and nonverbal communication. This can convey a lot of information to patients and can affect their perception of you as a healthcare professional. Remember to maintain good eye contact, use open and welcoming body language, and be mindful of your tone of voice.

Overall, the Communication Skills station is an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively with patients and their families, and to show that you are able to provide compassionate and patient-centered care.

Data Interpretation

The Data Interpretation station in the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) is designed to test your ability to interpret and analyse clinical data. This may include numerical data, such as laboratory values, or other types of data, such as radiological images or electrocardiograms (ECGs).

During the Data Interpretation station, you will be presented with a clinical scenario and a set of data related to that scenario. You will then be asked a series of questions based on the data provided. The questions may ask you to interpret the data, identify abnormal results, and formulate a diagnosis or treatment plan based on the information provided.

To do well in the Data Interpretation station, it is important to have a good understanding of basic statistics, as well as an ability to recognize normal and abnormal values for various clinical tests. You should also be familiar with common medical conditions and the laboratory or diagnostic tests used to diagnose and monitor them.

Some tips for success in the Data Interpretation station include:

  1. Practice interpreting data from different sources, including laboratory results, radiological images, and ECGs.
  2. Familiarize yourself with common laboratory tests and their normal ranges.
  3. Stay calm and organized during the station. Take your time to read through the data and the questions, and make sure you understand what is being asked of you.
  4. Practice time management skills, as you will typically have a limited amount of time to answer the questions.
  5. Remember to explain your thought process as you work through the data, as this can demonstrate your understanding of the concepts and help you earn additional points.

Clinical Problem Solving

The Clinical Problem Solving (CPS) station is designed to assess your ability to identify, investigate, and manage a clinical problem within a given timeframe. The scenario presented to you in this station could be based on a patient's history, examination findings, or test results.

In this station, you will be required to apply your clinical knowledge and skills to identify the problem, formulate a differential diagnosis, and develop a management plan. You may be asked to explain your reasoning and decision-making process to the examiner.

To perform well in the CPS OSCE station, you should:

  1. Listen carefully to the scenario presented and identify the key features of the patient's condition.
  2. Formulate a differential diagnosis based on your clinical knowledge and the information presented to you.
  3. Prioritize investigations and develop a management plan based on the most likely diagnosis.
  4. Communicate your reasoning and decision-making process to the examiner clearly and effectively.

It is important to note that you will be assessed not only on your ability to come up with the correct diagnosis and management plan, but also on your ability to demonstrate good clinical reasoning and effective communication.

To prepare for this station, you should practice clinical case scenarios and develop your ability to formulate differential diagnoses and management plans in a systematic and logical manner. You can also practice explaining your thought process and management plans to colleagues or other healthcare professionals to improve your communication skills.

Procedural Skills

The Procedural Skills station in the OSCE is designed to evaluate the candidate's ability to perform various clinical procedures safely and effectively. It assesses a range of competencies, such as the candidate's technical skills, their ability to communicate with patients during the procedure, and their understanding of relevant anatomy, indications, contraindications, and potential complications.

The procedures tested in this station can vary depending on the medical specialty being tested. Some examples of procedures that may be assessed in this station include venipuncture, intravenous cannulation, catheterization, joint injections, suturing, and wound care.

During the station, the candidate will be expected to perform the procedure on a simulated patient or a task trainer, while being observed by the examiner. The candidate's performance will be evaluated based on a set of predetermined criteria, such as accuracy, speed, aseptic technique, and patient communication.

To perform well in this station, candidates should prepare by familiarizing themselves with the procedures they will be tested on. They should also practice these procedures under the guidance of a clinical supervisor, paying attention to key aspects such as patient preparation, equipment selection, and safety measures.

In addition, candidates should practice communicating with the patient during the procedure, explaining what they are doing, and addressing any concerns or questions that the patient may have. This can help to put the patient at ease and reduce their anxiety during the procedure.

Finally, candidates should be aware of the potential complications and adverse events associated with the procedure, and know how to manage them if they occur. This includes understanding the appropriate steps for monitoring the patient after the procedure, recognising signs of complications, and taking appropriate action to address them.

How to prepare for the OSCE exam

To prepare for the OSCEs, you'll need to have a solid understanding of the format, structure, and content of the exams. Here are some tips to help you prepare effectively:

  1. Understand the Format: Familiarize yourself with the format and structure of the exams. This will help you feel more confident on the day of the exam.
  2. Study and Practice: Start preparing early and set aside enough time to study and practice. Use a variety of study materials, including textbooks, videos, case studies, and online resources.
  3. Partner or Mentor: Practice clinical skills and knowledge with a partner or mentor. This will help you get feedback on your performance and identify areas for improvement.
  4. Communication and History-Taking: Practice history-taking skills with a partner or mentor. Read patient case studies and practice taking a complete history. Familiarize yourself with common conditions and their presentations. Practice effective communication techniques, such as active listening and non-verbal communication.
  5. Clinical Examination: Study anatomy and physiology in detail. Practice physical examination techniques on yourself and others. Read case studies and practice identifying signs and symptoms of common conditions. Study normal and abnormal findings in physical examinations.
  6. Diagnosis and Management: Read up on common conditions and their management. Practice diagnosis and management skills with a partner or mentor. Study the latest guidelines and best practices for managing common conditions. Practice presenting a diagnosis and management plan to a patient.
  7. Seek Feedback: Seek feedback from your mentor, peers, and professors. Make adjustments to your study and preparation strategies based on this feedback.
  8. Stay Calm: Stay calm and focused during the exams, and take deep breaths when you feel stressed.

How can Pastest help with your OSCE revision?

Pastest offers a comprehensive online revision resource for medical students preparing for their OSCE exam. Here's a guide on how Pastest can help med students pass their OSCE exam:

  1. Medical Student OSCE Question Bank: Pastest's question bank consists of over 160 medical student OSCE questions. These questions cover various specialties and question types, and can be filtered by difficulty level. Med students can create bespoke OSCE revision sessions based on their preferences.
  2. Extensive Question Filters: The Pastest platform offers question filters for question type, specialty, difficulty, and more. This allows students to tailor their revision to their specific needs and focus on areas where they need the most improvement.
  3. OSCE Skills Videos: Pastest provides 71 OSCE skills videos covering tutor-led stations, procedures, and OSCE examination techniques. These videos offer step-by-step guidance for students on how to approach different OSCE stations.
  4. Spot Diagnosis Questions: Pastest offers 124 spot diagnosis questions to help students improve their ability to recognize clinical signs. This is particularly helpful for OSCE stations that require students to identify specific physical findings or abnormalities.
  5. Performance Data: The Pastest platform provides in-depth performance data for students. Students can see how they perform in each specialty and identify areas where they need to improve.
  6. Patient Scripts and Official Form Examples: Pastest offers over 45 printable resources, including examples of official forms and patient scripts for role-playing different patient scenarios. This is particularly helpful for practicing communication skills and building confidence.
  7. Expert Feedback: Students can query Pastest's questions and receive detailed, timely feedback from their expert team. This helps students to understand where they went wrong and how they can improve.

For more information regarding Pastest’s OSCE resource see here.

  • 09 Mar 2023
  • Medical School