iCg_81601DryEraseMarkersThe oral board is one of the most time-honored traditions in the U.S. Navy. It is a comprehensive evaluation of not just your technical chops, but also your maturity, perspective, instincts, and ability to think under pressure. Oral boards never really go away; you will experience them at every career milestone that requires a senior to sign off on your competence. As you become more familiar with the board process you’ll develop a specialized set of skills tailored specifically to this kind of test. Having been on both sides of the judges table more times than I care to remember, these are a few things I’ve learned:

Prepare. If you’re at the point in your qualifications where you’re planning for boards, then the knowledge is already there—the challenge is now about actually demonstrating this knowledge like a competent professional. The cognitive processes you engage to memorize information are entirely different from those you use to articulate it, and if you don’t practice articulating it then you’re courting humiliation. There’s nothing more frustrating than failing a board because you can’t explain what you know.

Use your resources. You’ll almost certainly have a whiteboard and some dry-erase markers at your disposal; if not, a pen and notepad will do. The whiteboard is your friend; it is a tool for conveying information, and you must confidently employ it to your advantage. While talking through a problem, write down everything you can—assumptions, initial conditions, system lineups, unknowns, applicable rules or procedures, applicable sketches or functional diagrams—whatever you can do to put ink on the board. An empty whiteboard suggests an empty brain.

Prepare. In using the whiteboard, you should strive to continue speaking while you’re writing or drawing. Long gaps of silence bore your judges, compelling them to pick apart your presentation or think up tricky questions. There’s nothing natural about writing and talking at the same time; it involves a kind of mental dexterity that can only be developed through habit. This is something you can practice on your own, mumbling to yourself as you study. Your shipmates will think you’re crazy, but that will probably help you to fit in.

An empty whiteboard suggests an empty brain

Think “whole ship.” Arbitrary figures, numbers and lists are not what an oral board is about. The board wants to see you integrate all that knowledge into some kind of practical application. If you’re writing a list or sketching out a diagram, it will be for the greater purpose of explaining some complex, whole-ship evolution or casualty. You won’t ever get to that point without the underlying technical knowledge, but don’t be satisfied with knowing that you can regurgitate a bunch of memorized trivia.

This is a pretty basic point, but I see people screw it up all the time. When you’re memorizing system diagrams, think about them in terms of what they actually do. If you draw a perfect Ventilation or Trim and Drain schematic, and then can’t explain how the fluids flow through them in various lineups, then all you’ve done is regurgitate a bunch of lines and circles. Practical application is what gives your drawings relevance. A small error like a missing check valve or an incorrect junction that would prevent your system from “working” will effectively invalidate the whole drawing.

Prepare. Call on your fellow officers to sit practice boards for you—they have a vested interest in your qualification, and will probably be glad to help out. A common term for this is “murder board,” since unlike your real boards, the judges in a practice board will often make it as hard as possible. Try to staff your practice boards with the most mature officers you can find—Department Heads if possible—as they will be more inclined to ask relevant questions that engage all of the necessary cognitive functions. Less mature officers will be more likely to turn it into an entertaining “stump the chump” session, which can actually do more harm than good. Try to keep the practice board as formal as possible, and don’t “break character” until it’s over.

Don’t freeze. You will get at least one question from which your internal response is not to access knowledge, but to panic. If your immediate thought is I have no idea what they’re talking about, then you are most likely misinterpreting the question because your brain is tied in knots over nervousness. Anticipate this, and you’ll be ready to execute the casualty procedure for an intellectual misfire. The first step, again, is to get ink on the board—almost any relevant information can serve as a step-off point to start writing. Oftentimes this is all that’s required to jumpstart your brain into working again.

Staff your practice boards with the most mature officers you can find

One thing you should keep in mind when you’re desperately spewing knowledge is that the board will happily let you dig your own grave. If you say the wrong thing while talking through a scenario, they will probably urge you down that path to see how far you’ll go before you see your mistake. If you recognize that you’ve said the wrong thing, don’t imagine that your judges might not have noticed—correct yourself immediately.

If they ask questions like “are you sure?” or “is that all?” then you need to reevaluate. They’re most likely not interested in intentionally tripping you up—they know they can do that, and it doesn’t get them a qualified watchstander. Just don’t waffle. If you still think you’re right, then stand by your answer. In casualty scenarios, be sure to mention the point at which you would break out the procedure and confirm your immediate actions.

gladiator-thumbsdownTry not to worry about how you’re doing. All that gets you is a nasty cycle of doubt and anxiety. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. If you start to flounder, remember that your judges desperately want to pass you. They need you qualified, and they don’t want to repeat this ordeal any more than you do.

Prepare. Among other things, an oral board is an exhibition of professionalism, so you should make a visible effort to look the part. Shined boots. Clean uniform. Regulation haircut. No gum or dip. A fresh set of dry-erase markers. These points may sound juvenile, but appearance counts, if only to help put your own mind at ease. Don’t try to win them over by being funny or clever– there’s a time and place for that, and this isn’t it.

Going the extra mile to look professional is a personal sign of respect to your board. It is not a form of groveling, as some Ensigns still bitter about their midshipman experience may contend. It is an acknowledgement that human psychology is incredibly complex, and that you may use it to your advantage or spurn it at your peril. You can never go wrong with professionalism.

Prepare. In case I failed to mention it, the most important part of your oral board is the effort you put in before it begins. All of the presentation tricks in the world will amount to nothing if you’re unprepared, or worse, if you prepared stupidly. Practice boards. Complex casualties. Scenarios and big-picture applications—these are the moneymakers. Staring at lists of parameters and technical schematics is not going to cut it.

You may feel like you’re overdoing it, especially if your contemporaries are getting by with less effort. Go ahead and overdo it. Nobody ever said, “man, I really wish I hadn’t tried so hard.” This is far from a simple Pass/Fail, even if that’s what ultimately goes in the book. You’re on display, building confidence in your seniors; building your reputation. You don’t want to be the JO that gets by with a pity pass.

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