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Knowledge, impression and preparation key to pass your MCA oral exam


Finally, the day has come. You are moments away from stepping into a room with an MCA examiner to take your officer of the watch (OOW), chief mate or master 500/3000 oral exam.

It has taken an OOW candidate at least 4-5 years to get here. For master-level candidates, it is probably closer to 10 years.

So here you are, dressed in your finest suit, sweating like you’re waiting for the executioner. Your attire may not seem important, but in a minute the examiner will step out of his room, see you for the first time and make a judgment about you. What kind of impression do you want to make? Don’t forget, this examiner will grade your exam and decide — before you leave the room — whether you pass.

You enter the exam room for the next hour or two with just the clothes on your back and the knowledge in your head. Depending on where the oral exam takes place, you will most likely sit at a small table directly across from the examiner, just the two of you. You will not leave again until the exam is over. However, most examiners will allow a bathroom break if necessary and provide you a glass or bottle of water.

MSN 1802 outlines the certification structure and examination and training requirements. The annexes to MSN 1802 contain the syllabus for each of the oral exams and clearly describe the subjects and detail which are open to examination. Depending on the candidate’s level, topics will include navigational safety, response to emergencies, pollution requirements, ship seaworthiness, crew management and legislative requirements.

Many of the questions asked during your oral exam could be similar for both the OOW and master-level candidate. However, the master-level candidate is expected to have a deeper understanding of the concepts being tested.

For example, both could be asked about maneuvering the ship in restricted visibility. The OOW candidate’s scenario may include one other vessel on the radar, whereas the master-level candidate’s might have two or three, thereby making the solution more challenging.

The practical side is that the OOW has responsibility up to a point in each situation after which he gets to “call the master”. The master candidate has no such escape. His responsibility is perpetual, so he will have to carry the situation to conclusion.

Now that we have ourselves looking good and know what might be on the exam, let’s look at the mental and intellectual preparation needed for the oral exam. Knowledge is necessary, but a clear and concise presentation of this knowledge while under pressure is essential to passing.

To help with this, many candidates find an oral prep course with a reputable training center helpful.

Prep courses weed out any uncertainty, refine existing knowledge, find the gaps, and help candidates present their knowledge in a simulated testing environment. Successful candidates are as prepared for their prep course as they are for the exam. That means studying for months prior for the prep. You cannot possibly learn it to examiner’s expectations the week before the exam.

If you fail, you can re-sit no sooner than two weeks after the initial exam. A third sit is available two weeks after that, and subsequent attempts at least three months later.

As mariners move up their progressive career path, it is important to return to their boats and apply the lessons they have learned instead of just “data dumping” the information for an exam. Studies show that those who immediately use what they have learned maintain it longer. And periodic review of new information also helps strengthen your knowledge foundation to build ever stronger upon it.

Really knowing this information for the exam is the basis for being a safer and more effective mariner, after all.

Brian Luke is chief operations officer for International Crew Training in Ft. Lauderdale. He is an airline captain and holds a USCG 1600/3000-ton master’s ticket. ICT trains crew for entry-level through 3000 ITC Master licenses, engineering and interior operations. Comments on this column are welcome at


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