Reading the examiner

How can you read the examiner during a viva?

Short answer: You can’t.

Long answer: Given that is not uncommon for the Renton Prize winner to believe they have failed the vivas, is there any way to actually know how you are going? This post covers some of the common ways people try to read the examiner, and ends with the test with the highest area under the ROC curve.

TRUE/FALSE If the examiners face is blank, you are failing.

Most examiners will avoid giving non verbal cues. A blank face only indicates that they are listening to your answer. Ask the people giving you trial vivas to give you practice at answering a question without non verbal feedback.


TRUE/FALSE If the examiner is smiling and nodding, it is a good sign.

This test has a high sensitivity but low specificity. It means that the examiner probably does not have Asperger’s syndrome.


TRUE/FALSE If the examiner looks at you over the top of their glasses it is a sign that you have made a mistake.

This test has both a high sensitivity and specificity. The examiner is longsighted.


TRUE/FALSE It is a good sign if the examiner is making a lot of notes.

Some examiners make notes whilst they are examining. Some examiners prefer to write their notes after they have finished doing their vivas. Either way, they are recording your answers, whether or not they are correct.


Your guess as to how you are going is worse than tossing a coin. There is, however, a test with a very high sensitivity.


Most people who are invited to the vivas pass. If you assume you are passing, there is a much better than even chance that you are right.

Viva tip: Reset and forget

I am sure most of you are aware of the format for the vivas, but just in case you are not, it’s:

2min reading, 20 mins viva (4×5 min vivas), 2 min reading, 20 min viva, 2 min reading, 20 min viva, done!!

Each of the sets of vivas will be conducted  by a different pair of examiners who have no idea how you have done in any other part of the exam – you are a blank canvas to them.

You have 3 chances to completely reset during the 66 mins. Make a conscious effort to calm yourself and refocus. Could you capture this feeling of freedom (not the sense of free falling)?

Leave the previous viva behind as you leave the little black cubicle.  Take it consciously from your mind. Only 3 people know what happened and the two of them who are still in the room, will be resetting themselves ready for the next candidate.

Within each 20 mins, there are also 4 separate and independent questions, each marked on their own merit. The examiners will mostly indicate when you are moving to a new topic ( it is a give away when the second examiner starts asking questions 😉). Take these transitions as another opportunity to reset yourself – perhaps have a sip of water.

You cannot alter the viva once it is finished. Undoubtedly you will have given it your best effort.

So when standing outside a black cubicle, with a bunch of other terrified looking individuals, in the second week of April, reset and forget…..

Exam Technique: Graph Drawing


The vivas are still a way off, but I will mention this now so you can think about how you will draw the graphs as you learn the material.

If you were studying maths you would be expected to know the formula, draw the graph, and describe it in prose. Lucky for you you’re studying for the anaesthetic primary and you only need two of these components.

Many candidates start by labelling and scaling the axes. Thirty seconds later, they still haven’t got drawn the curve, which means they haven’t gained any marks.

You should start with the most important part, which is the graph itself. Try to get in the habit of describing what you are drawing out loud. For example, “A log dose response curve has a sigmoidal shape, starting at zero, with a maximum of 100% effect for a full agonist”. This means if your graph is a slightly funny shape, the examiner will know what you meant.

The examiner will want to discuss the curve, so draw your curve in the middle of the graph. This will give you room to show what will happen when the curve changes.

Spend an extra second or two making sure the curve is accurate. If it starts at zero, draw it as such. This could easily save you a minute explaining that 20% of your patients are not actually unrousably unconscious on arrival at theatre reception.

If they don’t stop you, then go on to label the axes. Put in values for the important points only, and then start describing the factors affecting the curve.

Ideally you will speak while you are drawing your graph, but if this doesn’t work for you don’t worry – just draw the graph and then explain it.


Feel free to make suggestions as to what LOs you would like questions on next week.