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How to Ace the OCS Exam

by Joseph Orbaczewski, PT, DPT


Congratulations on taking the next step in your career and taking the orthopedic clinical specialist (OCS) exam. Gaining a certified clinical specialty like this one will allow you to help further distinguish yourself as a talented clinician amongst your colleagues and clients.

Study tips for the OCS exam

I decided to apply to take the OCS exam because I wanted to challenge myself to become the best orthopedic PT that I could be and to obtain the best possible outcomes with my clients. During my time studying for the OCS exam, I realized how important it is to use your time well. I have a few study tips and strategies that I utilized while studying for the orthopedic clinical specialist exam, and I’m hoping that these tips will help you in preparing for and passing the exam yourself! This list is by no means exhaustive, nor will it guarantee that you pass the exam, but I hope that it will help you succeed in your journey while studying for the OCS exam!

1. Know the content outline

Knowing how the test is outlined and how it’s broken up will help you to prepare accordingly. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) produces a candidate guide every year for test-takers. The guide displays how the content is divided into different categories: “Knowledge Areas and Procedures” and “Body Regions.”

“Knowledge Areas and Procedures” has questions built around what PTs should know for everyday practice, such as movement science, human anatomy and physiology, medical/surgical interventions, examination/diagnosis, and prognosis/interventions. This is not a complete list, but there is a complete percentage breakdown of each category on page 10 of the candidate guide.

The “Body Regions” section guided most of how I chose to allocate my study time. The matrix breaks down each body region and shows you how much each region will be represented on the exam. The percentage breakdown of each body region is determined by a survey of orthopedic PTs stating how much they see a specific body region in their daily practice. To give you an idea, 50% of the exam is made up of the following regions: Lumbar Spine (20%), Shoulder/Shoulder Girdle (15%), Cervical Spine (13%), Thigh/Knee (12%).1,2 You can find the breakdown of each body part next to the list of “Knowledge Areas and Procedures” on page 10 of the candidate guide.

2. Create a study calendar

It can be hard to fit studying into your daily schedule when you have so many other obligations to take care of (like kids, work, or even your kickball league), so the best thing to do is schedule study time into your calendar so it won’t get put on the backburner. It’s always best to plan ahead, as studies have shown that learning is more effective when the material is spaced out over time compared to cramming.3 I distributed my study time based on the breakdown of the body regions noted above.

3. Discover your learning style

There are as many different styles of learning as there are people, and I’m sure you see this every day when teaching your patients! If you have a good idea of what best suits your learning needs, that’s amazing! You’re a step ahead. If not, that’s okay. Two educators have developed a system that divides people into five key learning types4:

  • Visual – Learns via images, graphs, maps, etc.
  • Auditory – Learns via listening and talking
  • Reading/Writing – Learns via reading and note taking
  • Kinesthetic – Learns via hands-on and trying activities
  • Multi-Modal – Learns best with a combination of the different strategies noted above

You may be one or a combination of these learning types. If you’re not sure how you learn best, please feel free to take this assessment to gain a better understanding. Once you have an idea of what learning style best suits your needs, your studying for the OCS exam will be more effective.

4. Use deep learning

There are two types of learning: superficial and deep. What’s the difference between superficial and deep learning? Superficial learning is considered passive learning and consists of strategies such as memorizing facts, reviewing your notes, highlighting text, and making index cards. All of these are great strategies which are necessary at some point in learning.

Deep learning is defined by a true understanding of the material, which allows you to be able to discuss the material with others and question it. Some examples of deep learning techniques include creating your own test questions, trying to figure out the answer before looking it up, and testing yourself on what you know without checking your notes.

We need both types of learning in order to truly retain information and there is no way that you could perform deep learning without superficial learning. The big takeaway is that you should first use superficial learning techniques to learn the basics, especially when learning new information. You should then transition to primarily deep learning techniques to integrate and create meaning of the basic knowledge you gained with the superficial learning techniques.

5. Prioritize challenging subjects

It can be easy to avoid the most difficult topics while studying for this exam. However, once you know what your weakest areas are, you want to make sure that you have a sufficient amount of time to study them. Make sure that when you’re creating your study plan, you allocate appropriate time for your weakest areas in conjunction with the body region breakdown of the exam.

After I took a few practice exams and reviewed them, I was able to identify which regions I was lacking sufficient knowledge in. For example, one of the areas I needed the most work in was the wrist/hand because I rarely see any of those types of injuries/pathologies in my place of practice. At that point, I decided what material would be most important for me to learn, utilizing superficial learning techniques. Once I felt comfortable in my base knowledge of the subject, I began to utilize deep learning techniques to better understand conservative and operative concepts regarding the wrist/hand.

6. Take breaks

After adding studying to your growing list of tasks that need to get done in a day, it may not seem important to take breaks, but taking a break can improve your efficiency and productivity.5,6 That doesn’t mean you should sit on the couch and watch television, check your email, or scroll aimlessly through social media. Instead of sitting, try taking a short three- to five-minute walk around the block or doing some jumping jacks. Taking a walk outside can be one of the best breaks that you can take to improve your efficiency and productivity.7-9

7. Exercise, eat healthy, sleep well

I’m sure this may sound obvious, especially to PTs, but exercising, eating healthy, and getting an appropriate amount of sleep can help to boost your study performance.

You may feel that you have limited free time to exercise because your already limited hours are dedicated to studying. You may not be able to exercise as much as you’re typically able to, but exercise will be a great way to get your mind off of studying, reduce stress, and even boost your memory!10-12 In addition to exercise, you can double down on your exercise efforts with proper nutrition.

Eating healthy can be hard, especially when you calculate the time it takes to buy your food and prepare it. However, the time spent shopping, preparing, and cooking your food could be time well spent taking a break from studying. Preparing meals involves executive functions of the brain that are associated with memory, focus, and problem-solving, all of which are important to help keep your brain engaged.13 However, you decide to get your nutrition, eating a well-balanced diet will help you with your concentration and memory, reduce your risk of getting sick, and improve your sleep.

Which leads me to my next point: sleep. You may feel like you need to sacrifice sleep to gain extra hours for studying for this exam, but a lack of sleep can reduce your ability to focus, therefore making your study session less efficient. Sleep has also been shown to improve your memory as the brain will review what you have done that day while you’re sleeping.14 So, make sure you’re getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night!

8. Test like it’s the big day

Preparing like it’s the big day will prepare you for dominating the exam on your actual test date. As you’re getting closer to exam day, you’ll want to take practice tests, and you can treat those practice tests like they’re the real deal. What does that mean exactly?

Time yourself

Set a date and time for your practice test to help you mentally prepare like you would for the actual exam. You should take your practice test at the same time as the actual exam. To make the practice test feel even more like the real thing, you should go to bed and get up at the same time that you actually would for the real test.

Put your phone away

While you’re taking the exam, you won’t have the opportunity to check your phone or email, so there is no need to have the same luxury while taking a practice exam. While taking a practice exam you will want to turn off your phone and put it away, turn the volume down on your computer, and close all applications and windows that are not pertinent to your practice exam.

Find a quiet place

The exam takes place at a standardized testing center, which will most likely not be as comfortable as your home or other study space. Simulate the environment by sitting at a desk with a computer, use noise-canceling headphones or earplugs, and give yourself one sheet of paper and pen to write for scratch paper. You should avoid eating or drinking while taking the practice test since you can’t have any food or drinks during the actual exam.

Ideally, you’ll have around 200 practice questions from the sources that you’re using to study so you can simulate the exam. You should break up your questions into four blocks of 50 questions just like the actual exam and set a 90-minute timer for each block of 50 questions to get an idea of how well you manage time during the test.

During the exam, you’re allowed a total of 50 minutes of break time and you can use the time as you deem necessary. Get up and stretch, go for a short walk, use the bathroom, drink some water, and/or eat a small snack.

As the exam approaches

Using these tips for your practice exams will allow you to recreate the actual test environment as best as you possibly can. In the end, you’re not only studying for the OCS, but you’re also practicing to take a seven-hour test. Practicing like you’re already at the testing center will be the best way to help you dominate the OCS exam. Additionally, studies have shown that superficial learning can result in lower test scores compared to those who use deep learning techniques.5

By using these strategies, I was able to maximize my studying efforts, which ultimately helped me to successfully pass the OCS exam. I hope that you will consider incorporating at least one of these strategies into your study practice to help you pass the OCS exam!





  1. Guide to Physical Therapist Practice. 2nd ed. Phys Ther. 2001; 81:9-744.
  2. Orthopaedic Physical Therapy Description of Advanced Clinical Practice. Alexandria, VA: American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, Specialty Council on Orthopaedic Physical Therapy; 2001.
  3. Newport, C. (2006). How to become a straight-a student: the unconventional strategies real college students use to score high while studying less. Three Rivers Press.
  4. Fleming, N.D. & Mills, C. (1992). Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11, 137-155.
  5. Robert A. Henning, Pierre Jacques, George V. Kissel, Anne B. Sullivan & Sabina M. Alteras-Webb (1997) Frequent short rest breaks from computer work: effects on productivity and well-being at two field sites, Ergonomics, 40:1, 78-91, DOI: 10.1080/001401397188396
  6. Wendell C. Taylor PhD, MPH (2011) Booster Breaks: An Easy-to-Implement Workplace Policy Designed to Improve Employee Health, Increase Productivity, and Lower Health Care Costs, Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 26:1, 70-84, DOI: 10.1080/15555240.2011.540991
  7. Kaplan, S. 1995. The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward An Integrative Framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15, 3: 169-182.
  8. Kaplan, R. 1993. The Role of Nature in the Context of the Workplace. Landscape and Urban Planning 26, 1-4: 193-201.
  9. Shibata, S., and N. Suzuki. 2002. Effects of the Foliage Plant on Task Performance and Mood. Journal of Environmental Psychology 22, 3: 265-272.
  10. Aguiar Jr, A. S., Castro, A. A., Moreira, E. L., Glaser, V., Santos, A. R. S., Tasca, C. I., Latini, A., Prediger, R. D. S. (2011). Short bouts of mild-intensity physical exercise improve spatial learning and memory in aging rats: Involvement of hippocampal plasticity via AKT, CREB and BDNF signaling. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 132(11-12), 560-567.
  11. Ding, Q., Ying, Z., & Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2011). Exercise influences hippocampal plasticity by modulating brain-derived neurotrophic factor processing. Neuroscience, 192.
  12. É.W. Griffin, S. M., Carole Foley, S. A. Warmington, S. M. O’Mara & Á. M. Kelly (2011). Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Physiology & Behavior, 104, 5, 934-941.
  13. Cleveland Clinic. Cooking for Cognition: Making a Meal Is Good for Your Brain. (2017, November 11). Retrieved from
  14. Chervin, R. and Hershner, S. (2014). Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students. Nature and science of sleep. Doi: 10.2147/NSS.S62907
  15. McGuire, S.Y. and McGuire, S. (2016). Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate in Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.


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