A basic familiarity with musculoskeletal disorders is essential for all medical school graduates. The purpose of the current study was to test a group of recent medical school graduates on basic topics in musculoskeletal medicine in order to assess the adequacy of their preparation in this area. A basic-competency examination in musculoskeletal medicine was developed and validated. The examination was sent to all 157 chairpersons of orthopaedic residency programs in the United States, who were asked to rate each question for importance and to suggest a passing score. To assess the criterion validity, the examination was administered to eight chief residents in orthopaedic surgery. The study population comprised all eighty-five residents who were in their first postgraduate year at our institution; the examination was administered on their first day of residency. One hundred and twenty-four (81 per cent) of the 154 orthopaedic residency-program chairpersons who received the survey responded to it. The chairpersons rated twenty-four of the twenty-five questions as at least important. The mean passing score (and standard deviation) that they recommended for the assessment of basic competency was 73.1 +/- 6.8 per cent. The mean score for the eight orthopaedic chief residents was 98.5 +/- 1.07 per cent, and that for the eighty-five residents in their first postgraduate year was 59.6 +/- 12 per cent. Seventy (82 per cent) of the eighty-five residents failed to demonstrate basic competency on the examination according to the chairpersons' criterion. The residents who had taken an elective course in orthopaedic surgery in medical school scored higher on the examination (mean score, 68.4 per cent) than did those who had taken only a required course in orthopaedic surgery (mean score, 57.9 per cent) and those who had taken no rotation in orthopaedic surgery (mean score, 55.9 per cent) (p = 0.005 and p = 0.001, respectively). In summary, seventy (82 per cent) of eighty-five medical school graduates failed a valid musculoskeletal competency examination. We therefore believe that medical school preparation in musculoskeletal medicine is inadequate.