Last updated on September 15th, 2023
The prospect of taking a board examination can be one of the most daunting endeavors in medical education. Regardless of your level of training, the time, money, effort, and stress related to board examinations intermittently become the primary focus of your life. Some individuals appear to be “great test takers” and can breeze through these exams with ease. On the other hand, some might appear to be “horrible test takers” because they struggle at every attempt. For most of us, however, it takes weeks to months of total devotion to master these exams.
The list of tests we must pass abounds with acronyms, much like your sickest patient’s problem list. Instead of CKD, CHF, and COPD, we are stuck with the MCAT, GRE, USMLE, and COMLEX (the latter two also include a step 1, step 2, and step 3); heaven forbid we forget the PE portion of USMLE and COMLEX. Specialty board exams represent the culmination of all of your training thus far, and failing these exams can literally follow you for the rest of your life and impact your medical licensure. The stakes could not be higher, but we are here to help you through it.
There are many tried-and-true techniques when it comes to board studying. In this article, we will scratch the surface of all the clinical skills you need to know to become a master test taker. However, there is one overlying tenet in formulating your board study strategy, and Shakespeare says it best: “To thine own self be true.” Being aware of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a learner is a must when preparing for test day. Are you a visual learner? Do you study better alone or with a group? Some of these questions will help you become as efficient as possible as you work to master the material. If you have no idea how you learn best, it is time to start testing these strategies.
If you need help creating a customized study schedule, check out our new EXACT exam prep tool. EXACT recommends total and weekly study times for each exam topic based on the exam blueprint and your responses, so you can better plan how you spend your study time.
If you need help understanding how you learn best, read through the list below, and determine which style(s) of learning fits you, and what study strategy you should use to prepare for your board exam.
A visual learner takes advantage of drawings, schematics, or can remember/visualize actual pages from books or reviews. In order to commit something to memory, it usually takes at least three repetitions of study. You may find that drawing a schematic over and over can help you commit it to memory (just draw that Kreb’s cycle again!). Or, create a list, and write the list over and over until you can see it in your brain. Visual learners can also use mnemonics, which they can visually commit to memory with repetition. Draw a strange cartoon or picture that will help you remember the mnemonic or the concept.
An auditory learner is able to master material that is heard in a lecture or reviewed in person. Again, repetition will seal the information into your brain. At least three repetitions are usually needed. So record your lectures and listen to them over and over; run them at double speed if you need to. Auditory learners usually need some sort of visual guide as well, so read the above paragraph and try to use some of those tactics as well. You may find success in verbally running through concepts with your study buddies. Have them quiz you with review questions—it is likely that hearing or discussing the answer will lock it into your brain.
This is someone who learns best by doing. They are often visual learners as well. Go to your nearest library where there is a whiteboard, and write everything over and over. Write out definitions. Write out schematics or biochemical pathways. Draw anatomy. Write lists over and over. Use mnemonics to re-write your lists. Again, make silly drawings of concepts you like to remember.
A solo learner needs to learn alone. Gets too easily sidetracked or is too social in a pair or in a group. Likes to maintain a linear train of thought with no one to de-rail them. Would rather listen to music while studying. The advice here is easy- find a quiet room, find your zen zone, and get to work! But don’t forget to socialize when your studying is done. This will help you survive your training, as you are all this together.
This type of learner does best when studying with comrades. Study groups can keep each other accountable, make sure everyone shows up and make sure everyone is retaining the material. Groups can help identify weaknesses in knowledge and areas to improve. They can function in many ways, such as just reviewing material, discussing material, quizzing each other with questions, re-reading lectures, or even re-watching or listening to lectures together. Sometimes you have to set your ego aside and let your study buddies see your knowledge weaknesses. Only when they are identified can you address and overcome them!
Next, you need to consider the actual materials you want to use; what should you study? Books? Reviews? Lectures? Questions? This may be determined by the format of your class, preferred book, expenses, or the exam itself. Your own preference and learning style may dictate the best strategy, however. Do you prefer a bullet-point format? Do you like paragraph style, or do you want the information fed to you like a story? Does your class provide succinct notes, or have you taken them yourself? Are there lecture courses available? If you plan to purchase a study guide, have you perused multiple options to see how they are formatted? Also, check the length of the material; if you have three weeks to study, do not get too ambitious and buy a 400-page book! You should evaluate the review materials available. Talk to other people who have found success. Sitting in lectures for eight hours a day is often a difficult way to learn unless you commit to repeatedly reviewing the material yourself later.
In addition, you need to test yourself by using practice board exam questions. How will you know if you are performing adequately unless you check your skills and knowledge base? Do hundreds of questions. If possible, go back and review the questions and explanations that you missed 2-3 times. These questions should be done concurrently with your book/note study or review. There are many services out there that will provide test questions or mock tests, and then tell you what you need to study. If you don’t know which of the aforementioned styles fits you, try a few out and then test yourself in a similar fashion. This will help you determine your learning style. One final test question hack- using practice questions will tell you what the popular test topics are. What are the “buzz words” that your testing entity wants to make sure you know cold? Test topics become popular and unpopular, just like hip lingo. For example, it is popular in some conversations to say that something exciting is “lit, fam” right now, but in 12 months, we will be hearing something new; the same goes for test questions.
Finally, medical students need to set a schedule and get organized. Determine how much time you have before the test and make a plan. Do not set huge, distant goals like “I’m going to finish reading this book in three months.” Break it up into smaller, easier, more attainable goals so you can have small victories along the way. This often motivates us to keep moving forward! For example, if you have three months to study, pick your study material of choice and split it up. If you choose a book, set a goal to read one chapter a day or 50 pages a day. Whatever will get you to review the material three times by the end (without forgetting to factor in practice question time). Leave a few days of wiggle room at the end in case you get delayed. This also allows you to spend a day or two re-reviewing the high-yield information. Finally, don’t forget to leave a day of relaxing time the day before the test; you need to go to the exam well-rested and ready.
Overall, once you get into the medical school material you will be using in your career, board studying can be fun. By the time you get to specialty board exams, you will most likely just be reviewing, and the subjects will hopefully represent a specialty you are passionate about and have begun to master. Working towards and finding mastery can be very rewarding and exciting. If you commit yourself to passing a test, work hard, and use the strategies above; they will steer you right every time. Worst case scenario, not a single one of these tests will forbid you from trying again. Just stay persistent, and you can achieve whatever you commit yourself to. Remember, you have gotten this far and found success; this is merely a continuation of that success. There is no feeling in the world like receiving a pass on your specialty board exam, knowing that years and years of hard work have culminated in great success. Keep working hard, never give up, and you will one day find yourself on this hallowed ground.
The board courses at The Pass Machine and Beat the Boards take into account all the different ways students learn and incorporate multiple learning styles into each board review course. Learn more about how these board review courses have helped others pass their board exams here.