Last updated on June 7th, 2023
Studying for the General Surgery Boards is similar to studying for USMLE Step 1; you have already been taught everything that you need to know for the exam, but at the same time you have no idea what to expect or how to study. The ABSITE is a good way to test your knowledge throughout residency, but no matter how well (or poorly) you perform, it does not prepare you enough to pass the boards.
I am writing this post because I passed both exams on my first attempt.
Let me share a few tips and tricks to use while you are preparing for your general surgery boards.
- Start early; it is never too early to start preparing for the boards. I do not care if you literally just started intern year, start now. Every time you see a new surgical diagnosis, learn everything you can about it. Having a face to the disease process we learn about, and the surgeries we perform, makes remembering the facts about the diagnosis, work-up, and treatment easier to remember. Start by studying a little bit every day.
- Don’t panic. If you are taking your test this year and you have not started studying yet, relax. You are more likely to retain information if you are not over-stressed while you study.
- Do not think of it as studying; the board exams are designed to make sure that we are safe surgeons. Preparing for the boards is really just preparing for being an Attending Surgeon in real life. The test is not some brutal form of punishment; that was residency—it is designed to evaluate if training adequately prepared you for diagnosing and treating surgical issues in the real world.
- Take breaks. There is data that shows that our attention span for lectures and educational activities is less than 20 minutes. So, do not torture yourself for hours on end without taking a break. I started using the pomodoro technique for studying when I was preparing for the boards; I would set a timer and study for 25 minutes. Whether I felt like I needed a break or not, I would take five minutes to do something other than study.
- Disconnect while you study. It is important to try and focus while you study. Try to mute your notifications, silence your phone, and turn off the television.
- Use different study materials. During my surgical residency and fellowship in Robotic Surgery, I commuted anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes, to and from work. I used that time to listen to lectures. On surgical education days, I would focus on lectures that correlated with the topic we were learning about. When I had a big OR day with advanced cases, I would listen to topics around those cases. I am not trying to say that you should spend every moment listening to surgical lectures, but the more you listen, the more you are likely to retain the information. When it came time to buckle down and prepare for the Qualifying Exam, I watched the video version of the lectures and followed along with the printed material, taking notes as I watched. It was cool to put faces to the voices I had been listening to for all those commutes.
- Speed it up. I did not realize that the videos on the API Pass Machine website have the option to speed it up. Once I figured this out, I was able to fast play the lectures and cover more material in less time. It was easy to follow along since, by the time I was watching the videos, I had already listened to the lectures during my commutes a few times.
- Get a study partner. For the most part, I like to study alone so I can keep my own pace. However, I do think it is important to maintain accountability and keep in check by having somebody who you can talk to about your progress during the studying process.
- Volunteer to be the person doing practice mock orals. Get over the fear of looking stupid or sounding stupid; be the guinea pig and volunteer to be grilled in public. The more you practice, the easier it gets. If you know nothing and get shamed, it will be good motivation to learn more. More than likely, if you have been listening to the Pass Machine lectures, you will do well and impress your colleagues.
- Finally, sign up for a board review course before exam day. I did not do a review course for the Qualifying exam, I only used The Pass Machine. That worked out well for me because I had three solid weeks of intense studying in my home office while my children spent the days at summer camp. For the Certifying Exam, however, I did go to a live Board Review Course; my busy fellowship schedule did not allow me the luxury of having three solid weeks to study for the Boards. For that reason, I think it is important to get one last, long weekend of studying; one last trial of public test-taking before you are face-to-face with the examiners in a quiet hotel room.
Sarah Bryczkowski, MD
Board Certified Robotic General Surgeon