How to Study for a Big Exam
Kendra Campbell -- I have finished all my regular school exams for this semester and have about one week to study for the NBME's "Comprehensive Basic Science Examination." My score will not be counted towards my grades in school, but rather is a pass/fail exam that I must pass in order to sit for the USMLE Step 1 Exam (the medical licensing exam for the US). Having a week with nothing to do but study is a daunting task for me. At my school, we usually don’t have so much time to study for an exam, but since this covers all of the basic science material learned during our first two years in med school, they give us a week to prepare. I’m sure all of you out there have either already faced this issue, or will be facing it in the near future, so I decided to make a list of some helpful suggestions that have worked for me.
1. Make a schedule, and try to stick to it. This is probably the most important tip. Having a schedule provides you with structure, and is a good way to prevent falling into the trap of running out of time in the end. It also ensures that you always have a task at hand, instead of sitting around bored, wondering what you should do. I usually go as far as creating a schedule down to the hour, but depending upon how much time you have to study, this wouldn’t always be necessary.
2. Get up every day at a similar hour. This obviously goes along with #1, but it’s always a good idea. In addition to getting up around the same time every day, it’s also a good idea to "try" and go to sleep at a reasonable hour every night.
3. Don’t forget to schedule in "fun time" or time off from studying to relax. This is incredibly important, and will prevent the dreaded "burn-out." If you’re lucky enough to have a dog (or other pet), take them for a walk, or play a game of fetch. Playing with my dogs is one of my most favorite de-stressors. If you’re somewhat obsessed with cleaning (like I am), take off 20-30 minutes to wash your dishes or do some laundry. Do you enjoy being outside? If so, take a walk around the block or to a nearby park. You may have noticed that all of these activities involve physical activity. There’s an obvious reason for that. Unless you are studying while on the elliptical trainer (which I actually don’t recommend), you are probably sitting on your butt for hours at a time. We’re med students. We know that moving around and getting your blood flowing is advantageous to both your mind and body. Don’t forget what you know.
4. Do questions. This is a great way to learn. Use an online question bank, or one of the thousands of prep books. And don’t just look at the correct answers. Actually figure out why you got the question wrong (and even right), and learn from your mistakes.
5. Don’t study what you already know. This is pretty obvious, but people sometimes do it anyway. Stop wasting your time!
6. Caffeine is your friend. Never forget your friends.
7. Change it up! If you find yourself getting incredibly bored, and wondering if chewing your leg off might actually be a more enjoyable experience, change something! Either change the subject you’re studying, how you’re studying it, or where you’re studying. If you’re lucky enough to live by a beach, go there and crack open your books! It will save your sanity, and also your innocent leg.
8. Take the day or night off before your exam. Don’t forget to do this! I don’t care if you’re behind, or you think you can stuff more information into your head if you keep studying. Don’t do it! And especially don’t stay up all night before the exam. This might be the worst idea ever. Let all those pharmacology drugs simmer in your brain for a while. Give the information time to cement. Have a nice dinner or go see a movie (preferably a completely mindless comedy) and reward yourself for all your hard work.
Okay, those tips should help to at least get you started. Do you have some suggestions that I missed? Feel free to add them to the list.
Hi Kendra thanks for ur tips I think u r right last year I stayed all the night before the exam but in the exam I was so tired that I couldnot concentrate easily
I think we should summarize what we study in simple diagrams
Posted by: Hager Hussein | Dec 19, 2007 4:06:39 PM
thanks for your tips!as i was reading i realised how many mistakes i make (staying up all night before exam day, never have fun times, start cooking/cleaning instead of studying and i always run out of time), maybe that is why i'm not looking forward to have my 4th year exams started!all the best wishes to you!
Posted by: Csaba | Dec 19, 2007 11:18:39 PM
Also think working with a positive attitude always helps - always think you can do this! also do not talk to any of your colleagues as they tend to worry/wind you up quite a bit!
Posted by: Srim | Dec 20, 2007 2:16:18 AM
For me,i never sleep before exams but im really okay with it.but stopping my studies a few hour before exams is a very good strategy.Also try not to destroy your social life during exams by not going out at all.
Posted by: king | Dec 20, 2007 6:02:24 AM
thanks for all your tips, i found them very interesting, specially when we have to struggle with stress...i think that's the worst part of all the process.
Posted by: gloria c | Dec 21, 2007 1:45:32 PM
good tips, but for a lot of people (myself included) studying the night before is hugely beneficial. i honestly cant remember a single exam in which i didnt use information i studied the night before.
Posted by: richard | Dec 25, 2007 5:10:27 AM
enough with these how-to columns. it's much more interesting to read reflections and insights about the process of becoming a physician than to see "advice" from people who don't have the benefit of a little hindsight.
Posted by: | Dec 26, 2007 5:25:39 PM
Wow, you are going to be a doctor and you state that "caffeine is your friend?" That is scary. Caffeine is much more dangerous than most people think. It is a leading cause of high blood pressure. It is also linked to increased gastrin production, which can cause stomach cancer. In addition, it alters calcium metabolism and is a leading cause of low bone density. Go back and study harder, Kendra, you're going to need it.
Posted by: Justin | Dec 26, 2007 6:00:55 PM
I would like to know if anyone has tips for a medical student who OVERANALYZES every question. Or are there students who do this and overcame it.. please explain how you did it.
I'm an overanalyzer, and my stress/anxiety comes from that.. I not only do that with the multiple choice exams but with the oral exams. But I can calm myself down during the oral exams.. and think through the questions that my Attending asks of me, and if there is a block.. it's just that.. a block. BUT I have not been able to overcome it for the multiple choice exams.
I have even thought about hypnosis BUT it's a last resort. I would like to know if anyone else has this problem, and what have they done??
Thank you in advance..
Posted by: Anoo | Dec 26, 2007 6:35:23 PM
Thank you for your tips. I managed to get through by utilizing most of them. My worst enemy was not making fun time. Caffine is your friend. Jason needs to study harder- it's dangerous over long term use. To help you get through some studying isn't going to kill you. Get over your self.
Posted by: JustFinished | Dec 26, 2007 7:52:25 PM
Questions asked in multiple choice exams are, at times, ambiguous, but, for the most part, the required answer is not. There are many questions, though. The exam is, therefore, a contest in which there are two limitting factors: time and your knowledge. In order to overcome the first, try to extract the essence of the question. Asking "Is A=B?" can be presented in very many, very fluffed, and intentionally diggressing forms. But the essence is the equality (or its absence) of A and B. Providing you know the yerritory, being able to "get the essentials" of the question, will allow you to make the correct answer almost automatically. Knowledge is, therefore, the "critical limitter" and time becomes an essential factor only when your knowlege is deficient (you start speculating rather than knowing, and speculation costs time, i.e., the chance of answering other questions correctly.) The operational rule:
1. Scan ALL questions quickly, and determine which you can answer easily and immediately, without more than 10 sec worth of thinking.
2. Answer the easy questions FIRST - do not bother about answering in order questions are presented. Theyb are rated (unless specifically marked) on the same scale, and the more you win on "easy answers," the better off you are at the end tally.
3. Go to the next step of difficulty - where some analysis is essential. In most instances, assuming you have some familiarity with the subject, the choices you are offered may provide you with clues on the essential aspect of the question. Compare, therefore, the range of answers with the question itself. Knowing your subject is essential here. If you do not know, a random shot may save your skin, but do not count on it.
4. Tackle things you have no clue about at the end. You DON'T know much about the subject: had you known, the quations would belong to the "easy" or "semi-easy" category. You may experience epiphany here, but, typically, it will be random shooting. The rule of ethics here would demand to leave the question unanswered - there is nothing wrong in admitting the lack of knowledge. Beating about the bush is, in this case, a form of lying: you try to indicate that you know when you clearly don't. As a forthcoming physician, you should train adherence to the rules of ethics from the earliest. This offers one of the chances
5. Once you answered all questions you could, check ALL answers quickly. You might have made an inadvertent error. However, do NOT waste time if sudden doubts emerge. They often do, and this is where you start overanalyzing. Remember that knowing frees you from doubting. Preparation is, therefore, critical.
The rules of preparation are simple: cram as intensely you can, then get a set of sample questions (e.g., internet), and, WITHOUT the benefit of the book, try to answer the relevant questions giving yourself 30 seconds/question. Once you run through the ENTIRE set of questions, check answers. Whetever your answer was wrong, study the question: what was essential in it? You will rapidly notice that your knowledge failed you, and overanalyzing entered as a self-defence mechanism. In two weeks you will be an expert in "getting to the core." The end rule: overanalyzing is the expression of uncertain/incomplete knowledge. You try to deduce your way to the truth instead knowing it. Thd process is easier in face-to-face confrontations: your opponent gives you clues (either by sub-questions, or even by inadvertent facial or postural indicators) that, if you are smart enough, will point in the right direction.
Posted by: Monsieur Doc | Dec 26, 2007 7:55:48 PM
Dear Dec 26, 2007 5:25:39 PM
What is your hindsight advice on how to study for the boards?
Posted by: D.O.C. | Dec 26, 2007 8:44:49 PM
I learned in my Psychology class that studying the night before was actually good if you get plenty of rest before the exam, while you sleep your brain is processing the information you just read. It is also good to take breaks in between studying and if you find something difficult that you can not figure out come back to it later and it makes more sense.
Posted by: Faidra | Dec 26, 2007 9:20:54 PM
For those of you who like to map, try mind mapping software (google it - there are tons of products). Just the act of organizing the maps is a big help. Think of it this way - you read the info, review it so you can organize it for the maps, then type it in - three reviews in one, plus a pretty picture for the more visually oriented among us.
If there are little "trivial" details that you can't dredge up readily, make a list of them that you can relate to (see mind maps or Excel spreadsheets) and review them last thing before you go to sleep at night (in bed, on the couch, wherever). Repeat this over a few nights at least a couple of weeks prior to your exam so they can soak in, and in a couple of days they will start to surface when needed.
Good luck and God Bless!
Posted by: Kristine | Dec 26, 2007 10:57:13 PM
I once spent the whole night before an exam "studying" and the next day went into the exam half asleep. I literally fell asleep during the exam nodding off and waking up doing that thing when you know you are about to fall asleep and you try to catch yourself before you do...well I naturally assumed that I completely failed the exam and that I was doomed. SADLY...I did not. I received a near perfect score and honestly that experience has ruined me...I still procrastinate thinking that I can just cram the night before and ace the exam the next day.
Posted by: Benji | Dec 26, 2007 11:05:04 PM
Spoken like a true junkie. You're the one who needs to get over yourself. Caffeine is a DRUG. Recreational use is drug abuse. Look it up. Caffeine is not your friend. Hit the books a little harder, scooter. Also, caffeine increases stress and reduces the effectiveness of a good night's sleep, so it is counter productive as well. You're obviously so hopped up on the stuff, you couldn't even read my name right.
Posted by: Justin | Dec 27, 2007 4:37:16 AM
caffeine is a drug, people with HBP, Ulcer, gastritis, inmune disorders, and many other pathologies might find that caffeine is not a friend, and caffeine give a temporary high but then comes the low, even though there are people with more than 100 years of age that deal very well with it, but the same happens with alcohol and tobacco, so if you need to increase your energy level I'd rather say: Exercise , a good diet , clean water , positive mind, 8 hours of sleep, those are friends.
Posted by: Abel | Dec 27, 2007 6:57:02 AM
for the overanalyser: try to cover up the answer options, then read the question and answer it in your mind. at first you might have to write your answer down, but eventually you'll get used to holding it in your head. then look at the options and find your answer. mark that one and move on; no second guessing! try this for 100 questions, and score the last 20, i bet it's better than you usually do. keep practicing this way and it might help.
some overanalysing comes from distrust of test question makers. regardless of how you feel about your own teachers, question writers for nmbe are the best and brightest in the profession and they are motivated to be clear. they are NOT trying to trick you! i know several here in my large academic medical center, and am sure of this. if you're stuck between a zebra and something more common, pick the more common choice. if you do this consistently in the long run of the exam you will score better (i know, it's the counterexamples that stay in your mind, but i'm right on this).
my qualifications for giving this advice:
--some of my best friends write for nmbe
--i have never scored below 97th %ile on a standardized test in my life
--i've coached med students who've failed steps 1 and 2, and everyone who's worked with me eventually passed
Posted by: anne | Dec 27, 2007 8:04:00 AM
Well, from time-to-time, I share your problem & especially, with the simpler questions, you might be asked, written &\or oral. My personal advice to you, would be to just answer the question, straight away. I know that in my Med faculty, they don't like & don't want you to be "too smart", with the questions. I.E.: If asked a question in postoperative complications & their treatment, in Thoracic Surgery, don't waist time thinking, about possible renal\hepatic\... complications. Answer the specific question, to the letter & according to what you've been asked & the possible given answers.
You're NOT suppossed & NOT expected, to be smart, with your answers!
In short, look at the question & it's answers & think about each question (& it's given answers), as if it was your only question, at the moment. That's how I did, thus far & I passed both USMLE Steps 1 & 2, without breaking my head, too much. (There are exceptions, of course...)
Posted by: Eran | Dec 27, 2007 12:13:20 PM
Merry X-Mas, I wish you happy and safe holiday.
Thanks for your valubale recommendations.I read it word by word.and that exactly wot I do,everyday I wake at 7:00 Am and study for 3-4 hours then take 2 hrs break.but sometimes I depressed..I dn't know why!!I wish to all a sucessfull exams .
Posted by: Loiy | Dec 27, 2007 12:47:06 PM
Hi! One of the things that helps me is to do some sort of list with the most important points of each subject (a particular disease or whatever i´m studying) in really big papers and hung it on my walls... It works, specially if you have a "visual memory"... And something else, if you feel you have to stay up all night studying, don´t do it the night before the test. That´s because, while you sleep, your brain select the important information, so it´s really important to have a good night sleep before a test... or at least a few hours!!! Good Luck and greetings from Argentina!!!
Posted by: Ade | Dec 27, 2007 12:57:30 PM
thanx kendra :) ,, that was a helpful..
Posted by: fatimah alalawi | Dec 27, 2007 1:03:49 PM
well thanks for tips, but it looks very brief,
and yes caffeine is gud indeed, but its harmful effects cant be chaged.
Posted by: fazal | Dec 27, 2007 1:25:31 PM
thanks for your tips! i think it will work...will try it now...haha..thanks! best wishes to you!
Posted by: breezy | Dec 27, 2007 2:34:17 PM
great tips. but i think to go thru everything before exam is essential for me.
one question, how to read faster? i m a (super) slow reader.
Posted by: jyc | Dec 27, 2007 3:23:58 PM
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