Conquering the Boards: A Strategy for Exam Success in Medical School

If you’re a medical student waiting to sit your board exams, this article is for you. First of all, congratulations on making it this. You have already conquered a challenge that so many people consider insurmountable. Second of all, you better believe that you’re going to pass the board exams and get your deserved certification. You’ll start practicing soon and kickstart your medical career’s success trajectory. We are confident in your abilities, which is why we have published this article to help you pass with flying colors, whether this is your first or second attempt.

Effective Study Techniques to Help You Ace Board Exams


Of course, you wouldn’t have made it this far without utter hard work, determination, and resilience. But for this last push, be sure to study smart and be more purposeful in everything you do. Don’t just work hard. Don’t just read and read for hours on end. Instead, adopt some of these effective exam revision techniques:

1. Don’t skip class

Even though the exams are right around the corner, don’t allow yourself to fall into the temptation of skipping class so that you can study independently. Missing classes results in gaping holes in your notes, which can seriously dent your success chances. It also means missing a golden opportunity to ask questions and get answers, be it from other students or your professors.

2. Figure out your study style

Here are a few questions to help you figure out what kind of a learner you are:

  • What time of the day are you most alert, energized, and ready to study?
  • Do flashcards work for you?
  • What about concept maps?
  • Could you be a visual learner? If yes, which visual tools work well for you?
  • How many hours can you do in a day, without draining yourself mentally, physically, or both?
  • Which activities help you relax between study sessions?
  • Are you more productive in a study group or in isolation?
  • What are your motivations?
  • What are your weaknesses and strengths?
  • Do you study better with music in the background or in total silence?
  • How easily distracted are you?
  • Which rewards and/or reinforcements work best for you when you study?

Answering these questions truthfully will help you figure out the kind of learner that you are.

3. Have a study plan


Even more importantly, stick to your study plan! A good study plan will not only help you manage your time better but will also motivate you to study. You should ensure that the study schedule has enough time for breaks, social life, and your daily chores. It should also have short, manageable blocks for intense revision.

4. Try spaced repetition

The psychology of remembering and forgetting follows an exponential curve. Everything you study is bound to fade away from your memory at some point unless you flatten your forgetting curve through spaced repetition. That’s why you should make a habit of revisiting your notes and relooking at key points of your study material more often. Preferably, do this when you’re right on the verge of forgetting important information. Do this over and over again. As you familiarize yourself with the material, the interval between revisits will keep getting wider.

5. Try active learning

Passive learning techniques may not cut it in medical school. You will grasp complex concepts better through active learning. Active learning techniques that have worked well for many medical students include:

  • Using flashcards. You can break down complex concepts in your own words and jot them down on flashcards. These flashcards are easier to go through compared to bulky notes.
  • Quiz yourself regularly to test your understanding of different topics.
  • Create mnemonics to enhance your memory. For example, FAST (Face, Arms, Speech, Time) is a mnemonic device you can use to memorize the signs of a stroke.
  • Teach your peers. The best way to improve your comprehension is to teach and answer questions from your peers.

6. Try interleaved practice

For most people, studying should be linear. That means studying topic A, understanding it well,  moving on to topic B, and later to topics C, D, and so on. In other words, you move on to a new topic only after achieving proficiency in the preceding topic. Although this approach makes sense on the surface, research has shown that it’s not the most effective for information retention. This is because topic A isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to topic B, or C to D, and so on. Sometimes studying topics C and D first can reinforce your understanding of topics A and B. That’s what interleaving is all about. It means alternating between topics and concepts until you figure out how different information and concepts in one topic overlap with or differ from other concepts in another topic. This can enhance your overall retention.

7. Do as many practice questions

Many students fail exams because they feel pressed for time to complete different sections, not necessarily because they didn’t study. Doing many practice/mock exams before the main exam will not only give you an idea of the kind of questions to expect but will also improve your time management skills during the main exams. There are tons of medical school resources that you can use to study for your exams, such as this Osmosis USMLE Step 2 guide. Use such resources to your benefit.

Stress Reduction Techniques when Preparing for Board Exams

1.  Prepare early


Considering how wide the scope of medical studies is, pulling all-nighters a few days before sitting for board exams just can’t work.  Be sure to cover everything early enough and retain it in memory.

Note: Even if pulling an all-nighter helps you regurgitate content in an exam and probably pass, most of the content won’t be retained in your long-term memory. A career in the health and medical fields necessitates a deep understanding of scientific facts and concepts. Passing exams isn’t an end in itself.

2. Have an active social life

You can achieve this by joining a study group. Working with peers will not only help you break down difficult concepts with ease but will also create a platform for you to make friends. Together, you can alleviate exam-related stress and anxiety by engaging in group leisure activities.

3. Ask for help

There’s no shame in struggling in some areas of study. You are a mortal human, after all. You should be confident enough to ask for help and clarifications from your instructors and peers whenever something is confusing or unclear to you.

4. Know when to stop and rest


You don’t have to complete the entire syllabus in one sitting. You must know that resting and getting enough/quality sleep is an important part of any studying process. Resting keeps your energy levels at maximum, enhances both your physical and mental health, and consequently keeps you optimally productive. Quality sleep also prevents unwanted burnout.

Final word

When you’re studying for board exams, you’ve got all the freedom and autonomy you need to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. The key to passing your exams is your ability to utilize that autonomy and freedom wisely. The tips in this article should be enough to get you started in that regard!