Study Tools and Tricks to Doing Your Best in Medical School

Congratulations, you have made it into medical school! Now what? Where do you begin with all the resources designed to help you do your best in medical school? Not to worry, for no matter what type of curriculum your medical school may use, the fundamental resources that most medical students use remain the same. The following is a concise list of the best study tools to help you do well in your course work, as well as to best prepare you for your future board exams.

Best study tools:

  1. First Aid for USMLE Step 1. This book provides a generalized overview of the concepts taught in each of your courses. It is worth annotating as you go through the curriculum in your first and second years because the book is a compilation of key concepts tested by “the boards”. The boards, aka the Step 1 exam, is a key exam that you will take at the end of your second year of medical school, and the score you receive will help determine where you are matched for residencies. Needless to say, the boards are VERY important. Keep in mind that First Aid is only a simplified version of most of what you need to know for the boards, so annotating from lecture material is a must. Otherwise, you will likely not receive the board score you want. It is also worth noting that each year a new version is released, so aim to get the most recent one. The 2016 version is available here on Amazon for $45.
  2. First Aid Organ Systems. This book goes into greater detail than the First Aid for USMLE Step 1 book and is excellent for organ systems based curriculums. Though many USMLE blog forums have pointed out that there are more mistakes in this book than the USMLE First Aid book, the book is revised each year and any spelling and/or grammatical mistakes noted are made available online. Despite this, I’ve personally used and annotated the book, and it has greatly helped me in my organ systems courses. I will be using this, alongside First Aid for USMLE Step 1, as my step 1 study guides. The newest version is available in a two pack (one is organ systems and the other is basic sciences) on Amazon for $124.50.
  3. Pathoma. This book is gold for pathology. Every medical student should have a copy. It hits the high yield points for both in-class exams and for the boards, has videos available for more in-depth explanations, and is sectioned by different organ system pathologies. It also provides histological pictures and explanations as well, and is easy to read. Annotating lecture notes in Pathoma with also help you in preparing for the boards. A free trial version is available online. Full access, along with a hard copy, is available on the same website for $84.95.
  4. Goljan Rapid Review Pathology. This is another popular pathology book. It goes into much more detail than Pathoma, but it can be cumbersome to read. Most medical students prefer Pathoma along with lecture annotation, but if you prefer a more detail-intensive textbook, this is the one for you. The newest edition can be found on Amazon for $45. A newer edition (5th edition) is set to come out sometime soon this year, so keep a look out if you choose this text.
  5. Firecracker: While textbooks are great for learning, self-testing is equally, if not more, important. Firecracker is a USMLE Step 1 prep question bank that helps quiz you on material you learn throughout your course work. Starting from day 1, if you use one of the first aid books listed above in conjunction with your lectures, and begin quizzing yourself on the material with a question bank like Firecracker, you will be very prepared for your course exams and for your board exams. Firecracker is a tool that is best used throughout the school year to reinforce what you are learning in lecture. Firecracker is available for a free trial and for various prices for different lengths of time.
  6. USMLE Rx. This is another excellent online question bank that is designed to help prepare you for your board exams, and it is integrated with the first aid book. This question bank can also be used throughout the year to reinforce what you learn in lecture and has more questions overall than Firecracker, but it is also more expensive than Firecracker.  You can try a trial version online.
  7. First Aid USMLE Q&A Book: This book is like the aforementioned question banks but in book format. It provides questions, along with answer explanations in the back. One of the advantages of having a hard copy Q&A book is the ability to easily annotate and review notes; while you still have a note taking option in firecracker and USMLE Rx, it is more difficult to track. Nevertheless, the online question banks are easier to mark and review difficult concepts than the book. You can buy it on Amazon for $36.

Other resources:

  1. Planner: Organization is KEY in medical school. If you find yourself lacking time to study, get a planner and start writing down your hourly/daily goals. It will help a lot, especially as exam time rolls around.
  2. Academic Success Advisor: Every medical school has one, and they may be called something different, but the function is the same – to help you find the best study strategies and tools that work for you. Make an appointment (soon after you begin classes) with your school’s academic success advisor and ask for tips and pointers on possible study strategies. Also, if you have questions about resources, advisors are the “go-to” people.
  3. Medical school textbooks: If your school does not include textbooks in their tuition fees, but you are still “required” to buy them, attempt to find free versions online first. Often, review books alongside lectures will give you the information you need. However, if the information still feels insufficient, old editions of the required textbook are a cheaper alternative to the required, new ones, and will give you all of the content you need. (For cardiology, I highly recommend Lilly’s Pathophysiology of Heart Disease. Well-written and easy to read.)
  4. Notecards: I started my first year with notecards/flashcards but realized soon that I was taking more time to make them than I was using them to study. However, many of my classmates swear by note cards and it works well for them. I still use flashcards for memorizing drugs or for difficult-to-remember concepts, but otherwise I have stopped using them. As I said, do not be afraid to try out new strategies when studying – you are still developing the study habits that will work best for you in the future.
  5. Whiteboard: Repetition is key for memorization. Drawing out mechanisms of action, or making charts and diagrams repeatedly on a white board can really help the facts stick. I’d highly recommend investing in one.
  6. OneNote: Most new computers come with the OneNote software and it is a great tool for organizing your notes online and retrieving them easily months later. I personally like to print out and write handwritten notes (I’m old-fashioned) but I used OneNote in the beginning and really liked it. Plus, if your laptop were to suddenly stop working, OneNote backs up all your information so you can retrieve it from the application on another computer.

Before going out and buying all of these books and purchasing subscriptions to the online question banks, do a little research this summer and decide which ones are the best fit for you. One of the things to keep in mind is that not only do you want to find good study resources to do well in your coursework, but also those that will best prepare you for your upcoming board exams. Doing well in your courses will set the ground work for being prepared for your Step 1 board exam. The best combination of resources is one general review book, one pathology book, and one question bank.

When you get closer to preparing for your board exam, you will be using the notes from your general review and pathology books, in conjunction with more intensive question banks such as UWorld. It is best not to overwhelm yourself with resources in the beginning, and it is OK to experiment with techniques and resources that work best for you. Of course I have not listed all the possible resources, as there are far too many. However, the ones listed here will provide a solid start to your academic success.

Featured image:
Contemplate by Walt Stoneburner

Manjit Bhandal

​Manjit Bhandal is a member of the Central Michigan University College of Medicine (CMU COM). She graduated with her bachelors degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to entering medical school, she worked as a clinical research assistant at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, with the Berkeley Cardiovascular Medical Group, and at the Stanford Medical School. Her research interests include improving outcomes in cardiac transplantation as well as cardiac tumors. She is an avid reader, and loves food, animals, and traveling. ​

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