Medical School Exams

Studying for the exam

During my A-levels, I loved the Tony Buzan books, specifically Use Your Head and Use Your Memory.  I got top marks at A-level, got into Oxford University, used the books throughout my degree there, and thought the memory techniques in them were simply amazing. However with medicine I became stuck.

Now I should confess that, despite my career choice, I hated science and maths at school. These lessons were torture and I can still remember the sheer euphoria when I finished my GCSEs and I announced to whoever was listening that I never, ever had to do another bloody Chemistry exam or solve another sodding equation ever again. Oh how wrong I was…

When I went to medical school I found that no one was really interested in whether I could have a fascinating conversation about the evolutionary significance of why some people don’t have palmaris longus (I only have one as a matter of fact!). They simply wanted to know if I could trot out its origin and insertion, parrot-fashion. Suddenly my memory, which had been so enriched with colours and concepts beforehand, failed me and I couldn’t write my beautifully crafted Oxford essays because medicine was all dry, black-and-white factoids and formulae.

It took me a long time to accept that I would just have to rote learn these pointless things that would fall out of my brain as soon as the exam was over and I very nearly dropped out of medical school multiple times during pre-clinical years. However by clinical years I had figured out a routine which got me through, using elements of Buzan’s techniques.

I realised from day one of clinics that I needed to write my own text book as it were. I simply couldn’t find (and still can’t find) a book of ‘things medical students need to know to pass their finals’ so I decided that I needed to create one. I went through each topic, gathering information from chapters of different books, until I had the information that I decided was important. Once I had this, I figured out that, to avoid feeling totally over-whelmed by the volume, I needed to organise it into manageable ‘chunks’- ‘subtopics’.

Each subtopic was covered on a set of powerpoint slides. I allowed myself a maximum of 11 slides, so that one subtopic only took up one A4 sheet (both sides, including a title slide). Sometimes the font got so small it was quite difficult to read on the sheet, but it meant that I had a tangible amount to learn, and I could see a beginning, middle and end to it (Buzan talks about the importance of this in his books). These subtopics were then kept altogether in one plastic folder (like these) and in the end I had a whole box file of them. In addition, I made videos of myself talking into the camera, teaching myself what I had written down as I found that, by explaining something, I remembered it better.

In his book Use Your Head, Buzan describes how memory fades over time, and how you have to ‘review’ memories at certain intervals to more deeply encode (and therefore remember) them. I followed this, and at these prescribed intervals (admittedly I was more strict about the intervals in the run-up to exams than during non-exam periods), I would re-watch my videos and go over my notes (writing down key words and concepts/ drawing mindmaps of what I could remember). Again in line with Buzan’s methods, I spent no more than 50 minutes on a subtopic (followed by a 10 minute break) at any one time (this was relatively easy as each was a maximum of two sides of A4), and I linked in videos and pictures of diseases/conditions in my videos to make them more memorable.

 

Practicing the exam

I discovered that MCQs require a sort of technique of their own, and that actually questions for medical students stick to a finite number of topics. This means that you need to practice, practice, practice not only before the exam but also during your revision. The latter point is key- DO NOT leave practice questions until the last few days before the test; do them as part of your revision as they are actually useful learning tools in themselves!

I mostly used BMJOnexamination  and PassMedicine, sometimes also using ReviseDoctor. The more questions you do, the more familiar you become with the sort of things you’re likely to be tested on, and you start seeing patterns you never saw before. When I came across things I hadn’t covered in my notes, I would write them in (hence why some of my notes are covered in scribbles!), therefore I would be learning new things as well as further ‘cementing’ into my brain what I had already gone over. Furthermore, I found that often I would have an ‘instinct’ that a certain answer was the correct one, and generally that was because I had done a similar question in the past and my brain had remembered it.

Therefore please I beg you, if nothing else, spend the money on a subscription to one or both websites and you will have a huge bank of questions to go through. I repeat- it’s all about the practice!

 

Doing the exam

My medical school used multiple choice questions for the exams which I believe is becoming the norm. It took a lot of getting used to for me as I had never done exams in this format at school or during my previous degree. In some ways MCQs are ‘easy’ as if you guess, you have a small chance of getting the question right. However I actually found them oddly difficult as I would get distracted by the other answers and often there was more than one correct answer but you were asked to choose the ‘most correct’ one which is basically down to what the examiner thinks is the best answer at the time of writing the question.

It took a good couple of years of struggling with these medical school exams before I worked out this system:

  • Before you even start reading a question, cover the answers with one hand. Then read the question and with the other hand, scribble down what you think is the answer. Uncover the answers and if one matches your answer, go for it. DO NOT even consider the other answers as your first instinct is almost certainly correct.
  • If you honestly haven’t a bloody clue what the answer is, uncover the answers and go through each one, crossing out those that cannot possibly be true. Then choose whichever seems the most logical or just guess out of the remaining options- you will have increased your chances of getting it right simply by eliminating some of them.
  • If you are presented with an array of answers because you didn’t know the correct one straight off, and one answer ‘rings a bell’ in your head, it’s probably because it’s correct- go for it!
  • Never, ever go through the paper after you have done it. I have found this to my cost!!! If you have gone through the questions methodically (following the three points above) there is absolutely no point in going back to the questions. I found when I did that, I would start second guessing myself and changing my answers, and this change would inevitably turn out to be incorrect when I looked it up later. Seriously- do the last question, close the paper and walk out. DON’T be tempted to go back through it ‘just to check’!
  • If I didn’t know the answer and it could be absolutely any of the 5 presented to me, I always chose ‘C’. I’m not sure it makes much difference in reality, but I read somewhere that C is more likely to be the correct answer…
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