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How to Kill Your Shelf Exams

By OnlineMedEd December 14, 2017

Picture this: you just got home from a long day at the hospital, take off your scrubs, microwave some dinner, and finally sit down on your couch. Is it time to catch up on a couple of episodes of your favorite show? Nope. In the back of your head you know that when your rotation ends, whether it’s OB/GYN, surgery, or internal medicine, you will have to take the impending shelf exam correlated with it. As if you’re not already worn out from running around the hospital, you now have to add in more studying when you get home.

There is good news; studying for your shelf exams doesn’t have to be painful. With the right strategies and tools at your disposal, you could easily study for your shelf exams pain-free, and by studying the correct way now, you’ll have less to prepare for when it comes time to start seriously studying for Step 2 Boards.

With these three easy steps, you’ll be on your way to honoring your rotation and killing your shelves in no time.


1. Learn efficiently – use PACE

Learning efficiently is a must since time is a finite variable. What makes it possible? Start by looking inward; schedule time and be consistent. Every day, commit to a few hrs beginning at 8 pm; it will go a long way.

Next, use resources that use best practices. You’re in luck here; OME’s tried and true learning paradigm, PACE, is your friend. No, I don’t mean “pace yourself” (but that’s also good advice). Hopefully, you know the reference, but for any new visitors, PACE stands for  Prime, Acquire, Challenge, and Enforce. Go through one lesson a day:

PRIME your mind by reading through the notes,

ACQUIRE information by watching the video,

CHALLENGE yourself by doing the Qbank, and

ENFORCE what you’ve learned by reading the QuickTables once a week, and flashcards every day.

By learning the content through multiple modalities (reading, watching, engaging) and then applying what you’ve learned by answering questions, you’re improving your odds of getting a better grasp on the material and remembering more over time!


2. Train

A test is made of questions; therefore it makes sense to train specifically for it. Learn how to think like a question writer. Get repetition by reviewing notes and flashcards to reinforce not only concepts but vocabulary. And do more questions from an outside source if you have them. Understanding not only knowledge but how it will apply come test day will make your life even easier.


3. Taper

If you’re an athlete then you’re probably well aware of what tapering is. It’s essentially the same thing when applied to studying: you aren’t learning any new information in the tapering phase, but you also aren’t losing any information. The goal of tapering is to maintain what you already know without burning out. In practice, this means shutting down a few days before the test. Go for a run, pet your dog, pet your spouse, – whatever it is that relaxes you.

Now you have three pain-free steps to follow so you can ace your shelf exam at the end of each rotation. Coming home from the hospital has never been easier since you’ll already have a plan in place! And you know what the best part is? Not only will this help you nail your shelf exams, but when it’s time to take your USMLE Step 2, you’ll be halfway there!


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