For the third and final part of our series on how to study for boards (see our first and second installments here), we’ll take a look at advice from students who have taken the boards over the past few years. The students who just took the exam are your best source for up-to-date information on the boards. They’ll remember what topics were covered, and they’ll have good suggestions about what worked and didn’t work for them as they were studying. Pay attention to what they wish they would have done differently, too. So, without further ado, here are a whole bunch of helpful hints and comments, broken down into sections.

Most commonly-tested subjects

  • Path
  • Pharm
  • Biochem
  • Ethics/Biostats
  • Basic Principles of everything!

Other commonly-hit subjects on the exam

  • Molecular/Cell Biology
  • Neuro
  • Genetics
  • Histopathology
  • Embryology

What to study

  • Review basic principles at least three times
  • I should have studied behavioral science more
  • Make sure you study the BASIC SCIENCES!
  • Less time into systems and more time into molecular biology!
  • Hammer biochem and molecular techniques and general pathology
  • Absolutely start bugs and drugs EARLY!
  • Really focus on pathophys and cell and molecular genetics
  • Review the basic sciences behind the systems
  • Make sure you learn about rare amino acid, lysosomal and glycogen storage diseases
  • Make sure you review the basic principles and molecular/cell biology
  • Relate biochem to path, micro, pharm, etc.
  • Spend time on genetic disorders! A must!
  • Behavioral questions were very subjective and hard to study for
  • Study biochem over spring break and again just before the exam
  • Know murmurs
  • Learn your molecular biology in detail!

Comments on Kaplan

  • Kaplan had the boards nailed.
  • Q-Bank is the best prep I did
  • The best studying I did was the Q bank just before the exam.  First Aid and Q bank, Q bank, Q bank.
  • They poked holes in my knowledge so I knew what to study.
  • They helped me figure out how to answer board style questions.
  • They were the exact format as the boards.
  • I should have started with Q bank earlier and spent more time on it.
  • 43% of students thought Q-Bank questions were more difficult than Step 1 questions (11% said less difficult and 46% said similar)
  • Get the Kap questions!  They saved me! Start early with them though.

Comments on First aid

  • Tell people to memorize First Aid
  • Good for memorization
  • First Aid was awesome!
  • I especially liked First Aid for Bug and Drug review the week before the exam.
  • First Aid is a must have!
  • I used First Aid as an outline – worked best this way.
  • The tables in First Aid on second messengers and receptors; also classes of antibiotics arranged by how bugs gain resistance; also personality disorders – all three were MONEY.

Other resources to use

  • The comprehensive review exam gave a very real example of the exam
  • Buy a specific review book if you are deficient in an area
  • Stick to a select amount of resources – not too many
  • The questions on the Step 1 USMLE questions are the best example of review questions
  • The best books were BRS Path, BRS Phys and HY Histo! All HY books were useful!
  • I loved the pathology question book!
  • Buy BRS Path, Phys, as well as First Aid and use them in your study of each system.
  • Keep drug and bug cards or notes and study materials organized together in one notebook for reference during study.
  • I loved Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple!

How to study

  • I feel I should have studied harder
  • Do more practice questions when studying.  Q-bank, question books, etc.
  • Don’t try to re-read everything you ever learned
  • Start early
  • The most important thing to remember is: What is the next step in the pathway or diagnosis
  • Know the smaller (but not minute) details of the biochemistry pathways
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition!
  • If you get off schedule, re-create a realistic schedule that is high yield.
  • Pay attention to your strengths and weaknesses!
  • Make sure you build in time to review what you studied prior to May
  • Get a study partner
  • On weekends, it’s a good idea to go through some timed exams (aim for 60 questions/hour).
  • Correct items you get wrong on exams.
  • Participate in question-based review groups
  • Be a tutor (this helps you review)
  • Use active learning methods (charts, cards, diagrams, graphs)
  • Hit big picture material early on; focus on memorization at the end.
  • Leave a few days at the end, right before boards, to go through First Aid a third and final time.

Other general comments

  • Relax more
  • The test writers are not out to end your life.  It wasn’t that bad.
  • Do not stress out!
  • Build a few extra days into the schedule to deal with the unexpected
  • Take care of yourself and avoid burnout.
  • Take  breaks! Schedule them in so you don’t forget.
  • Take off the day before the exam.
  • Send for your permit – do not wait!!!

Advice for the day of the exam

  • Do not forget your permit on the day of the exam!
  • Your permit contains a CIN or candidate identification number or code to take exam (Prometric does not have this so if you don’t have your permit, you are out of luck!)
  • Don’t forget your photo ID; it has to match the name on your permit
  • Be really “on” on test day – it is grueling!


I hope these comments are helpful. You’ll notice that some of them are a bit contradictory – that’s because they came from real students, and everyone has their own particular view of the exam, and their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Know yourself and what you need to work on, make a good (but flexible) study plan, build in some time to relax, and you’ll do great!