Six Steps to Help You Pass Your Shelf Exams

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

The shelf exams are something many schools now require students to take and a significant part of third year clinical rotation grades.
By preparing well in advance and understanding as much as you possibly can about the exams, you’ll be able to compete better against others taking the test.

  1. Study Well in Advance

    Whether it’s the shelf exam or any other test you encounter during medical school, the biggest mistake students make is procrastinating. While you may feel confident in your ability to study under pressure, it’s tough to cram for the shelf exam given the vast amount of information you’re required to know for each rotation. It’s imperative that you study well in advance.
    The key is to break up your studying into small digestible parts. An hour per day for 30 days is exponentially more valuable than six hours per day for the five days leading up to the exam. You’ll retain more of the knowledge and have ample time to review concepts you haven’t yet mastered. It’s also a lot easier to schedule an hour a day during a busy rotation than it is to get five days off.

  2. Use Question Banks and Prep Course

    There are two most common ways to study for the shelf exams and both have value. The first method involves reading from textbooks and journal articles for rotation-specific materials. It is highly recommended to read about conditions that you encounter on your rotation on resources like UpToDate and Medscape.
    The second method involves the use of question banks and prep courses. Focused question banks help because they try to mimic the exact question types and conditions that you’ll see on the actual exam.
    This not only familiarizes you with important content, but also gets you used to the test format. While doing practice questions, mark the questions that you’re guessing as “guessed” to see if you’re guessing correctly or not and make the necessary adjustments based on the results. Also take notes on the explanations to review one to two days prior to your exam.

  3. Understand the Shelf Exam Format

    As is the case with any standardized test, it’s important that you go into the exam understanding the format and setup. The last thing you want to do is show up to the exam room and then waste valuable time reading the rules and trying to understand what’s expected of you.
    The third year NBME subjects include eight exams – one for each core discipline. They are as follows: ambulatory medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, neurology, obstetrics & gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery.
    Exams are comprised of 90 to 110 questions and must be completed within 2 hours and 15 minutes and 2 hours and 45 minutes.

  4. Keep the Right Perspective

    The key is to avoid getting overwhelmed and instead focus on taking the test one question at a time. In order to successfully finish the test on time – and obtain a high score – you’ll need to put yourself in the right frame of mind.
    Remember that this isn’t the end of your career in medicine and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. If you don’t know the answer to a question, move on. You can’t afford to dwell on questions for too long. Use the easy ones to build your confidence and take your best educated guesses on the unfamiliar ones. Using the “guessed” functionality on question banks will help you see how often you’re making the best guess.

  5. Balance Group and Solo Studying

    When it comes to studying for the shelf exams, there are a few different schools of thought. You’ll hear people discuss both solo studying and group studying, and the truth is that both come with their own pros and cons. Depending on your personal preferences and learning tendencies, you may prefer one, the other, or a blend of the two.
    “Studying in a group provides the opportunity for everyone to compile their notes and ideas and better learn the material through teaching or learning from other group members,” says student Amy Thornton. But there’s also another side to this.
    “Sometimes study partners are not as knowledgeable as you are. Sometimes they want to spend hours studying a topic that you already know like the back of your hand. In those cases you often don’t accomplish anything,” says another student. Instead, you end up wasting your time and have to go home and study on your own.
    For most people, the best solution is to blend the two approaches. Start by studying on your own so that you’re able to master some of the content and identify problem areas. Then, meet with a group and work together to flesh out everyone’s “weak spots.” This will leave you better prepared and more engaged.

  6. Meet with People Who Have Shelf Exam Experience

    It’s always a smart idea to leverage the knowledge of people who have more experience than you. This is a concept that will ring true throughout your career in medicine. For the time being, this means reaching out to people who have taken the shelf exams in the past. Ask them for pointers and tips, and hopefully they can provide some tangible advice. Just make sure to avoid asking for specific questions and/or conditions that were asked on the test since there are confidentiality rules that need to be followed.

ExamGuru recently released a new platform and mobile apps with 2,400 practice questions for the Shelf and USMLE Step 2-CK. Their authors are trained to write only material that is likely to be tested when they write practice questions and explanations.

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