Planning and Time Management for Boards Success

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

No matter how you plan on preparing for boards, getting started sooner than later is a good policy to apply.
First, when should you start prepping for boards? The quick answer is DAY 1 of medical school – the better your foundation in med school, the more you will be able to build on top of that. One of the criteria many schools use in determining who is at‐risk for boards is simply who failed a course in the first two years and, for those who have not failed, who has a GPA representative of barely passing most courses. Why? Students who have not developed a strong foundation in the first two years have more difficulty with boards – you can still do well, but it is going to take a lot more work. So, while you should not start a boards prep program or service on Day 1, keep in mind that much of what you learn in med school gets you one step closer to having a foundation upon which to build more knowledge when the time comes to do formal prep.
When should formal boards prep begin? The earlier the better. Starting at or around December‐January of your second year is a good time to start. You should spend the fall months deciding on a plan of action – will you take a course? If so, which one? What will your strategy be? Be careful of relying entirely on one‐person instructions on what will work for everyone just because it worked for them, and be careful of doing what “everyone else is doing.” Instead, research the programs and services – the same research you did when selecting a medical school is needed, looking at stats, evidence, curriculum and content, philosophy (e.g., is it a program “just to pass” or one that is “to get a good score”), etc. – find a service or program consistent with your goals and philosophy. Passing boards is a requisite to graduating and getting your license, and the score you get is a strong determinant of where you will train, what field you will train in, and overall what field of medicine you will be “allowed” to enter. Many residency programs admit that they find boards scores to be more compelling than GPAs, since GPAs differ based on whether a school curves grades, and GPAs are influenced by whether a school has an easier curriculum or is more rigorous, and so forth. Alternatively, board scores let residency programs compare apples to apples, since everyone is on the same scale.
So, fall of your second year should be spent doing program and services research. Then, scope out your plan of attack – put it on a calendar. If you get a program that does that for you, have them do that after you start–or if you are buying individual services, schedule it all out yourself.
Dec‐Jan of your second year is the best time to start. Expect to do 5‐15 hours of boards study each week while in classes – doing less than 3 is ill‐advised since the momentum of learning is lost, and more than 15 is known to interfere with school academics. Be disciplined – put the time in that you scheduled, no matter what. Most find it easier to be disciplined if there is a day designated for boards prep while in classes – like Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, or something like that. Be regimented and do that, even if there are tests coming up or personal issues to handle.
When your semester ends, plan on studying optimally 8 hours per day (or more) – and, if you started early enough, you should be able to schedule half days on Saturdays, and Sundays off. Downtime is essential for memory consolidation and better learning in the long run. Avoid days that are greater than 12 hours long; beyond that, retention falls exponentially.
Finally, avoid buying everything and planning to do “everything.” It is best to let one program or service be your “main” guide, with all other services, books, or materials you get working to “support” that program. Otherwise, you risk not getting through all of it; the best performers allow one route to be the guide, and use other resources to “add” to that (so if the course has you studying Afib, study Afib in that course, but then also use any and all other resources at your disposal to study Afib – it provides a rich fabric of information from different perspectives, but also keeps your time managed and your plan focused, without having to get lost in a myriad of tangents). You will learn better and retain better – and, best yet, will fend off burn out which is common to those trying to do several routes at the same time.
Leave time for exercise, for balanced nutritious meals (now is not the time to be eating junk), and for downtime with friends and family (just not too much of it). Most importantly, leave time for sleep – 8 hours per day optimally, ESPECIALLY the night before boards. There’s no need to stay up studying the night before; you will benefit more from a good night’s sleep in order to retain your deductive and reasoning powers, rather than gaining a handful of factoids by staying up late.
Look at the final weeks of boards prep as something akin to Olympics for med students. You are going into a rigorous competition – and so need to not only be prepared academically for your exam, but must also be in tip top shape physically and mentally. Taking care of yourself is critical – mental, physical, and emotional health is the platform upon which you can grow and develop your knowledge‐base and performance, yielding great outcomes!