Office of Academic Support & Counseling

Self Exam

Jennifer Hawke, MD - Medscape Contributor, "How to Study for Shelf Exams?" 

There is no secret or magic formula for scoring well with little effort. The only way to do very well is to work very hard…which probably sounds like complete and total common sense to most folks. It is. The advice that follows is not ground breaking. In fact, the same advice could apply to just about any exam… Preparing for any exam is the same, "you reap what you sow."

Start Early

If you know you’re going to be writing a shelf exam at the end of the semester, start reviewing Step 1 supplementary material from the very first day.


Use a variety of resources

Opinions abound on how well Kaplan or First Aid or BRS or Rapid Review or Road Map or a variety of other “high-yield” textbooks prepare you for Step 1 and shelf exams. Other than aesthetics and presentation, it’s a hard call to say one is better than the other. Some say ‘memorize everything in First Aid from cover to cover and you’ll be fine.’ That might be true, for them. Rather than putting all your eggs in one basket prepare yourself best by reviewing and comparing several resources. Relying on in-class notes and Power Point presentations probably won’t be enough (see #1).


Accept what you don’t know

In some ways, preparing for a 125 question multiple-choice exam on a subject base covering every conceivable system in the body (e.g., physiology) is a lot like searching a zillion haystacks in Saskatchewan for 125 needles. This is why starting early is important. Knowing 50 or 60 haystacks really well probably won’t get you the grade you want, but you still have a limited amount of time to cover a TON of material and it’s important to accept the fact that you won’t know everything about everything. There will be content on there that you don’t know and have never seen before. Take a deep breath. Guess and move on without letting it break your confident pace. Do NOT make yourself short of time by dwelling on a question you don’t know and limiting precious seconds for questions you DO know.


Don’t let the exam psych you out

It can be intimidating! Writing retired Step 1 material after only one or two semesters of Basic Sciences is sort of scary. It’s an “official” process. There are rules. Before the exam, people will be talking and whispering and freaking out all around you. Don’t get sucked up in their whirlpool. Breathe. Anchor yourself by remembering the many hours of work you have invested. Be confident in your success. If you go in expecting to do miserably, chances are you will.


5) Don’t dwell on it afterwards

Unless you’re the type of person who can go home and remember all of the questions that stumped you, write them down, look them up, and learn from your mistakes before Step 1 (chances are you are not) — let it go! Avoid the people on campus that are moaning and complaining about how horribly they bombed. Revel a bit in your hard work. Take a nap. Get up and move on to the next class or exam or assignment. This is especially important if you have another shelf exam coming up. Dwelling on the fact that you very-probably-might-have failed one is bound to influence your confidence for the next. Once the bubbled scantrons are in, they’re in. Worrying about it now can do harm, but not a single ounce of good.

Visualize your success and move towards it.