When it comes to studying for the USMLE, it’s worth learning how to make proper flashcards up front.
While there are many different USMLE flashcard platforms and resources available online, in this post we will be talking specifically about using Anki. Anki is a popular flashcard resource that allows students to seamlessly integrate study decks into their study plan for the USMLE exams. Here we’ll cover some helpful pointers to get you started in creating Anki cards as well as how to effectively study the flashcards.
So lets get into it:
We’ll be honest. It takes a little while to get familiar with formatting cards and using Anki software. While this can sometimes deter students from using Anki, we absolutely recommend sticking with it. Here’s why: Learning to use Anki is a huge time-saver in the long run since you will be able to efficiently study and retain information once you get down how it works. As an added bonus, since Anki is so popular for its USMLE study decks, several other USMLE flashcard resources available online use similar software. This means if you figure out how to use Anki, you’ll have a much easier time using any other flashcard decks. We recommend learning to put only one piece of information on each card, ask your questions clearly, and utilize keyboard shortcuts to add cards and media. Also, if possible, start with subjects that lend themselves to simple flashcards. Pharmacology is a good one! Physiology, which is more conceptual and harder to summarize in a question/answer format, is tough to make good flashcards for, so save this for later if possible.
1. Create Your Own Cards
It is the opinion of many of our senior tutors at Elite Medical Prep that the best way to learn and retain information is to create your own cards. We recommend not relying as much on the premade decks out there such as Zanki and Brosencephalon. Making your own Anki cards helps you remember information because you need to think critically about the topics to generate good clear questions from them. Additionally, creating your own cards helps you focus on the areas that are weaknesses uniquely for you– something pre-made decks can’t do.
*It can seem like a time-saver to add a bunch of pre-made flashcards to your decks, but in the long run it will take you much longer to add thousands of cards with content you already know (or content that is worded in a way you don’t understand) than it will to make the cards yourself.
2. Finish Your Cards Every Day!
We repeat: Be sure to finish your cards every day!!! If this means limiting the amount of cards you add every day, then that is totally fine! A good rule of thumb is to add fewer than 30-50 new cards per day. Otherwise you will have a very large load to review a few days later. It is much more important to stay on schedule with your cards (reviews should be down to zero before you go to bed!) than it is to plow through additional material that will eventually build up.
3. Be Honest With Yourself
Be honest with Anki too! The beauty of spaced repetition is that it forces you to recall information. The best way to do this is to say the answer out loud before you flip the card. This forces you to commit to an answer before seeing the correct one. It’s easy to fall into the trap of reading the answer, rather than recalling it. If you aren’t comfortable saying the answer out loud, make sure that you “say the answer” in your head before flipping the card. If you don’t know a particular card, you MUST mark it wrong.
4. Don’t Delete “Completed” Decks!
Taking an exam doesn’t mean you are done with those cards. Ideally, you will have one giant deck for “completed subjects” – whether this is units (MS1/2) or clerkships (MS3), you will make a new deck for each topic. When you have your exam for that topic and don’t anticipate adding more cards to that deck, then you can move it into your “completed subjects” deck. Keep doing this deck every day as well, and you will be able to retain information for all your completed units, making studying for USMLE Step 1 so much easier once you get there!
5. Commit to Anki in Your Free Time
Utilize little bits of free time throughout the day to get through your cards. If you add up all of the five or ten minute chunks of time that you have throughout the day, you’ll be able to get through a large amount of your cards without actually sitting down to do them. The Anki mobile app is incredibly helpful for this. You can study on the bus, before lectures, or during downtime on clerkships. Then you’ll have more time to focus on things like UWorld at home, which demand longer periods of uninterrupted attention.
UWorld Side Note:
It can be tempting to make flashcards for every single word in a UWorld question and its answer explanation, but – no matter how great of a student you are – there isn’t enough time to learn everything. Make sure to focus on the educational objective and limit yourself to 1-3 cards per question/answer explanation to start with. Your tutor can help you figure out if your cards are too vague, too detailed, or just right.
6. First Aid is Your FRIEND!
Use First Aid to identify the most important information. Especially if your medical school doesn’t teach specifically to Step 1, it can be hard to tell the difference between what the professor thinks is important and what the USMLE thinks is important. When you encounter a broad disease topic (like diabetes or infertility), search the topics in First Aid to figure out which details are important for Step 1, and which you can let slide.
We hope this post helps you get started with making flashcards efficiently through Anki! As always, if you need any additional help or begin going through Anki flashcard material and find yourself completely lost, your friends at Elite Medical Prep are here to help! We are also happy to help answer any questions relating to using flashcards for USMLE prep, and/or assist you in making a personalized study schedule if you do not already have one. Let us know!