Home » 8 Tips on How to Use Anki USMLE Flashcards

8 Tips on How to Use Anki USMLE Flashcards

17 min


Student on laptop using Anki USMLE Flashcards


This blog was originally published on April 18th, 2019, and updated on July 2nd, 2024 by Dr. Ria Patel.


Tips on How to Use Anki USMLE Flashcards


When it comes to studying for the USMLE, it’s worth learning how to use 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 how to use Anki. Anki is a popular flashcard resource that allows students to seamlessly integrate study decks into their study plan for the USMLE exams. In this article, we’ll cover some helpful pointers to get you on the right track using Anki flashcards and effectively studying the flashcards.



So let’s get into The Anki Method:


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 how to use Anki is a huge time-saver in the long run. You will be able to efficiently study and retain information once you understand how to effectively utilize the cards and platform. So what is so different about Anki compared to other flashcard resources like Quizlet for example? Anki employs a learning algorithm called spaced repetition in order to maximize efficiency of learning and retention. Due to this, Anki will only work if you stay consistent with it every single day! Otherwise, the algorithm will overlap days for your reviews and you will not be consistently using the algorithm to your advantage. 


1. Create Your Own Anki 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 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.


We recommend using the Cloze feature to hide one or two keywords that you can uncover when you flip the card. In this way, you are assessing one or two facts per card. We would also recommend leaving the interval settings at their default unless you know exactly what the implications are to changing the settings! 


The last tip we have is to make sure that you are writing appropriate tags for each card. For example, if you are writing a card about aortic stenosis, some good tags to write for the card would be: cardiology, valve, aortic stenosis, pathology, murmur, step 1. By doing this, you will be able to search by tag for cards for targeted review or questions you may have. 


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 and complete every single review daily than it is to plow through additional material that will eventually build up.


Anki has a great add-on called the Deadline add-on which allows you to apply a “deadline” to any new cards that you want to get through. We recommend that you finish all new cards 1 week before your anticipated exam date, so the date of your “deadline” would be dictated based on your exam date. This add-on does the math for you to determine how many new cards you need to do daily in order to finish all cards in a given deck. It also has a refresh feature, that you can use to recalculate the number of new cards due per day if you miss one or more days of reviews. It is a great way to stay accountable and finish your decks on time as well! 


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 didactics (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! We recommend continuing to do “completed” cards even when you’re done with that subject, because it solidifies your knowledge base and makes studying for USMLE exams that much easier. 


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.


Another great resource is the Anki remote or the 8BitDo remote. Both options work great for doing Anki at a faster pace and on the go. Many medical students even go to the gym and place their iPad on the treadmill or elliptical, and do cards with the remote this way. It is a great habit-stacking idea that makes really good use of your time!


6. First Aid is Your Friend


Use First Aid to identify the most important information. If your medical school doesn’t teach content geared specifically for 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 heart failure), search the topics in First Aid to figure out which details are most important for Step 1. You can then use this as a guide for how many cards to make for each topic and what the most important topics are for making Anki cards. 


7. Using AnkiHub


Anki recently launched a new platform called AnkiHub in which you can collaborate with decks and receive deck updates in real time in your Anki application. It costs $5/month and we think it’s worth every penny! If you are looking for specific decks (for example, the Anking Step 1 and 2 decks, Sketchy, etc.) you can download them directly from the AnkiHub website and they will update automatically to reflect new guidelines and new media. You can also upload your own decks and others can collaborate with you on them if you want to do that. We highly recommend integrating AnkiHub with your daily reviews for a more comprehensive approach to cards. That being said, if you do not want to pay $5 per month for AnkiHub, the actual Anki application is free to use! 


8. Integrating Outside Resources


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.


We recommend that you make Anki flashcards for UWorld questions ONLY if it is a topic or educational point that you know you are weak on and want additional practice with. Your tutor can help you figure out if your cards are too vague, too detailed, or just right. We do not recommend using the UWorld flashcards with Anki, because it forces students to “double dip” their content; in other words, you are not allowing time to review a wide range of topics and instead repeating content in Anki that you already learned in UWorld. A better alternative is downloading the Amboss add-on. If you have an active Amboss account, this add-on will allow you to hover over keywords in the flashcard and review the Amboss page that correlates with the keyword. This allows for extremely comprehensive review while using Anki! 


We hope this post helps you get started with making and using 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!

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About the Author

Anup Bhattacharya, MD

Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, Anup Bhattacharya received his BA in Biological Basis of Behavior and Economics with honors recognition. Shortly after,…

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