Home » Mastering the Surgery Shelf Exam: Achieving a 90th Percentile Score in 2024

Mastering the Surgery Shelf Exam: Achieving a 90th Percentile Score in 2024

9 min


A group of medical school students studying for the surgery shelf exam in a library.


The Surgery Shelf exam is a critical milestone for medical students pursuing a career in surgery or related specialties. Scoring well on this exam not only demonstrates your knowledge and competency but also plays a significant role in residency applications. Attaining a 90th percentile score requires strategic preparation, dedication, and a comprehensive approach. Here, we’ll explore proven strategies to help you excel in the Surgery Shelf exam and achieve that coveted top-tier percentile in 2024.



Understanding the Surgery Shelf Exam


Before diving into preparation strategies, it’s crucial to understand the structure and content of the Surgery Shelf exam. The exam consists of multiple-choice questions that cover a wide range of surgical topics, including but not limited to general surgery, trauma, critical care, and surgical subspecialties such as orthopedics, neurosurgery, and cardiovascular surgery. Additionally, the exam may include questions on patient management, surgical techniques, and pre- and post-operative care. For this reason, it is important to remember that the shelf exam will include other topics you may have seen in other rotations like internal medicine. If you are taking this exam before your surgery shelf, make sure you draw from this knowledge!



Develop a Surgery Shelf Exam Study Schedule


The first step in achieving a good score is creating a structured study schedule. The schedule should allocate dedicated time for reviewing content, completing practice questions, and taking simulated exams. Be realistic about your goals and schedule, ensuring a balance between study time and other commitments. Surgery rotations are notorious for early mornings so make sure to take into account how tired you will be at the end of the day. Consistency is key, so stick to your schedule and adjust as needed based on your progress. Lookout for our ready made shelf exam study planner which will be released soon! We will make sure to link it here once it’s ready.



Establish a Solid Foundation


Achieving a high percentile score on the Surgery Shelf exam in 2024 starts with building a strong foundation in surgical knowledge. Begin by thoroughly reviewing core textbooks and resources recommended by your medical school or trusted mentors. Some popular resources include “De Virgilio’s ‘Surgery A Case Based Clinical Review’” or “Surgical Recall.”



Work Through a Question Bank


In addition to a textbook resource, using an online question bank such as UWorld is an invaluable tool. Work through the question bank twice through to ensure full comprehension of the material. These questions are gold-standard surgery shelf resources and should be thoughtfully used from day 1 of the rotation. Make sure you time yourself, using the timed mode to simulate real testing conditions. 


Also, remember that UWorld is a learning tool! Lower scores initially on practice blocks should not discourage you. Learning from the questions you get wrong is key. Make sure you thoroughly read the answer descriptions and understand why you get each question correct or incorrect.



Utilize Active Learning Techniques


Passive reading alone won’t suffice when preparing for a challenging exam like the surgery shelf. Incorporating active learning techniques such as spaced repetition through Anki will reinforce your understanding and retention of material. Starting this early in the block is key so you have plenty of time to see the material multiple times.



Learn During the Day From Surgical Cases


The best part of third year is that you get to see cases during the day and then use that information when studying for the exam. Make sure you make good use of your time in the operating room by familiarizing yourself with common surgical cases and their management. Thinking back to the management of real patients you saw on the wards can help you problem-solve diagnosis, treatment, and care for various surgical conditions you’ll see on the exam. 



Schedule Practice NBME


NBME exams are a must in preparing to excel in the surgery shelf exam. These exams are 50 questions long and reflect the format and type of questions you’ll see on the real exam. Typically, these are good to save toward the end of your studying since they are challenging but authentic examples of what to expect on test day. Ultimately, these questions are written by the people who write the USMLE and shelf exams so you gain insight into what they tend to focus on for the exams. In fact, some questions may show up almost exactly on test day, so NBME practice exams are absolutely worth your time.



Ask for Surgery Shelf Exam Help if You Need It


During the surgery rotation, you will have access to a plethora of mentors including attendings and residents, as well as other medical students. Make sure you take advantage of this exposure to clarify challenging concepts that you are struggling with and make studying throughout the day more pleasant. For extra assistance, consider enlisting the help of a 1-on-1 shelf exam tutor. Contact us to learn more!


Achieving a 90th percentile score in the Surgery Shelf exam requires diligent preparation, strategic planning, and a comprehensive approach. By establishing a solid foundation, utilizing high-yield resources, practicing active learning techniques, and focusing on key concepts, you can maximize your chances of success. Remember to stay updated with guidelines, seek feedback, and prioritize self-care throughout your preparation journey. With dedication and perseverance, you can confidently tackle the surgery shelf exam. Good luck studying!

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