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Tips for Effective Anki Use Studying for USMLE Step 1 and Step 2

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A medical school student studying for his USMLE exams in a library using Anki.

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What is Anki

 

If you are a new medical student, you have undoubtedly been bombarded with Anki since starting. Its application has spread like wildfire among medical students countrywide and with good reason. Anki is a spaced repetition flashcard program that works on both mobile devices and your computer. It gamifies learning and makes studying on the go a breeze. Some swear by it religiously while others are intimidated by the non-intuitive interface and obligation to keep up with reviews. While preparing for USMLE Step exams, time is one of your most valuable resources. Using Anki efficiently in USMLE prep will save hours, but ineffective use could be a catastrophic waste of time. Getting comfortable with Anki, establishing good habits, and incorporating it within your routine will set you up for success!

 

 

Does Anki Work for USMLE Prep?

 

A study conducted by Deng et al. found that for every 1,700 unique Anki flashcards introduced, there was an associated additional point on USMLE Step 1 when controlling for other academic and psychological factors. Considering the premade decks available are >42,000 cards large, there is potential to increase your score by up to 24 points by using Anki alone. This is great news if you start Anki from day one in medical school, but that is not true for most students. Anki can still serve as a powerful tool throughout USMLE prep if utilized properly. The following are some high-yield tips for making the most of your Anki.

 

 

High Yield Tips for Using Anki for Board Exam Prep

 

1. Use Pre-Made Decks

 

Making your own cards is an effective way to ensure understanding, decode information, and digest content. Although, it takes significant time to make well-constructed and accurate cards. Truthfully, the majority of information covered on both USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 is already available in beautifully written and resource-packed online decks. The “Anking” has created an ideal resource and although the current version is behind a paywall, the last available free version is still an excellent resource and can be found here. Additionally, you can take a look at our Step 1 biochem deck which can be downloaded here.

 

When you get a practice question incorrect, unlocking 2-3 cards from the pre-made deck is a perfect way to review concepts or key facts needed to answer that question in the future. You can always make a card of your own if truly needed, but the majority of cards needed can be found within the pre-made deck. Use your time wisely! 

 

2. Customize Your Cards

 

Premade anki decks are loaded with high-yield resources for memorization and retention. When struggling with remembering a concept, it is wise to customize cards and make them your own. By custom editing a card, you tap into your creativity without having to invest in making cards from scratch. Custom edits make cards more memorable, enjoyable, and link concepts. Here are some examples of how to enhance your Anki cards.

 

  • Modify or add text to the card in the “Extra” section. Bolding or underlining key points. 
  • Search the pathology on Google images and include a real-life example in cards. 
  • Add your own picture pneumonic to help remember something. 
  • Screenshot missed questions and add them to the Anki cards.

 

This last tip of inserting screenshots from missed questions is an excellent way to make Anki cards more relevant and directly applicable for test day.

 

3. Start Your Day With an Anki USMLE “Warm Up”

 

There’s nothing like the smell of Anki in the morning. Tackling Anki for 45 minutes to an hour to start your day is an excellent way to warm up your mind and prime yourself for a day of studying. It gets you at your desk, focused, and thinking medically. This can be incorporated into a daily routine, before clinic/class or during dedicated periods. You don’t necessarily have to finish every single review in this period, there is always some time throughout the day for that.

 

Throughout my second and third years of medical school, I found a morning Anki routine to be a relaxing and consistent way to start my days. Sitting down in front of my cards with a hot cup of coffee was an excellent morning routine that I looked forward to! The silence of the morning before distractions arise is ideal for reviewing cards and preparing your brain for the day. This daily routine proved extremely beneficial when it was time to begin dedicated for USMLE Step 2. Through daily spaced repetition I laid the foundation of medical knowledge needed to hit the ground running with questions.

 

4. Take “Anki Breaks” From Practice Questions

 

Anki can even serve as a break from more intense studying. Tackling practice block after practice block can be taxing and mentally exhaustive. Anki is much less cerebral compared to practice questions. Cards take seconds to read and answer. They are filled with pictures and feel like a relief from intensely reading long-winded question stems. Anki is an excellent way to take a break from questions and incorporate active content review, especially if you have been unflagging cards based on incorrect questions. Anki reviews are also an excellent way to wind down at the end of the day when you simply cannot complete more questions and don’t have the mental energy to digest new content. After a grueling block of questions and critical thinking, it’s refreshing to return to some peaceful Anki. 

 

5. Take Advantage of Mobile Anki for USMLE Prep

 

One of the best features of Anki is its mobility and ease of use while reviewing cards. The mobile application costs $24.99, but this is a small price to pay for the advantage it gives you and is comparatively cheap to most other study resources. The mobile application allows you to crush your reviews and actively study near anywhere. Getting stuck at the airport, hospital downtime, and waiting on a bus all become opportune moments to study for Step 1 or 2. It is empowering to know you can study anywhere and anytime without having to pull out First Aid or intensely focus on tackling practice question blocks. 

 

6. Use Your USMLE Anki-Deck as a Library

 

If you have used Anki throughout all of your pre-clinical courses you have created a library of knowledge for yourself. Even unsuspended cards are searchable through the “Browse” tab within Anki. If you are confused about a concept or wondering how it interconnects with other topics, searching it within browse is always a great idea. This will bring forth every single associated Anki card allowing you to see how topics are connected and explore the high-yield resources within Anki. It’s your own personal high-yield library, make good use of it! 

 

7. Have Fun With It

 

You have likely seen students at your school who have programmed video game controllers or small handheld clickers to do Anki cards with. This is a simple way to get your hand off the spacebar, correct your posture, and add a dimension of fun to reviews. Controllers cost anywhere from $9 – $30 and change the Anki game. There are many examples of how to program controllers on YouTube. Once I had a game controller in my hands, Anki was genuinely more fun. Hooking your computer up to an external monitor or television further improved my Anki experience and increased engagement in my cards.

 

In summary, to make the most out of this powerful tool we recommend the following quick tips:

  1. Taking advantage of pre-made resource-packed decks.
  2. Customize your cards making them your own (Add incorrect questions).
  3. Start your day with an Anki warmup.
  4. Use Anki for a cognitive break from study questions.
  5. Take advantage of Anki’s mobile.
  6. Use your Anki deck as the ultimate knowledge library.
  7. Program a controller and make Anki fun.

 

Anki can be an immensely powerful tool in your USMLE Step studying arsenal. Utilizing the strategies above is an excellent way to ensure you are using Anki to its full potential. Learn what works best for you, find your Anki routine, and stick with it! 

 

For additional assistance with USMLE Step 1 or Step 2, consider enlisting the help of a 1-on-1 tutor. Schedule your complimentary consultation to learn more about how Elite Medical Prep can help you succeed!

References:

  1.     Deng F, Gluckstein JA, Larsen DP. Student-directed retrieval practice is a predictor of medical licensing examination performance. Perspect Med Educ. 2015;4(6):308-313. doi:10.1007/s40037-015-0220-x

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