Understanding the Benefits and Drawbacks of Zanki Decks

2019-04-15T18:26:49+00:00By |

Zanki (if you don’t already know) is a very popular flashcard deck option for students studying for USMLE Step 1. If you’re at the beginning of your dedicated study period and haven’t selected a flashcard resource yet, we strongly advise you to check out our flashcard resource reviews to help you weigh your options before reading this post. In that review series, you will see the pros and cons of using some of the most popular USMLE flashcard decks (including Zanki), as well as pricing information, special features of the decks, our assigned letter grades, professional USMLE tutor opinions, and more.

If however you have already been using Zanki or are dead set on using Zanki, by all means read on!


If reinforcing previously learned facts and relationships is your goal (which it should be!!!) pre-made flashcard decks can be a real lifesaver. For us, the tutors at Elite Medical Prep, Zanki deck is definitely a go-to.

Like other publicly available pre-made flashcard decks, the Zanki deck is best used as an adjunctive study tool. In other words, Zanki is best used as a supplement (NOT substitute) to primary study resources such as UWorld, First Aid and Pathoma.

*We do recognize and respect that all students are different, and that some students strongly prefer to use Anki cards as a primary resource. We certainly believe that this is compatible with a strong examination performance, if tailored appropriately to an individual student’s strengths and weaknesses.*


Background on Zanki

Similar to the Brosencephalon deck (see our Brosencephalon for USMLE Step 1 blog post), the Zanki deck is crowdsourced from the online medical school and medical student community. In fact, Brosencephalon was the original inspiration for Zanki, and the creator of Zanki built his deck out of an old version of the Brosencephalon cards. Unlike Brosencephalon, however, the Zanki cards are not stored or contained in a single location. This means that it may take you some searching to find the most up-to-date deck. To make matters slightly more complicated, different online users have created different updates to the deck, and it might be unclear what the advantages and disadvantages of any specific deck update are. All of that being said, the Reddit r/medicalschool community generally posts the Zanki decks and offers reasonable instructions for choosing between them.

Because the Zanki deck builds on the Brosencephalon deck, it is based on many of the same primary materials (First Aid, Pathoma, Sketchy, etc). Zanki also includes, however, some ~7,000 more cards than the Brosencephalon deck. Among these are cards which include sound files for heart sounds, and images from Sketchy Micro for cards related to different bugs. Some students appreciate all of these add-ons, while others find them distracting (especially on a ~ 6-week dedicated study period).

Speaking of distractions, a significant drawback of the Zanki deck (in our opinion) is that at ~20,000+ cards, there is definitely some bloat. The deck includes cards which test extremely low-yield material. For example, many cards ask you to identify pathology on the basis of imaging findings alone. This will almost never be the case on USMLE Step 1, as test makers often provide other details to assist with the interpretation of images. Some students may therefore feel that Zanki’s emphasis on images, sounds, etc. are overkill. (Of course, it is also fairly easy for students to hide these cards if they wish to continue using Zanki without going into this level of detail.)


Quality of the Cards

Like Brosencephalon, the Zanki card deck also features well-made flashcards. These cards test a single concept at a time, and often incorporate helpful diagrams, images, and other study tools. This makes Zanki a wonderful tool for testing and retaining test concepts that the student has already learned.

As with any other Anki-based flashcard deck, it’s also easy for students to add their own notes and images to the cards. Here is an example of a flashcard taken from the Zanki deck:



As we mentioned, this is an excellent flashcard for testing and promoting retention of concepts studied elsewhere. If you’ve encountered the idea of the medullary respiratory center before, then you’ll understand what this card is trying to ask, and may even come up with the necessary word. Notice the bolding and underlining of the key words associated with the concept being tested. These techniques ensure that you’ll notice and emphasize these details without muddying the waters by testing them at the same time specifically.

As a primary resource, however, this card leaves something to be desired. Imagine that this is the first time you’ve ever encountered the medullary respiratory center. First of all, it is unlikely that the you’ll correctly guess that this respiratory center is found in the medulla, as the clue related to the reticular formation is not precise enough. Second, the card offers little additional detail on the medullary respiratory center and reticular formation.

In the worst case scenario, you this card over and over, and eventually learn that “medullary” goes at the front of the card that says “…respiratory center.” In this case, you’re learning the card rather than the content. This can be avoided if content and concepts are encountered first, before involving flashcards.*

*As we outlined in the above example, it is normal to come across some information you are shaky on or very vaguely remember while going through flashcard decks. However, if you find yourself totally lost or frequently encountering topics you feel like you’ve never seen before, we recommend temporarily stopping the flashcards. Take another look at First Aid or a high yield video learning platform, get a USMLE tutor if you need one, THEN revisit the flashcards. (Strong foundations are critical!) 


A Quick Note on Self-Made Zanki Cards:

As for any pre-made or self-made Anki flash card deck, however, it is important that you play by the rules. This means answering the card out loud (or at least “out loud” in your head) before checking the answer, and holding yourself to that answer! If you’re not sure if the answer you gave counts as correct or not, then mark it wrong. Find out more about how to effectively use Anki by reading our prior blog posts on Anki!)


Single Deck Format

Like Brosencephalon, the most recent versions of Zanki have moved to a single deck format. When you download the Zanki deck, in other words, you will not find cards divided into sub-decks (i.e., Cardiovascular, Renal, Pulmonary…), but rather a single, large deck containing all 20,000+ cards. All of the cards, however, are still tagged, so that they can be sorted into decks and categories by the student. In order to do this as easily as possible, students should download the hierarchical tags add-on for Anki.

Briefly, students can create new decks by opening the card browser. On the left hand side, students must then select the tag they wish to study (i.e., Renal). This will pull up all of the cards with that tag in the main panel. They can then select all cards they wish to include in this deck and select “Change Deck” on the top menu bar.

To download the hierarchical tags add-on, follow the instructions at this link.


The single deck format was adopted for two reasons:

  • Reduce the risk of sync errors in Anki (increases with number of subdecks)
  • Give students more control of the decks by allowing them to sort and separate the cards themselves



The Zanki deck is a well-made, time-tested, highly adaptable deck which is great for reinforcing concepts learned through First Aid, Pathoma, Sketchy, and more. Because it was created out of the Brosencephalon deck, it contains much of the material offered by that deck while building on it further. The disadvantage of this, however, is that the Zanki deck clocks in at greater than

20,000 cards, which is simply too many for an effective dedicated study period. Either start early with this deck, or consider using Brosencephalon instead. Furthermore, if you want to use either Brosencephalon or Zanki as a primary study resource, be aware of the potential pitfalls of this strategy. Consider a) using Zanki as a supplement instead; b) making sure to add your own cards/images/notes to the cards in the Zanki deck; or, c) simply making your own cards in general.

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