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Using Brosencephalon Effectively for USMLE Studying

14 min


A medical student studying for the USMLE in a library using Brosencephalon.


If you haven’t already heard of the Brosencephalon (Bros) deck for your USMLE Step 1 studies, it’s time to get acquainted! Bros is one of several popular pre-made flashcard decks that can be used in studying for the USMLE. 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 thatwww.brosencephalon.com review series, you will see the pros and cons of using some of the most popular USMLE flashcard decks (including Bros), 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 committed to using Brocencephalon and are well into studying, this post is for you!


Please Note:

We at Elite Medical Prep believe that the Brosencephalon deck, like other publicly available pre-made flashcard deck, is best used as a secondary study tool. In other words, it is best used as a supplement to primary study resources such as UWorld, First Aid and Pathoma.

The Brosencephalon deck is most effective for reinforcing previously learned facts and relationships. However, we do recognize and respect that all students are different, and that some students strongly prefer to use Anki cards and the Bros deck as a primary resource. We certainly believe that this is compatible with strong USMLE performance, if tailored appropriately to an individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. The most major issue we take with Brosencephalon (and all other pre-made decks) is that students sometimes overwhelm themselves with large decks that aren’t tailored specifically to their studying needs. This is why we always encourage our students to make their own cards, or carefully go through pre-made decks to select only cards with high yield information that is relevant for their studying needs.

*If you are confused about your studying needs or the Brosencephalon deck is overwhelming you, don’t hesitate to reach out! Our professional tutors are always here to help.

Let’s Talk Brosencephalon – Advice from Top USMLE Step 1 Tutors

Background on Brosencephalon

The Bros deck is one of several popular, pre-made flashcard decks. One of the main advantages of the deck over other all-encompassing, widely available decks, is that it is centrally curated. Amreet Sidhu, the original creator of the deck, hosts a website at www.brosencephalon.com where he grants free access to the newest edition of the deck. By downloading the deck from the link at his website, you are therefore guaranteed to be using the most up-to-date, official version of the Brosencephalon flashcards. This is a very special advantage of the Bros deck since several other pre-made study decks can be hard to locate in their most updated version. The website also offers a Flashcard Version Log with the dates of each previous update and a brief description of the changes made, as well as a modest Resources section which includes videos and articles on memory, spaced repetition and the science of learning.

Although the Bros deck is centrally curated at the Brosencephalon website, the updates made to the deck over time are actually crowd sourced from the Reddit r/medicalschool community. This means that many other med students have pored over these cards, corrected errors, updated tagging, streamlined prompts and even improved the visual layout of the deck itself. This decentralized approach to content improvement is similar to the approach taken by other online decks such as Zanki, as well as that of Wikipedia. Some consider this to mean that the Brosencephalon deck has become virtually perfected over time.


Quality of Brosencephalon Cards for USMLE Studies

Like most other widely available flashcard decks, Brosencephalon is great for testing and retaining information that a student has previously encountered. Most of the cards follow the basic rule of flashcards for spaced repetition: each card tests one concept and one concept only. Many cards also include helpful pictures and diagrams taken from multiple different sources (First Aid, Google Images, etc.). Anki also makes it easy for you to add your own images to the Brosencephalon cards. An example card is included below.

As stated above, this is an excellent flashcard for testing and promoting retention of concepts studied elsewhere. If you have previously encountered the idea of cellular growth adaptations (hyperplasia, metaplasia, hypertrophy, etc.) in your studying, you will understand what this card is asking you. Given that you understand the question, this gives you an ability to test yourself and your pre-existing knowledge by offering a reasonable answer.

As a primary resource, however, the above card leaves something to be desired. Imagine that this is the first time you’ve ever encountered the idea of hyperplasia. Since you’ve never even seen the word before, there is no way you can answer the question correctly. On top of that, the card offers no further explanation as to what hyperplasia is, nor any examples of this phenomenon. That means you’ll be forced to take time out of your dedicated flashcard studying to go and look it up in a primary resource, such as First Aid or Pathoma. In the worst case scenario, you see the card over and over again, and you end up learning the card rather than the content. In other words, your brain eventually comes to know that this flashcard goes with the word “hyperplasia,” but that knowledge doesn’t help you when you have to think through a question related to the topic on test day. This can be avoided if content and concepts are encountered with primary study resources first, before involving flashcards.


Side Note:

(As for any pre-made or self-made Anki flashcard deck, it is important that you play by the rules. This means answering the card out loud 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

Also like some other widely available flashcard decks, Brosencephalon has moved to a single deck format. When you download the Bros 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 13,320 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. Easy and quick instructions for doing so are available in the FAQ on the Brosencephalon website.

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

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. Thankfully, these cards are beautifully divided in a hierarchical tag system, and it is very easy to find specific subjects separate and review based on First Aid.

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


Summary: Brosencephalon Deck for USMLE Step 1

The Brosencephalon deck is a well-made, time-tested and highly adaptable deck which is great for reinforcing concepts learned through First Aid, Pathoma, Sketchy and more. It is smaller and more manageable than Zanki, still comprehensive and better curated. The single deck format requires a small amount of user set-up but is clearly explained both here and within the FAQ on the Brosencephalon website.

If you wish to use Brosencephalon instead of more common primary resources such as First Aid, Pathoma, and Sketchy, be aware of the potential pitfalls of this strategy. Consider a) using Brosencephalon as a supplement instead; b) making sure to add your own cards/images/notes to the cards in the Brosencephalon deck; or, c) simply making your own cards in general. More information on utilizing the Brosencephalon deck can be found at the Brosencephalon website.

For further questions regarding effective studying methods, contact one of our USMLE tutoring experts.

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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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