Home » What is Spaced Repetition and Why it’s SO Important for USMLE?

What is Spaced Repetition and Why it’s SO Important for USMLE?

9 min


A medical school student studying for USMLE using spaced repetition techniques.


Spaced Repetition for USMLE and MCAT Practice

So, you’re planning out your study for your upcoming MCAT or USMLE exam and have made the perfect schedule, and you are doing everything you can to ensure that you are covering the highest-yield material in the most efficient way. The problem is that many students have many of the elements that it takes to achieve success on the MCAT or USMLE, including an organized schedule, a core series of resources and plenty of practice tests to gauge your progress. You might be wondering, then why doesn’t everyone score so highly when many students have the appropriate strategy for success lined up?

The reason has a lot to do with the fact that many students just go through the motions, like a checklist. Block of 40 UW. Done. Review of 4 Sketchy Micro videos. Done. Reading the MSK chapter of First Aid. Done.

It almost becomes automatic and we expect that by just going through the motions, we will remember and learn all the information we need to achieve success and score highly. Enter the concept of spaced repetition.


The question we need to ask during exam prep is what we are doing to actively recall and remember information. The human brain, while astounding in its capability and function, in most people can only remember so much information before we forget things that seemed so familiar. Even information we reviewed just yesterday, that block of UWorld that seemed as clear as could be, can quickly be forgotten if not for spaced repetition. There is often a discrepancy between perception of retention of material and actual retention of material. So, what could we do to turn that perception into reality?


As we have been alluding to, the answer is spaced repetition. The concept of spaced repetition has been around for years but more recently, it has come into particular focus within many circles dedicated to understanding learning and retention, in many ways due to commonly used software packages (including Anki), which utilize the idea of spaced repetition to most efficiently enable us to remember key concepts.


What is spaced repetition?

On its most basic level, spaced repetition is spacing out new concepts that we are learning over time to more efficiently remember various things. Furthermore, it involves progressively spacing out concepts that we are relatively strong in further and further into time while re-introducing topics that we are relatively weaker in a shorter interval in between. How does one keep track of what concepts are familiar versus what concepts are not as familiar?


Enter into the world of Anki Flashcards. Anki is a free software available for download that enables users to add new cards based on important concepts that the user might want to remember. As we’ve noted before for MCAT and USMLE studying, these concepts may involve the highest yield point (or Educational Objective) from a particular UWorld question. Once added, these cards will be part of the “to review” cards within Anki and when one goes through them, there is functionality that allows the user to rate how well they know the card; if the card is thought to be more difficult by the user, then that card will come back in the future much earlier than the cards which are rated by the user as being relatively easier. (See the Elite Medical Prep biochem deck.)


In this way, the spaced repetition concept is fully utilized to triage and create a library of facts that the user needs to spend more attention to. There are sub-settings within Anki for more advanced users that can alter the number of total reviews/cards per day and the repetition frequency, among other finer settings. 


The best part about using a spaced repetition software such as Anki is that once the user puts in the initial upfront time commitment of making the card, the software does the rest for you (as long as you dedicate time each and every day to review whatever Anki has deemed is due based on your input). 


It’s worth mentioning that like with many things in life, there is this “inverted U” relationship to be aware of. There comes a point where if one makes too few Anki cards, they will not be learning enough of the high yield concepts and if one makes too many, they will not have enough time to focus their attention to the most important concepts. The same thing applies with Anki. One way to limit Anki in preparation for MCAT and USMLE exams, is to only make one card (at most) from each UWorld question, and only make a card for a UWorld question in the first place if the concept is unfamiliar to the student. In this way, you will prioritize the highest yield concepts that you don’t already know!


Spaced repetition is critical to having success on the MCAT and/or USMLE exams. The addition of spaced repetition to an organized study plan can make all the difference in your performance. As always, if you are interested in learning how to use spaced repetition or better organize your study with 1-on-1 private tutoring, don’t hesitate to contact us.


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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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