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There are many strategies for studying and exam taking, and decisions about which ones to use are partly a function of individual habit and preference. However, basic study rules may be applied to any learning exercise; test-taking strategies depend on the type of examination. For those interested in test-writing strategies, the Case and Swanson reference is strongly recommended (see References).


  1. When studying dense textual material, stop after a few pages to write out the gist of it from memory. If necessary, refer to the material just read. After finishing a chapter, construct your own tables of the major drugs, receptor types, mechanisms, and so on, and fill in as many of the blanks as you can. Refer to tables and figures in the book as needed to complete your notes. Create your own mnemonics if possible. Look up other mnemonics in books if you can't think of one yourself. These are all active learning techniques; mere reading is passive and far less effective unless you happen to have a photographic memory. Your notes should be legible or typed on a computer, and saved for ready access when reviewing for exams.

  2. Experiment with other study methods until you find out what works for you. This may involve solo study or group study, flash cards, or text reading. You won't know how effective these techniques are until you have tried them.

  3. Don't scorn "cramming," but don't rely on it either. Some steady, day-by-day reading and digestion of conceptual material is usually needed to avoid last-minute indigestion. Similarly, don't substitute memorization of lists (eg, the Key Words list, Appendix I) for more substantive understanding.

  4. If you are preparing for a course examination, make every effort to attend all the lectures. The lecturer's view of what is important may be different from that of the author of a course textbook, and chances are good that exam questions will be based on the instructor's own lecture notes.

  5. If old test questions are legitimately available (as they are for the USMLE and courses in most medical schools), make use of these guides to study. By definition, they are a strong indicator of what the examination writers have considered core information in the recent past (also see Point 4).


Three general rules apply to all examinations:


  1. When starting the examination, scan the entire question set before answering any. If the examination has several parts, allot time to each part in proportion to its length and difficulty. Within each part, answer the easy questions first, placing a mark in the margin by the questions to which you will return. Practice saving enough time for the more difficult questions by scheduling 1 minute or less for each question on practice examinations. (The time available in the USMLE examination is approximately 55–60 seconds per question.)

  2. Students are often advised to avoid changing their first guess on multiple-choice questions. However, research has shown that students who ...

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