Seven study tips to ace your medical exams

James Gupta, founder of the Synap revision app, offers tips for preparing for your exams using spaced learning and other study principles.

1. Focus on building a strong foundation of knowledge

Everyone is guilty of 'cramming' to one extent or another, and there's nothing wrong with that - it's completely natural in the build-up to an important exam. Similarly, there's a role for 'rote' learning and just trying to memorise things for the sake of the exam (has anyone ever thought about the Krebs Cycle outside of an exam?).

That being said, use cramming in moderation, and don't rely on it as the foundation of your knowledge. The primary goal of your learning strategy should be to gain a solid understanding of the underlying principles and concepts, so that you really internalise them and can apply them to different situations.

The best way to do this is to have a multi-faceted approach: learn about a given disease or body system through textbooks, placements, videos - whatever you can get your hands on. I found that placements in particular - speaking to patients with a particular condition - really helped to 'anchor' my textbook knowledge to something that made it easier to recall in future.

2. Prioritise active learning over passive

Passive learning is where you are essentially learning by osmosis; eg, reading through a textbook or listening to a lecture.

Passive learning is significantly less effective than active learning, where you're actively stimulating and challenging your brain to make new connections and pathways to help you remember things better. Examples of active learning methods include practising multiple-choice questions (MCQs), engaging in workshops/PBL sessions or taking a history from a patient.

However, there are ways to make passive learning methods more effective so you can get more out of them - it just requires more focus and active input from your side. For example, in a lecture - which is a fairly passive method of learning where the only thing that is required of you is to sit there and listen - you can make this more active by thinking about what is being said and consciously trying to consolidate the information.

3. Learn iteratively

You can only absorb so much information in one sitting. After you've done some studying, your mind needs time to reflect and consolidate it. This might sound a bit vague but it's true at a physiological level - your memory and ability to recall information is something physical that exists at the level of connections between different neurons. Those connections need time to build, and your brain does a lot of this processing when you're not actively thinking about something.

You'll get much more out of the time you spend studying if you try to space it out over time: four 30-minute chunks are better than one two-hour chunk.

graph showing revision timings

4. Talk about it

Have you ever thought you knew something, then tried to explain it to someone and you realised you really couldn't? That's usually a sign that there's a gap between what you 'think' you know and what you actually know.

When it is only you challenging yourself, it's really easy to think, "Ok, diabetic ketoacidosis… I get that - their blood sugar's high, they don't have insulin, what you need to do is… yeah, I get that - next topic."

However, your brain can be tricking you - it's leading you along the neuronal pathways that you've already developed; you're not going to notice the things that you're missing or those that are incorrect.

Try to discuss the things you're learning about with other people - frequently. This will probably be to medics, but it's also fun to try and explain it to non-medics. If you can explain diabetic ketoacidosis to your nan in a way that she can then relay back correctly, then you're probably on the right track!

This also ticks a few other boxes as you're improving your patient communication skills at the same time - in your OSCEs, and obviously your career generally, you'll need to have a detailed understanding of some very complex topics, but still be able to explain them in a way that laypeople can understand.

5. Measure your progress

You can only improve what you measure, and we're much more likely to achieve a goal if we can see our progress improving over time. Try to measure your progress in an objective way so that you know, day-to-day or week-to-week, how much progress you're making.

When it comes to revision, I like to focus on engagement over performance - by that I mean, if you're using MCQs to study, then set yourself a goal of answering a certain number of questions per day, instead of achieving a certain percentage score. In the early stages of your revision, focusing too much on performance gives you an incentive to pick easier questions or to stay in your comfort zone.

It can also be a bit disheartening if your performance goes down - which might be a sign that you're challenging yourself in the right direction. Engagement, on the other hand, while not the thing you'll ultimately be assessed on, is a very good proxy indicator that's hard to 'cheat'.

Later in your revision and closer to the exam, you will want to keep an eye on your actual performance too, but for something that you can track day-to-day, focus on engagement. Remember, practice makes perfect, so if you're engaging in studying, your performance will improve.

6. Go broad and don't ignore the unglamorous topics

A typical end-of-year assessment will consist of maybe 200 MCQs and 10 OSCE stations.

That's really not a lot, given the broad range of content that your medical school needs to assess you on - you've got 10 or so different body systems, and within each of those you've got pharmacology, pathophysiology, physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, etc.

While you will have certain questions that assess fairly niche areas of the curriculum, the majority of your exam will be weighted towards common things that you'll experience day to day. So, if you're trying to make the most of your time, you're better focusing on the areas where you're not so good, as opposed to trying to increase your cardiology scores from 80% to 90%.

7. The exam-writers want you to pass

If you can understand the mindset of the people writing your exam, you can plan your revision accordingly.

Fundamentally, your medical school is regulated by the GMC, which sets the standards that medical schools need to follow and the expectations of what medical students should know and be competent in doing by the time they graduate.

Your medical school has a duty to ensure their students are competent and safe practitioners by the time they graduate, so your exams are a key way of checking this. They are not there to catch you out, and they are not there to try and trip you up by asking obscure information. Remember, your exam will be heavily weighted towards things that you'll see commonly throughout your career as a doctor.

Get access to free revision

As an MDU member, you have access to a range of high-quality MCQs based on the Oxford Handbooks through the MDU's Synap platform, which will automatically track and measure your progress and make suggestions as to what you need to be focusing on each day.

We made Synap specifically to help with medical student exams, so I'd highly recommend checking it out and including it as part of your revision.

table showing Synap revision platform

This page was correct at publication on 21/02/2024. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

James Gupta, Synap

by James Gupta Co-founder, Synap

James Gupta trained as a medic at Leeds University. Once he graduated, he decided to move into Synap full-time, a company which he and his colleague Omair started. Together, they built an app to help medics learn more effectively. James took an intercalated MSc in health informatics, and has been developing software for a number of years. Synap is now used by companies, schools and universities across a wide range of disciplines, and James advises several health tech start-ups on their technology and growth strategy.