How to make the most of your revision time
A final year student and a junior doctor give some advice on how to revise effectively
Set yourself realistic targets and appreciate that progress can be slow at first. It is better to have a good understanding across a broad range of topics than to know a lot of detail in a few. To avoid becoming overwhelmed by the volume of information that you need to revise, create a revision timetable of all the topics you need to know. Consider which are essential to the exam and then start with your weakest areas first. Pace yourself and don’t give yourself too much to do. Split your day into morning, afternoon, and evening sessions, and use each session for a different type of revision. For example, if you find that you are more focused early in the morning, study a topic that you struggle with. You can then move on to something else, such as objective structured clinical examination (OSCE) practice in the afternoon. To take a break from book work, move on to practice questions in the evening. You will quickly find out what works best.
“Learn in layers”
When using textbooks, quickly skim through the relevant chapter or section to establish a basic framework. Pay attention to the subject headings and any diagrams so that you have a good idea of how the topic is structured. Once you have an overview, go back and learn the details by reading more carefully. Reinforce your learning by using a range of media and applying what you know to patients that you have seen on the wards.
As you progress through medicine, you will spend more time with patients and less time with books, and this is the best type of revision you can do. If you find a patient with an interesting presentation or a condition that is likely to come up in an exam, read up on it in the evening and make quick, concise notes. This will serve you far better than cramming two weeks before an exam and will help to consolidate it in your mind. By learning in layers, you will use your time more effectively and avoid becoming overwhelmed with details.
What type of exam is it?
Written exams (multiple choice single best answer, extended matching questions, extended answer), anatomy spot tests, OSCEs, and oral presentations all pose different challenges and require different approaches. Revising for written exams often entails making concise notes from large medical books. Revise for each exam in the way the exam is run: practise questions for written exams, try to use models and prosections to appreciate three dimensional anatomy, and take part in mock stations for OSCEs.
For OSCEs, practise presenting cases. Use a structured approach stating the patient’s presenting problem, details from the history and examination with key positive and negative findings. Summarise the case in one line, offer a few differentials diagnoses (always with the most likely first) and say how you would like to manage this patient. A structured approach will be more comprehensive and show the logic behind your clinical reasoning. OCSEs also test your communication skills, so it is essential to show that you are comfortable interacting with patients. When preparing for these exams nothing is better than spending time with patients and practising simulated scenarios with your peers. Try to get feedback from junior doctors who have recently graduated as you will learn from their practical experience.
Practise your exam technique
Good exam performance isn’t all about knowing the material. It’s also important to have an exam revision strategy and remain calm on the day. Students can spend too much time learning the material without testing how they will perform in the exam setting. It can be daunting to test yourself, but use practice questions and scenarios throughout your revision period, not just before your exam.
Talk to students in the year above to find out about past questions and what examiners are looking for. It is important to practise with your peers. You can learn a lot from each other and it will help to build your confidence.
Look after yourself
Scheduling breaks will mean you can do fun activities free of guilt. Going out for dinner, trips to the cinema, and watching television with your friends are just as important as revising. Activities like these and plenty of sleep give your brain time to rest and will help you feel refreshed when you return to your revision. If the stress of your impending exams is becoming too much, seek help early. Your friends, tutors, supervisors, and general practitioner will likely be very understanding and can offer support. Remember, your health is more important than an exam.
The night before
We all have our own way of handling the night before an exam, whether it is doing nothing or cramming. Whatever you do, eat well, re-read the exam instructions, prepare your bag, and get an early night. The hard work is done and the most important thing now is to read the questions carefully. Tomorrow is just another day at the office.John Lee Allen, final year medical student, 1, Daniel Ashmore, foundation year 2 doctor2
1Imperial College London School of Medicine, UK, 2West Yorkshire Deanery, UK
Correspondence to: JohnLee.Allen@merton.oxon.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.