Five Must Have Resources To Ace Medical School

There are a sea of available resources to use in medical school. However the saying, “Time is money” is especially important when deciding how to best allocate your money, time, and energy in your studies. With so many resources at your disposal, which one is best to use and when?

In this post, I will cover the top resources to ace pre-clerkships and to ultimately prepare for the USMLE Step 1. These resources are not listed in any particular order as all of them are considered “must haves” in my opinion.

As a disclaimer, I do not have any affiliation with any of the producers of the following resources. But I have provided links to purchase some resources below. If you choose to purchase the resource through the link, I receive a small compensation at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!

1. Anki (Flashcards)

Despite only recently entering the scene, Anki has dominated the learning environment. It allows you to easily memorize facts, assume an active learning style, and saves you time in the long run.

In a nutshell, Anki is a flashcard app that can be downloaded on your computer and phone (for a price). Its main appeal lies in its spaced-repetition system (SRS) and active learning that is crucial for long term retention. We will cover more about this later.

Anki can also save you a lot of time. You can either make your own flashcards or you can download pre-made high yield decks (based on First Aid, Pathoma etc see below) if you’re strapped on time. Many of these decks have already been vetted by hundreds of medical students and contain only the necessary information for you to do well in classes.

However, the best benefit I found from Anki was its “active learning.” Many students are accustomed to “passive learning,” such as re-reading lectures slides and highlighting keywords. However, I found myself just “going through the motions” and not retaining the information. Anki flashcards will ask you a specific question (Ex: What is the gram stain of E. Coli?), forcing you to actively recall this information!

A post to learn more about how to use Anki, its spaced repetition system, and how to make good flashcards will be coming shortly.

2. First Aid

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First Aid is considered the Bible of Step 1. I was initially told that every word, sentence, and figure is considered “High-Yield.” I scoffed at that idea. Shortly after starting my pre-clerkships, I was taken aback by the volume of details I needed to learn for class. I couldn’t discern what was important versus what I could put on the back burner. But First Aid puts everything you need to know into one book (albeit, a big book).

I should note here that First Aid is not a resource that many “learn” from. It is impossible to ‘read’ because of how dense it is and the paragraphs don’t even have full sentences! Rather, students find this as a quick reference to help simplify difficult concepts, use its diagrams/tables, and to decide what is important to put more time into learning.

Arm yourself with First Aid early in the beginning of medical school! Glance over the corresponding First Aid sections that you’re learning in lecture, and use the high-yield facts to guide your studying. You can purchase the latest edition of First Aid from Amazon here.

Stay tuned on a post about how to read, take notes, and efficiently use First Aid to guide your studying.

Pro-tip: First Aid is updated with errata every year, so delay buying a hardcopy version until your second year or as close to the year you plan to take Step 1.

3. Pathoma

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Pathoma is the must have resource for Pathology. Put together by the one and only Sattar, Pathoma distills complicated pathways, histology, and “buzzwords” into an easily digestible format. Pathoma covers all the different organ systems and their pathologies to master Step 1.

Unlike First Aid, Pathoma comes in both a book format and short video lessons. I highly recommend both the video lessons and the hardcopy book. The videos each cover a unique pathology such as “Brain Tumors” or “Abdominal Hernias” and follow along with the book contents. You should annotate the extra material in the video lectures into the hardcopy book for easier reference in the future.

I also recommend using Pathoma to follow along the specific pathologies in class. Difficult concepts that take 2-3 hours to learn by yourself can be shortened into 10-20 minutes with Pathoma. Some students go as far as watching the corresponding Pathoma lesson on x2 speed to preview the material. Then after class, they re-watch the lesson to cement the information.

The hardcopy book by itself can be purchased from Amazon here.

The videos and hardcopy book are available as a bundle or separately and can be purchased directly from the Pathoma website here.

When to buy: whenever you start pathology. For those in integrated curriculums, purchase during first real organ system unit. For those in traditional curriculums, purchase at the beginning of your second year. 

4. SketchyMicro and SketchyPharm

Example Sketch depicting Streptococcus pneumoniae

Two of the arguably most difficult topics in pre-clerkship are microbiology and pharmacology because they rely on rote-memorization. SketchyMicro and SketchyPharm makes this memorization a breeze!

The premise behind Sketchy is to provide a general picture that incorporates icons and features to help you remember the fine details of each microbe or drug. For example, whether the background of a picture contains a sun or a moon can help you remember whether a virus contains positive-sense or negative-sense RNA. This is often the level of detail that is tested on exam questions!

Sketchy provides video lessons that narrate each individual sketch, putting together a whole story to make the sketch more memorable. The narrator is humorous and will keep you on the edge of your seat with anticipation along with the sketch. In addition, there’s a “quiz” feature in which you hover the mouse over icons in the sketch and quiz yourself for what they represent.

During exams and on the wards, I find myself remembering the unique toxins produced by microbes and the mechanism of action and side effects of drugs just because I remember their associated sketches!

You can purchase a monthly subscription to Sketchy here.

When to purchase: the monthly subscription may be a little pricey. Purchase this when you begin your intensive microbiology unit. The pharmacology portion can be purchased when you start your first organ system (highly recommended for neurology and psychiatry).

5. Question Banks (Qbanks) including Kaplan, USMLE Rx, and UWorld

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Question banks are a great complement to lecture materials and to the resources listed above. They also offer a different, active method of studying if you are bored of passively reading textbooks or doing flashcards.

I often find myself thinking that I know everything about a certain disease or pathway. However, I stumble upon a question in a Qbank that teaches me a new fact or shows my understanding of the pathway was incorrect. Getting questions wrong and making mistakes helps me better remember the concept in the long run.

There are many different Qbanks available including: Kaplan, USMLE Rx, and UWorld. As a quick summary, many students will reserve UWorld for dedicated Step 1 studying and instead use Kaplan or USMLE Rx during pre-clerkships. Kaplan is often cited as more detailed and hence more difficult (harder than even Step 1 was for some students). USMLE Rx is essentially First Aid in a question and answer format (Rx is produced by the same makers of First Aid). This makes Rx more enticing to some as they can complement their First Aid reading.

Regardless of whichever question bank you ultimately pick, you should choose only one to use during pre-clerkship. This is because it is difficult to complete an entire qbank due to the large amount of questions.

Equipped with your qbank, you should focus on doing a few questions of the corresponding organ system while following along in class to help solidify your understanding of the material. The following Qbanks can be found at Kaplan, USMLE Rx, and UWorld.

When to purchase: select one Qbank at the beginning of your first real organ system unit if in a integrated curriculum. If in a traditional curriculum, purchase midway through first year as the qbank will not be as helpful until you’ve covered some basics. 



Think we missed any top resources? Have you heard of any resources that aren’t listed here? Or questions on how to effectively use these resources during your studies? Leave a comment below!

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