19 Tips to Acing Your Board Exams, Backed by Science

Whether you are preparing to take the American Board of Internal Medicine  exam, or are continuing your medical education in another field, studying can be tricky… and overall stressful! You may find yourself asking questions such as: Where do I start? How do I fit studying into my busy schedule? What is the best way to prepare? and ultimately Will I pass?

Look first at the facts. About 35% of people become tense before a high-stakes test that they perform subpar in the actual exams, according to clinical psychologist Richard Driscoll , whose research includes text anxiety.

Rest assured, you don’t need to be one of those 35% of people. Remember that the traditional method of memorizing facts and figures does not necessarily work for board exams. Rather, science has deemed certain study techniques as the effective means to acquire greater knowledge of your medical field. Be ready to rid yourself of worries – and ace the boards – using the following tips, tools, and resources .

How To Prepare

1.  Time it out

Schedule a daily two-hour study session ending with a weekly roundup. Set clear, specific goals for the duration of your board review. Include non study goals as well, such as workouts and healthy eating to keep your body and mind in good condition.

If you’re like most busy residents and doctors, Dr. Roostaeian recommends trying a credible online board review course such as Oakstone.  He states, “Online board reviews are convenient and offer intensive coverage of information to be found on the exam. You don’t have to take time off work or travel for board reviews, instead opt for an online course.”

Set yourself up for success by using a habit tracking app, such as Momentum, to boost your willpower, organize your days, and help you reach your goals.

2.  Join a study group

Being part of a study group can really boost your board preparation. Dr. Paauw suggested limiting such groups to three or four members and making sure that they meet consistently, preferably twice a month. Together you should appoint one as your leader or facilitator and schedule a beginning meeting to create a clear set of goals.

Rowen K. Zetterman, FACP, a professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and codirector of the College's Midwest board review course, said that one way to run study groups is to have each member formulate test questions. "There are only so many questions that can be prepared on a given subject," he said. "When residents finally take the board exam, they may be surprised to learn that they came up with some of the questions."

Use cloud based and online tools, such as StudyBlue and Google Drive, so all study group members can access group notes and materials. StudyBlue is a great (and free) resource to create, view, share & compare notes & flashcards online and on your mobile device.

Best Study Practices

3. Mix it up to retain the information better

To add visual flavor and more variety to study time, watch online lectures by experts on internal medicine. Although there are a multitude of videos online, you want to make sure you are watching creditable videos with reliable information.

Sites like Oakstone allow you to login and watch videos and online course in your own time. There will be no need to download the videos. But if you wish to add them to your permanent library, Oakstone offers a USB drive containing MP4 files that can be imported to iTunes and other compatible media players and then synced to mobile devices.

With Oakstone you will get instant online access to unbiased content and clinical updates to improve patient care without having to travel or taking time away from your practice. Click here for instant savings and coupons for Oakstone review courses.

4. Ration study sessions

Focusing on one concept or subject at a time will boost content retention versus cramming more information into your brain. Start with one or two topics that are relatively easy for you, to reinforce what you know and gauge your self-awareness. Then move to a topic that you have lower self-confidence in, one that forms a large component of the examination. Improving your ability in a major topic area can make a big difference in your performance. Education experts suggest 50-minute sessions when solving problems and reviewing case studies.

You can use this Pomodoro Timer to help you boost your productivity using the Pomodoro Technique™, one of the most effective time management methods out there.

5.  Diversify study spots

While staying in your room can deter unwelcome distraction sources, trying out the coffee shop sometimes helps to boost your recall of certain materials because, again, of memories associated with the place. Find another location, such as the library, to add to the mix. 

6.  Keep distractions at bay

If you need to stay on the laptop for a particular session, install an app, such as the Self Control App, that will help you avoid distracting websites. Education experts stress that multitasking decreases your speed by two or three times. Intense concentration will get you to your goal faster, and without social media fuss.

7.  Write by hand

Do not discount writing by hand just yet. Some theories in psychology and neuroscience have shown the interdependence of perception and motor action. In summarizing what you have learned in weekly roundups, jot down notes instead of typing them.

8.  Listen up

Reading aloud also has benefits for remembering. Being able to see and hear the information at the same time helps to store it more effectively. If you do not have the luxury of time to read, such as during long hours of commute, try listening to lectures in the car.

Oakstone is a great resource for continuing medical education audio CDs with lectures that come in MP3 format, which you can conveniently play on on your mobile device, computer, and even in your car. 

Keep Your Mind & Body In Check

9.  Eat well every day

Aside from having a healthy breakfast before taking off to the boards, you also have to watch what you eat daily. Go easy on the fats and notch it up with the carbs, especially five days leading up to the exams. Throw fruits and vegetables as well into your balanced diet to be sure.

10.  Study the hardest material before sleeping

Studies have found that new memories are better processed during sleep. So get down with the hardest material on your to-do list right before hitting the sack.

11.  Ditch the all-nighter

All-nighters are like quick fixes—they do not work. They could even end up ruining what you have laboriously put together. Avoid having to cram, especially with topics and formulas you are struggling to learn.

12.  Get a full cycle of sleep the night before

Studies show that sleep deprivation increases the activity of the enzyme PDE4’s, which inhibits memory consolidation. Aim for seven-and-a-half or nine hours of sleep the night before. Completing the REM cycle will improve memory while disrupting the REM cycle can impair it.

13.  Sweat the stress out

Take a break from time to time. Continuous study sessions with smaller breaks are fine, but you will need more than that to combat stress buildup, or your prefrontal cortex will threaten to shut down. Of course, socializing, shopping, and eating out are encouraged, but exercising is the ultimate brain food. Physical exercise improves learning ability by growing new neurons and slowing (or even reversing) cognitive decay. Lab animals who use a running wheel show better cognition than sedentary critters. Aside from burning calories, you also increase your happy hormones while working out in the gym or just jogging around your neighborhood.

Maximize Exam Day Performance

14.  Plan your exam day

Avoid day of panic. Your confirmation e-mail will specify an appointment time. If you arrive after your appointment time, you may not be admitted to the exam so make certain that you know the location of the test center, parking facilities and nearby restaurants prior to exam day. If possible, go for a dry run. Learn all the routes leading to the testing place, map out the directions via Waze, estimate travel time, and prepare all the credentials in your bag – IDs and permits. Double check every detail and make sure to arrive 30 minutes prior to your appointment time. This will help your mind deal with bits of information easily on the day itself.

15. Bring your ID

According to abim.org, when you arrive at the test center, you will need to present your primary and secondary identification:

Your Primary ID: A current government-issued form of ID that contains a recent photograph of you and your signature. A valid driver's license, passport or state identification card is acceptable. Note: Any form of ID issued by the Syrian government cannot be used as a primary ID, per U.S. government regulations.

Your Secondary ID: A form of ID that includes your signature, but not necessarily a photograph. For example, a Social Security card, valid credit card, or ATM card is acceptable. Note: Candidates without both valid primary and secondary ID may not be admitted to the exam. The name that appears on your ID must be the same as the name that ABIM has on record for you. You will not be allowed to take your exam with an expired ID.

16.  Chew gum

Who would have thought something as mundane as chewing gum can be linked to effective studying? Surprisingly, researchers found out that it can make information stick. The gum's scent and taste enable the recall of memories associated with the information you ingested while reviewing, provided you chew the same flavor during the review and the exam.

 17.  Be confident

Be confident that you will finish strong, that you are going to make it from organizing your schedule to answering the last item in the test. Surround yourself with supportive family, friends, professors, instructors, and fellow test takers. Their support will prove to be invaluable when tough times start rolling out.

Choose The Best Answer

18. Use logic to choose the best answer

For each question, there is one best answer. By process of elimination, choose the options that seem unreasonable and then apply logic to the remaining possible answers. Keep in mind that they’re not trying to trick you (usually). If something is in the question, it’s probably there for a reason.

If you cannot answer a multiple choice question, remember what the statistics say. More often than not, all of the above and options that are longer or more qualified are correct. “None of the above” and options containing specific determiners such as never and always are rarely correct.

Dr. Jason Roostaeian recommends “choosing common diseases over rare ones unless compelling reason to do otherwise and to use a logical approach to try to find possible paths to the correct answer. The more paths pointing to the correct answer, the more likely it is correct.”

19. Pace Yourself

The exams are given in modular format with a maximum of 70 multiple-choice questions per exam session. Check periodically to make sure you’re moving quickly enough and pass over hard questions first. Remember to answer every question because your score will be determined by the total number of questions answered correctly. There is no penalty for guessing.

For long clinical vignettes, consider reading the question and scan the answers before reading the vignette.

Tools & Resources


Without having to leave your home or office, state-of-the-art lectures taught by faculty from the world’s greatest teaching institutions. Offer comprehensive reviews to fully prepare you for board certification and recertification exams with emphasis on the practical application of physiological principles to the understanding and management of clinical problems.The digitally-recorded continuing medical education conferences, board review course, and clinical and diagnostic procedures are presented in a convenient, online video format.

Click here for instant savings and coupons for Oakstone review courses. Or click the "Learn More" button to take you directly to the Oakstone website.


Free resource to create, view, share & compare notes & flashcards online. StudyBlue allows people to study anytime, anywhere across all of your Web, iOS, and Android devices.

Self Control

SelfControl is a free and open-source application for Mac OS X that lets you block your own access to distracting websites, your mail servers, or anything else on the Internet. Just set a period of time to block for, add sites to your blacklist, and click "Start." Until that timer expires, you will be unable to access those sites--even if you restart your computer or delete the application.

Pomodoro Timer 

Pomodoro Timer helps you boost your productivity using the Pomodoro Technique™, one of the most effective time management methods out there. Not only will you get a fully configurable timer that lets you customize every aspect of the technique, but you will also enjoy a clear and beautiful user interface.

Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock

An intelligent alarm clock that analyzes your sleep and wakes you in the lightest sleep phase – the natural way to wake up feeling rested and relaxed.


The free Momentum app is the simple, yet powerful, habit tracker that boosts your willpower and helps you reach your goals.


Free tool for taking notes and making lists. Simple to use, but incredibly powerful, WorkFlowy can help you manage all the information in your life.

Get comfortable in your seat and give the boards your best shot. Getting stressed out and worrying will do you more harm than good. Just relax and be confident. You can do this!

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