Prepping for your boards can bring on a variety of emotions. Regardless of whether you’re stressed, anxious, excited, frustrated, or just ready to get this done with, our minds gather and retain knowledge best under certain conditions. Here are some tips to get your brain in shape.
Stay organized and focused.
Some people like to study at home, while others need a little bit of background noise and the constant buzz of people. Regardless of how you study, we can all agree that having a clear, physical table space is necessary to keeping a clear head. Some people also thrive on clutter, but you should at least have an organized space where you plan on studying. Keep your materials put together, so you can efficiently work on the task at hand. Eliminate distractions, like your phone and social media. Get comfy, but not too comfy to where you want to doze off. Get yourself your favorite study beverage, and get your headphones ready with your study music. If you prefer to study in silence, try using earplugs to further hinder any noise distractions.
Study smarter, not harder.
In addition to having your space cleared from distractions, you should organize your study materials too. Visual aids are very helpful when trying to learn new info. About 65% of the population are visual learners, so don’t just chalk up your studying to books and reading. If you’re using diagrams or flash cards, keep those handy, but also test yourself on the information you already know. Try challenging yourself to remember everything you can about a topic, and then fill in the blanks with your studying. There are several studies that show the testing effect can help you retain 50% more of learned information than by simply using the same amount of time to study. Long-term retention is important for your field, not just to get through the test, but to help people effectively.
Use old exams.
An effective way to help you prepare for an exam is to take a practice test, or a past version of a test. You’ll be able to get used to the testing format, the style of the questions, and can help you narrow down which areas you’re strong at and which ones you’re struggling in. That way, you can spend more time focusing on your weaknesses, rather than the information you already know.
Others prefer question banks as an effective study method. In a survey by NEJM Knowledge+, over 900 readers of Physician's First Watch were asked about their study methods. Both print and online study banks we're rated as highly effective by 70% of respondents.
Be patient with yourself.
In a world that consistently feeds our need for instant gratification, studying is just not one of those things. Wouldn't it be great if we could just wave a magic wand and learn all the things we needed to? Don't assume that you'll be able to cram the night before and get it all to stick in your head. Regardless of what some people say about the adrenaline and benefits of working under pressure, you should allow yourself time to learn.
It's going to get repetitive too. Guess what—that's okay! It's actually helpful for our brains to consistently go over the same information in order to remember it better. Studies show that spaced repetition is the most effective way to learn. So, while you may get annoyed or frustrated about reading or studying the same thing over and over, you're doing your brain a huge favor. Remember, learning doesn't just come in a day.
Take a break.
One of the reasons we need to be patient with the learning process is because our brains need frequent breaks to stay productive. So once again, you can’t just cram for 12 hours straight and expect your brain to be completely on point. Start studying earlier on, and allow yourself to take some time away between study sessions. "Time away" doesn't mean hop a plane to Bermuda and have cocktails on the beach. It doesn't mean binge-watch 13 hours of Netflix. What it does mean is: Quick breaks to go get a cup of coffee, taking a walk around the block, or replying to those Snapchats you missed earlier. If you’re feeling guilty about your downtime, remember that your brain is thanking you for the little mini vacay.
Give yourself enough study time.
Between all this patience you’re supposed to have with yourself, and taking little brain breaks, you’re going to want to start your study process as soon as possible. This way, you can give yourself the right amount of time to take a break without feeling guilty, and you won’t get down on yourself for taking a little extra time on certain topics. In the same NEJM Knowledge+ survey, over 74% of respondents said they started preparing more than 3 months ahead of time, while only 1.7% of respondents reported only studying a few weeks before. Having extra time also means a lot of those repeat study sessions we talked about earlier, which will help you retain the info long-term. Get time on your side, and everything else will come naturally.
Get a group together.
Rally your friends for a study session! Studying doesn’t always have to be a solo endeavor; teamwork really helps everyone out. You may have questions that they happen to have the answers for, and vice versa. When you compare notes, you’re spending less time finding the answers, and more time studying the answers, right? Just be sure you stay focused, so it doesn’t turn into a big social outing.
Feed your body, not just your mind.
Maybe you’re in the middle of a study session and you’re feeling a little hungry. Grab yourself a snack and nibble on some brain food. No, I’m not talking zombie-speak. You need food that helps your brain function. (Yeah, your brain… you know, that big muscle that’s going to help you pass your exams and get you to the next level? Don’t make it mad. Feed it right.)
Ok, here’s another scenario. Maybe you’ve been studying hard, and you think you deserve a treat. I get that. (Hi, ice cream!) But what you eat, especially while studying, can have a huge effect on your energy and concentration. For example, fish, almonds, and yogurt can help you stay focused and improve your memory. Whereas quick energy, like sugar and carbs, will make you crash hard. It's important to stay hydrated too. Water seems like a simple solution, but staying hydrated will do wonders for your brain and body. On the day of your exam, be sure to eat something that will provide substantial energy throughout the entire day.
Plan for the big day.
Are you prepared? Your keys aren’t lost in the depths of your couch cushions? Your alarm is set? Your car has gas? If there are any special requirements, or things to bring to the test, now is the time to sort it out. Make sure you prepare for D-Day, aka: Exam Day ahead of time. Nothing is worse than feeling rushed or unprepared. In fact, it can make you more anxious about your exam. Even worse than that: arriving late. Be on time and ready to show 'em what you've got.
Implement these strategies into your study routine to maximize time and success. Put on your best study face! You've got this.