This is not a tip that I have, in any way, kept secret throughout my time at medical school. In fact, it is a tip that I’ve emphasised in countless talks and seminars that I have delivered to younger medical students. Nonetheless, it is a tip that largely goes ignored because it goes against the zeitgeist of our time in school.
Cast your mind back, if you can, to preparing for your Maths GCSE. Past papers were worth their weight in gold, and were treated as a finite resource that should only be deployed at an auspicious time.
This made sense in the context of GCSEs, because past papers offered you the opportunity to practice your ‘exam technique’ and familiarise yourself with the format of the exam. Many, therefore, would have preserved past papers until the last 2 weeks before their exam.
I remember being rather surprised that my medical school did not release official past papers to allow us to practice. This was a major paradigm shift that many of us struggled to deal with. A couple of years later, the penny dropped. Medicine is a universal subject, and medical students across the globe will need to learn the same core content in order to function as a doctor. Though there will be differences in emphasis allocated to different aspects of medicine depending on your medical school, the content of medical education is far more homogenous than the worlds of OCR, AQA and Edexcel.
Upon entering the clinical years, we were relieved to find that there were a multitude of online and written practice questions that were available for us to use. We, nonetheless, had to reconcile ourselves with the fact that these resources were likely written by someone who was not at our medical school and, therefore, may not faithfully mimic the exams we were about to sit.
Then, the GCSE mindset crept in. The vast majority of students will spend the first 70-80% of the year robotically rote-learning blocks of text or lists of signs and symptoms before attempting any practice questions. This echoes the GCSE mentality of wanting to ‘be ready’ before trying any questions.
One reassuring feature of undergraduate medical education is that there is a lot to remember but little to ‘figure out’. It is much more a test of pattern recognition and spotting associations than performing long-winded calculations that require practice.
I, therefore, started doing practice questions very early in my third year of medical school. I was very much going against the grain, but this proved to be the best decision I ever made at medical school. Each SBA/MCQ is a learning experience, and I was able to gain a huge amount of knowledge from just going through these questions. Furthermore, the knowledge is packaged in a much more engaging and memorable format in practice questions, than in blocks of text or reels of notes. By the time I got to my third year clinical exams, I estimated that I had completed around 5000 SBAs using every book and online resource I could get my hands on. This meant that, when I opened that exam, I almost felt like I had seen all the questions before. After all, there are only so many ways in which you can write a question on appendicitis or Cushing’s disease.
To all those students out there, especially those preparing for clinical exams, I implore you to start doing practice questions as early as possible. Do NOT view them as a finite resource that you must use at the last moment, instead consider them a rich, high yield gold mine that will allow you to further your medical knowledge.
Trust me, you will do better if you follow this tip.