- Set up a practice exam to gauge which topics you're strongest in, and where you need to spend your time over the next 6 months. Start your review with the weakest topics first, so that you can go through them multiple times leading up to your exam.
- The ABIM exam covers a huge range of topics, so you need to approach your study time over the next six months with efficiency. Spend just a few minutes researching evidence-based learning techniques to streamline your review process.
- Start with a comprehensive review of the material so you can learn what you need to know for every topic on the boards. Then go into Q&As to lock the information into your long-term memory.
- Stay motivated! The theory of operant conditioning says that when a certain behavior is followed by a pleasant outcome, we are more likely to repeat the behavior. You can use this effect to help maintain your commitment and focus on your studies.
Whether you're taking the certification or recertification, creating a study plan for your Internal Medicine exam is crucial to being efficient while covering all the material you need to know. How you set up your game plan for studying really matters! Studies have proven that there are specific learning techniques that strengthen studying efficiency and effectiveness and will anchor the concepts you’re learning into your long-term memory.
Whether you've already started on the material or you're just getting ready to dive in, follow this 6-month study plan to focus on what you must know for the IM boards.
6 months out from your exam
When you’re six months out from your scheduled exam date, it can feel like you have plenty of time. Especially if you’ve already been studying or know the material. Use your time now to gauge what you already know, which content areas you need to focus on, and how you’re going to use your study time wisely leading up to your exam.
Do a practice test
In MedStudy Q&As, you can set up a timed practice exam by choosing “select all” in the topics section, and then setting 100 as the total number of questions. MedStudy Qbank has unlimited practice exam options and covers each of the content areas from the blueprint.
Plan how you’ll study
Create a study schedule that covers all the topics that will be tested on the exam. You should allocate time for each topic based on your current level of understanding (which can be informed by your practice exam). Plan to study at least 2-3 hours per day.
Decide which study techniques you’ll rely on
Spend some time thinking about how you’re going to study. The ABIM exam covers a huge range of topics, so you need to approach your study time over the next six months with efficiency. You may already have a favored study approach, but you might want to spend just a few minutes researching common study mistakes doctors make when preparing for boards so that you don’t fall into those traps.
If you’re looking for a recommended approach, we’d suggest using these evidence-based study techniques:
Study, spaced repetition, and preview (the MedStudy Method)
This combination of study techniques optimizes the way your brain naturally learns: Study, spaced retrieval, and previewing tomorrow's material. This is the best universal learning method, regardless of material or learning style. Read more about how to do it in StudyWise
Active recall is a highly effective learning technique that will help you retain the information better as you’re learning. Whatever phase of studying you’re in—whether you’re previewing tomorrow’s material or trying to answer a Q&A—focus on recalling information from memory rather than simply re-reading or reviewing material.
Start your comprehensive review
Start your comprehensive review as soon as possible. A Qbank alone won’t work to truly teach you the concepts, so you’ll want a more complete review, like the Core, Video Board Review, or a Review Course.
During the study phase it is crucial that you solidly understand the concepts you’re learning. It’s not about memorization, or being able to easily recall the information. You’re learning during this step! You are not supposed to know the material yet nor are you supposed to “know” it at the end of this study period.
During this phase, you are satisfying your curiosity and simply aiming for an understanding of the facts, concepts, and processes. You can use Q&As, flashcards, and concept maps that cover key information and help you understand the concepts better.
Start Qbank+ by topic
Go through questions for each topic after your comprehensive review. Focus on the hardest topics from your practice test first, so that you can review them several times before the exam. Incorporate spaced retrieval into your study plan by bringing each topic back at specific intervals over the next 6 months.
What is spaced retrieval?
Spaced retrieval is a learning technique that’s based on the spacing effect, which suggests that long-term memory is enhanced when learning events are spaced apart in time, rather than massed in immediate succession (cramming). Spaced repetition helps your brain re-consolidate information from your short-term memory into long-term memory by repeatedly bringing that information back at repeated intervals.
The key to understanding how to space out your intervals (if you’re not using an algorithm or app to automate spaced repetition) is to gauge how easy it was for you to recall the information you needed. If you recall the information easily, you can space out your review of the material. If it was tough to recall, you may want to shorten the space of your next review of the concept.
As you continue to review the material over time, your intervals become longer and longer—it’s easier to recall your memory of each concept. This is how expertise is achieved!
5 months out
By the five month out mark, you should have your first comprehensive review done. If you haven’t finished yet, consider a Review Course where you can really focus your time and energy.
You should be doing Q&As daily, based on the topics you’re reading and spaced retrieval of topics you’ve already completed. Keep working through the material, and remember you’re there to learn the information, not just remember the correct answer. Learn why the correct answer is right but also why the incorrect answer options are wrong. And practice active recall every single step of the way. Your goal should be to get through each question at least 3 times.
3–4 months out from your exam
By about 4 months out from your exam, you have already completed your comprehensive review, and you have also most likely worked through each question in the Qbank at least once. Look at how much you’ve already accomplished in 2 short months!
Your goal for these two months is to keep working through your focus areas from your practice test results, making sure you completely understand the concepts. Continue reviewing questions in every topic, still focusing on active recall before looking at the answers and completely understanding why the correct answer is correct. You should see some Q&As for the second time during these months.
Beware of fluency illusion!
Just because you are familiar with material doesn’t mean you can accurately recall it on a board exam or in practice. An fMRI study (Ryals et al., 2012) found evidence that familiarity and recall are not the same. They are processed in two separate parts of the brain: Recall is moderated in the hippocampus while familiarity involves anterior parts of the parahippocampal region, or MTL cortex. Subjects who found items familiar knew they had seen them before, but they couldn’t tell you where or when. To accurately and reliably recall information, you must practice recalling it over progressively longer intervals of time.
As you work through the same questions a few times, continue doing active recall to avoid fluency illusion.
60 days out from your exam
Your exam is getting closer, and all the work you’ve been putting in is starting to pay off. Your confidence in your medical knowledge is soaring! (If you’re not feeling confident, check out this blog on imposter syndrome and keep grinding. You can do this!)
During this time, go through the entire qbank+ again. Try to make sure you’ve seen the Q&As for each topic—especially your focus topics—at least three times in the past 6 months. But don’t rush through them! Active recall is still crucial.
How to stay motivated until exam day
Getting prepared for a board exam and just keeping up with your ever-changing specialty takes an investment of time and attention. The theory of operant conditioning says that when a certain behavior is followed by a pleasant outcome, we are more likely to repeat the behavior. You can use this effect to help maintain your commitment and focus on your studies.
When you have achieved a significant goal or milestone, give yourself a reward. It should be something that you find very pleasant. Maybe eating at your favorite restaurant, an afternoon off, a movie night, or a morning sleeping in. You know what external rewards motivate you best. Don’t ignore the good feelings (internal rewards) generated by your study efforts.
In the long run, internal rewards have been shown to be even more motivating than external rewards. These internal rewards might include a feeling of satisfaction with finally learning a tough topic, the feeling of absorption with your studies, and the sense of accomplishment that you are progressing well along a long path. Persist with your studies and you will find that you can keep up with them simply because it feels good to keep up with them!
And be sure to have a celebration when you complete your exam, and when you get the notification that you passed! You, along with everyone who has supported you along the way, deserve it!