How do I properly study for the shelf exam during rotations?


You will need to find a way to balance studying for shelf exams with seeing patients and contributing to the care team. Spread out your studies for the shelf exam throughout your entire rotation, and do NOT try to cram all your studying in at the end! Try to do a little each day. Keep in mind that your patients can actually help you study. They probably have a wealth of knowledge about their condition, initial symptoms, and tests/procedures they’ve been through. Use every opportunity you can to learn in the clinical setting. This is a unique part of medical school, and there is so much to be learned.

“Be balanced in your study”

Clerkships represent a new challenge for medical students in juggling the various forms of learning. You are now seeing patients and contributing to the care team; these tasks will take a big chunk of your focus and energy. You are going to need to “study” for your patients to be prepared. You will also need to study for your shelf exam. A number of students who have successfully navigated this balance advise, “Study for your patients, but there is no need to ‘over study’ for your patients.” Tailor your studying to what is clinically relevant and what you’re seeing. Remember that you’re a student FIRST, and one of the main things you are managing is your studies. It’s always best to start as soon as possible and absorb the information in manageable “chunks.”


“Start early, do a little each day”

The temptation is to put off study for the shelf exam until the end. However, cramming for the shelf is rarely a good idea… You do not have as much time each day for studying as you used to have in the preclinical phase. Therefore, you need to spread out your studies over the length of your rotation.

One strategy is to devote a few hours each day to studying, starting on day one. Try to maintain consistency, whether it be an hour or two each day, taking little chunks at a constant rate. You may consider outlining the main topics early on so that you can better see the “big picture.” The days may seem incredibly long, but don’t forget how long you spent studying in your preclinical year(s). Adding an hour to your day to study for the shelf will pay off in the long run.

Try to write down at least 1 thing you learned each day. Don’t be afraid to seek guidance from upperclassman for studying for shelves. They will have perspective on which study materials to use, which exams are helpful, etc. Always keep in mind that your patients are actually incredibly unique teaching tools in and of themselves…


“Patients can help you study”

Once you have outlined the main topics of study, you should try to synergize your study for the shelf with your studying to prepare for your patients. For example, if a patient you are seeing has a chronic condition, ask if you can chat with him or her to learn more about what they’ve been through with their disease – learn about how they were initially diagnosed, what treatments they’ve been through, etc. You want to make your learning “real” by tying textbook knowledge to the clinical experience. You need to fully utilize the multitude of learning opportunities present in this new environment.



“Be opportunistic”

You can and should bring study material to your shift for when there is downtime during your shift. When you’re spending the night in the hospital, or late afternoon downtime, these are easy times to be efficient and purposeful in your studying. When things don’t go as expected (and if there is time for it) ask more thoughtful questions of your superiors. Use every opportunity possible to further expand your knowledge – you’re there to LEARN.