Not all tests are created equal. If you’re studying for a class quiz, midterm, or final, you should take a different approach than if you are studying for the SAT, MCAT, USMLE, or another standardized exam. Here’s how to optimize your performance on each.
The fundamentals of what makes for effective studying remains relatively constant. Prioritizing techniques with spaced repetition and active recall, practice problems, and flashcards should be core components of any highly effective study strategy. But in terms of big picture planning and how you allocate your time and energy, the best approach differs if you’re optimizing for high performance in class versus on a standardized exam.
1 | What Outcome Are You Optimizing For?
There are three main distinct outcomes you can optimize for, each of which will require a slightly different approach.
Optimize for High Class Score
The first is to optimize for a high class score, which will be the majority of instances during your career as a student.
Teachers will hate me for saying this, but it needs to be said. If your priority is to perform well on the test, then it’s important you first understand what exactly you will be tested on to better guide your study strategy.
Most teachers hate the question, “Will this be on the test?” But asking these sorts of questions in lecture or discussion will help you determine what is high or low yield and how to design your studying appropriately.
I also recommend you speak with other students who have already taken the course. Speak to a wide range, including those who did well and those who didn’t perform so hot. Learn what worked and what didn’t. Ask what the test type was like. Was the test multiple choice, short answer, or essay-based?
What sort of questions were asked? Did the professor tend to emphasize certain parts of the course over others? Were questions tricky or straightforward? And most importantly, do they have copies of previous tests for you to reference? This will be useful in determining what your upcoming tests will be like.
Optimizing for high class performance requires a willingness to dive deep into the details of the course. If you want a B, having a robust understanding of the fundamentals will serve you well. But if you want an A or even better, to set the curve, then you’ll need to study even the finer details that are relatively lower yield.
If you need help figuring out how to approach this, we have plenty of guides on Study Strategies. Get started with these: 7 Evidence-Based Study Strategies and the Feynman Technique: How to Learn and Retain Complex Concepts.
Optimize for High Standardized Test Score
Next, optimizing for a standardized test. This can be the SAT, MCAT, USMLE Step 1, Step 2CK, GRE, or a multitude of other exams. While the specific details of which resources to use and what schedule to follow will obviously vary, the fundamentals of your approach should remain constant.
For each of these standardized tests, there are high-quality question banks and practice tests you should utilize to the fullest potential. If I could recommend only one strategy with the greatest bang for your buck, I’d suggest you focus on practice questions and practice tests.
Students commonly wait too late to begin doing practice tests. They think they first need to learn the material with content review, and if they jumped to practice questions, it would be a waste. However, it’s vital to understand that question banks aren’t just for practice and assessing your weaknesses—they’re also useful for active learning. The key to rapid performance improvement is to properly use question banks, which means reviewing all questions, even the ones you got correct.
I attribute a large part of my 99.9th percentile MCAT score and high 260’s Step scores to my heavy usage of question banks and practice problems. At the beginning of your study period, spend some time on questions or practice tests and some time on content review and flashcards.
As your test date approaches, shift your time allocation heavily toward practice tests so that over 90% of your time is either spent taking them or reviewing them.
Similar to studying for class, if you want to get a 99.9th percentile score, you will need to know the details that are seemingly lower yield. However, I advise you to focus on learning those details in the practice test and question bank settings rather than prioritizing them in content review.
If you complete a high volume of these questions with proper technique and attention, you won’t only learn the high yield details, but also the nuances in how the questions will actually be asked on test day.
Optimize for a Pass/Fail Environment
This final category is primarily applicable to medical students who are at programs with a Pass/Fail curriculum. The important thing to remember here is despite your competitive nature or desire to be #1, setting the curve here isn’t actually a good use of your effort.
Rather, focus on passing with a healthy margin, as you never want to be below the pass line. Beyond that, I advise you to spend your time and energy optimizing for your boards, even a year and a half in advance.
This means designing your study plan around board prep materials. If you’re studying for USMLE Step 1, that translates to review books, such as First Aid, and question banks, like UWorld.
While focusing on these board prep materials, reference your class resources to fill in any additional details, but don’t sweat it too much. Again, you just need to pass the class, not get a 99%.
2 | Which Resources Are High Yield?
Now that you’ve determined your big picture strategy between optimizing for class versus a standardized exam, we now need to narrow down the list of resources to what will assist you in obtaining the results you seek.
In optimizing for class, speak to other classmates or students who have taken the course previously. Ask what was most helpful as a study resource. In most instances, attending the lecture will be a good use of time. Beyond that, the textbook, or sometimes the accompanying book authored by the professor, will be your best bet.
If you’re spending a large amount of time with your nose buried in textbooks, remember to use active learning methods. Don’t just passively read or highlight.
When it comes to notes, don’t simply go off your friend’s notes or other condensed summaries created by others. Proper note taking is an active learning process in which you take the more verbose textbook language, which provides plenty of context, and then seek to condense it, focusing on the key points.
Since you already have the context for the information, condensing is appropriate. Without the context, however, reading the condensed information will not paint the full picture.
In optimizing for a standardized test, focus on the universally agreed-upon high yield resources. For example, the official AAMC practice questions are the best for the MCAT. For USMLE, follow the UFAPS protocol at a minimum with UWorld, First Aid, Pathoma, and Sketchy.
When you go over practice questions and practice tests, be thorough in your review. Don’t skip a question just because you got it right. You may have gotten lucky or missed an important detail. Review every single question, but it’s fine to review questions you got correct quicker than questions you got wrong.
3 | Create a Tailored Schedule
A schedule optimized for class performance will look very different from one optimized for a standardized exam.
Schedule for Class
Generally speaking, most classes will have one or two midterms and a final. There may also be smaller quizzes sprinkled along the way. The most common mistake to avoid is procrastinating until a couple of days before the exam to study, as opposed to studying a little bit every day.
Are you a procrastinator? Read our 7 Steps to Cure Procrastination.
Leading up to each test, write out an outline of all the content that will be covered on the exam. What are the lecture numbers and respective topics? What resources do you have? Are there homework assignments you were graded on and can review? What about practice questions from the professor or textbook? What about exams from previous years?
Be realistic about what you can accomplish each day and be strategic in when and how you use each resource. Don’t forget to include some buffer time, as you will inevitably fall behind.
If you’re able to get your hands on previous exams from the professor, these will be your highest yield resource. Make sure you make the most of them. A prior test will teach you how questions will be asked—identification versus multiple choice versus elaboration and discussion questions. Each of these requires different levels of understanding and memorization.
Read our guide: Most Effective Way to Improve Memory (& Memorize Anything).
These exams will also show you what your professor considers important and also demonstrate how they will incorporate higher-order questions. Higher-order questions require taking multiple concepts, applying each, and arriving at a final conclusion.
Schedule for Standardized Test
Creating a plan of attack for a standardized exam is a very different ordeal. First, know that a foundation of doing well in your prerequisite classes is one of the best ways to have a solid footing. If you crushed your organic chemistry class, you probably won’t struggle with it on the MCAT.
Always start with a target test date in mind and work backward from there.
Layout all of the resources you intend to go through and stratify them by yield from highest to lowest. Going through more resources and materials isn’t necessarily better. Prioritize getting through all of the high-quality practice questions and practice tests with enough time to get through every question and review each and every one.
You may want to add bonus time to redo your incorrect questions, which is a common tactic amongst top-performing medical students preparing for USMLE Step 1 or Step 2CK. Ensure you also allocate enough time for content review, but most students tend to spend too much time on content and not enough on practice questions.
Begin by taking a practice test in the first 1 or 2 weeks of studying, as it’s critical that you understand the question style, pacing, and what the real test will be like. From there, you should regularly take practice tests at increased frequency.
If you’re able to push off other obligations during this time, more power to you, but don’t overdo it. I had roommates who wouldn’t exercise or wash their dishes during crunch time, which is suboptimal, to say the least.
Understand you can only study effectively and at high intensity for a certain number of hours per day. You still need to take care of your body by exercising, eating well, and getting high-quality sleep. If you have the option to take time off from work or have a reduced course load at school, make the most of it, as this will allow you to dedicate more mental resources to performing well on the test.
Dramatically Improve Your Study Techniques
I believe anyone has the ability to dramatically improve their study techniques, efficiency, and performance on both class exams and standardized tests.
If you need help taking your performance to the next level, our team at Med School Insiders can help get you there. Not only are our tutors top tier performers with top percentile scores on the MCAT, USMLE, and other tests, but they’re also phenomenal teachers, having helped thousands of students drastically improve their performance.
Unlike other companies, we don’t just take any tutors—we are insanely selective and only recruit the best. My team and I have worked tirelessly in creating the best 1-on-1 tutoring experience for future doctors. We’ve obsessed over creating the most effective and rigorous system that optimizes for one thing—delivering results.
If you want to crush your MCAT, USMLE, or need help doing better in any class, from organic chemistry or physics to cardiology or surgery and everything in between, our team has your back. Check out our wide range of tutoring services.