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Create a Yearlong Study Plan for Certifications

For medical residents, fellows, and attendings alike, preparing for specialty board exams can be a stressful and somewhat challenging process....

Published December 09, 2021

For medical residents, fellows, and attendings alike, preparing for specialty board exams can be a stressful and somewhat challenging process. Between clinical, academic, and professional responsibilities, finding time to prepare for certification exams may seem impossible at times.

As you look to successfully tackle your certifications, here are a few thoughts to help you prepare.

Explore available resources on your ABMS Specialty Board

By the time you receive your Resident Match, you should understand the Member Board where your medical specialty and subspecialty certifications are offered. For links to the American Board of Medical Specialties Member Boards, visit https://www.abms.org/member-boards/contact-an-abms-member-board/.

Take the time to familiarize yourself with the resources available through your Specialty Board website. Most will include information regarding exam schedules, initial certification, continuous certification, learning tools, and exams catalogs. Acquainting yourself with these materials early will help you gain a good perspective of the qualifications and maintenance required for your career path.

Keep in mind that each Member Board has specific requirements for certifications, so knowing those that pertain to your specialty and subspecialty will be essential throughout your career.

Create a calendar of your exam dates

Your Specialty Board will list the exams offered with their dates, prices, and exam center locations. Talk to the advisors in your program to confirm your qualification exam pathway and begin to layout a timeline to get it done.

Each Specialty Board has different requirements, which can be confusing. Once you qualify for your certification, make note of your exam date, submit your application, make your travel arrangements, and begin exam preparation in earnest.

Divide and conquer

Once you set your exam dates, begin working backwards as soon as possible. Many physicians report feeling comfortable entering their exams after a full year of studying, so if you have enough time, plan for 12 consecutive months of preparation.

Start by reviewing the materials made available through your Specialty Board to understand the scope of the exam, evaluate the sample questions, take practice tests, and review the reading materials.

For the reading list, you may find it helpful to breakdown the papers into categories and assign yourself a set period of time to complete the readings.

While most people find it helpful to stick to one topic at a time, no one knows your studying strengths and weaknesses better than you. So, make a plan that works best for you.

Allow time for the practical elements – Thesis and electronic case list production

If your qualifying or continuing education exam requires non-test elements such as a thesis or electronic case list with supporting documentation, be sure to account for study and preparation time for those deliverables when you create your calendar.

There is, of course, a huge difference between studying for an exam and producing peer-reviewable work. Be sure to give yourself enough time to complete a thorough readthrough of your work and ask your peers for feedback early in the process.

Remember, updating grammar elements is straightforward and quick, but any changes to methodologies or upstream content will usually take a lot more time to complete.

Reading and note taking tips

Every medical student and physician studies differently, so it’s critical to know what works best for you. If you need a tactile association with articles, be sure to print them early and keep them in one place in your home or office.

If you take notes in the margins of articles, consider scanning the notated articles and maintaining backups on your computer.

Regardless of whether you take article summary notes by hand or digitally, you should manage and maintain them with software such as Zotero, Mendeley, or EndNote. You don’t want to lose hard copies of your work or have your digital copies wiped out, so back it up and play it safe.

Consider test prep resources

If you are someone who benefits from Kaplan-style test prep courses and materials, consider using some of the resources available from your specialty board exams. Because the pool of individuals preparing for specialty board exams is considerably smaller than those preparing for broad admissions tests, there is no single corporation or resource that produces test prep materials for all of them. As such, you will need to take it upon yourself to learn the options available to you.

If this is something you decide to pursue, expect to spend over $500 for access to digital materials and about $400 for print study materials. Before committing, review the available sample materials to make sure the detailed explanations presented in the answer key are adequate. After all, there’s no worse feeling than paying for a resource that leaves you with lingering doubts.

It’s also helpful to ask your peers and mentors if they have study guides that you can borrow. If you cannot find anyone to lend you a print exam prep book, compare pricing for used copies through online marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, and cheapesttextbooks.com.

Save for testing

On top of the work that goes into preparing for your examinations, you will need to set aside significant savings for test fees. Also, many specialty boards require you to take the test in person at specific locations, which means you may have to budget additional funds for airfare, hotels and eating expenses.

If your salary allows you to cover these charges comfortably, then you won’t have to worry. But if these expenses present a financial burden, you may want to consider moonlighting or picking up shifts at your hospital or clinic, if allowed under your program.

Follow through

It’s important to be patient with yourself. If you fall behind because you’ve moonlighted for four weeks straight or you found yourself in jeopardy during a clinical rotation because one of your peers called in sick, be flexible and return to your planned course of study when it’s possible.

If you survived your medical biochemistry pharmacological enzyme inhibition exam by eating chocolate covered espresso beans and reviewing flashcards for hours in the library, you have the skillset to duplicate those results.

Work through the possible hiccups, don’t be afraid of missteps, and approach your qualifying and continuing education exams with the same determination and passion that got you through medical school. Setting yourself up with a plan of study in advance and additional supporting resources will set you on the right course.

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