How to Study for and Pass the Internal Medicine Boards
As the ABIM internal medicine certification exam approached, we received a large number of emails from our subscribers asking for suggestions on the best way to study for the boards. The truth is there is no one path to success though there are certainly ways to increase your likelihood of passing. Regardless of whether you are preparing for board certification or trying to achieve maintenance of certification (MOC), the best tried and true overall method is to “study early and study often.” Below we lay out possible strategies and tactics (in no particular order) for passing the ABIM board exam:
1. Know the basics of the internal medicine board exam
This is obvious but a lot of people simply don’t review this prior to starting their exam preparation and instead rely on their ABIM study source of choice to provide the information.
- Review the ABIM exam blueprint and understand the topics covered on the exam
- A large percentage (33%) of the exam is comprised of Cardiovascular Disease, Gastroenterology, and Pulmonary Disease
- Over 75 percent are based on patient presentations – most take place in an outpatient or emergency department; others are primarily in inpatient settings such as the intensive care unit or a nursing home.
- While it’s not a big part of the exam, be prepared and expect to interpret some pictorial information such as electrocardiograms, radiographs, and photomicrographs (e.g., blood films, Gram stains, urine sediments).
2. Use the in-training exam as a starting gauge
If you are a resident, the Internal Medicine in-training exam is a good starting point to see where you stand. It’s simply that – a barometer of where you stand. It will give you an idea where you may be weak and where you may be pretty strong. It will also give you an idea of how you compare with your peers. Don’t alter your ABIM study plan simply based on it but it does give you an early metric of the areas you need to focus on.
3. Get a study guide to prepare for the ABIM exam
It’s important to have a good study guide that is tailored for the exam. Some of the more popular and effective guides we’ve come across are the MedStudy Internal Medicine Board Review books and Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine Board Review.
4. Join a study group
Study groups, if utilized properly, are particularly effective because they allow you to learn from your colleagues and other exam takers. Oftentimes, people will form study groups with their colleagues (ideally limited to 3-4 people) at their residency program. Tactics to use in ABIM study groups may include:
- Focus on a new internal medicine category by week. For example, focus one week on cardiology and the next on pulmonary care. The exam can be broken into a dozen or so categories (see the ABIM exam blueprint). The majority of the subspecialty questions on the Internal Medicine board exam will focus on cardiology, gastroenterology, and pulmonary care. However, do not neglect the other areas as the ABIM wants to ensure that internists have a broad base of medical knowledge.
- Test each other with internal medicine questions you have written yourself. We are firm believers in the philosophy that the best way to learn is to teach. If you help others learn, your knowledge of medical concepts will be greatly strengthened.
We recognize that joining a study group is often not feasible – especially for those no longer in residency programs where everyone is preparing the boards. Fortunately, we live in a digital age where being part of a study group is much easier. You can connect with colleagues through Skype, Google hangout or a number of other channels. One of our favorite approaches is to remain informed and learn through the power of social media – in particular Twitter. In a previous post, we highlighted excellent Twitter handles to follow for ABIM exam review as you prepare for certification. If Twitter is not your cup of tea, you can also connect with colleagues through the Knowmedge ABIM community on Google+. Regardless of what approach you decide, studying alongside others preparing for the same exam is a great motivational tool for success.
5. Get a question bank that fits your personal needs
What is the value of an Internal Medicine question bank? This is a discussion near and dear to our heart, of course. Question banks have become a popular tool because they bring together a lot of material in a question format and help create a test taking environment. There are a lot of question banks to choose from – so what should you look for in an ABIM qbank?
- High quality ABIM-style questions in a format similar to the exam: The exam is mostly filled with clinical vignettes and has straightforward questions as well. At a minimum, your ABIM exam question bank should have both of these types of questions. Quantity is important – but the quality of the questions and explanations is much more important.
- Detailed explanations that review why the incorrect choices were wrong: A question bank that does not provide you detailed explanations is probably not worth the money and time spent. As you review questions, you will inevitably get some wrong – your choice of ABIM question bank should detail why your choice is incorrect and the reasoning behind the correct choice.
- Ability to track your personal performance: Your choice of ABIM qbank should be able to tell you your performance overall and by category. Most – not all – question banks provide you a dashboard broken down by category. The Knowmedge question bank has gone an additional step to break the categories into subcategories as seen on the ABIM exam blueprint. This allows you to review your strengths and weaknesses at a granular level. Knowing you are weak at cardiovascular disease is great – knowing you are weak at arrhythmia questions is more valuable.
- Add-ons – Notes, Lab values, Highlighting: Depending on how you study, these may be valuable features.
ABIM exam questions straight talk:
- No question bank – not MKSAP, not Knowmedge, not any – knows what will be on the actual ABIM exam. Based on the ABIM Blueprint, you can make assumptions on what are the most high-yield areas to study. The point of a question bank is not to give you the exact questions that will be on the exam – it is to hopefully teach you concepts you may see on the exam and how to reason through what you don’t know immediately.
- High-quality ABIM exam review questions can be found in many places – question banks are not the only place. There are study guides, books, and even free sources. So don’t simply base your decision on question bank on the questions. In addition to the quality of the questions, what truly differentiates one ABIM exam question bank from another is whether it will truly help you build a broad base of knowledge and help you retain information for the exam. If you are not comfortable reading a bunch of text – it won’t matter how great the questions are. If you are not an audio-visual learner, the Medstudy or Knowmedge videos won’t do anything for you (As clarity, the Knowmedge qbank contains text and audio-visual explanations for this exact reason). If you are an “old-fashioned” learner that prefers printouts – USMLEWorld is definitely not for you – those who have used them are well aware their software will block you from taking print screens or copying of their content. In short… don’t follow the herd – each one of us learns differently and you need to pick the best method for you.
6. Consider whether a review course is right for you
There are pros and cons to taking a review course for your ABIM exam prep. The pros are that it gives you a serious dose of review in a short period of time. It gets you focused if you weren’t focused and some courses are absolutely excellent – we know some internists are ardent supporters of some of the professors that teach these courses. The three most popular independent courses we are aware of are:
- Awesome Review by Dr. Habeeb Rahman – The best known and most popular independent course. Dr. Rahman has a very unique style of teaching and accompanies his lectures with his own videos. During this six day course (Sunday – Friday), Dr. Rahman provides students his own set of notes and questions to practice.
- iMedicineReview by Dr. Shahid Babar – This three day course (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) course comes with a set of 1,500 review questions.
- Unique Course by Dr. Satish Dhalla – A six day course (Monday – Friday) taught by one of the Top Internists in the Nation as selected by U.S. News
The cons of a review course are that they are expensive (Often over $1,000 plus hotel stay) and can be inconvenient to travel to and from. Regardless of whether you attend a review course or not, it cannot replace the pre and post-course study time that is needed. It is complementary to study time and does not replace it.
7. Review our suggested ABIM test taking strategies
The ABIM exam questions are not intended to trick you – they are intended to challenge your knowledge and ability to bring together your understanding of many different concepts and topics. Below are some of the tactics you can use as you are practicing questions and/or taking the actual ABIM exam:
- For clinical vignettes, read the question (last line) first and then go back and read the scenario. This way you’ll know what to look for as you are reading the scenario.
- Try to answer the question even before seeing the answer choices.
- Pay attention for keywords that can clue you in on an etiology or physical exam.
- Watch for key demographic information – Geography, ethnicity, gender, age, occupation.
- The ABIM test is not intended to be tricky but we are all human so we miss keywords sometimes – such as “least likely” – pay attention to these.
- If you are challenged by a longer clinical vignette, note the key items and develop your own scenario – this may trigger an answer.
- Most internists we’ve spoken with say time is generally not an issue – but be aware that it is a timed exam and that you have approximately two minutes per question.
We cannot stress enough the mantra “study early and study often.” The exam is challenging but it can be conquered with diligence and proper preparation.
8. Understand and be prepared for ABIM test day
- Be prepared and confident. No matter how you have chosen to study, on test day – confidence is critical!
- Get a good night’s rest – last minute cramming and staying up late is only going to stress you out more.
- Get there early – don’t risk getting caught in traffic. It’s much better to be a little early than be aggravated in traffic.
- Take an extra layer of clothing. The last thing you want to do is be uncomfortable and cold because someone decided to turn on the air conditioner too high.
- Test day is long! Be mentally prepared for it. From registration to the optional survey at the end, the day will be 8-10 hours long (depending on whether you are certifying for the first time or taking the maintenance of certification exam).
- Keep some power snacks with you to take during break time.
- Review the ABIM exam day schedule so you know exactly what to expect.
That’s a basic overview of how to study for and pass the ABIM board exam. As mentioned, there is no secret sauce or method to this – you simply need to have a broad base of knowledge. There is no substitute for studying early and studying often! If you are preparing for the ABIM Boards, we wish you well – we’re here to help so let us know if you have any questions! Happy studying!