How do you study during clinical rotations? In this post I will give you my step-by-step method on how to succeed on your rotation and your shelf exams.
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How to Study For Rotations In Medical School (Step-By-Step Method)

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Are you a clinical student and still not sure how to study for rotations in medical school? Are you coming home most evenings too tired to study? Do you lack the motivation to do more UWORLD questions? How should a student study for rotations in medical school anyway?

In this post, I break down the steps to help you study for rotations in medical school. These are the strategies I’ve used to achieve honors on my rotations. 

At the end, I also break down step by step how I use my study resources and text to study for the shelf exams using my notebook method. 

If you prefer this post in a video form, check out the YouTube video and also check out the channel!

Pick Your Study Resources Of Choice:

Every rotation will have their recommended selection of resources. I’ve written detail posts about each rotation I’ve completed thus far. Click a particular rotation below to receive specific advice and resources.

Internal Medicine
Pediatrics
Family Medicine
Surgery
Neurology
Ob/Gyn

Medical students become stressed by having too many choices. Often, especially early in their clinical years, students will try to use a little bit of everything. I was one of them.

But trust those who have done it before you (such as myself) and stuck to no more than 2-3 resources. Often this will include one question bank (almost always UWORLD), a text, and maybe an additional text/question bank depending on the rotation.

I also recommend adding OnlineMedEd to your recommended resources! They have amazing videos, notes, and flashcards to make clinical rotations much easier.

Check out OnlineMedEd here. If you sign up for an annual subscription you’ll receive $80 through the link!

This is the first trick to study for your rotations in medical school. Don’t pick too many resources. Stick to the ones you choose. Then schedule how you’ll use each medical school resource.

Define a Calendar for Completing Each Resource:

After scouring through this website and others, come up with realistic deadlines.

First, go through your book and determine how many pages and questions it has. Now come up with a goal on how fast you want to finish it.

Everyone has different reading speeds and spend various amounts of time reading explanations. (I’m a skimmer) But it’s a good practice to have your text completed two-thirds of the way into the rotation. So if you have a 6-week rotation, aim to complete your book by the end of week four at the latest.

This practice allows you to spend the home stretch studying for your shelf exams actively. This involves spending a majority of your time (if not all) doing practice questions.

You can break the text by sections or pages. It becomes personal preference at this point.

For example, as of this writing, I’m on my Ob/Gyn rotation. My text of choice is Case Files. Similar to others in the series, Case Files Ob/Gyn has 60 cases. I honestly went too slow through the text (too many nights off) and averaged little more than 2 cases a night. Regardless, I finished the book two-thirds of the way, giving me plenty of time to finalize preparations for the shelf exam.

If you’re particularly organized, you can add in the chapters you intend to read each day on your Google or personal calendar.

If you’re like me and are semi-organized then just have a chapter or page number you want to complete by the end of the week.

Schedule Your Questions:

I recommend doing questions throughout your rotation.

I’ve seen students defer their questions until they complete their text or flashcards. This just doesn’t make sense to me. By the time you finish your text, you’ve likely already forgotten the first half of the book.

If you’re using UWORLD, then attempt to finish the questions halfway through your rotation. For certain rotations such as internal medicine, this is highly unlikely. Check out my internal medicine study schedule post to receive specific advice on how to approach UWORLD for the rotation.

For most other rotations, you’re likely to have 200-300 questions per rotation. You can manage to complete your UWORLD questions in 2-3 weeks.

I like to spend 2-3 weeks learning through UWORLD (alongside my text). While I’m doing the questions, I will mark any question I get incorrect or guessed correctly on.

I then use week 4 to go through all my marked questions until I get them all right.

Why should you want to complete the questions in 2-3 weeks? While I think UWORLD is great as a learning tool, their questions are often more difficult than the real thing. Also, UWORLD tries (harder than the NBME) to trick you.

Thus I prefer to use the final stretch for practice questions similar to the real thing. In particular, I attempt to do all the NBME practice exams.

This also allows you to complete another question bank, such as UWISE for Ob/Gyn.

Ultimately doing more questions will lead to a higher shelf exam score. Use UWORLD initially to develop a strong base. Then transition to the NBME exams to understand where you stand, become comfortable with the format, and focus on weaker topics.

Using the Notebook Method to Study for Rotations in Medical School:

This technique is one I’ve recently begun to use but boy does it work wonders.

During my first few rotations I struggled to remember the topics I learned week 1. It felt like I was in an endless circle of learning and forgetting.

This is obviously frustrating and often how medical school feels at times. But I wanted a study strategy which got me out of this passive learning hole. I was tired of reading and highlighting the text, just to forget I ever learned it a few weeks later.

So I messed around with my study strategy until I found an active way to use my designated text. I call it the notebook method.

The notebook method is the reason I’m no longer stressed when studying for my shelf exams but my grades have gotten higher. I try to rid my dependence on the text as soon as I finish each chapter.

This is how you use it.

Once you have your designated text of choice, read through and be on the lookout for high yield information.

For example, since I’m Ob/Gyn I may be reading a chapter about labor. If I’m reading a paragraph about the different stages of labor, I’ll grab my spiral notebook and write “different stages of labor” on the left half of the sheet. This will be my question side.

Then I read the passage and use the right side of the page, the answer side, to fill out any high-yield information regarding the topic.

Here are examples from my notebook. (Pardon the small handwriting)

Here is my favorite method to study for rotations in medical school

Here is my favorite method to study for rotations in medical school

Here is my favorite method to study for rotations in medical school

Here is my favorite method to study for rotations in medical school

As you can see, the questions or topics are on the left and the relevant “answers” are on the right.

You will also notice that I write the topic of the chapter on the far left margins.

I try to keep each question and answer section short and sweet. It’s my attempt at actively breaking down the text into the most relevant points.

There’s no need for full sentences, correct spelling, and it doesn’t have to be legible to anyone but you.

This notebook will be a collection of the high-yield facts from the books. Your notebook doesn’t have the “ands”, “buts”, and extra words which are useless. You just have what’s important to know.

In the next section, I’ll break down how to use your now high-yield notebook to study.

Actively Studying in Medical School Using The NoteBook Method:

After completing Case Files for Ob/Gyn, my notebook of high-yield spanned 28 pages.

This may seem like a lot but as you can see from notes above, there’s not much on each page. Also the Case Files book is over 500 pages! I’ll take the 28 pages any day.

So how do you use your high-yield notebook?

Well since it’s nicely played out as a question-answer format, go through a designated number of pages each morning or night. I prefer the morning before I start my day. I find it gets me in the groove before rotations.

Reviewing 3-4 pages of my high-yield notes takes no more than 20 minutes.

I prefer to do two new pages of new material and two pages each day. The two pages of review take me less than 5 minutes since each page has less than 7-10 Q&A’s.

I also study the new material strategically. First I learn one page by reading the questions and answers together. Then I attempt to review the page without looking at the answer. My review for that page is complete once I get the entire page correct.

Then I move to the next page. Once I master page 2, I’ll go back to page 1 and try to master page 1 and 2 together. If you choose to review more than 2 pages, then review page 3 by itself and then try to do page 1-3 without any mistakes.

If what you wrote doesn’t make sense, then this is when you refer back to the book. Make your question and answer more clear in your notebook.

Using the notebook method, you’re no longer dependent on the 500-page textbooks. Also, the notebook method will help you study in your clinical rotations without forgetting material from week 1.

In fact, you’ll constantly be in a state of actively reviewing and learning. More importantly, all this information will be high-yield.

To add an extra dimension to your notebook, you can add missed UWORLD questions.

By the end of your rotation, the notebook should be all you need to ace the shelf exam. By test day, you’ve likely reviewed each page at least 2-3 times. Thus a full review of your notebook can easily be done the final days before your shelf exam.

Final Week Before Your Shelf Exam:

By now you’ve finished your designated text. You should have also finished UWORLD once and gone through your marked questions.

If you’re using the notebook method I’ve laid out above, then you should feel comfortable with the material on your shelf exam.

This week is designated to focus on NBME exams, hitting your weak points, and doing a final review of the material.

If you need a quick way to review the material, check out the notes at OnlineMedEd. Check out OnlineMedEd here.  Their videos and notes are amazing!

Keep a List of Weak Topics:

These are the topics which make you tachycardic if you have a shelf exam question on it. This is also where you earn your points and separate yourself and score in the 90s for your exams.

The best way to identify these weak topics is to take the NBME practice questions. Jot the subject down if you get a question wrong and felt uneasy approaching it. Also, add any topics you may have gotten right by guessing on.

While doing your NBME practice exams, be on the lookout for answers choices which may not be correct but you’re still uncomfortable with. If you don’t recognize a medication, even if it’s not a correct answer, jot it down to review later.

Every night on the final week I attempt to approach a few topics on my list. Google them, use your text, or watch a youtube video. Do whatever it takes.

As you feel like you grasp it, put a checkmark next to it. Come back the next night and see if you truly understand it.

Evaluate your whole list during the last two days before the shelf exam. Focus on the topics that still give you a hard time even after reviewing. This will prevent an anxiety exam during the exam. They likely may not even show up. But you get a large boost of confidence if they do and you know it!


Hope you enjoyed my step-by-step approach on how to study for rotations in medical school. Even if you don’t use all the above strategies and tips, it’s important to develop a plan from the very start.

If you enjoy this post about how to study for rotations in medical school then you may also enjoy the post below.

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If there is something specific you’d like me to address in a future blog post, comment below or email me at [email protected]

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How To Study For Clinical Rotation

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Until next time my friends …

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