How to Study for the OB/GYN Shelf Exam…And Crush It
Obstetrics and Gynecology is an exciting, dynamic, and captivating field–especially when you’re hitting the wards for the first time. However, positioning yourself to score a top mark on the OB/GYN shelf exam is challenging because much of the content is specific and unique to this clerkship alone.
When I was going through third year, I found that a systematic and multi-resource approach allowed me to cover all the content for the shelf exam. I studied throughout the entire block, which was six weeks at my medical school.
To begin, I recommend starting with First Aid for the OB/GYN Clerkship—order it before you begin your rotation. This is a fantastic resource that provides a clear, broad overview of high-yield concepts. It is important to parallel your studying to the clinical context you are in (e.g., reviewing normal labor while on L&D vs abnormal uterine bleeding while in clinic) to ingrain the concepts into your memory bank and complement your experiences with your attendings and residents. Read the chapters that correspond to the clinical context you will be in before your first day that week. For example, on the Sunday before I started rotating on L&D, I read Chapter 5, titled “Intrapartum.” I gained an understanding of the three stages of labor, assessment of the fetus, cardinal movements, etc. while also learning information I needed to gather to present a thorough history and physical to my team—this part is key.
OB/GYN is a specialized field, and medical students tend to lose focus when gathering a history. Reading content that highlights the specific information that OB/GYNs care most about—such as GBS status, leakage of fluid, symptoms of preeclampsia—will help you think more critically about each patient’s management. In turn, this will get you more prepared for the exam. This book is a quick read if you try to get through one chapter a week to supplement your clinical experience.
Every day when I came home, I assessed my knowledge using question banks. I recommend UWorld, UWise, and Rosh Review. These question banks accurately represent the content on the OB/GYN shelf exam and the difficulty of the questions. The more questions you do, the better, because assessing your comprehension is best done by poking holes in your knowledge. I aimed to do 20–30 questions per day from one question bank. While some people prefer to take blocks of questions that cover one topic, I preferred to randomize the topics to stay fresh with other content and not forget details. Smaller, daily intervals of question sets helps you retain information and also prepares you each day for your clinical rotations.
When I reviewed the answers and explanations to my question set for the day, I sat down and made flashcards as I read through. Rather than make paper flashcards, I used Anki, which is free. Our brains learn best from quick, brief assessments of knowledge. The easiest way to make meaningful cards on Anki is using the Cloze feature. Try to keep learning points brief and focused; avoid copying and pasting a whole explanation directly from your question bank onto a card. The Anki deck tracks which flashcards you’ve gotten incorrect so it ultimately trims down to become a high-yield resource.
I made flashcards for every question bank question, even those that I answered correctly. Why? Every answer choice on a multiple-choice test is placed there because the test writers believe it is likely to be confused with the right answer. It is important for us as medical students and doctors to be able to reason through why each incorrect answer is wrong, even if you are certain that the answer you have chosen is right.
Get into the habit of doing your flashcards on the metro on the way to school, while you’re eating your breakfast, or while you’re waiting to microwave your food. It is an easy way to squeeze in short bursts of learning into your already busy schedule. This convenience of being able to access these flashcards on your phone is another reason why I recommend using a program rather than paper flashcards. For me, making distilled flashcards on question bank content that I previously got incorrect and doing them every day (rather than retaking the question bank questions) saved me time. But if you prefer focusing on the question bank, do what works for you!
Some excellent audio resources for delving into detailed content are CREOGs over Coffee, OBGYN-101 Gray Haired Notes, and The Ob/Gyn Podcast. Even in residency, I enjoy listening to these podcasts when I’m walking to and from the supermarket or commuting to work. During third year of medical school, I discovered that I learn best through listening, and these podcasts have been a great resource.
As I got closer to the shelf, Online MedEd was helpful for reviewing major concepts. Their study guides are fantastic overviews and their charts/tables make it easy for visual learners like me to understand algorithms and differentials. To make the most of Online MedEd, I downloaded a study guide (e.g., Virilization), marked it up and highlighted the main points, then watched the video. Hearing Dr. Williams explain the concepts helped seal in the details. These are also effective if you are asked to present specific topics while on the wards. Complement it with some of the latest literature from the Green Journal and you will look like a superstar.
Lastly, I encourage every student to take the practice NBME exams if they can. I got into the habit of taking at least three for each clerkship, and for OB/GYN I took all four that were available (one every four days in the last two weeks before my shelf). Content-wise, they were spot on for the shelf, as they are worded more concisely than question bank questions tend to be. But your question bank may also include mock OB/GYN shelf exams for extra practice.
Try to use these simply as learning tools rather than as predictive models for how you will score. With everything in medicine, it is easy to just focus on the numbers, but if you take every opportunity to learn as much as you can, you inevitably will end up doing well while feeling less stressed. Again, I made sure to create flashcards to really iron out the concepts I was missing in the last two weeks before my exam.
Before the exam
On the day before my shelf, I tried to not overdo it on the studying. My ritual before every shelf exam was about 2 hours of reviewing flashcards, missed NBME questions, and high-yield charts/tables I saved from question banks. Besides that, the best way to prepare is by having a clear and well-rested mind. I love to work out the evening before a test and go to bed around 9 PM to feel energized. Then on the morning of the exam, I wake up early enough to have a protein-rich breakfast (scrambled eggs was my go-to) and a cup of hot coffee.
With self-discipline and a multi-resource approach, you will be sure to master the shelf exam for a specialty as multifaceted as OB/GYN.
The Crush Your Shelf Exam series shares the experiences, insights, and perspectives of medical students preparing for their shelf exams. The goal of the series is to provide you with actionable information and key takeaways to help you prepare for and excel on your shelf exam.
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