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How to Handle Difficult Medical Board Exam Questions That You’re Unsure About

The exams you take during medical school are designed to test your knowledge, critical thinking skills, and ability to apply medical concepts in various clinical scenarios. During these exams, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter difficult questions, and it’s important to have some tricks up your sleeve for how to deal with them. To maximize your performance on exam day, in this post we’ll explore seven strategies that can help you handle hard questions. Put them to good use, and you’ll be sure to improve your performance.

By implementing these methods, you’ll be able to approach difficult questions with a bit more confidence and improve your chances of success. All of these strategies will help increase your score, but they are not a substitute for routine studying and hard work. You’ll need to put the time in if you really want to do well—there is just no getting around that! 

That said, the seven strategies are as follows: 

7 Tips for Handling Difficult Medical Board Exam Questions

1. Stay Calm.

It will happen. You’ll have to face tough exam questions, some of which you won’t know how to answer. When this occurs, it’s crucial to remain calm and composed. Take a deep breath and remind yourself of the preparation you have undertaken. Panicking or getting overwhelmed will only hinder your ability to think clearly and make rational decisions. Rushing through the question can make you miss key points that the question is asking. Treat the difficult question as any other question and answer it to the best of your abilities. Approaching it with a calm mindset will help you avoid being stressed out for the rest of the exam. Don’t lose your nerves over a difficult question that stumps you momentarily, or if you do, recover quickly so you can answer future questions with a quiet mind. 

2. Understand the Question.

Staying calm will help you to carefully read and analyze the question. Doing so will establish a clear understanding of what you are being asked. Pay attention to the specific details, keywords, and any clues provided from abnormal lab values to findings on an x-ray. Oftentimes, even the smallest detail such as age, gender, or occupation of the patient in the clinical vignette can clue you in on the correct answer. Sometimes, rephrasing the question in your own words can help you grasp its essence. A simple phrase such as “all of the following except” can drastically change the meaning of the question. 

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3. Eliminate Obviously Incorrect Choices.

It’s a numbers game. The more incorrect choices you eliminate, the better the odds are of you choosing the correct answer. The more “obvious” incorrect choices are often the outliers of the answer choices, including drugs or treatments that you’ve never heard of, or labs/studies that yield little value to the patient. Look for clues within the question or answer options that help you rule out incorrect choices, and use a systematic approach. For example, you can start by eliminating obviously incorrect options, narrowing down your choices, and then analyzing the remaining possibilities more critically before ultimately selecting your answer. 

4. Utilize the Other Questions and Answers.

If you’re still unsure after eliminating some options, utilize information from other questions and answer choices. Look for clues or keywords in the questions that you’ve completed, as they might provide hints toward the correct answer for your current question. You can also use related concepts, or other information you have studied, to make an educated guess. Remember, even partial knowledge can guide you in the right direction!

5. Avoid Spending Excessive Time on a Question. 

Time management is crucial during the exam. If you’re stuck on a difficult question and still unsure after employing elimination and educated guessing techniques, avoid spending too much time on it.

Difficult questions can often leave you pondering for minutes and inadequate time management can lead to unfinished sections or rushed answers. Don’t fall into this trap. Mark the question and come back to it at the end of the section if you need to. However, do not waste more time and brain power thinking about it than you have to. That time can be better used to correctly answer an easier question down the road, which will award you the exact same amount of points as the difficult question you’re stuck on. 

Furthermore, there is no penalty for guessing so don’t leave any questions unanswered. Develop effective time management strategies, such as allocating specific time limits for each question or section, and pacing yourself during practice exams. This will help you better manage your time. 

6. Practice with Sample Questions and Mock Exams.

Regularly practicing with sample questions and mock exams is essential. It helps you become familiar with the various exam formats, exposes you to different question styles, and enhances your test-taking skills.

By practicing under simulated exam conditions, you can refine your approach to handling difficult questions, implement strategies to help you answer them correctly, and improve your overall performance.

7. Practice How You Play.

When utilizing a Qbank or a practice exam, make sure to practice the right way so that you’re ready to tackle difficult questions on exam day. As you encounter hard questions, don’t get discouraged if you can’t answer them. View them instead as a chance to learn and improve your performance. Attempt to answer hard questions to the best of your knowledge and then carefully review your mistakes. Identify any knowledge gaps and focus on addressing them.

Furthermore, make sure to practice in a timed environment to mimic exam conditions. You can split it up: use the untimed mode with your Qbank, but use the timed mode for your practice exams. Doing so will help you develop the ability to manage your time effectively during the actual exam. Additionally, it will teach you to stay calm and focused under pressure. 

Further Reading

Handling difficult medical board exam questions requires a combination of strategies and a calm mindset. By staying composed, understanding the question, eliminating obviously incorrect options, utilizing educated guessing techniques, and managing your time effectively, you can tackle these challenging questions with confidence. 

Looking for more (free) helpful content from Blueprint tutors to help with your medical school exams? Here are some additional articles for you:

About the Author

Mike is a driven tutor and supportive advisor. He received his MD from Baylor College of Medicine and then stayed for residency. He has recently taken a faculty position at Baylor because of his love for teaching. Mike’s philosophy is to elevate his students to their full potential with excellent exam scores, and successful interviews at top-tier programs. He holds the belief that you learn best from those close to you in training. Dr. Ren is passionate about his role as a mentor and has taught for much of his life – as an SAT tutor in high school, then as an MCAT instructor for the Princeton Review. At Baylor, he has held review courses for the FM shelf and board exams as Chief Resident.   For years, Dr. Ren has worked closely with the office of student affairs and has experience as an admissions advisor. He has mentored numerous students entering medical and residency and keeps in touch with many of them today as they embark on their road to aspiring physicians. His supportiveness and approachability put his students at ease and provide a safe learning environment where questions and conversation flow. For exam prep, Mike will help you develop critical reasoning skills and as an advisor he will hone your interview skills with insider knowledge to commonly asked admissions questions.