How to Study for Shelf Exams: Sticking to a Schedule Can Help You Conquer M3

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • To help you prepare for shelf exams, we interviewed a med student who made a study plan for M3 and frequently contributes advice on Reddit to help his peers.

    In a popular Reddit post, /u/DukeofBaggery explains that M3 can feel disorienting because you no longer have the reliable structure of the UFAP study strategy. At Cram Fighter, we are always working to collect to the best advice on med school study planning. We asked this med student and Reddit user to tell us more about how M3s can structure their time as they prepare for shelf exams.

    How does studying for shelf exams differ from Step 1?

    I think the biggest biggest difference between studying for shelf exams and studying for Step 1 is that studying for a test just isn’t your primary responsibility anymore. Your job as an M3 is primarily to learn on the floors, and you have to fit your studying for your shelf exams around that. Qbanks and flashcards can fit into small pockets of time during the day, but any resource that resembles something like a content-outline, lecture series, or general overview probably doesn’t. You have to get comfortable with that.

    What textbooks, qbanks, and video series did you find to be the most helpful for each shelf exam?

    As I hinted above, videos and content-based textbooks aren’t very active modes of learning. They aren’t conducive to retention, and they can’t easily be worked into the little breaks during a day on the wards. The books I used were mostly all question-based or case-based. I used these resources to supplement UWorld and my Step 2 Anki deck (I used Bros). Here’s my list of resources:

    • OB/Gyn: Case Files
    • Peds: Pre-Test
    • Family Medicine: Ambulatory chapter of Step-Up (only because there’s nothing better)
    • Internal Medicine: Just UWorld
    • Neurology: Pre-test
    • Psych: Nothing
    • Surgery: Nothing, supplement with AMBOSS

    Did your prep vary a lot from shelf to shelf?

    Not really. I always used UWorld and flashcards, and then picked an additional resource. I would schedule everything out within the first week or so of the clerkship and mostly stick to that schedule.

    Did you have a shelf exam study schedule that you followed for shelf prep? If so, how did you work studying for your shelf exams into your rotation schedule?

    Absolutely. A study schedule helps in so many ways. I tended to make mine just before a clerkship started or within the first couple days (when I got a handle on where I’d be and what my days would look like). When you make a study schedule, you know exactly how much you need to do each night in order to finish all the resources before the shelf. It’s way better to find an hour each day when you’re off the floors (in the morning or in the evening) to get through everything at pace, rather than try to make up for not studying on your odd days off. Those days off should be for doing a bit of studying, but also resting.

    Can you walk us through an example of your study schedule for a shelf exam?

    If you look at the image below, you see I have 3 assignments each day. Two of them are a given: UWorld and flashcards. Doing 15Qs/day and 20 new flashcards (plus all reviews) really isn’t too much. You can find little chunks of time throughout the day on the floors to do them on your phone. Then the third assignment is the supplemental/text-based resource. For OB/Gyn, I used Case Files. Doing 3 cases/day is maybe 30 to 45 additional minutes of concentration off the floors. On OB/Gyn, I just woke up a half-hour earlier each day and did them. When I finish a daily assignment, I change the cell color to green.

    Planning like this is akin to pacing yourself for a long-distance run. You know exactly when you’re going to finish your resources, you know exactly how much energy you need to put towards these things each day, and you don’t burn yourself out by studying for hours on your off-days. As you can see, I built rest-days into this schedule. I would just do all my flashcard reviews on those days. You can also use them to catch up if you fall behind. This might seem like an overly-type-A approach, and that’s because it is. But it’s worth it for the stress it relieves.

    shelf exam study schedule

    How did you manage reorganizing your schedule when things didn’t go as planned?

    Those rest-days are important because you can use them for catch-up. It’s really important to build them in up-front.

    I built rest-days into this schedule. I would just do all my flashcard reviews on those days. You can also use them to catch up if you fall behind. This might seem like an overly-type-A approach, and that’s because it is. But it’s worth it for the stress it relieves.

    How do you recommend students prepare their own shelf exam study schedules in light of busy rotations and other commitments?

    I think any format is fine. The important elements here are focusing on a core set of study resources that involve active study methods (e.g. Qs and cases, no dense content outlines) and breaking those into daily goals that you can consistently complete.

    The coronavirus situation has changed a lot for current third-years scheduled to start rotations this spring. My advice to the students who are off the wards now and have free time to themselves is to not change all that much. If you have a shelf exam coming up, stick to your daily study goals, and use your newfound free time to get back into a hobby, talk to your friends and family on the phone, or work on a research project if you have one brewing.

    How should people use practice tests to prepare for shelf exams?

    I found them helpful in the days leading up to a shelf just to get in the mindset of taking a test and to simulate it. I’m an anxious test-taker, so having that run-up to the test really helps me deal with that. Do I think they’re absolutely necessary? Eh, not really.

    How can students stay motivated throughout M3?

    I think it’s important for students to remember that they really aren’t assessed on their knowledge base and that it’s really okay to not know that much on the floors. Residents care about seeing a student who helps the team and is interested. Even if you aren’t going into a specialty, look for something interesting in that specialty that pertains to what you are interested in. Going into crit care? Lots of interesting physiology to learn in OB/Gyn. Going into rads? Lots of anatomy to learn in gen surg. You get the idea.

    Remember: This is the only time you’re ever going to get to see how every different part of the hospital functions together. You’ll never know another hospital as well as the one you rotate through as a third-year.

    Is there anything you’d change about how you prepared for your shelf exams, looking back?

    Not really! I didn’t drive myself crazy studying, and I did well. Third year was one of the busiest but happiest years of my life. If you plan well for it and manage the stress of shelf exams, it really opens you up to focus more on the experiences you’re having that make the year so special.

    We hope this advice helps you build your own shelf exam study schedule! To create a personalized study plan, go to and sign up for our 7-day free trial.

    About the Author

    Erica Forrette is the former Director of Marketing at Cram Fighter.