How to succeed at exams for medics

Focus on whats important

when you've finished this page you will be able to...

Are you a bit hazy on the signs of heart disease, but able to give a detailed account of the progression of rabies in a human victim? If you answered 'yes' to this question, you don't have a sensible revision strategy (or you're an infectious diseases expert). Heart disease is the biggest killer in the UK - the last death in the UK from indigenous rabies was in 1902. Which disease do you think you're more likely to be asked about?


Medicine is a vast subject. You'll be expected to process, understand and recall a mind-boggling amount of information, occasionally to the point of overload. In the run up to exams, it's easy to feel saturated with knowledge - you'll feel like you cannot cram another fact into your head.

MCQ format exams allow examiners to ask an awful lot of questions on an awful lot of subjects. But, you're more likely to be asked about some subjects than others: common diseases, syndromes or signs are much more likely to occur than rare ones. You need to consider what knowledge you will need to successfully practice medicine, and this is likely to be knowledge of the day-to-day things you're most likely to be confronted with.

Doctors don't need an encyclopaedic knowledge of every aspect of medicine, but they do need a good knowledge of the basics. A doctor who can describe the early symptoms of rabies infection in humans, but could not spot the signs of heart disease will not be much use to most of his or her patients.

Activity: get your priorities right - 30 minutes

1. For each subject or topic, think about the core knowledge you'll need.

2. When you begin to revise, organise your information into one of these categories:

  • must know
  • nice to know
  • probably won't be asked about this, but will learn it if there's time

3. As you progress through your revision, always start with the 'must know' knowledge, then move on to cover the things that you have listed as 'nice to know'. If time allows, and you're confident that you know the important things, have a look at the 'probably don't need to know' stuff at the end. It can be useful to have some knowledge of the more unusual diseases and conditions up your sleeve.

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