My PLE Journey 1 of 3: Three big tips for review

In this blog post:

  1. Combine effective learning strategies
  2. Maximize your productivity setup
  3. Study with peers —virtually or in real life

First of all: take a deep breath. Remember that you’ve been through five years of gruelling med school. You’ve taken countless exams, survived numerous OSCEs, and finished at least one revalida or two. You’re here. You’ve made it this far.

Then get to work.

(Whip out your study planner, make a spreadsheet tracker, or just ready your pens and post-its.)

How to Review for the PLE

Disclaimer: This isn’t an end-all or be-all guide to making it through the PLE. It’s more of a collection of ways you can boost your review.

Tip #1: Combine effective learning strategies

Reading and taking notes are great for understanding material, but they are less than ideal tools for long-term retention and test-taking finesse. Combining and staggering multiple learning strategies can significantly increase the yield of your review.

Here are some of the tricks that worked for me.

Effective learning strategies, as discussed in First Aid for the USMLE, 31st ed. (2021). Here’s how I applied some of them.

Review Strategy #1: Anki Flashcards

What is it? Anki is a program which makes remembering things easy. They have a free website and a mobile app.

As a flashcard app, Anki leverages the power of active recall and spaced learning. Instead of “going in one ear and out the other”, repeated retrieval forces your brain to make stronger connections between difficult concepts and easier must-knows.

Read my previous post featuring Anki: ASMPH MD/MBA: What I’ve been up to

Why is it helpful? I’ve gone on a very long tangent about the Anki app before. I love flashcard apps because they do most of the prep work for me: the algorithm figures out how often a card should turn up, there are pre-made decks for boards review, the interface is intuitive.

It’s also a great way to make digestible ‘notes’ from denser review material. A single page of a boards review handout can contain up to 50 nuggets of information. At the end of each day, you’ll be synthesizing and making notes; it’s much more efficient to synthesize with a setup that allows you to practice test later.

And compared to physical flashcards, using an app is definitely the “smarter not harder” way to study.

Where to start? This is a link to a database of Anki decks made by Medical Study Zone. Though most of them are for designed for the USMLE, there’s a lot of overlap with the PLE.

Certain review centers and study groups also have decks made based on local review materials. Hit me up if you’re curious!

And if you’re still in the first couple of years in medical school, I highly encourage using Anki or similar flashcard apps to prepare for comprehensive exams. Learning how to make questions or prompts can make you a more savvy better test-taker. You also realize which pieces of information are actually important and testable.

The boards-prep decks also contain up to tens of thousands of cards, so it’s never too early to start. (Though I don’t recommend board-level cards until late second year or third year, when pathology is better complemented by patient encounters.)

P.S. A quick Google tells me that some competitors to check out are RemNote and SuperMemo. Enjoy!

Retrieval is king. If you’re not into flashcards, at least spend a few hours per day working on some review questions. I personally enjoyed going through BRS Biochemistry and Snell Review. For the rest, I put my trust in some not-so-legit practice exams (I also liked digitally filling out the little boxes).

Review Strategy #2: Pomodoro Technique

What is it? Pomodoro Technique is a time management system that allows people to stay focused while finding time to refresh.

After planning your goals or tasks per session, work for a couple of pomodoros before taking a long break. A Pomodoro can be 25 minutes of work with 5 minutes of rest, or 45-50 minutes of work with 10-15 minutes of rest.

My task tracker (ignore the pretentious schedule). This is essentially a snapshot of my progress one month before the board exams. I did accomplish some things over the last four weeks of review, but definitely not enough to mark everything as green and done.

Why is it helpful? Let’s face it: it’s impossible to be focused 100% of the time. The body has a natural attention span limit. And even if you have the mental discipline of a monk, rest can also help the mind solidify connections and store information in our memory banks.

The Pomodoro technique gives structure during study sessions. It also gives you some time off to look forward to.

Where to start? You can go old-school with actual physical Pomodoro timers for the aesthetic, or just set up a timer and some music on your default phone apps.

I am personally a big fan of “study with me” type of YouTube videos which come with built-in Pomodoro timers. Here are two of my favorite and most-visited channels:

There’s a wide variety of formats, music, and video styles on the Internet. Choosing which one suits you best is an adventure all on its own.

Review Strategy #3: Mnemonics

What is it? Mnemonics are memory aid tools that aid information retention and retrieval, especially when dealing with very specific facts or large amounts of information. They can come in the form of an acronym, an image or funny phrase, or even a rhyme.

A mnemonic that most people know is “SMART”, which describes the characteristics of a good goal. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.

Why is it helpful? Not all mnemonics are created equal, but really good ones can stick with you for a long time. I’ve been using the same mnemonics for carpal bones (Some Lovers Try Positions That They Can’t Handle), retroperitoneal organs (SADPUCKER) and points of cardiac auscultation (Always Pray To Mary) since first year medical school.

Actively making your own memory aids is a challenge, but definitely a fun one! It’s practically an art. Since self-made mnemonics can sometimes have more personal significance, they might be able to stay longer in your ‘memory palace’ (if you have one).

Or they may fail like this one. 😅

Short-term memory aids. Here’s an example of some mnemonics I made which will definitely not be stored in my long-term memory. They’re low quality, but they did the job and made me feel more confident about knowing a little bit of something about AEDs.

I’ve also found mnemonics to be helpful in incorporating concepts across different subjects.

Where to start? Mnemonics are honestly everywhere. Review books such as First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 even highlight famous, almost-universal mnemonics made for key concepts.

When you come across a difficult and dense concept, such as “which cancers have psamomma bodies?” or “what are the adverse effects of lithium?”, note them down. Then it’s a simple matter of hitting Google with the keywords + “mnemonic”.

I personally made some mnemonics for the 2021 PLE. Some are a miss, but some, like the Bishop Score guide, can be a hit. I have a Twitter moment here.

You can also check out my old visual memory aid for baby developmental milestones from last year.

At the end of the day, all that matters is finding a learning strategy that works for you. It might never be a perfect fit, but getting to tick off some of your to-do list will be well worth the effort.

Tip #2: Maximize your productivity setup

Studying for the board exams isn’t just about what you do during your review time, it’s also about everything around you —your desk, the music, your books, the apps, and more.

Is updating your desk setup an example of “productive procrastination”? Maybe. Or maybe it’s self-care.

Music is a big part of studying. Some rare species can study in complete silence, but I personally prefer background music. Sometimes, I’m pretty content with the default music or white noise in YouTube “study with me” videos.

Other times, I prefer to blast some KPop to keep me hyped. The lack of discernible English words help; it’s fun, but not too distracting.

There are, amazingly, so many free study playlists on Spotify. This is one of the more focus-oriented playlists that I listened to over the last few days of boards review season.

I’m also a big fan of listening to dance albums. I used to dance (yes, dance) to music while answering Anki flashcards. Keeping active while reviewing is a good way to lessen lower back pain and to keep blood circulating.

(It’s definitely something that I try not to do in public, though).

Thank you to my president, Ms. Nadine Lustre, for the vibes.

At some point, I even dedicated at least 5-10 minutes of my study session just for figuring out my playlist. Naturally I shared some of the results on Twitter.

Aside from music, the ambiance of a study location can make a huge difference. What makes a study location great?

As all college (and maybe SHS) students already know, a good study location requires:

  • Easily-accessible wall sockets to power your devices
  • Free wi-fi connection
  • Well-lit seats with adequate indoor cooling
  • Spacious location with only low levels of noise pollution
  • Good value for money

Sometimes it’s Starbucks (racking up points increases value for money) or CBTL, sometimes it’s co-working spaces like KMC Solutions. Pre-pandemic, the ideal study spot would have been dedicated rooms and hallway seats inside our campus. Or better yet, in the newly renovated ASMPH library.

Frequent guests. If boards review season happened during the holidays instead, I bet I’d have the seasonal Starbucks planner by now.

Even within my own home, I have a preference. I much prefer studying in our downstairs common table over my bedroom study. I get way less tempted to sleep when I’m in the sala.

Finally, a productivity setup isn’t complete without …a relaxation setup? It’s important to surround yourself with ways to relax and take care of yourself.

My suggestions include:

  • Having a regular, dedicated coffee time (or tea or whatever snack floats your boat). It helps add structure to your life while keeping you energized.
  • Leaving your exercise equipment nearby. I kept my yoga mat unrolled in my room, so that I won’t forget to squeeze in at least 15 to 30 minutes of stretches and core exercises per day. Ideally.
  • Investing in skincare and aromatherapy. A nighttime routine where you can actively unwind for the day can do wonders for your disposition. It’s a little bit like telling yourself, “you’ve done enough, you’re enough”.
  • Sleeping on time. I can’t actually preach to the choir, since my sleeping habits are dismal. But one week before boards, I did make the active effort to adjust my sleeping hours until I could safely and freshly wake up at 4AM on day 1 of #PLE2021.

Build an environment that makes you want to study. As future physicians, we’re all committed to a lifetime of continuous learning. But the way we review doesn’t have to be boring or repetitive.

Tip #3: Study with peers

Going through hell isn’t as depressing when you’re all going through hell together. Whether it’s via virtual chats or Discord meetings (however that works) or via face-to-face study sessions, there are a lot of benefits to studying with a group.

First of all, no man is an island. It’s impossible to hit all of the must-knows in the PLE all by yourself. Even if you hit ALL the books cover-to-cover, you won’t know which ones are “most testable”. That’s something you only find out by word-of-mouth from previous boardtakers and fellow students.

Your classmate will likely know one or three things that you’ve never heard of before. And you can also share something that will be worth their time to know as well. Win-win.

Second, explaining concepts aid in retention. The “teachers” in our batch are some of our best performing students, likely because they’re able to better comprehend and retain the material. I am personally not inclined to teaching my peers (because I’m shy like that), but I’ve definitely been a student.

Reviewing each other and sharing memory aids are both really good ways to study. It feels like guilt-free socializing. Tada, you’re human again.

Third, mutual encouragement comes from empathic connections. It’s easy to bring yourself down all by your lonesome, but much harder to lift yourself up. Being able to rant to friends going through the same uncertainties and struggles is cathartic. Even when it’s only a “fake it ‘til you make it” kind of encouragement, it still feels comforting.

One of the best examples of this is the entire community of #PLE2021 on Twitter. People were coming together to share study tips, words of encouragement, and even thinly-veiled rants online. I’ve “met” some amazing doctors from different schools solely online, and I’m excited to follow their careers in the future. Bayanihan!

Starbucks study date. Back when F2F duties were still a thing, you never know who you’d end up studying with at any of the cafes or milk tea shops in the Ortigas area. [Sometimes I’d be lazy enough to just go to the Reserve branch beside my condo. But sometimes I’d make the effort to travel to Capitol Commons.]
Thank you to Faye and David. Aside from being 10/10 duty partners, they’re also troves of funny reactions to the latest review material or gossip. And so on. I think I’m sane largely thanks to our group chat.

Finally, studying with a group allows for benchmarking. Benchmarking is a commonly used tool in management. It’s the process of comparing key metrics to understand where you need to improve or change.

I’ve never been to a review center before (except for a 2-day weekend crash course for the NMAT). But enrolling* in Topnotch was a huge eye-opener. I honestly do not think I could have gotten anywhere without the structure, review materials, and encouragement provided by the Topnotch support system.

*We didn’t actually enroll. All ASMPH students are automatically enrolled to this review center. We have a special class and agreements and everything. As far as I understand it, many other medical graduates end up in “virtual classes” or groups composed of graduates from different schools.

This is an example of how my grades were, one month before the boards. Because of how the PLE is graded (based on MPL), a score of 60-80 is already good in my opinion. Anything higher than that is just bonus.

Honestly, the things I learned during January to May (preseason) were forgotten by season 1 (June to August). And by the last leg (September to October), I was still learning new things. I’m not really sure whether I accumulated knowledge, or just passing familiarity with a wide breadth of topics.

Topnotch ranks the people who take the diagnostic exams and provide color-coded “percentile rank”. I had a high percentile during the very first diagnostic exam back in May (likely because I had time to review during my last few internship rotations). But my rank dipped noticeably by the baseline exams during June.

To me, this meant that studying hard on your own isn’t enough. If other people (ie your cohort during the exam), study smarter or better, then there’s still definite room for improvement for you. After all, given the MPL system, it’s really a matter of how much you know relative to the people sitting next to you during the PLE.

Then again, there’s absolutely NO WAY to predict what will come out in the board exams, so doing well in one particular practice quiz is not an accurate reflection of how you’ll perform during the PLE itself. It’s only a reflection of your effort.

Keep your friends close to hype each other up, to motivate collective progress, and to ward off the mounting stress. It’s one for all, all for one.

Good luck with your preparations for the PLE! I hope that this post helps in some way or another. (Even if you’re just reading this as a distraction instead of studying).

Until next time! ❤️

You can find my other #PLE2021 Series posts here.

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