Medical School USMLE Step 1

Guide to Medical School Resources – Preclinical Edition

Which medical school resources should you use in your preclinical years? And how do you use them best? Read on to find out.

One of the most important lessons you’ll learn after starting medical school is how to study efficiently. The methods that worked for you in college may not work anymore due to the sheer volume of knowledge that you’re now expected to learn. This is why outside resources during your preclinical years are so valuable and so important! 

Outside resources function in a number of ways. Firstly, outside resources are concise, covering only the essential points of what you need to know for your exams. Secondly, they provide a skeleton or framework for organizing information. And last but certainly not least, they can save you lots of time – so you’ll have time to call your mom, work out, and live your life! It can be daunting to know which resources are available and how to use them, so in this post, I’ll describe some of the most commonly used outside resources, and how to use them during your preclinical years of medical school!

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The Resources at a Glance

Resource  How to use it How not to use it Pro tip 
First Aid Big picture overviews, tables/charts, review First-pass learning Buy the most recent edition so you stay updated! 
Boards and Beyond First-pass learning Dedicated period (time-constrained situations)
Pathoma Learning pathology  Learning physiology  Spiral bind your book at Staples to lay it flat
Pixorize Learning biochemistry/basic sciences, tying facts to names High-level conceptual overviews Catch videos free for a limited time by following them on Facebook
SketchyMedical Learning microbiology, tying facts to names High-level conceptual overviews
USMLE-Rx Doing practice questions  Flashcards are offered, but not commonly used  Sign up for their email list and wait for a discount! 
UWorld Learning right before Step 1 (dedicated period) Early preclinical learning, rushing for timing
Anki Flashcards, memorizing facts  Big picture overviews Download pre-made decks to save time

First Aid (FA): for big picture frameworks and condensed facts

First Aid provides an organizational framework for everything you need to know for the Step 1.

First Aid is the medical student’s bible. It’s a hefty book that contains every single fact that you’ll need to know. One of my professors told us the best way to guarantee doing well on Step 1 is to memorize this book from cover to cover. Get yourself the newest edition so it will still be up-to-date when you take Step in a few years.  

How to use it: The condensed format of FA lends itself to quizzing yourself and reviewing material. FA is also organized very well, with lots of charts and tables, so I like using it to see where small details fit into the bigger picture.   

How not to use it: FA can be hard to learn from directly because it doesn’t have many explanations – it’s better used as a follow-up resource after you’ve properly learned all the material 

Pro tip: Annotate First Aid with notes as you learn, so that when Step comes around, you have all of your information in one place.

Boards and Beyond (BnB): for comprehensive learning 

Boards and Beyond provides lengthy, comprehensive reviews of medical subjects.

Boards and Beyond was created by Dr. Ryan, a cardiologist at the University of Connecticut, to be a complete online resource for all topics on Step 1. An online subscription gives you access to videos and quizzes that you can take after each video.

How to use it: BnB teaches everything – from physiology to pathology. Use it to learn material along with your coursework. Sometimes when I struggle with a certain topic from class, watching one BnB video will clear up my confusion in just a few minutes.  

How not to use it: When I find myself tight on time and looking for short review, I’ll skip the long pathology videos of BnB and use Pathoma instead.  BnB is lengthy and thorough, which makes it great for a first pass but not for a quick review.

Pathoma: for pathology 

Pathoma is a concise resource covering

Pathoma was created by Dr. Sattar, a pathology professor at UChicago, to teach pathology to medical students.  Online videos and an accompanying book are organized into organ systems and go over every important pathology that you’ll need to know for your classes and for Step 1. 

How to use it: For all things pathology! I like to watch the videos as I take notes in the book. 

How not to use it: To learn physiology. Which makes sense, it’s called Pathoma for a reason! 

Pro tip: If you have your copy of Pathoma spiral bound (~8 dollars at Staples), you can lay it flat when you take notes

Pixorize: for  biochemistry and basic sciences

Pixorize helps you master biochemistry and basic sciences tested on the Step 1.

How do you remember the symptoms of thiamine deficiency?  By picturing a man working out some seriously thin thighs, or thigh-amines, at the gym. Word associations and picture mnemonics are all the rage among medical students these days, and they really do work. Pixorize builds visual mnemonics to help you easily memorize all the high-yield factoids and little details in biochemistry, genetics, and the basic sciences.

How to use it: Watch their step-by-step videos on on topics ranging from vitamins to glycogen storage diseases alongside your classes reviewing the basic sciences. Alternatively, use them in your USMLE dedicated study period as a quick review of biochemistry and the basic sciences tested on the Step 1! 

How not to use it: Visual mnemonics are excellent for creating associations and tying facts to diseases, but they cannot fully substitute higher-level understanding.  Be sure to learn the high-level concepts (what does autosomal dominant inheritance even mean?) before using Pixorize pegging which details go with what diseases. 

Pro tip: Pixorize announces new videos via Facebook, which are often free-to-view for a limited period. Like them on Facebook to catch these free releases!

SketchyMedical: for bacteria and other bugs

SketchyMedical provides visual mnemonics for subjects like microbiology.

SketchyMedical also uses visual associations in their videos to help people remember facts, but they are better used to learn microbiology and pharmacology. 

How to use it: SketchyMicro focuses on microbiology and SketchyPharm focuses on drugs. After you watch the videos, I strongly recommend doing flashcards on the videos afterwards to solidify the material.

How not to use it: Sketchy has a very specific purpose – you can’t really use it to learn pathology or in-depth physiology.

USMLE-Rx: for questions, early

USMLE-Rx’s Qmax question bank is good for people who like to practice with questions early in their preclinical years.

Made by the same creators of First Aid, USMLE-Rx offers materials for both Step 1 and Step 2. In your preclinical years, USMLE-Rx is most useful for doing Step-style questions that test the comprehensiveness of your knowledge. 

How to use it: As you study each organ system, do the accompanying questions to quiz yourself thoroughly on the material. It’s especially useful to study for exams.

How not to use it: Although they do offer flashcards, Anki (see below) is the more common resource for flashcards. 

Pro tip: USMLE-Rx will often offer 20% discounts, so sign up for their email or follow them on Facebook to save yourself some money! 

UWorld: for questions, later

UWorld’s question bank is the gold standard for doing questions during your Step 1 dedicated period.

UWorld is the most widely-used question bank, with questions that are most similar to the real Step 1 exam. They focus on questions that force you to puzzle through multiple layers of reasoning to get to the right answer.  The answer explanations are excellent, and are key for assessment-style learning of material.

How to use it: Get UWorld as you approach Step 1 to study for the exam. Start slowly by using the UWorld QBank in untimed tutorial mode and spend a long time learning from the answer explanations. After you gain content mastery, you may switch to timed assessments to work on your pacing.

How not to use it: Because these questions are so similar to the actual USMLE, you should wait to do them until you’ve mastered enough material to answer them correctly/are much closer to Step. Don’t start using UWorld with timed assessments – the whole point is to use the QBank to learn – UWorld self-assessments and NBME practice exams are better for getting a feel for the timing on the real exam.

Anki: for flashcards 

Anki is spaced repetition flashcard software that helps with long-term retention.

Anki is a flashcard program based on spaced repetition, which shows you a fact only when you are about to forget it in order to maximize retention. The newer and “younger” the flashcard, the more frequently you’ll be tested on it. As you continue to answer the flashcard correctly, it will “age” and you will see it less often.  

How to use it: Test yourself on small details and facts that you need to pound into your brain. You can either make your own flashcards, or use pre-made decks and select the cards you want to use from there (personally, I think using pre-made decks saves you a lot of time)

How not to use it: Sometimes doing individual cards can make it hard to see the big picture. If you find yourself struggling and getting cards wrong over and over again, try taking a step back and looking at BnB, FA, or Pathoma to get a sense of larger-order organization, and then return to the small details.


Out of all of these, which is the best resource? The answer is the one that works for you! Try experimenting with these and discover whether you prefer listening, reading, looking at images, or doing flashcards. Most likely, your ideal studying situation will be a unique combination of these. What works for someone else may not work for you – so try these out and find what makes the best use of your time! We hope this gave you an overview of some common outside resources.

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