How to Study for and Pass the 2016 ABIM board exam
We’re less than 2 months away from the ABIM Internal Medicine certification exam. With many of you wrapping up your residencies, this is a perfect time to review the best tips for success on the ABIM certification (or even the maintenance of certification) exam. Of course, there is no one path to success; there are however certainly ways to increase your likelihood of passing. Regardless of whether you are preparing for board certification or trying to achieve maintenance of certification (MOC), the best tried and true overall method is to “study early and study often.” Let’s get started with possible strategies and tactics (in no particular order) for passing the ABIM board exam:
1. Know the fundamentals of the internal medicine board exam This may seem obvious but a lot of people simply don’t review this prior to starting their exam preparation and instead rely on their ABIM study source of choice to provide the information.
- Review the ABIM exam blueprint and understand the topics covered on the exam
- Cardiovascular disease comprises more of the exam than any other medical content category at 14%. But don’t take that to mean that the boards want to screen to see who has the knowledge to be a cardiologist. You won’t be tested on interpreting challenging echocardiograms and coronary angiograms. It’s just that the cardiovascular system is central to so much of the human body and thus the work related to internal medicine.
- Endocrinology, Gastroenterology, Infectious Diseases, and Pulmonary each account for 9% of the questions. So, including cardiology and these four topics, you have 50% of the exam’s material. The other topics are absolutely essential too. Just make sure you budget your time appropriately. If Obstetrics/Gynecology or Allergy—at 2% each—is a subject with which you struggle, it’s certainly not the end of the world.
- Over 75 percent are based on patient presentations – most take place in an outpatient or emergency department; others are primarily in inpatient settings such as the intensive care unit or a nursing home.
- While it’s not a big part of the exam, be prepared for and expect to interpret some pictorial information such as electrocardiograms, radiographs, and photomicrographs (e.g., blood films, Gram stains, urine sediments). Since the exam is computerized, videos could potentially be in the question.
2. Use the in-training exam as a starting gauge If you are a resident, the Internal Medicine in-training exam is a good starting point to see where you stand. It serves as a valuable pre-test. Its utility is why residency programs invest time and resources (giving residents time out of their rotations) to administer this annual exercise. We, at Knowmedge, recognize this. Thus, we’ve allowed you to enter the learning objectives you missed on last fall’s ITE into a converter that provides you a set of recommended questions. That way, you don’t repeat those mistakes on the actual exam, when it counts.
3. Get a study guide to prepare for the ABIM exam It’s important to have a good study guide that is tailored for the exam. Some of the more popular and effective guides we’ve come across are the MedStudy Internal Medicine Board Review books, Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine Board Review and the Johns Hopkins Internal Medicine Review.
4. Join a study group Study groups, if utilized properly, are particularly effective because they allow you to learn from your colleagues and other exam takers and maintain a schedule. Oftentimes, people will form study groups with their colleagues (ideally limited to 3-4 people) at their residency program. Tactics to use in ABIM study groups may include:
- Focus on a new internal medicine category by week. For example, focus one week on Cardiology and the next on Pulmonary. The exam can be broken into a dozen or so categories (see the ABIM exam blueprint).
- Test each other with internal medicine questions you have written yourself. We are firm believers in the philosophy that the best way to learn is to teach. If you help others learn, your knowledge of medical concepts will be greatly strengthened.
5. Get a question bank that fits your personal needs What is the value of an Internal Medicine question bank? This is a discussion near and dear to our heart, of course.
Question banks have become a popular tool because they bring together a lot of material in a question format and help emulate a test taking environment. There are a lot of question banks to choose from – so what should you look for in an ABIM qbank?
- High quality ABIM-style questions in a format similar to the exam: The exam is mostly filled with clinical vignettes and has straightforward questions as well. At a minimum, your ABIM exam question bank should have both of these types of questions. Quantity is important – but the quality of the questions and explanations is much more important.
- Detailed explanations that review why the incorrect choices were wrong: A question bank that does not provide you detailed explanations is probably not worth the money and time spent. As you review questions, you will inevitably get some wrong – your choice of ABIM question bank should detail why your choice is incorrect and the reasoning behind the correct choice.
- Ability to track your personal performance: Your choice of ABIM qbank should be able to tell you your performance overall and by category. Most – not all – question banks provide you a dashboard broken down by category. The Knowmedge question bank has gone an additional step to break the categories into subcategories as seen on the ABIM exam blueprint. This allows you to review your strengths and weaknesses at a granular level. Knowing you are weak at cardiovascular disease is great – knowing you are weak at arrhythmia questions is more valuable.
- Add-ons – Notes, Lab values, Highlighting: Depending on how you study, these may be valuable features.
- No question bank – not MKSAP, not Knowmedge, not any – knows what will be on the actual ABIM exam. Based on the ABIM Blueprint, you can make assumptions on what are the most high-yield areas to study. The point of a question bank is not to give you the exact questions that will be on the exam – it is to hopefully teach you concepts you may see on the exam and how to reason through what you don’t know immediately.
- High-quality ABIM exam review questions can be found in many places – question banks are not the only place. There are study guides, books, and even free sources. So don’t simply base your decision on question bank on the actual questions. In addition to the quality of the questions, what truly differentiates one ABIM exam question bank from another is whether it will truly help you build a broad base of knowledge and help you retain information for the exam. If you are not comfortable reading a bunch of text – it won’t matter how great the questions are. If you are not an audio-visual learner, the Knowmedge videos won’t do anything for you (For clarity, the Knowmedge qbank contains text and audio-visual explanations for this exact reason). If you are an “old-fashioned” learner that prefers printouts – USMLEWorld is definitely not for you – those who have used them are well aware their software will block you from taking print screens or copying of their content.
In short… don’t follow the herd – each one of us learns differently and you need to pick the best method for you.
6. Consider whether a review course is right for you There are pros and cons to taking a review course for your ABIM exam prep. The pros are that it gives you a serious dose of review in a short period of time. It gets you focused if you weren’t already focused and some courses are absolutely excellent – we know some internists are ardent supporters of some of the professors that teach these courses. The three most popular independent courses we are aware of are:
- Awesome Review by Dr. Habeeb Rahman – The best known and most popular independent course. Dr. Rahman has a very unique style of teaching and accompanies his lectures with his own animations. During this six day course, Dr. Rahman provides students his own set of notes and questions to practice.
- iMedicineReview by Dr. Shahid Babar – This three day course (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) course comes with a set of 1,500 review questions.
- Unique Course by Dr. Satish Dhalla – A six day course (Monday – Friday) taught by one of the Top Internists in the Nation as selected by U.S. News
7. Review our suggested ABIM test taking strategies The ABIM exam questions are not intended to trick you – they are intended to challenge your knowledge and ability to bring together your understanding of many different concepts and topics. Below are some of the tactics you can use as you are practicing questions and/or taking the actual ABIM exam:
- For clinical vignettes, read the question (last line) first and then go back and read the scenario. This way you’ll know what to look for as you are reading the scenario.
- Try to formulate some general differentials even before seeing the answer choices.
- Pay attention for keywords that can clue you in on an etiology or physical exam.
- K ey demographic information – Geography, ethnicity, gender, age, occupation—can help you narrow your differential.
- If you are challenged by a longer clinical vignette, note the key items using the highlighter icon and develop your own scenario – this may trigger an answer.
- Most internists we’ve spoken with say time is generally not an issue – but be aware that it is a timed exam and that you have approximately two minutes per question.
8. Understand and be prepared for ABIM test day
- Be prepared and confident. No matter how you have chosen to study, on test day – confidence is critical!
- Get a good night’s rest – last minute cramming and staying up late is only going to stress you out more.
- Get there early – don’t risk getting caught in traffic. It’s much better to be a little early than be aggravated in traffic. In fact, drive to the testing site at least once prior to your actual test day so you don’t get lost.
- Take an extra layer of clothing. The last thing you want to do is be uncomfortable and cold because someone decided to turn on the air conditioner too high.
- Test day is long! Be mentally prepared for it. From registration to the optional survey at the end, the day will be 8-10 hours long (depending on whether you are certifying for the first time or taking the maintenance of certification exam).
- Keep some power snacks, a light lunch, and hydration with you to take during break time. There likely won’t be a refrigerator so bring your own ice pack if needed.
- Review the ABIM exam day schedule so you know exactly what to expect.