How to Prepare for and Pass the Emergency Medicine Qualifying Exam
An ABEM exam study guide
How I Prepared for the Emergency Medicine Qualifying Exam
I hesitated to even write this because I was not an all-star in medical school or residency: I was not scoring the highest on exams. However, having passed my written boards, I decided if my story helps one person, it is worth it.
I will list the specifics in detail of how I prepared to take my emergency medicine written boards, but first, some more generalizable principles:
- The old adage that this is a marathon not a sprint is an essential framework for preparing for any large exam. Know that there will be days you do not complete your study plan because you are too tired or too busy or for a dozen other reasons. Planning around this provides groundwork for your success.
- Make your weakness your friend. Whether it is a particular area you never felt comfortable with or a subject matter that has always given you a difficult time, plan to spend extra time with areas that you do not enjoy and in which you are not as strong. Also consider that your weakness may be in test taking. This was much harder for me to accept. I have been taking exams for years – exams to get into medical school, to get into residency, etc. How can I be a bad test taker? It turns out I was not a strong test taker. Discovering this allowed me to shift from a knowledge gap learning plan (studying your weak areas and gaining the needed knowledge to answer the question correctly) to a test-taking learning plan. There should be resources available to you to determine if you have knowledge gaps or test taking gaps. For example, I found that I was able to narrow down to two correct choices but always picked the wrong answer, or I would answer a correct answer but not the most correct or immediate action needed because I was reading the question incorrectly and answering a different question than the one truly asked. Most of the time test taking issues are subtle. It often takes someone else going through your logic and answer choices with you to uncover the root of the problem.
- Give yourself grace. There will be days you do not study, and that is ok. Because of #1 above, you already planned for this. There will be days you score horribly on a practice exam, and that is ok. Every question you get wrong before the exam, is one more question you have worked through before seeing a variation of it on the test day. There will be days you are unmotivated, and that is ok too. Again because of #1, you have planned for this.
- Build your team. I had amazing attendings who worked with me, motivated me, and taught me. Without their help, I would not have passed. Yes, I put in the work. Yes, I answered the questions, but the days I was not motivated; when I was nervous; when I was down—my team was there for me. They helped me focus on my weaker areas, provided motivation when I needed it, and celebrated my success. Your team might include family, friends, co-residents; whoever is going to be there to support you through this marathon.
My study plan for the Emergency Medicine Qualifying Exam (written boards):
- I met with my team to discover my biggest weaknesses. I reviewed my in-house training exams and practice questions I completed. I determined I had test taking issues and decided the volume of questions and seeing every way a question could be worded was going to be beneficial to my success.
- I started studying consistently three months before my exam date. My goal was 100 questions per day with one day off per week. I purchased a quality emergency medicine review course with 5,000 questions. This schedule allowed for approximately 8,000 questions to be completed, so when there were days I was unable to study, I still had ample time to finish the question bank.
- I focused on all the questions I got wrong. I would make tests of only incorrect questions and continued to do this until I did not have any left incorrect.
- I also purchased a video-based exam prep course and went through all the content—the high yield areas (worth a large percentage of the test), I watched several times.
- I relied on my team when I was feeling overwhelmed or undermotivated.
- As the exam got closer, I would systematically go through the incorrect questions and for each one, make a small bullet point to review the correct answer AND why each other choice was incorrect.
- Two days before my exam, I reviewed all the formulas and high yield photos, so they would hopefully be in my short-term memory.
- The day before I did not study and attempted (slightly successfully) to get a good night's sleep.
- On the day of my exam, I drank my coffee, prepped with the “I got this” mentality, and headed to the exam site early.
I felt awful coming out of the exam. I had been prepped by my team that this feeling was normal. I called my team immediately after the exam, and they calmed my fears.
The process worked. I PASSED my exam!
- Renita Goetz, MD
I started studying consistently three months before my exam date. My goal was 100 questions per day with one day off per week. I purchased a quality emergency medicine review course with 5,000 questions. This schedule allowed for approximately 8,000 questions to be completed, so when there were days I was unable to study, I still had ample time to finish the question bank.Renita Goetz, MD
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