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6 Simple Computer Tricks for Your Quest of USMLE Step 1 270+. I Can’t Live Without #4!

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by Alec Palmerton, MD in Experienced

Every medical student has had occasional (or near-constant) thoughts that there aren’t nearly enough hours in the day.  Class lectures, lab courses, discussion groups, assignments, clinic work, research projects, applications…it all adds up.  For those of you using the YOUSMLE method, you already know the number of hours you can free up in your day simply by studying more efficiently.  Here, I outline 6 tips to streamline your studying, and free up time for life.  Even if you don’t use Anki (yet) for your studying, many of these tips can help you save hours each day!

“Affiliate Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means we will earn a commission if you purchase one of these products. This commission comes at no additional cost to you, and doesn’t impact whether an item is included on this list or not.” 

1. Switch between programs using “Command + Tab” (Mac) or “Alt + Tab” (PC) and between windows using “Command + `” (Mac)

Anyone using a computer has more than one program on at a time.  Switching between them You may be switching between Preview to read the syllabus, Chrome to cross-reference it with Wikipedia, and a Mail client to check the latest Facebook friend request.  To switch between programs, most people will click on the program they want with their mouse, wasting valuable time.  Instead, to switch between programs in OSX, simply hold “Command ⌘” then hit “Tab” (For PC: “Alt,” then “Tab”).  There should be a horizontal list of open programs that displays, like below.

USMLE Step 1 Pharmacology Tips

On a Mac, you can also switch between open windows of a program (e.g. switch between a “First Aid” copy and “Goljan Pathology” so you can quickly reference between each other) by holding “Command ⌘” and then ` (the key just below the “esc” key at the top left of your keyboard). It may seem like a small thing, but when you figure that you switch between programs on your computer dozens if not hundreds of times in a day, and you could save 5 seconds on average per time, then multiply that over the months/years of your studying, this one tip could save you a lot of hassle and tons of hours.  For further tips, visit this great tutorial here by Alex Spencer.

2. Text expander program

USMLE Step 1 Text Expander Ever wish you could add arrows like (↑ → ↓) to make your notes/cards cleaner?  Find yourself typing the same thing over and over…and physically having to type it over and over?  Wish you could actually type in “β” as easily as it would be to type “B”?  Look no further! “Text expander” apps recognize set phrases that you determine, and replace them with a desired symbol.  For example, you can see here when I type “,bet” it replaces it with “β.”  I have done the same thing for arrow keys, other Greek symbols, and commonly typed phrases.  Now, instead of having to write, “Metoprolol is a beta blocker that is specific for the beta-1 receptor, which leads to a decrease in contractility, HR, and AV nodal conduction,” I can write “Metoprolol is a β-blockers, specific for β1 → contractility, HR, AV nodal conduction ↓.”  Look much easier to read?  Imagine how much faster/more efficient your reviews would be if all of your notes were this easy to read! I use aText (affiliate link), which I highly recommend (for Mac), and which is demonstrated above.  If you Google, “text expander program” on Google, you can find others.

3. Cards on the go: AnkiMobile, AnkiWeb

There are constantly small chunks of time throughout the day.  To me, using this downtime effectively often meant the difference between coming home to hours of studying, or simply being able to relax. Using either the AnkiMobile app for your iPhone or Ankiweb if you have internet access, we can review flashcards during the day, be it waiting for a friend, walking to class, or in-between lectures.  Another tip: if you’re going to the gym for a cardio work-out, consider bringing your Anki cards with you!  Whenever I go to the gym, I can both get in my workout, as well as finish all my cards! My goal on clerkships was to be done with all of my flashcards by the time I came home, so I could relax.  At least 80% of the time, I was able to find enough time to do so.

4. Internet-limiting programs

The internet is a fantastic resource, but sometimes often it can do more harm than good to our focus on our studies.  How many times have we went on Wikipedia to reference something, then think to check our e-mail, which tells us about our Facebook friend request, which leads us on to…well, you get the idea.  Sadly, it took me many unproductive hours to recognize what research has already demonstrated: distractions are frequent, and require a substantial amount of time (25 minutes on average) to return to the original task. One of the best things I did (other than learn how to use Anki effectively to crush Step 1) was to use internet-blocking/limiting applications.  My two favorite are Freedom (for Mac, PC), and Self-Control (for Mac). Self-control allows for you to block specific websites.  So let’s say I wanted to block Facebook, but wanted to still be able to access USMLE World, I could add to my “Blacklist” (blocked sites), which would still allow me to access everything else.  The benefit is that it is targeted, but the downside to this is that it is easier to get around, since if I forget to block a site, or stumble upon another of the many distractions on the internet, I’m out of luck USMLE Step 1 Self Control Freedom is a program that blocks ALL internet for a set amount of time.  The upside of this is that no matter how hard I try, unless I restart my computer, I will not have internet access.  The downside is…I don’t have internet, even for the things that are useful. USMLE Step 1 Freedom Typically, I would use Freedom when I was reviewing my cards – this way I could get 1.5-2 hours of uninterrupted study time; without the internet, my pace of review dramatically increased.  And for times when I needed the internet, I would block the biggest offenders with Self-Control.

5. Keyboard Copy (Command ⌘ / Ctrl + c) + Paste (Command ⌘ / Ctrl + v)

I include this not to be facetious, but because there are lots of us out there who know the basic “copy + paste” commands, but we forget to use them.  Just like with the “Command ⌘ / Alt + Tab” command to switch between windows, just using the simple keyboard shortcuts we have learned in the past (and from this article!) but don’t use regularly can save lots of time.

6. Have electronic copies of First Aid/other resources open during lecture

This is something that I wish I had started doing sooner.  Most medical students I’ve spoken with have expressed frustration with how difficult it is to pick out the “important” details.  “I had no idea they were going to test me on that fact,” is a common post-exam refrain.  What I wish I had known sooner is that many of the facts in First Aid and my other references were the exact things that the lecturers were going to emphasize on their exams, even if it was unclear to me during the lecture. High-yield Step 1 tip: Have an electronic copy of First Aid open during your lectures.  Then, using the “switch between programs/windows” keyboard shortcuts found at the beginning of this article, quickly search for the appropriate section of First Aid.  For example, if the lecture were discussing Chronic Granulomatous Disease (CGD), I would quickly search for the appropriate section in First Aid, and quickly read the short blurb on CGD.  This way, I can focus on the most Step 1-relevant facts, as well as give me some insight into what the lecturers may choose to test me on.  Obviously, there is NO guarantee that the lecturers will test only the information you could find in First Aid, but  it is a much more effective starting point than trying to memorize every word in the lecture.

There you have it!

I hope you found these tips helpful!  However, I have learned so much from the YOUSMLE community, and I’m sure there are many more useful tips out there.  Please leave us your favorite tip below in the comment sections!

  1. Bharat Rawlley says:

    Hey Alec! Great tips! Is there any keyboard short cut to make text bold in Anki?


  2. Phuong says:

    How do you use aText’s symbols in conjunction with Anki? Did you copy and paste it?

    1. Yousmle says:

      Hi Phuong,

      Thank you so much for your message.  aText, as just a text expander, basically allows you to copy in whatever text you would like into Anki.  Anki will recognize all of the basic symbols like alpha, beta, delta, as well as arrows, etc. but instead of having to copy them from somewhere else, you can set aText up to insert those terms for you.  Does this make sense?


  3. lee says:

    man I want your Brain

    1. Alec Palmerton, MD says:

      Haha, thanks, Lee. But honestly, it's not my brain. I honestly believe that ANYONE can accomplish this – it's just a matter of doing one's best to understand everything from the pathogenesis to the presentation, then making sure that you never forget it by making good cards and then doing spaced repetition.

  4. John Kim says:

    Just got aText. Finally the tactics are complete.

    1. Alec Palmerton, MD says:

      Fantastic!! I wish I had gotten it BEFORE I had taken Step 1…

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Want FREE Cardiology Flashcards?

Cardiology is key for impressive USMLE scores. Master cardiology from a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist who scored USMLE 270 with these 130+ high-yield flash cards. You’ll be begging for cardio questions - even if vitals make you queasy.