The key to successful exam preparation lies not in what you study, but in what you choose to ignore.
Ever approach a faculty member in medical school with a thick book in your hand and ask them what are the most important things to know in the book? Often the response from the faculty is that you must know, “Everything!” No only is that answer not very helpful, it is not true.
If you try to learn everything—every little detail, every little fact, you will not succeed, there is simply too much material to master in too short an amount of time. The fact is if you try to learn everything, you will not succeed. Instead, you will end up with gaps in your knowledge. The problem is that these gaps will be essentially random. A better system is to use the guidance of your faculty and your own native intelligence to decide what is most important and what is not and to concentrate your efforts accordingly. This way the gaps in your knowledge are of your own choosing, based on your assessment of what is more or less important.
Divide all material that you study into three categories: 1) What you must know, 2) What you ought to know, and 3) What it would be nice if you knew. Then, orient your study accordingly. Spend the most time on the “must”, then move on to the “ought”, and finally time on the “nice to know” if you have the time. Your goal is not to learn all the trees in the forest, but to come to an understanding of how the forest fits together.
If you have difficulty deciding what is more or less essential, try this: Give yourself 15 to 20 minutes to study a section of content. At the end of that time, but you notes away, stand up and give a short lecture on what you just read. You will find that in order to give a lecture, you will have to make some decisions. What is essential and you must mention and what, although important, is less essential.
If you have trouble making these decisions on your own, that is what faculty are for. In live lecture courses or on the internet, faculty will guide you through the peaks and valleys of the material, helping you to separate the essential from the merely interesting. Remember, no one cares what you know if it is not on the test. Doing well is not about knowing everything, but rest on knowing the right things.
Steven R. Daugherty, Ph.D.