Alexander Navone, shown prepping for his boards in 2016, offers words of encouragement and advice to the DO Class of 2019.
The Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States (COMLEX-USA or the Boards) is a series of three osteopathic medical licensing examinations administered by the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners (NBOME), similar to the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).
COMLEX-USA is the most common pathway by which osteopathic physicians apply for medical licensure and is accepted in all 50 states. Osteopathic medical students may also choose to take the USMLE. Most students take the first of these series of exams following the second year of medical school.
Third-year GA-PCOM DO student and 2018 class chair Alexander Navone successfully passed his boards last year. He provides wise words of encouragement in this letter to students preparing for their exams.
Dear Class of 2019,
I’m writing this letter to you with the hope that some of you will be able to glean a few crucial survival tactics for your first “boards season.” If you are reading this and hoping that I will give you the secrets to crushing your boards, you can stop now. Within this letter there are no studying secrets, scheduling suggestions, or practice test tips. This is because everyone learns differently and there is no point in giving blanket academic/scheduling advice. Rather, this letter’s intent is to provide you with some suggestions on how to maintain your happiness and, most importantly, your sanity over the next couple of months.
A Simple Reminder: You Are the Reason That You Made It This Far
No one else took your exams for you—not your family, not your friends, and not your classmates. Again, let me emphasize that you are the reason you made it this far! Take pride in knowing you’ve made it through some of the most rigorous academia this world has to offer.
Think back upon which exams you did the best on over the last two years. Now think about how you studied for those exams. Did you read the material? Did you watch medical videos? Did you use Tegrity over and over? Did you group study? Did you do a bunch of practice questions? Just because you heard Sally from the class above “crushed boards,” and all she did was watch board videos, does not mean you should watch videos (especially if that’s not your learning style).
If you learn best by reading, then read! If you learn best by watching videos, then watch videos, etc.! There is no secret resource/schedule for doing well on boards. Plain and simple, it requires long hours of hard work. You have put in that hard work up to this point.
Now is the time to take the studying tactics that work best for you and apply it to the material covered on step one. (Read this to yourself as a reminder when you are feeling down over the next few months—you got this!)
Taboo Topics: Practice Test Scores, Study Schedules and Resources
Let me lead off by saying that for those of you with no self-awareness, nobody cares about your study tactics, what you got on your question set over lunch, or what you think is going to be high yield for the COMLEX or USMLE. So if someone doesn’t directly ask you about how your practice sets are going, then please, please, please don’t go out of your way to throw what/how you’re doing in another classmate’s face.
It is important to realize that you all learn differently, thus your studying schedules and how you score will be very different too. I’m not saying to keep these topics off-limits in conversations with classmates because I’m trying to be secretive, but rather to protect your psyches from each other.
We are all inherently competitive—that’s how we got here. We had to outcompete thousands of other medical school hopefuls that GA-PCOM vetted during our application cycle. During boards season, this competitive mindset will drive you insane if you let it. Just because someone is scoring better than you doesn’t mean you are “dumb” or that you are going to fail boards.
Another student might have covered more material, or maybe you haven’t made it through a section that was heavily tested on that specific practice exam. By not discussing scores with others, you will save yourself a lot of mental anguish. Boards are not a competition between you and your classmates. How your friend Bob does on his COMLEX has no direct effect on your score. Bob will not be in the testing center with you clicking on answer choices for you. The only factor that has any effect on your board score is you.
The only scores that matter leading up to step one are your own. (I lied—I am going to give one tip: (GA-PCOM Department of Bio-Medical Sciences chair) Dr. (Bonnie) Buxton should be able to tell you what range a passing score is projected to fall in, and you should make sure your practice scores are above that.)
Secondly, by not comparing schedules you will save yourself the stress of thinking you are “falling behind.” We all have different strengths and weaknesses, just because our friend Bob can make it through the cardiac section in three days doesn’t mean it will be the same for you. By not discussing schedules you can go at your pace and make sure you learn the material well.
Spoiler Alert: you will discover that some sections will go faster than others and that some sections will drag on and take forever to cover. Only you can create a schedule that will be appropriate for you. Again, look back on what made you successful over the last two years and emulate that. You should know by now how many passes of the material it takes for you to get a 70 percent, 80 percent or 90 percent on an exam. So if it takes you two passes of the material to get a 70 percent, then it’s important for you to know that you’ll need to make two passes on your board materials to make a 70 percent on step one. Blindly following Bob or Sally’s schedule does not make sense because what works for them doesn’t necessarily work for you!
Drowning: Not Only Can This Happen in the Water, But It Also Can Happen With Resources
Pick two or three resources and know them very well. The majority of students who fail use too many resources. These individuals spread themselves too thin over too many resources and only knew the material at a surface level. You need to find resources that you like, and that you feel comfortable with. Just because Bob and Sally swear by one resource does not mean that it’s the right one for you. I hate to harp on it, but again think back to what made you successful the last two years and stick to it. If you learn best by watching videos and doing practice questions, you better believe that the best resources for you for step one are board videos and Qbanks.
Resources are personal preference! Don’t let any of your classmates psyche you out with their resource choices. Just because someone has a different resource than you does not mean you need to stop what you are doing and switch. Know what works well for you and do it! If you don’t know what works best for you, we have a great learning strategist in (Academic Development Coordinator) Louise (Jones)—go talk with her.
Mental and Physical Health: How to Maintain Yourself
By keeping those taboo topics out of your daily conversations, you are well on your way to keeping your mind healthy and happy. Furthermore, you should be aware of “burnout” and have an action plan of how to overcome it and become reinvigorated if it does occur. Signs of burnout that you should look out for in yourself and others include: suddenly being emotionally labile, problems sitting still and studying, and practice scores dropping precipitously. If you find yourself checking Facebook every five minutes or getting up and wandering the hallowed halls of GA-PCOM, it means you need a break!
Pro tip: take a lap around the parking lot. Another example of burnout is if you have been scoring in the high 70s and all of a sudden you are scoring 50s and 60s on your practice sets. This means you need a break!
Just because it’s board season doesn’t mean you need to stop doing the things that make you happy; rather it’s imperative that you keep doing them! Keep working out, playing sports, playing music, going for hikes, going to concerts or whatever it is that makes you happy. Rest days are vital for your mental health and your ability to keep studying at such a high level. Do not let the idea of boards psyche you out and prevent you from taking time away from the books. Some people can study 10 straight days without a fun activity or a rest day and others can only go for seven days. Either way, it is up to you to be self-aware and make sure you continue to do the things that make you happy during your board studying. You can coordinate rest days with friends and all go out together! Now more than ever you will need your friends and family to pick you up and motivate you if you have a rough study day. (My personal favorite “pick-me-up” was watching comedy specials on Youtube/Netflix… laughter is the best medicine!)
I implore you to keep an eye on your classmates because the stress of boards will effect even the most laid-back of people. If you see someone struggling, talk to them and make sure they are taking mental health rest days.
I know this was a long read and that some of you may even be thinking about how you just lost five minutes of board studying, but I promise you by following these steps and making your mental health a priority, you will survive board season.
It’s going to be hard.
But you are an amazing individual for making it this far! As the great FDR once said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Do not make step one into more than it has to be. It’s an exam and you have taken hundreds of those in your lifetime already. You have all the tools you need to succeed. Now get out there and crush it!
Established in 2005, PCOM Georgia is a private, not-for-profit, accredited institute of higher education dedicated to the healthcare professions. The Suwanee, Georgia, campus is affiliated with Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine which has a storied history as a premier osteopathic medical school. PCOM Georgia offers the doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, the doctor of pharmacy degree, the doctor of physical therapy degree, as well as graduate degrees in biomedical sciences and physician assistant studies. Emphasizing "a whole person approach to care," PCOM Georgia focuses on educational excellence, interprofessional education and service to the wider community. The campus is also home to the Georgia Osteopathic Care Center, an osteopathic manipulative medicine clinic, which is open to the public by appointment. For more information, visit pcom.edu or call 678-225-7500.
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