June: Boards

I am glad I am writing this journal now, instead of two weeks ago. Distraught, I was studying ten to twelve hours, hating every minute of it… It is the time of year when summer thunderstorms disrupt wonderfully blue skies and second-year medical students across the country spend between three and six weeks cooped up in the dark corners of the medical library next to a stack of books three feet high, studying for USMLE I, a.k.a. THE BOARDS.

Medical students everywhere despise the boards. Second-year students must pass them in order to work in the hospitals with patients. The test also partly determines where a student will match for their residency once they've graduated from medical school. Therefore, a lot is riding on a randomly selected 350-question, 8-hour ordeal one day in mid-June. The test covers the entire first two years' curriculum. Basically, anything is fair game. From personality disorders to viral hepatitis, anti-arrhythmic drugs to the renin-angiotensin system. The test is a grueling evaluation of a student's knowledge and endurance.

Since medical students don't have formal classes while they study for the boards, we all develop our own study routines. Mark, my study partner, and I usually begin around 8AM at his house where we brew coffee and listen to music. Mark and I stay away from the library because the sight of everyone else studying and the feeling that they're studying more than you was all too much for us to bear. Not to mention the inescapable feeling that I've forgotten the majority of the glycolytic pathway and everyone else in the library can recite it from memory. Besides, studying at the library for thirty days straight is just plain depressing. He and I ask each other questions, frantically look up answers, scan board review books, and take cumulative tests on physiology and pathology. Our daily ritual includes a daily dose of Dr. Phil at 10:00 A.M., which we justified as behavioral science review. You'd be surprised what you can learn in an hour on network television! We'd study right through the show, breaking early in the afternoon for 50 questions on Q-bank- an online question service with 2,000 USMLE-simulated questions. We'd eat PB&J for lunch or break to study individually, run a couple of errands, and maybe exercise a little in the afternoon. This was of course followed by more study, 50 more Q-bank questions, and an evening phone call to coordinate the next day's study plans.

I feel as if I'm running the marathon of exams-the hardest questions one man can endure physically and emotionally. The month of study is filled with lonely days and frustrating missed practice questions. Without patient contact or even class time to commiserate, medical students have little real encouragement besides the mutual empathy of each other and physicians who have tried very hard to forget their first USMLE experience. It's no secret that everyone feels like they failed after they're done. Statistics say most medical students will pass, yet I can't help but feel that maybe, just maybe, I'll be the one who doesn't. So, I guess this isn't the most glamorous portion of medical school, but it's one of the hurdles that all physicians recall with a snicker and a knowing grin. Best of all by the time you've read this I'll be finished!

--Andrew Jacques ('05)