Fatima Alam

Fatima Alam

As a self-proclaimed An-queen, I have perfected the art of spaced repetition and I’m here to make your Anki journey a little easier than mine was. Zanki, Lightyear, Anking. These might be random words to most people and if they feel random to you, I guarantee it won’t feel so strange by the end of this article. Here are some tips and tricks that I wish I knew before starting my Anki journey.


  • What is Anki?

Anki is a flashcard app that uses spaced repetition to make memorizing all the tedious bits of medical school a little easier. So you and I know that learning each enzyme of the Krebs cycle probably doesn’t determine if you will be a great doctor or not, but unfortunately that’s not what the Step 1 is looking for.


There are many things we have to learn as medical students and although some of them require understanding, discussion and thought; a lot of them are memorizing the facts which is a lot harder than it sounds.


This is where Anki comes in. The algorithm is very advanced and shows your review cards just as soon as you would be forgetting them, making sure you hold on to those bits of information right up until test day.


  • Why is it worth it  

I’m not going to lie – when I first started doing Anki cards everyday, it felt like such a chore. Clicking the space bar for hours felt way less productive than ticking off the videos or questions I had on my to-do list; but about a month into consistent anki-ing I finally saw the results paying off. 


I was answering questions during lectures and tutorials that I didn’t even know I knew; I was getting question bank blocks correct just from remembering the Anki card. It felt like sorcery and sometimes it still does. 


Using spaced repetition to memorize information has been a proven technique for examination success and in recent years, thanks to our good friends Zanki and LightYear, there are specific resources made to improve Step 1 scores. 


The biggest qualm most people have with Anki is how time-consuming it is. And it is! There have been days where my Anki time count has been over three hours, but putting that time in is what led to my success in board examinations, and hopefully yours too! 


  •  Using pre-made decks


Zanki/Anking – this is the main deck I used through my study and I found it to be the most comprehensive. It has a good mix of basic facts and also breaks down concepts into smaller, more digestible pieces of information. The Anking deck is an updated version of Zanki which is edited and checked for errata constantly. Among current M2s, it is the gold standard for Step 1! It covers pharmacology and microbiology too so no additional deck is required. It serves as a one stop shop for all of Step 1 (and some Step 2) needs. The Anking team also upload helpful videos on their YouTube channel on the most effective settings and add ons to use –Anki Youtube


Physeo – our team has been working hard integrating Physeo with the Zanki deck. This will be most helpful for students who prefer the cloze style of Zanki/Anking and use Physeo as their primary study tool. Along with that, we also have a deck that goes with each video which can be used as a memory tool or in custom study mode to test what has just been learned.


Lightyear – this is a popular deck based on the ‘Boards and Beyond’ videos. It has 22.5k cards and so it is definitely another long-term deck that requires time investment. The best thing about this deck is the tagging. The deck creator used hierarchical tags which makes it easy to navigate and especially good for Anki beginners.


Lolnotacop – a solely microbiology deck based off Sketchy Micro. This deck covers just about everything you could be tested on in the microbiology realm. It includes screenshots from Sketchy and First Aid which makes it particularly convenient if you are anything like me and hate flipping through huge textbooks. It is also organized very well into sub decks, so if there is one area of microbiology you struggle with you can choose that sub deck to work on.


These are my favorite premade decks but of course it is not feasible to do all of them. My tip would be to pick one and dive in to the deep end. If after a few weeks, you feel that it is not working for you, it may be helpful to look into another deck.  


  • Keeping up with reviews


This is the most important rule to making Anki work. You have to do your reviews every single day! For the spaced repetition technique to be effective, the ‘due’ cards need to be reviewed on time. This is the main challenge in Anki – to have the motivation to keep going and going and going. 


I have found the best way to balance Anki with other school requirements is limiting the number of new cards I do every day. Capping between 80-100 new cards allows me to complete my reviews, do question banks and still get some me-time at the end of the day. 


Another helpful trick I use is completing my reviews first thing in the morning. Once they are out of the way, it feels like much less of a chore than if I am completing them half asleep before bedtime. 



  •  Personalizing cards


As you have probably figured out yourself, no two medical students are the same. There are different strokes for different folks and that is why I have found that personalizing your Anki cards is so important!


I edit my cards to add information from my lectures, question banks and other resources. Because anki is my primary tool for learning, I find it helpful to have all my cards fully annotated with all the information I need.


I use different font colours to remember where information is from e.g. using blue for UWorld and adding the relevant question ID to the card.


Personalizing the premade cards allows you to really shape the Anki experience and make it right for you.


  • Staying motivated


Day to day, doing reviews feels monotonous and dull. But if you choose to go steady with Anki, you have to realise that this relationship really is for the long term. You won’t see benefits within a week or even a month, but the benefits do come eventually!


So whenever you feel like breaking up with Anki, think about your long term goal – Step 1 success.



  • What if I can’t do cards everyday?


As I mentioned, the one rule of Anki is ‘no days off’ which means for spaced repetition to work effectively, every single day of reviews should be done.  However, sometimes life just happens and there really is no way to complete reviews that day. For days like those, I have discovered an add on that can accommodate for those unforeseen circumstances: postpone cards.


Be warned – this add-on comes with a major black box warning! If used once, it is very tempting to use this again and again, lessening the benefits of spaced repetition. To even have this add-on downloaded requires a lot of self discipline. It must be used sparingly!


One example of when I used this was when I was attending my sister’s wedding and I knew in 24 hours, I would get no spare time to complete reviews. That was something relevant to me, but everyone has their own circumstances, and that is why having the discipline of completing reviews is vital.



  •  Making Anki work with lectures


Along with preparing for Step 1, Anki can also be used for class lectures. Most of what you will cover during medical school is essential for Step 1, but if your professors are like mine, I’m sure you are also taught a lot of information that isn’t tested on Step 1 – but is essential for passing in-house exams.


What I found helpful for this is adding additional cards and details in the ‘extra’ section of the premade decks. For example, I used the Zanki deck during my ophthalmology rotation and added extra cards to the deck based on my class material. Once my end of rotation test was completed, I suspended those cards.  


Additionally, if you are taught material that you think might be relevant to Step 1, adding information to existing cards can also be beneficial. Just make sure to add a tag or color code the text so you can see exactly where it came from.



These were some of my favorite tips for using Anki. The algorithm can be complicated, but dedication and a little patience goes a long way. Anki was my secret weapon for doing well on Step 1 and I hope with these tips it can be yours too. Good luck!


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