Not sure where to start with your shelf exam prep? We've got you! Shelf exams are notoriously challenging and preparing for them is not easy. Especially because you usually have to study for them while also trying to ace the hardest rotations in medical school. It's therefore essential to have the right tools and strategies at your disposal if you want to do well. That’s why we recommend investing in professional shelf exam prep. In this blog, we cover the different ways in which professional shelf exam prep can significantly improve your chances of acing this exam and give you some tips on how to find the right one for you. We also share a few strategies that you can use to study for shelf exams.

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Article Contents
6 min read

How important are Shelf exams? How difficult are shelf exams? Shelf exam prep tip #1: Start early Shelf exam prep tip #2: Use better techniques Shelf exam prep tip #3: Seek help from the experts How to find the right shelf exam prep service Conclusion FAQs

How important are shelf exams?

Shelf exams are subject-based, standardized exams that evaluate medical students' mastery and application of the medical knowledge they have gained through medical school and clinical rotations. These exams are often referred to as clinical clerkship exams because they are usually taken during the third year of medical school after students have completed their clerkships or clinical rotations. Not every medical has to take shelf exams because they are not required for licensure in the United States.

That said, to advance in medical school, you need to pass your clerkships, and many medical schools use the results of your shelf exam in their assessment. Each medical school gets to decide how much weight the exam carries. For example, at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, shelf exams can account for up to 50% of students’ grades for clinical rotations. In other words, depending on how your medical school chooses to grade your clerkship, your performance on the shelf exams can either be a big deal, or it can be a huge deal. Either way, acing this exam can go a long way towards helping you advance on your journey to becoming a doctor.

How difficult are shelf exams?

There is no sugar-coating it, shelf exams are complex and challenging. This is primarily because they cover a broad range of medical information. They are designed to evaluate your understanding and application of medical knowledge in the seven core rotations:

The exams are broken up by foundational subjects, meaning that students may be tested on only one or two subjects at a time. For example, students might take an exam on internal medicine after their internal medicine rotation this week and then an exam on psychiatry or obstetrics and gynecology the following week at the end of that rotation. This means that students have to prepare for medical school rotations and shelf exams simultaneously, on top of trying to cope with the demanding nature of the third year of medical school.

The format of shelf exams also contributes to its difficulty. The exam is licensed by National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) and the questions follow a format that is very similar to that of the USMLE. Shelf exams actually get their name from the fact that the exam is comprised of questions that were initially meant for the USMLE Step 1, Step 2 CK, and Step 3. For each shelf exam for a particular core rotation, students are expected to answer 110 multiple choice questions about various hypothetical cases, situations, and scenarios in 165 minutes. These questions will require students to apply their learned knowledge so far and critical thinking skills. 

Preparing for a shelf exam? Check out our tips:

Shelf exam prep tip #1: Start early 

Shelf exam prep is not something that you can rush through. Not only do you need to cover a lot of ground, but if you want to do well, and we're assuming you do, you need to take the time to learn, understand and retain the material you'll be tested on. Cramming for an exam of this magnitude - or any exam- is simply not a good idea. It actually increases your chances of forgetting important information. Instead of cramming close to the exam date or during your rotations, we recommend the long game.

Your studying for Shelf exams should be a cumulative process. Start by building the proper study habits from the very beginning of your time in medical school. The best way to study in medical school is to review your notes every day. Doing so regularly will help you understand the information clearly and it will solidify the concepts in your long-term memory, thus making it easier for your brain to retrieve them when you need them. This is part of active recall.

As you progress, towards the end of your second year or the beginning of your third, we recommend implementing shelf exam prep time in your medical school study schedule. This might feel early, but considering the wide range of information you will be tested on, it's not. Starting early will give you a chance to practice some of that active recall that we just mentioned. It also gives you enough time to begin identifying the concepts that are particularly challenging to you and seek help if need be. 

Getting ready for residency applications? Check out some tips below:

Shelf exam prep tip #2: Use better techniques 

In order for the information, you are reviewing to actually be useful, you need two things: good notes and the right study techniques. Note-taking in itself can be a form of studying when done correctly. We recommend using the Cornell note-taking system. This method requires dividing the pages in your notebook into 3 sections- one small column on the left for “cues”, one large column on the right for your notes, and one section on the bottom of the page for a summary. 

Reviewing your notes and reading your textbook is great, but it is not the best use of your time. We recommend using a variety of high yield study techniques in medical school if you want to get the most of the study resources that you have. 

For most people, when your main method of study is to read a textbook, there will be some occasions when you find that you've been looking at the book for a few minutes and not really reading or learning anything. There are several active study methods that you can use to not only get the most out of your studying but also to keep things interesting. 

For example, you can join a study group. Even if you prefer studying alone, occasionally reviewing material with other medical students will allow you to gain different perspectives. Furthermore, during group study sessions, you will get a chance to explain concepts to others in your own words, allowing you to actively recall concepts and increase your understanding of them. You should also consider using memory devices like flashcards and mnemonic devices. Or, if you have a hard time focusing on a task for long periods, you can use the Pomodoro technique. 

Shelf exam prep tip #3: Seek help from the experts

There are a few things that you can do to prepare for shelf exams by yourself. Unfortunately, though, question banks like Uworld are simply not enough for most students. If you truly want to do well on these exams, we recommend working with a shelf exam prep service. Many students shy away from this option because it is not free, but the reality is that it is an investment in your future, and it is well worth the cost. When you invest in shelf exam prep service, you are paying for the following benefits: 

How to find the right shelf exam prep service

If you decide on professional shelf exam prep, you need to make sure you are spending your hard-earned money on a program that will actually be beneficial to you. You should take the time to research different medical school advisors or consultants to make sure that you are choosing the right one for you. 

Pay attention to their credentials. You want to work with someone who is transparent with you about their training and suitability to help you prepare for your shelf exam. Ideally, you should work with experts who have either gone through this process themselves or who have worked with several other students. Furthermore, you should make sure that your shelf exam prep instructor has experience helping students. We recommend that you look for student success stories and independent reviews about their services to ensure that they can actually deliver on the service that is being promised. 


While shelf exams are not required for all medical students, shelf exam prep is necessary for those whose schools use this exam as an assessment tool. It is important to take the time to create the right study schedule and study habits from the very beginning of medical school so that you can be prepared for your rotations, but if you want to do well on the shelf exams, investing in a shelf exam prep service is the best way to achieve that goal.


1. What are shelf exams?

Shelf exams are standardized exams that third-year medical students typically take after clinical rotations or clerkships. They are designed to assess students’ mastery and practical application of medical knowledge within the actual clinical setting. 

2. Are shelf exams mandatory for medical students?

Shelf exams are not mandatory for all students, as not all medical schools require students to take them, but they are quite popular. You should check with your medical school to find out if you will need to write this exam. 

3. How hard are shelf exams?

Shelf exams can be quite challenging. Not only do they cover a wide range of medical information about the seven core specialties in medicine, but they also require students to use their knowledge of medicine and critical thinking to answer questions. 

4. What’s a shelf exam prep service?

It is kind of like a prep course. It’s a service often offered by medical school consultants, during which they help you prepare for the shelf exams using a variety of high-yield techniques. 

5. Can I still pass my shelf exams without a prep course or service?

You can. A prep service is not required, but it is highly recommended because it does save you lots of time, and it gives you a better chance of doing well on the exam. 

6. What is the Cornell note-taking method?

The Cornell note-taking method is a way of taking notes that requires you to divide your notebook page into three sections. One section for quick notes, one section for clues, and a section to summarize what you have learned. It is a note-taking method that encourages active recall. 

7. How long do you need to prepare for the shelf exams?

We recommend that you start preparing as early as possible. Ideally, from the very beginning of medical school by implementing good study habits and using high yield study techniques. 

8. How much weight do shelf exams carry?

That depends on your medical school. Each school decides what percentage of your grade is determined by your performance on the shelf exams. 

9. Why are they called “shelf exams”?

The name comes from the fact that the questions used for shelf exams were originally designed for the USMLE, but they were “shelved” and then used for these end of clerkship exams instead.

10. What makes a good shelf exam prep service?

You should look for a shelf exam prep service with qualified instructors who have experience helping other students and good independent reviews on credible websites like Trustpilot, for example.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting 

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