I’ve been a little MIA on my blog lately but for good reason. I started residency. Need I say more? Lol. I’m starting to settle in and get into a grove but residency sure is time-consuming. But hey, a busy schedule is nothing new to this multitasker.

I wanted to “come back” with a bang. Welcome to “Anatomy 101” where I breakdown the study strategy I used as a first year (somewhat overwhelmed) medical student surviving her first ever anatomy class.

One of the biggest eye-openers to the reality of medical school is anatomy class. In fact, it’s often seen as the “official” initiation into medical school. At least that’s how I saw it.

I’ll never forget what my anatomy teacher told us overly excited “freshmen” medical students during one of our first blocks of anatomy after learning the dreaded brachial plexus that looked more like a train map than a group of nerves:


“So, are you scared yet? Welcome to medical school.”


I looked at my friend with a, “How are we going to learn this” face as my professor (who was actually really cool and an amazing teacher, shout-out to him!) zipped to the next slide, which of course was decorated with more details for us to know.

After an hour lecture, we headed for the anatomy lab where we continued to dissect our cadavers for the rest of the afternoon.

Anatomy was interesting but in all honesty, I struggled initially simply because you are thrown a significant amount of information daily despite having hours of lecture, anatomy lab, meetings, etc. The next thing I knew it was 5 PM and I had already forgotten how to draw the brachial plexus.

Luckily, I soon found a study strategy that helped me to do well in anatomy, and I wanted to share some study tips with you as well as tell you what I believe are the “must-haves” to survive anatomy!


Ready? Here we go…


Often times, your anatomy grade is broken down into two main components:

  1. Identifying structures on the cadavers (lab exam)

  2. Traditional exam testing your understanding of anatomical physiology and pathology (usually multiple choice)


…so I’ll breakdown my recommendations into those two components.


A. Studying for the Lab Exam

At my medical school, we had to learn 100 – 200+ structures for each unit/block (i.e. back, upper extremity, head & neck, etc.). At first, this was overwhelming, but once you find a rhythm, it’s just another day in the anatomy lab…



1. Start Early

This applies to anything and everything in medical school:


Do. Not. Procastinate. Period!


This may have worked for you in college but it won’t in medical school. Do yourself a favor and start studying early. When did I start reviewing anatomical structures? Generally the first day of the block. I am sure that raised a few (or more) eyebrows as it may seem strange to start studying the first or second day of a new block when an exam is 4 – 6 weeks away but it creeps up on you very fast and I wanted to be prepared and confident.

Medical school is often compared to college as the amount of information you have to learn in college is analogous to drinking from a water fountain, but medical school? It’s like trying to drink from a fire hydrant.


Picture that…


It can be overwhelming to receive your structure list for a new block and see that you have to learn 247 structures for the next exam in addition to studying for the written anatomy exam, your other courses, and to try to somewhat have a life outside medical school…?

But if you break it down, the task is much more feasible. As my mom would say, how do you eat a blue whale? One bite at a time.


Here’s what I did:

  • Step 1: I calculated how many days I had until the exam.

  • Step 2: I then subtracted  7 days from that to determine my “goal date” (reviewed all material at least once).

– Generally, if I can help it, I wanted to be reviewing a week before the exam not learning new material. Just a personal thing.

  • Step 3: Divide the number of structures tested by the number of days I have until my goal date


For example, let’s say I have 28 days until the next exam. I’ll give myself +/- 21 days to learn the new structures. I break it down to a more doable task by learning a little each day rather than learning 200+ structures in a week.

  • Step 1: 28 days

  • Step 2: 21 days

  • Step 3: 247 structures / 21 days = 11.7 so let’s round up to 12


I’ll try to learn 12 – 15 new structures each day. Why did I say more than 12? Because I generally gave myself at least ½ day off a week from studying and I’d prefer my lighter day to just be reviewing. That actually is a day that I’m not learning anything new so that could put me behind schedule, but I’m already accounting for that by studying a little bit more each day if time allows. If not, I still have the week before the exam to “catch up”. See, planning ahead is good ; )

2. Organize Your Structure List

We were given a structure list with all the muscles, nerves, etc. that we had to learn. It was very basic like:




I used a color scheme that helped me to organize the list. Remember, everyone studies differently. I am a visual learner so this method helped me, but I encourage you to find your own method but feel free to try mine out.

As I studied my X number of structures each day, I put a small dash (like “ – ”) next to the structure just so I knew that I reviewed it. Sometimes the list wasn’t in any particular order so I often did not study in chronological order. Putting a mark next to each structure reviewed helped me to keep track of what I studied and I have not.

If you are following me on Instagram (@doctorgoals), you probably know that I like to use colors. This was no exception. As I reviewed each structure a second or third time, I would highlight each structure a different color according to my comfort level (what I know vs. what I need to review) as well as what I felt was high-yield. But I kept it simple. I didn’t want my review sheet looking like a bag of skittles lol.

…shoot, now I want skittles, but I digress…


Here’s what I did:

  • Yellow: I know pretty well, don’t need to review daily

  • Orange: I don’t know, review

  • Pink: High-yield, likely testable

  • Circled structure number/name: I did this days before the exam. This meant I need to review these structures daily leading up to the exam because I didn’t confidently know them yet.


Here’s an example:



Another helpful hint:

It can take awhile to look up each structure on your list so when you do so initially, write down the page number(s) where you find good examples of the structure your studying on your structure list. That way, when you’re reviewing say 10 structures, you can glance at your list, go directly to the pages, review, and you’re done. Easy as pie. (Mmm…apple pie…)


Here’s an example:



Disclaimer: Don’t get too carried away with “decorating” your structure list. I did this because it helped me save time and prioritize my studying (high-yield vs. what I need to review vs. what I know).

3. Review From All “Angles”

Netter is the most commonly used anatomy book that I’m aware of. Every single medical student that I know has and/or purchased a Netter book. Not only is it detailed and applicable but the pictures are very clear and helpful especially for first-time anatomy students, which I was at the time.

Now, the flipside is you will NOT be tested on whether or not you can identify structures from the beautiful, very clear Netter book. You will be tested on cadavers where it can be much harder to decipher a nerve from an artery and one muscle from another. How do you combat this?


Here’s what I did at the start of a new block:

  • Step 1: Start learning the structures using Netter and try to learn as much as I can during the dissection process in anatomy lab with my group.

– Note: Make the most out of your time in lab but studying in lab. I was in a group of 6 and we all had a self-appointed role. Some were die-hard surgeons and wanted to dissect for hours. I became the “Netter girl” occasionally dissecting but mostly being in charge of finding the structures in Netter that we were trying to find on our cadaver. I was involved with the team but also learned Netter forwards and backwards.

  • Step 2: Sketch out structures. Drawing can  help you better understand how things connect, what they look like, and where they are located. If you can draw it, you know it.

  • Step 3: Review from all “angles”

– As the exam neared, I used my other review source that depicted structures on cadavers. It wasn’t a cartoon depiction like Netter so it provided different “angles” of the structure. Remember, you need to be able to identify the structure on a cadaver so I made sure I studied them as well.

– For example, if I was reviewing the obturator externus muscle, I looked it up in both of my review books (I already had the pages written down so it was quick) and reviewed the structure in both books.


Now, you don’t need a second anatomy book. You can also spend more time in the anatomy lab going through the structures on the cadaver with Netter by your side. I came in often on the weekends to review but that was closer to the exam. If I wanted to review structures in the evening or early in the morning, I’d rather do so at home or in the library rather than head back to the lab…again. I’m not a night owl nor did that sound fun…


Whoa! That was a doozy.


Okay, so here’s the summary for studying for the lab exam:

  1. Start early

  2. Organize your structure list.

  3. Review from all “angles”


My “must-have” for the anatomy lab exam:



screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-5-37-27-pm(Click the image to get your copy of Netters)


You’re still with me? Okay, here’s a little joke to break this up:


A man goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor, whenever I touch here, here and here it really hurts. What’s wrong with me?”

The doctor replies: “Your finger is broken.”


Ready for part B? Head on over to page #2.

If not, come on back when you’re ready!