Study Strategies to Ace Your Microbiology Exams in Med School

Taking microbiology this year? Learn from a current medical student on how to pass your microbiology exam.

Learning microbiology in medical school is a rite of passage that all medical students will have to go through. Micro is as iconic as it is notorious in the medical school curriculums. Some students hated it; some loved it. Regardless, many of the diseases that we see in patients come from infection with these microorganisms, so this topic is a non-negotiable to nail. However, memorizing all of the bugs is no easy task. Everyone had their own way of getting through it. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but if you’re anything like me, reading a textbook or going through hundreds of lecture slides to learn and memorize these pesky creatures does not sound appealing. Additionally, since microbiology is a big topic on Step 1, how can we learn these bugs in a way that really sticks, even after I pass my in-house microbiology exams?

Let’s dive right in.

First, you will most likely learn micro in chunks, starting with bacteria, moving to viruses, studying fungi, and then finishing off with parasites, for example. To start, I made a list of all the bugs I needed to know for the upcoming exam. For example:

Exam #1:

  • Staph aureus
  • Strep pyogenes
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Strep pneumo
  • Bacillus anthracis
  • Shigella

From there, I would consult my main resource for learning the bugs, SketchyMicro. I would check to make sure that Sketchy had a video on each of the bugs that I was expected to know for the upcoming exam. If Sketchy didn’t have the video, I would make a note of this and address this later (in the upcoming steps).

Next, I would watch each of the Sketchy videos on the respective bugs. I would watch these twice each just to really let the sketch sink into my brain. I would pay attention to the points that Sketchy emphasized (transmission, pathophysiology, clinical features, treatment, other important distinct features) and also focus on the artistry and symbols of the video that served as good memory hooks. For example, I remembered that the treatment for Listeria was ampicillin because of the guitar amp sketched into the drawing. After I watched all of the videos I needed to for that day (I often watched 2-5 videos per day), I would next cross-reference the information I learned from Sketchy with the lecture slides from class.

Questions I would ask myself during this cross-referencing period:

  • Did the Sketchy video cover in enough detail what my school lectures wanted me to know?
  • Was there any potential discrepancy in information?
  • What was emphasized in the lectures versus the videos?


These questions would help determine what I was missing or should put more focus on in order to pass the in-house microbiology exams. If there was extra information in the lecture slides that Sketchy didn’t mention, I would write this down on a piece of paper and look this over before the exam.

For the bugs that I needed to know for in-house microbiology exams that Sketchy didn’t have a video on, I would read over the class material and attempt to make my own picture/symbol mnemonic for these bugs as a way to remember them. I wrote these down on the same piece of paper that contained all the extra information from the lecture slides of the Sketchy bugs. I would try and read over this paper at least twice a day, occasionally quizzing myself on the information.

Once I felt like I had a good grasp of the bugs, I would revisit the Sketchy videos and do the associated video quizzes. These were great, because they were short forms of assessment that helped me better understand the big takeaways from the videos.

At this point, I felt like I was in a good position to go take the microbiology exam. If your school offers more practice questions, then use those too! Using Sketchy as the primary source of learning was great, because it offered a way to both comprehend the bugs and memorize them at the same time. I found that on test day, I was reading questions and instantly thinking of the Sketchy videos and making those quick connections. You’ll see what I mean. Trust the process, enjoy the learning, and find what works for you.

Now go bug out!

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