There is no hard evidence on what the best anki deck is for the USMLE Step 1. According to hundreds of testimonials from high scoring med students however, the Anking deck (a modified version of Zanki) is probably the most effective. The “creator” of the deck, who scored an impressive 260+ on the exam itself, is case in proof.
Personally, I’m a massive fan of this deck and recommend it in many of my posts on this site (check out how to memorize pathology, for example). Having used a bunch of other user-created decks, and also made lots of my own, it’s definitely up there in terms of organisation, comprehensiveness and effectiveness. It’s also very easy to power through too, thanks to its heavy use of the anki cloze card format.
But if my testimonial (or that of the deck creator) isn’t enough, there are plenty more out there scattered across the r/medicalschoolanki subreddit (where most chatter surrounding the use of Anki in med school takes place).
So let’s explore more about this deck, figure out what makes it special and take a look at other recommended alternatives you can use to help pass the US medical licencing exams.
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What Is An Anki Deck?
For those unfamiliar with Anki, it’s a flashcard application you can synchronise across multiple devices. “Decks” are sets of cards you make for the app – just as you would paper or card versions. A lot of these are user generated and available for download free on the web.
I won’t go into the details of Anki in this article. Just know that I’m a 10-year plus user of it – and by extension a big fan. It’s my go-to study tool. It also forms a major part in my strategy toward studying medicine effectively.
Is Anki Good For Step 1?
Anki is an excellent tool for Step 1. As it’s designed for helping students with long term memory retention (it does through a spaced repetition algorithm), it makes factual recall of core medical concepts lightning fast. Combine this practice with regular attempts at exam-style USMLE Step 1-based questions and it becomes even more effective; as evidenced in this 2015 study.
For most students planning to take the USMLE board exams to gain licensing to practice medicine in the US, Anki is a common free-to-use tool (the iOS app is paid for).
Note: A lot of students report being intimidated by Anki the first time they use it (many of my colleagues included) thanks to a less-than-intuitive design. My feeling is however, that it’s massively worth persevering with. Especially if you want to save time and effort studying.
What Anki Decks Are Available for Step 1?
There are three main Anki decks considered worth your time for Step 1:
Each (except Anking – more on that later) is named after the respective Reddit user that originally completed and uploaded the decks for public use.
According to most users, Zanki is the largest deck (30K plus cards), followed by Brosencephalon and Lightyear. Brosencephalon is the oldest of the decks and has a very good reputation among the medical school Anki community. Likewise Lightyear, which is designed to match with the Boards and Beyond resource (video series) – linked to in my recommendations.
Note that many users make hybrid decks combining aspects of all three (and several extra ones available; Torky, Pepper etc) based on preferences.
The excellent medschoolanki.com is a fantastic resource for finding out more about each of these, as well as their individual history.
Anking Vs Lightyear
Potentially the biggest reason to use Anking over Lightyear is the fact it is still currently being updated, added to and continually organised to work with the most common USMLE materials. Pay close attention to the community at r/medicalschoolanki and you’ll see new versions of Anking emerge every handful of months.
Lightyear, although a solid deck in its own right, doesn’t get that same level of attention. Where it might be favorable however is in its card format. It has far more open-format cards and less cloze (fill in the gap) than Anking.
For some users, who that prefer that style, it’s a good choice.
Perhaps give both decks a try, do a few cards and see how you feel before fully committing to one or the other.
You can download Lightyear here.
Anking Vs Zanki: What’s Better?
There seems to be some confusion over Anking vs Zanki. Zanki is an original Step 1-centered deck created by a reddit user of the same name. Anking is an overhaul of Zanki while also including parts of other decks (Peppers, Lolnotacop and UltraZanki) and another user’s (BlueGalaxies) updates.
Think of Zanki as the original work and Anking building on and improving it.
What/Who is Anking?
Anking is a US-based medical student who effectively re-organised Zanki (via collaboration) and expanded it so it covers all core syllabus points of the USMLE Step 1. He also runs a popular website (Ankipalace.com) and YouTube channel that discusses the deck and offers lots of useful Anki tips for med students worldwide.
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Possibly the best thing Anking brought to the original Zanki deck was better organisation. The tagging system on Anking is far superior to any other Step 1 Anki deck. This means users can use their favorite resources for a first-pass at the content and then “unlock” the corresponding cards from the deck seemlessly.
Anking’s template, a special cloze-format card with lots of back-of-card “extras”, is what makes this stand out from the others. The deck works as an all-in-one study resource, saving you time from having to go anywhere else to quickly review concepts.
What Is Zanki?
Zanki was put together as a deck intended for use alongside First Aid for USMLE – probably the best and only med school textbook you’ll ever need.
It covers all the major chapters of the book. The book itself is designed as a review book specifically for Step 1, running through all the high yield principles of a typical med school curriculum.
The deck itself was originally built and shared in 2017 by the reddit user ZankiStep1. It makes up the foundation of Anking’s deck, considered the gold standard of USMLE Step 1 study.
What Does Anking (Zanki) Include?
According to Anking’s website, the deck includes:
- Zanki BG (bluegalaxies) deck (based on original Zanki)
- Pepper Pharm and Pepper Micro
- Lolnotacop-Tag Overhaul deck
- UltraZanki deck
Combined there are over 30K flashcards in this deck. It is compatible to be used with the following first-pass materials (most of which are listed in my recommendations section):
- Boards and Beyond
- Sketchy Series (Micro, Path, Pharm and Internal Med)
- First Aid for USMLE
Note: Of course you don’t have to use this deck with any of these resources. You can simply use your class resources and pull relevant cards to do from the deck as you go.
Is Anking (Zanki) Comprehensive?
Anking’s deck is the most comprehensive Step 1 deck out there – this is also it’s one major criticism from some users; the fact it’s too comprehensive!
Due to its size, it will take a lot of time to get through. Most users recommend setting aside months to go through (not just your dedicated exam period). The time will also vary depending on what first-pass materials you use and how long it takes you to complete them.
The deck itself covers all the key subjects of the Step 1 curriculum, including:
- Anatomy (basic – I wouldn’t recommend it for passing internal anatomy exams)
Basically all sections of First Aid for USMLE and more. User BlueGalaxies’update also added many extra cards covering “missed” concepts from popular USMLE-based question banks like UWorld and USMLERx.
Note: It’s strongly recommended by deck creators, users and Step 1 takers not to rely on Anki deck’s alone as a primary resource to do well on Step 1. Question banks and a clear understanding of concepts (Googling around, reviewing study aids and resources etc) are critical.
What Do Other Students Say About Anking (Zanki)?
There are hundreds of positive reviews discussing Anking’s deck and it’s effectiveness as a great study aid for USMLE Step 1. Most users recommend it being a “huge help“, “great for reinforcing information after learning” and “having everything you need as a starting point.“
But it’s not without it’s criticisms. Common issues include:
- Memory fragmentation (especially if not consolidating information with question banks)
- Conceptual knowledge gaps
- Length of time to complete
Compared to most other Step 1 anki decks however, these criticisms are fairly minimal.
Obviously not every resource you’re going to use will be perfect.
My Personal Hacks/Tips on Using Anking (Zanki) In Med School
Having used this deck myself for the past two years, starting with the second version (it’s sporadically updated with new tags etc), I’ve come up with a lot of my own individual hacks.
- Suspend all cards (ctrl + J) and unlock keyterms (using the browser feature) covered in seminars and lectures: thus improving my recall on independent class exams and colloquiums.
- Read the extra information relevant to upcoming class exams: if I know I have a cardiology-based exam coming up I’ll review relevant cards more slowly than others, being sure to read all the extra information on the back of the card to better contextualize the information.
- Interleave cards in daily reviews: I like to do my card reviews in a random order across a range of systems and topics (letting the spaced algorithm do its thing). I also make sure I do my reviews every day (check out: I’m forgetting everything I learned in med school).
- Supplement with regular questions: use my knowledge from the cards to actively practice with topic-related question books and online question banks, thus helping keep the “big picture” in mind and overcome the issue of memory fragmentation.
- Add your own cards (or “extras” for lecture/seminar material) to the deck: this makes sure you integrate specific information on class tests/exams etc you might need to pass internal med school exams.
- Download the “media version” of the deck: you can search for reddit users Pineapples or BlueSkies’ updates in the comments/preview notes on new Anking releases in the main Reddit thread.
Where to Download Anking (Zanki)?
You can download the latest version of Anking (Zanki) from the link in the sidebar > Step 1 > Anking on r/medicalschoolanki. Alternatively you can go to ankipalace.com for the link – as well as view update notes etc.
Anking is an amazing resource for med students worldwide, not just those taking the USMLE. Using the deck to compliment your own Medical University’s lectures and seminars can save a lot of time.
You’ll find it a challenge to make your own cards or decks as good as this.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.