A deep dive on Anki settings: how to optimize for the MCAT

Anki MCAT study skills

The default Anki settings are meant to be changed, especially when studying for the MCAT. Anki is set up in a way that maximizes indefinitely long-term retention, but for the MCAT we just want to prioritize retention on test day, rather than memorization forever.

Let’s take a look at each of the settings so we can optimize them for peak MCAT performance.

Steps

This is how frequently you’ll see a card before it “graduates” to learned status. These are in minutes, and the default is 1 minute, then 10 minutes. This means that when you mark a card “good,” you’ll see it again 1 minute later. After marking the same card “good” again, you’ll see it in 10 minutes.

If a card hasn’t yet progressed past the last step and you mark it “again,” it will start over from the first step.

MCAT takeaway: I personally set this to 5 20 2160 5760. I thought this was ideal for a test under 3 months out. You can do fewer steps (ergo, see the card less often) if your test is further out. If you find you’re forgetting cards before they’re graduated, set the steps to be shorter (ergo, see the card more often early on). 

If you’re using a premade deck, steps will also have to be shorter (you don’t have context for each card!)

Order

This allows you to set whether cards appear in the order added or in a random order.

MCAT takeaway: I recommend selecting “show new cards in random order” for this. This can maximize a concept called “interleaved learning” whereby each concept is followed by a different concept. This method can strengthen learning.1 Moreover, this will mimic the test, because questions appear in a random order (e.g. when you sit down to take C/P, they don’t give you all the redox questions to start, followed by acid-base, etc.)

That being said, I strongly recommend that students create a subdeck for each content-based section (C/P, B/B, and P/S), and then study from these subdecks. This is because interleaving between sections is not nearly as beneficial.

New cards/day

This is the total number of new cards you can see per day. 

MCAT takeaway – this should really be determined by how many cards you have and how far away your test date is.

If you’re using a premade deck - determine how many new cards you have to get through each day. Remember, you want to have learned your last card at least 3 weeks out from your test date. If your steps are 5+20+2160+5760 = 7945 minutes = 132 hours = 5.5 days of learning steps. Add this to 21 days to determine when you should be finishing your cards.

If you’re making your own cards – you probably won’t be making them at a pace faster than you can keep up with. You can set this to 200 to be safe.

Total reviews/day

Getting a card wrong counts as a review, so keep this in mind — if you’re learning new cards, you may see them much more frequently.

MCAT takeaway – your number of reviews will effectively be determined by the number of new cards you do per day. Thus, you can set this to 9999, and won’t have any issues with absurd numbers of reviews, as long as you’re consistent.

Graduating interval

This is when a card will move on from the steps (see above) and is now considered “mature” (or “graduated”). 

MCAT takeaway: This should be about 50% longer than your last step. With a last step of 5760 minutes (96 hours = 4 days), an easy interval of 6 days would be appropriate.

Easy interval

When you mark “easy” a card is automatically graduated out of the steps phase. 

MCAT takeaway - The easy interval should be ~30% longer than your graduating interval. For a graduating interval of 6 days, an easy interval of 8 days would be appropriate.

Card theory

Everyone has heard that quote about practice making permanent, not perfect. This is incredibly applicable to Anki. It’s important to identify what our practice is engraining and tailor that to improve the quality of Anki cards.

If there are two concepts you find yourself regularly confusing (for example, fundamental attribution error and actor-observer bias), make a card the focuses on the difference between those concepts. You could make the front “fundamental attribution error vs. actor-observer bias” and then list out the differences on the back of the card. This will force you to draw distinctions between these two concepts. This is actually a very useful setup for the MCAT, because at the end of the day, being a multiple-choice test, you’ll have to differentiate between terms!

If you’re struggling to engrain a concept, or you keep having to mark a card wrong, it’s time to think about how to make that card easier to get. This could mean splitting it into multiple cards if you have too many concepts on one. Alternatively, try using cloze deletion card types to prompt yourself with additional information.

Make sure to regularly reflect on your cards and what they are achieving for you. It is of utmost importance to only use high-quality cards!

Advanced Anki 

Here are some quality-of-life changes you can implement once you’ve mastered the basics.

clicker 

Wireless clickers are very popular among medical students. This allows you to advance through cards from a more comfortable/ergonomic sitting position. Some students use it so they can workout simultaneously (e.g. walk/run on a treadmill or use a bike trainer)

This one is a popular choice, though any Joycon controller will work.

Auto-advance 

This add-on enables a setting where you can prompt yourself to refocus with an alert, show the answer, or automatically mark again after a designated amount of time. If you find that you’re getting distracted frequently during reviews, this could be a helpful add-on.

Add-on code: 1046608507

note: to enable an add-on, go to “tools” in the toolbar, then add-ons, then get add-ons. You then paste the relevant code, restart Anki, and you’re good to go!

heat map 

This add-on shows a heat map of when you’ve reviewed cards in the past, as well as how many cards are due on days going forward. This can be a very helpful accountability tool. 

Add-on code: 1771074083

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Jesse studied Movement Science and Biochemistry and was a four-year member of the U-M Men’s Rowing Team at the University of Michigan. He is now pursuing his MD at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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