Shelf Exams

How To Study For Medical Microbiology In Med School

Medical microbiology doesn't have to be overwhelming. Learn how to study effectively and ace your exams with this helpful guide for med students.

Jul 1, 2024

Shelf Exams

How To Study For Medical Microbiology In Med School

Medical microbiology doesn't have to be overwhelming. Learn how to study effectively and ace your exams with this helpful guide for med students.

Jul 1, 2024

Shelf Exams

How To Study For Medical Microbiology In Med School

Medical microbiology doesn't have to be overwhelming. Learn how to study effectively and ace your exams with this helpful guide for med students.

Jul 1, 2024

woman in library - Medical Microbiology
woman in library - Medical Microbiology
woman in library - Medical Microbiology

Are you preparing for your shelf exams and wondering, how long are shelf exams? If you ponder this question, you're in the right place! Medical microbiology is a critical component of shelf exams; understanding it is key to acing them. In this blog, we'll explore the ins and outs of medical microbiology and how it relates to shelf exams.

Otio, an AI research and writing partner, is committed to helping you succeed in your journey toward information on medical microbiology. With Otio by your side, you can unlock a wealth of knowledge and insights related to medical microbiology.

Table of Contents

What Is Medical Microbiology?

closeup of a molecule - Medical Microbiology

Microbiology is the study of microorganisms, sometimes known as microbes. These are a diverse group of microscopic basic life forms that include:

  • Bacteria

  • Viruses

  • Fungi

  • Parasites

  • Algae, etc. 

Microbiology covers the structure, function, and classification of such creatures and methods of exploiting and managing their activity.

Why is microbiology important?

Despite its reputation as a challenging subject, microbiology is undeniably important. It plays a critical role in medicine and healthcare, as demonstrated by the USMLE® Step 1 content outline, which assigns a significant weight to microbial biology, 10-15%. Understanding microbiology is essential for diagnosing and treating diseases.

Microbiology knowledge is foundational for other medical school subjects. For example, when you get to pharmacology, you’ll use microbiology knowledge when selecting appropriate treatments, and in pathology, you’ll use it to understand the tissue response to infections.

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How To Study For Medical Microbiology In Med School

woman studying for exams - Medical Microbiology

Get the basics down first

A solid understanding of cellular biology concepts, genetics, and the history of microorganisms is crucial in microbiology. If these foundational concepts are unclear, comprehending this subject will be challenging. Fortunately, platforms like Lecturio offer introductory lectures to help you kickstart your learning journey.

Study everything in chunks

Microbiology heavily relies on memorization. Pathogeneses are not always fully understood, making it essential to break down microorganisms into smaller, more digestible parts. This technique, known as chunking, allows you to categorize microbes in groups based on their similarities and differences, making studying and remembering their unique characteristics easier.

Make a diagram

Creating visual frameworks can significantly aid in understanding microbiology concepts. You can effectively differentiate between various microbes by sketching tables or charts that categorize bugs based on their types, characteristics, and other factors. These diagrams are handy reference tools for studying and memorizing microbial details.

Use cases to study

Analyzing real-life cases and understanding how infections interact with the body can deepen your understanding of microbiology. Each microbe follows a natural course within a host, leading to different symptoms and disease progressions. By delving into case studies, you can grasp the complexities of infectious diseases and their impact on individuals.

Make flashcards

Creating flashcards with essential information about bugs can be an excellent study tool. Anki is a popular platform for making flashcards that quiz you on one-to-one associations, aiding in effective memorization.

What do I need to know for microbiology? 

For each bug, in addition to the above, know the following:

What it does/causes

For example, EHEC causes hemolytic-uremic syndrome and congenital syphilis causes saber shins and hutchinson teeth, among others.

If there is a special agar/stain/lab test that it grows on/is stained by/tests for it, know it

For example, Haemophilus needs chocolate agar, Legionella is stained with a silver stain, and Helicobacter can be tested for by a urea breath test). 

For parasitic microbes, know how it is transmitted

For example, Naegleria in freshwater ponds

For viruses, know the family each virus is in as well as the DNA/RNA structure

The structure isn't as important as Step 1, but they may be tested on your in-house exams. 

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5 Best Medical Microbiology Books for Med School

discussion best books - Medical Microbiology

1. Brock Biology of Microorganisms, 14th Edition (Michael T. Madigan, John M. Martinko, Kelly S. Bender, Daniel H. Buckley, David A. Stahl and Thomas Brock)

This is the #1 textbook for introductory majors in microbiology, offering a comprehensive balance between cutting-edge research and essential concepts. The Fourteenth Edition of Brock Biology of Microorganisms is seamlessly integrated with current science, emphasizing molecular biology and the genomic revolution’s impact on the field. 

This edition boasts a modern, streamlined organization with updated, visually compelling art to aid in understanding. It includes MasteringMicrobiology®, an online tool designed to enhance student learning in and outside the classroom.

2. Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple, 6th Edition (Mark Gladwin, Bill Trattler and C. Scott Mahan)

A concise, enjoyable approach to clinical microbiology, Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple is packed with:

  • Mnemonics

  • Humor

  • Illustrative charts

This edition covers pathogens and drugs encountered in preclinical Microbiology, the USMLE Step 1 and 2 exams, and clinical settings. The book simplifies mass memorization through digestible portions and silly drawings, making it an invaluable resource for medical students.

3. Prescott’s Microbiology, 10th Edition (Joanne Willey, Linda Sherwood and Christopher J. Woolverton)

Prescott’s Microbiology provides a balanced, comprehensive introduction to all major areas of microbiology, suitable for microbiology and mixed majors courses. The authors have incorporated pedagogical elements to enhance student learning, maintaining a focus on readability, artwork, and key themes such as:

  • Evolution

  • Ecology

  • Diversity

This edition retains the text’s quality while introducing improvements for a better learning experience.

4. Lippincott Microcards (Harpavat & Nissim)

Like the Lange Pharmacology Cards, Lippincott's Microcards feature clinical cases and essential information about microbes, making them a great resource for jogging memory and annotating additional details. The cards provide:

  • High-yield images

  • Diagrams

  • Clinical presentations

  • Mechanisms of action

  • Treatments

  • Space for personal notes,

5. First Aid for USMLE Step 1, Microbiology Chapter (Le et al.)

The Microbiology Chapter in First Aid for USMLE Step 1 offers high-yield information but lacks thoroughness. It is a useful guide to supplement class materials, UWorld, and other resources, reminding students to continue annotating their books with relevant details.

4 Other High Yield Resources For Studying Medical Microbiology

person studying on laptop - Medical Microbiology

1. Otio: AI research and writing partner

Today, knowledge workers, researchers, and students suffer from content overload and are left to deal with it using fragmented, complex, and manual tooling. Too many settle for stitching together complicated bookmarking, read-it-later, and note-taking apps to get through their workflows. Now that anyone can create content with a button, this problem will only worsen. Otio solves this problem by providing researchers with one AI-native workspace. It helps them in three main ways: 


Otio enables users to aggregate various data sources, from bookmarks, tweets, and extensive books to YouTube videos. This comprehensive approach ensures that users have all the necessary information at their fingertips.

Extract Key Takeaways

With detailed AI-generated notes and source-grounded Q&A chat, Otio helps users identify and retain critical information from their collected sources, streamlining the learning process.


One of Otio’s most beneficial features is its ability to assist users in drafting outputs using the sources they’ve collected. This functionality helps researchers move from reading lists to first drafts more rapidly. Along with these three main functions, Otio also swiftly helps you write research papers and essays, using AI-generated notes on all bookmarks, extensive chat features, and AI-assisted writing tools.

Let Otio be your AI research and writing partner — try Otio for free today!

2. Picmonic

Picmonic Microbiology uses pictures to help students remember all the details about a particular microbe. These images consist of a humorous smorgasbord of images that relate to different aspects of a microbe, making the learning process engaging and entertaining. 

Each picture is associated with an audio file that explains the different components, creating a fantastical story that aids in retaining information. Since its launch, Picmonic has expanded to cover a variety of medical school courses, nursing and physician assistant programs, as well as undergraduate and K-12 education levels.

3. Sketchy Micro

A relatively new player in the field, Sketchy Micro takes Picmonic's concept and refines it to create more believable pictures and stories. These images fade in different components of each microbe at different times, paired with an audio track explaining each pictorial representation's reasoning. The refined approach of Sketchy Micro aids in better recall, as the stories and images are more believable and require less effort to associate together for improved retention.

4. Microbe Invader Game

Microbe Invader is a Flash-based, top-down role-playing game that simulates a medical student working on the infectious disease service. As a player, you run around diagnosing and treating patients, encountering 89 different bugs and 43 antibiotics for treatment. 

This game offers a fun and interactive way to learn about infectious diseases, making it an enjoyable resource to explore in your spare time. The game also allows players to save their progress, enabling them to resume where they left off, making it a convenient tool for learning on the go.

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Is Microbiology A Hard Class?

Microbiology is often considered one of the toughest subjects in medical school. Reddit r/medicalschool threads and Student Doctor Network (SDN) threads are filled with discussions on the topic. The reasons for its difficulty are clear: the extensive content, the need to apply it clinically, and the fact that missing crucial concepts can hinder your understanding of other medical disciplines down the line.

A Mountain of Information to Master

The sheer amount of information can be overwhelming. For example, students need to learn about each microorganism's structure, pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, diagnostics, treatments, and prevention. 

Applying Microbiology Knowledge in Clinical Practice

Medical students need to be able to apply their basic science knowledge of microbiology to clinical scenarios. Understanding how a microorganism’s biology translates into clinical symptoms, diagnostic tests, and treatment strategies is essential.

How To Pass Microbiology Lab

The microbiology lab allows you to use your microscope and slides and study microbes independently. These sessions will be guided by your professors and workbooks, but most of the time, you’ll study on your own. Here are a few tips for making the most out of your microbiology lab experience:

Attend your lab sessions

It might seem like a waste of time to look at your slides when you could just as easily get photos from the internet, but lab sessions are more than that. During these sessions, professors are free to answer any questions you have. They can give tips on identifying organisms you might not have known if you had studied at home.

In these sessions, you learn by doing, which is one of the more effective ways of learning. You can always read the steps involved in culturing or staining bacteria. This is totally different from doing it yourself. You need to learn to perform lab techniques like it’s second nature, especially when you have practical exams. For that to happen, you need to practice doing lab procedures yourself. Your professors should be around to correct any mistakes you make, so you don’t repeat them during a practical exam.

2. Take photos, draw, and label

Take photos of your specimens and label them. This is even better if you can draw them yourself. How does this help? Drawing makes use of your:

  • Visual

  • Kinesthetic

  • Semantic memory

This combination increases your chances of recalling what microbes and their parts look like. It uses various senses and the more senses you use to memorize, the better.

3. Rehearse the steps of microbe identification

If you have practical exams, you might be asked to identify an unknown liquid with bacteria. To do this, you need to run multiple tests in a short period of time. This can be scary if it’s your first time doing it. Instead, do the tests yourself and run through the process as if it were the day of your exam. That way, you’ll only have to memorize which tests show positive results for which bacteria.

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One of Otio's standout features is its ability to extract key takeaways from collected content using AI-generated notes and source-grounded Q&A chat. This functionality empowers users to distill vital information efficiently, saving time and effort in the research process.

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Otio goes beyond content curation and note-taking by facilitating the drafting process. By leveraging the sources collected within the platform, users can seamlessly transition from a reading list to a first draft. Otio's AI-assisted writing capabilities enhance the writing experience, enabling users to generate research papers and essays more efficiently.

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Otio's AI-generated notes on all bookmarks, including YouTube videos, PDFs, and articles, enhance the research experience by providing concise summaries of key information. The platform allows users to chat with individual links or entire knowledge bases, fostering collaboration and information sharing within a single interface.

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