How to Study for Gross Anatomy


With the onset of another academic year upon us there are a plethora of medical students about to partake in an experience unlike any other: Gross Anatomy. We have talked before about how to prepare for Gross Anatomy. Preparation is, of course, one of the keys to success. However, as medical students everywhere sharpen their scalpels and rev up their bone saws let’s take a moment to go over the nitty-gritty details of how to study for Gross Anatomy.

Read your Grant’s

grant's dissectorUnless things have changed dramatically in the last couple years Grant’s Dissector is still the bible by which all anatomical dissections are performed. It’s basically a step-by-step guide of how to dissect and dismember a human body (think that phrase made it past the FBI’s screeners?). I would recommend you take the time the night before to look over the dissection you will be performing the next day. Not only will this make things go FASTER but it will also give you a little protection against the inevitable gunner in your group. Regardless, you can pre-read all you want, it’s probably not going to make a lot of sense until you get in there. It is kinda like fixing a car, you can read the manual but until you get your hands dirty it’s about as clear as a puddle of mud.

Breeze through dissections

I’m sure there are plenty of nincompoop out there that will disagree with me on this one, but hey, it’s my website. I got VERY little from actually dissecting. You know when it’s fun to dissect a structure out? On a living person with fresh tissue planes. Dissecting through layers of fat on some partially rubberized grandma is an exercise in futility and definitely not the most effective way to learn! The thing is that this is a bit of a right of passage so most schools still make you do it. You have to find the balance between doing a decent enough job that your structures will be identifiable on the practical exam and getting the fuck out of the lab so you can study.

Cartoon atlas

Thieme 2nd EditionYou’ve muddled your way through dissections. Now it is actually time to learn. Your gross professor will likely give you a list of structures you are responsible for identifying on the practical exam. The way I always started was going through my cartoon atlas and identifying all the structures as well as making a notation of which page they were found on for reference. These cartoon atlases are full of anatomically correct (and sometimes quite beautiful) drawings from various angle and depths of dissection. The most famous is Netter’s (I hear the app is pretty good too). I’m a fan of Netter’s and own a copy, however, the atlas I usually turn to first is Thieme’s. I feel the drawings are a bit clearer and it’s got some killer charts and diagrams in it. I see some people using Grant’s. Personally, I think it sucks but you are welcome to form your own opinion! Regardless of which you choose I would recommend you use more than one atlas. Some structures on your list will only be found in one or the other and the more angles you can look at something from the better. Anatomy is all about building 3D relationships in your mind’s eye!

Rohen! Rohen! Rohen!

Unfortunately real life does NOT look like cartoons (you mean the gallbladder isn’t really Ninja Turtle green, what!?). Now that you have a basic understanding of how things are laid out it is time to get to business and prepare for your practical. I have already recommended Rohen’s Photographic Atlas a number of times on this website and I will do it again. This was my key to success in anatomy. You’ve gotta practice like it’s the real deal, block out the labels and force yourself to commit to an answer before revealing them!

A great adjunct to Rohen is SUNY Downstate’s Online Anatomy Quiz. There are a couple different features here including their version of a dissector. Most importantly there is an online mock practical with hundreds of questions! Some of the images are of sub par quality but it is definitely worth your time to go through them and test your knowledge!

Return to the lab

Now that you know what the fuck you are doing it is worth returning to the lab and digging around the cadaevers. Bring your structure list and try to identify each structure on multiple cadaevers. You will be surprised how different the same structure will look on different bodies. Again, you are building 3D relationships. Pay close attention to how the structures cross eachother and which order they appear in (both medial/lateral and superficial/deep).

My wonderful school had mock practicals arranged by the class above us. These were key to figuring out how much we REALLY knew. As an added bonus these students had just taken the test the year before so they had a pretty good idea of what would show up on the exam. If your school doesn’t offer these there is nothing wrong with you and a group of friends returning to the lab and setting them up for eachother!

More Rohen and flashcards!

Netter's FlashcardsYou’re kicking it into high gear now. As the exam approaches continue to review your Rohen’s. Repetition truly is the key to success! Push yourself! This might be the time to add in some flashcards as well. Netter and Thieme both make sets which in my experience are of equal quality. Again, there are apps out there as well. Personally I like the ability to flip through but I can certainly see the utility of having the app handy at all times.


How to succeed on the exam

If you have prepared as I have described above you HAVE the content knowledge to succeed on the practical portion of the exam, there is no doubt about it. Your task now is to not get overwhelmed. I remember walking into my first practical exam and feeling like the lab, which I had spent so many hours in, was now an alien place. Everything was cleaned up, additional dissection had been done to display structures in unique detail and the bodies had been re-positioned. Most importantly, those bastards had covered up or removed half of the structures I used as surrounding landmarks! Sure, I can identify the talus when it is in relationship to all the other bones of the foot but it becomes a hell of a lot harder when it’s just sitting there in a dish!

Take a deep breath, you know this shit! Remember to think like a detective, the professor has always left some key piece of evidence to help you determine the structure. Think it through and you will come up with it, if you can’t, then move on. Don’t waste your time, come back to it later if you can. Most importantly, don’t lose easy points:

  • spelling counts
  • don’t forget to the proper descriptor – artery, vein, nerve, muscle etc.
  • don’t be surprised if there are multilevel questions “what is the name and action of this muscle” if you write just the name of the muscle you aren’t going to get full credit buddy!

And that’s just the half of it…

We just spent a ton of time going over how to succeed on the practical portion of Gross Anatomy. Unfortunately you have gotta know how all that shit works too! The written portion is just as daunting but, like a lot of the first two years of medical school, it is straight up memorization. Do yourself a favor, buy BRS Gross Anatomy and memorize it. Test your knowledge using flashcards readily available at That’s basically all there is to it.


How to Study for Gross Anatomy — 12 Comments

  1. Thx for this post. I’m sitting in orientation this week and it’s a bit overwhelming. I’m trying to soak everything in and mentally get ready for Monday anatomy lab!!!!!

    • I already wrote my best advice above. I would tell you that studying gross anatomy is a BIG change from other subjects you have probably taken in the past. If you are still struggling there is no shame in seeking some advice from your professor, better to get on top of it sooner rather than later!

  2. Wow this is great! You should do this for all the subjects during the first two years! Also, it would be helpful to add an emphasis on how the boards will test the topics within each subject and what resources students can use with their classes to get the boards perspective so its not just cramming boards time. Not sure if there really is a way to prevent cramming for boards though.

    • Thanks. I would love to do each subject individually but really think there are other, more important, issues to address. Anatomy is it’s own beast, the rest of the subjects are basically the same – study your powerpoints and study the most highly rated review book and you will be fine.

  3. Are there any other questions besides BRS that are acceptable for the written portion? I’m struggling with the lecture component already. Gross is definitely different from any other course I have ever experienced. Thanks!

  4. The online quiz if I’m not mistaken was created by the anatomists at the university of Florida. Just trying to get some props for my mentors

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