Best Books for Medical School

This is technically a list of my book recommendations for the basic sciences, classically the MS1/MS2 years (my books recommendations for the clinical clerkships are here).

In practice, there are no true “best” books, but there often multiple good ones. I’ve made an editorial selection here to provide a few good and reasonable options depending on your needs that you can read without remorse and should work well in most circumstances.

Please note and be assured that–depending on your course materials, preferences, and comfort with online resources—you don’t necessarily need to buy any books. Most people would at least get an anatomy atlas and a review book or two for Step 1, but outside of that pretty much all roads lead to Rome (I’ve compiled a nice list of free online resources here). So don’t be afraid to not buy books, and don’t be afraid to switch study styles or plans if things aren’t working out for you the way they used to in college. Iteration is the key to personal growth. You can figure this out.

The most important thing about your study lineup is that you are comfortable with it. One of the most pervasive medical student fears is the fear of missing out. The mantra of medical school should actually be: more isn’t always better. Trust me, the only thing you’re really missing out on is the life of a twenty-something with disposable income.

Medical students love to compete with each other when it comes to resources. Some students gleefully tell their peers how many resources they are using or will disdainfully remark that the book you’re reading isn’t that great, doesn’t contain enough detail, etc. Anyone who tells you what you must and must not do is almost invariably wrong. In real life, you don’t necessarily need any particular book or even a book at all for every course. And no book has a monopoly on relevant “high-yield” medical knowledge just as how no hospital has a monopoly on sick people. You may have detailed lecture powerpoints or good course syllabi, not to mention Al Gore invented the Internet for a reason.

Anatomy

  • Moore for the textbook (if you need one, your school syllabus may be enough). Note that most students will supplement an anatomy textbook with an atlas of some type.
  • If cadaver-based gross anatomy is anything other than pass/fail, I’d recommend using Rohen to study for practicals. The real photos go a long way toward helping you identify structures in real life compared to stylized Netter-type drawings. However, the combination is synergistic; Netter shows you the ideal relationships; Rohen shows you how to actually identify structures in the lab. Not wanting to buy two big atlases, some students go for the Rohen atlas and buy the Netter flashcards. At least when it comes to gross lab, I guarantee someone nearby will have the big Netter.
  • If you want a combination of Netter-style illustrations mixed with a bit more explanatory text, better organization, and some really nice tables, consider Thieme’s Atlas of Anatomy (it’s excellent; the downside is that your school probably isn’t using it as the official text). Rohen + Thieme (or Netter if you prefer) are a great combination.

Neuroanatomy

Embryology

  • Your needs will vary a lot depending on your school’s course, so ask up. Commonly, embryology is deemphasized and you’ll be safe with nothing. The handful of parts they care about may be folded into your anatomy course and require nothing else.
  • For focused reading, you might benefit from High Yield Embryology vs BRS for the relevant material (same author, same material, a bit more explanation + length + practice questions in BRS).
  • But if the anatomy & embryology folks truly have a stranglehold on your education, you may just want to pluck down for whatever they want. Langman’s is probably the most thorough and has lots of clinical correlation (which is a plus [if you can tolerate lots of graphic photos]) but generates strong dichotomous love/visceral hate from students. Moore’s Before We are Born is the most concise textbook, but her The Developing Human is ultimately stronger, more clearly written, and more popular. Larsen’s rounds out the list. If you’re really picking your own, then it’s worth taking a look in person and seeing which one speaks to you: embryology is visually complex and often meaninglessly detailed; you want something that jives with your preferences.

Histology

  • Histology is another course that students often need not buy a specific book for depending on class materials and requirements. The salient portions for Step 1 are reinforced adequately by most pathology courses, so it’s often really a first-year endeavor. The main question to answer as you plan your studies is how slide/image heavy your course is so you know how deep to go down the histo rabbit hole. Outside of that, as they say in design, form follows function. Always think about relating structure to function as you learn, and you’ll be fine.
  • I’d pick The Color Atlas and Text of Histology (great pictures, pretty friendly text) or Wheater’s, but Ross’ Histology or Junquiera’s Basic Histology are also fine if that’s what your school recommends/derives exam material from.
  • Please see this page of links to a variety of online histo resources that probably obviate the need for an atlas for most students.

Physiology

  • Costanzo’s Physiology, easily. It’s a real textbook, but it’s well written and actually relatively concise. Physiology actually matters in medicine, so it’s something worth learning well. A strong physiology background will take you far on Step 1 as well. People are often scared of renal and acid/base. Don’t be scared. Be hungry.
  • Costanzo also wrote the BRS Physiology Review, which is somewhat shorter, more concise review. Conceivably, you could read her main book as an MS1 and then use BRS during MS2 to review for Step 1 (as some students advocate), but I think this is overkill. You can use the main book as a reference for as much as you need.

Biochemistry

  • Lippincott is the strong choice, if you want to actually learn biochemistry at all. Biochemistry lends itself well to brute force rote memorization over deep understanding, but you’re gonna have to work for it no matter what you use. It comes with questions baked in and an additional 500+ online question bank as well.
  • The Lange flashcards are quite good. They’re essentially a concise high-yield review book divided into flashcards with lots of clinical vignettes. This could be enough for you; it honestly was for me.
  • For something in between a dedicated text and flash cards, consider First Aid for the Basic Sciences, which fleshes out the FA bones for your initial exposures.

Microbiology

  • Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple is a classic highlight. It doesn’t cover everything, and it’s not detailed enough to stand completely alone, but what it does it does really well. It’s also pretty cheap.
  • Since my days, SketchyMicro has taken on and expanded the visual learning mantle. I’ve heard good things, but it’s not cheap.
  • Deja Review Microbiology is essentially a book of clearly explained notecards in a side-by-side column Q&A format. It’s a great format change of pace (and particularly nice for quizzing yourself and friends, gauging your progress, etc). Don’t get the kindle version, which loses the crucial two-column format. Or, for rapid bug review, consider the Lippincott flash cards if that’s more your sort of thing. Fast and painless and probably better than making your own.
  • If desperate for a more traditional textbook, try Levinson. For unnecessary additional depth in immunology, go for Abbas. You probably won’t need either one.

Behavioral Science

  • I’ve never met anyone who needed a behavioral science text. But if you did, you’d buy BRS Behavioral Science. If you do, get the newest edition (Fadem wrote all three of the most common behavioral science books, but only BRS has been updated for DSM5). First Aid does address most of the salient material.

Genetics

Epidemiology & Biostatistics

  • Can be safely skipped. First Aid, Crush Step 1, and a number of other resources cover the ground fine.

Pharmacology

  • If your lectures aren’t doing the trick, I’d pick the Lippincott Illustrated Reviews: Pharmacology over Katzung and Trevor’s to be your foundation. LIR has a friendlier and more digestible organization, style, and pictures (though K & T has nice USMLE-style questions baked in working in its favor). Either would work fine, though many people won’t end up buying a dedicated pharm text.
  • SketchyMedical is rolling out their Pharmacology product, which will probably be good but expensive.
  • Pharmacology is another great subject for flashcards. Deja Review Pharmacology (format discussed above) is a great option for a notecard-like resource to hammer the details. Making your own could actually be worth your time, but your friends and the internet also have decks of varying quality. If none of that suits you,  the PharmCards are also pretty good overall.

Pathology

  • I owe a lot to the Robbins & Cotran Review of Pathology (aka the Robbins question book). You can learn most of the testable information in pathology just by going through the (difficult) questions in each chapter one by one, reading the explanations, and soldiering on. You’ll even start getting questions toward the end of a chapter right because you’ll have learned the testable facts as incorrect choices on earlier questions. Explanations are concise (but awesome), so you’ll occasionally need to supplement, but this is easily my favorite book from the basic science years. I don’t really believe in “must-haves,” but if I did, this was mine. Do the whole thing cover to cover right before your pathology shelf and you’ll have given yourself the best possible chance of destroying it.
  • Since my time, Pathoma became a thing. This often replaces everything else “pathology” for a lot of people, though it’s more on the “clear & high-yield” side and less on the thorough. Videos are generally beloved, probably better than your school lectures, and—assuming you attend those—excellent to watch beforehand. The level of detail may or may not be enough for your school’s tests, so ask your more senior peers. They offer a pretty extensive free trial to see if the lectures and book are your style.
  • Goljan’s Rapid Review of Pathology has lost some ground to Pathoma but is still very popular, well-received, and is often well-utilized longitudinally throughout a second-year path course (and sometimes just for dedicated Step review). It’s more detailed. RR covers a lot of important material, but personally, I think it’s death by bullet point (the best stuff is the blue boxes/tables/pictures). If you look at your lineup and you just don’t see a good way to fit it in, that’s entirely fine. You don’t need to Goljan to succeed.
  • Big Robbins is an excellent textbook if you still like the idea of “really learning the basic sciences” by the time second year rolls around or need a non-pharmacological sleep aid (it’s over 1400 pages). I’d argue that the parts that will show up on tests make their way into the Q&A book just fine, and big Robbins is most efficiently used a reference (if at all). The completionists will, of course, learn pathology “better” by pouring over the whole thing page by page (#yolo/#fomo).

General

  • It’s now common practice for students to go through and annotate First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 as they progress through the basic sciences. FA is generally too terse to learn from at first but a universally utilized high-yield review when a foundation is in place. If this method sounds good to you, then by all means do it. If it doesn’t, then don’t—I certainly didn’t. I want my textbooks to be textbooks, my review books to be review books, and I don’t want to take notes in general, let alone in the margins.
  • I actually found First Aid to be overrated, tedious to get through, and difficult to retain. Crush Step 1 wasn’t around when I was a medical student, but if it had been, I’d definitely have used it (I was a big Crush Step 2 fan back in the day, though the new Crush takes a more detailed approach). I’d probably still have rushed through FA during dedicated Step 1 review (everyone does), but Crush would have been more helpful at actually teaching/hitting the high points as a longitudinal two-year resource.
  • Keep in mind: Questions are good. Do lots of questions. If you have cash to burn, UWorld has great ones, and they’re the most critical component of Step review. Here are some free question resources if you don’t.

 

Read on: Best Books for the Clinical Clerkships

 

Additional reading:

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for these recommendations! What do you think about Deja Review for Pharmacology and Microbiology? According to the latest First Aid, they received “A” grades, so I was wondering if you had any thoughts about them. Thanks again!

    Reply
    • They’re solid (discussed above). Imagine them like flashcards that put the question & answer in side by side columns. Material is succinct and clearly written. While it’s not quite the same as applying knowledge to answering questions, the Q&A format helps with rote memorization, and as such, can be quite helpful for those two subjects. To me, they fit best in that rapid notecard-style studying niche (an important niche!), and not primary text (lecture notes/powerpoints, textbook, etc) replacement. Great for last-minute pre test review/cramming.

      Reply
  2. Thank you SOOOO freaking much! You have given me the reassurance that countless speakers and older med students couldn’t give be because you have actually given me a relevant plan of attack. I wish you the best of luck in all of your future endeavours, and thanks again for taking the time to do this and for being so helpful. :D

    Reply
  3. thanks
    i wanna be a medical doctor, specialized in obstetrics or gynecology and i’m now having plans to enroll myself in a university. i wanna buy some books and learn them at home before i start to help me have a wider knowledge and understanding when i’m in.
    what books do you recommend?

    Reply
    • These recs are for medical students. That’s a long way away for anyone who hasn’t gone through college courses etc. You’ll serve yourself better reading for and doing well in your premedical coursework at this point.

      Reply
    • Looks really good; style is bit different. The comics are detailed and the regular text is pretty straight/vanilla. But MRS style isn’t for everyone, so not necessarily a bad thing.

      Reply

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