Awesome Med Books

My biases:  I love books.  I also see nothing wrong with reading board review books early – it’s not like you’re actually studying for the USMLE – it’s just another resource, and board questions are great for checking to see if you really know the material or just think you do.   (Also, I go to a P/F, unranked school – so I’m cool with missing questions on the professor’s favorite protein, as long as I feel like I understand the important stuff).

Listen to your M2s – their opinions are worth more.  But I figured I’d put this page together in case there was room on the internet for a totally biased opinion (also, because the weather sucks today and I’m caught up on studying.)

Ratings are based on a 5-point scale, but I’m only including books I actually liked, so basically 3-5.

Other med students-  please feel free to throw in your opinions/disagree with me in the comments!


Rating:  5

BRS is a godsend for this subject.  It’s in outline form, which may or may not be a plus for you – but regardless, consider it for the questions alone.  These questions are amazing for preparing for written anatomy tests (unless your school has a wildly different style from the USMLE, which is possible.)  When I did the BRS questions before taking an anatomy test, my score was in the 90s.  When I blew it off, my score went down to the 70s.

Correlation and not causation and all that, but anatomy is like basic physics – there are only so many types of questions they can ask, and if you do enough practice questions that you start to understand them, there’s almost no way you can do poorly.  (With the caveat that the lab time is important, too.)

Rating:  3.5

I assume you’re already going to get Netter, which is good, because there’s nothing really wrong with Netter.  But if you want a second atlas, consider Thieme, because it doesn’t throw as much at you in a single picture and offers way more explanation and different views.  By the end of anatomy, most of my class wished we had bought this one too.

Rating:  4

Don’t let the cover fool you – this is an atlas of real cadaver photos.  They’re labeled by number so that you can test yourself against the key at the bottom of the photo.  As far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely required for getting a great grade in the dissection lab – it’s awesome.  (The downside is the small size of the text, and the fact that the dissections in this book are professionally done with fresh cadavers, so they won’t bear much resemblance to M1 dissections.  But it’s still 100% better than drawings, you know?)

Note:  There are also Rohen flashcards now!.  This is probably an awesome idea but I’ve never used them.  I want them to be as awesome as the atlas, but most anatomy flashcard sets have 1 deeply problematic flaw (i.e. Netter flashcards have up to 20 muscles on 1 flashcard, which makes them useless for actual flashcard-ing.)  Hopefully someone will post a review of them on amazon soon.


Ranking:  4.5 

This is the gold standard, pathologists all recommend it, etc.  My bias is that I think pathology is the fun part of medicine – it’s the “when things go really wrong” that makes you feel like you know stuff.  I love the tone, as well – it’s really readable.

A warning:  This is Medium Robbins.  I can’t for the life of me figure out why anybody recommends Big Robbins, because despite the vastly increased size, it actually covers the same material.  I own both and am secretly hoping to pawn off Big Robbins onto an M1 next year (for a reduced price, because I have a soul).  I’m pretty sure it just has more references.  Lame.


Ranking:  Too biased to rate objectively.

Listen to your M2s, but if they all disagree or don’t care about what physiology book is best, consider getting Guyton.  I took a master’s physiology course in undergrad, and this was how we were taught – and everything made logical sense.  I love the tone of this book.

I tried to read Costanzo for med school (it was our required book), but couldn’t even make it a few pages in.  I was annoyed they weren’t presenting the material like Guyton did, and I ended up hauling out this huge book and going back to it.  It was such a relief to see the familiar diagrams and feel like physiology made sense again.

… Internet, meet my obsessive-compulsive-personality disorder.

Rating:  4

The outline form is super-compact, even though the tables and charts are nice summaries (i.e. not a good primary resource) – HOWEVER, worth it for the questions!

The questions and explanations are great – especially since physiology is so concept-based that it’s really easy to fool yourself into thinking you understand things.  Practice questions aren’t worth much until you’ve really worked on the concepts, but I’d argue that they’re just as crucial.

Rating:  5

This book is in Q&A format (hurray, active learning!) so you can read it in 2 ways – either straight through (i.e. “What diuretics work on principal cells? …. “K+ sparing diuretics “) or as a way to quiz yourself on the train.  (i.e. “Oh god, what diuretics DO work on principal cells?  Let me flip back to the “What do principal cells do?” question..)

Really condensed, really excellent way to study, I think.


Rating:  6.  Yes, this is still a 5 point scale. No, I have no respect for statistics.

Yes, you need it.  It’s a supplement to whatever micro textbook the M2s recommend (and/or your class syllabus), not really a replacement, but it’s a necessary supplement that will save you a lot of time and memorization.


Rating:  6.  (Yes, I know, if I keep breaking the 5-point scale, you’ll start disregarding my opinion.  I’m sorry!  It’s a 6!)

There is no other way I would’ve learned the immune system.  None.  This book is conversational and makes perfect sense, and everything that doesn’t make perfect sense is acknowledged.  The only two acceptable reasons for not buying this book is 1) you are not actually going to med school/dental school/veterinary school, or 2) You have a PhD in immunology already.


Ranking:  5

So the thing about Lilly is that it’s AMAZING.  This is the only section where I found Robbins to be kind of lame, and I think that’s because I was reading Lilly at the same time and unfairly comparing the two.

Rating:  4.5

I loved this book – it’s great for active learning (periodic questions that make sure you’re actually following along), and despite the thickness, it has very little text on each page.  It sort of feels like a picture book, which is super helpful and fun.  (What is less superhelpful and fun are the sex offender convictions of the author, which I think is best explained in this Scrubnotes post , and also discussed a bit on this post on medstudentitis.)

Personally, I’m cool with endorsing the book because as long as you buy it used, you’re not supporting the author.  That’s just me, though.

Respiratory & Renal & most likely clinical medicine in general, it seems:

Ranking:  4.5

Okay, this might be awesome for cardiology too (but who needs a 2-ton textbook when you have Lilly?) but I know for a fact that it saved my life in respiratory and is currently saving my life in renal.  I honestly don’t think it’s too detailed for each individual disease you study – it’s actually pretty condensed and to-the-point – I absolutely love it.

Many people would argue that it’s too clinically-oriented for M2s, but I say it’s 100% worth the money as long as you buy the 2nd most recent edition from a used bookstore instead of amazon.  (Non-internet-savvy physicians just sell them to used bookstores to make room for their new editions, and enough of them do it that the used bookstores mark them down like crazy to reclaim the shelf space.)

Rating:  3

This is a decent source for questions, although it’s not multiple-choice (they want you to really think things through and not just practice test-taking strategies).  I like it a lot, because there’s a Kindle edition and I can do this in class when the lecture gets indecipherable and still feel like I learned something.  It’s probably only worth it in the first 2 years of med school if your school does case-based questions, though.


Rating:  4/5

You could probably get through your Endocrine section without this book.  But I don’t know why you’d want to.  (Seems like normal function and abnormal function are more inseparable in Endocrine than in any other system – so it helps to have a book that’s about both the physiology and the pathology, rather than relying on 2 separate books for each).  It has helpful quizzes, pretty diagrams, and huge margins for adding notes or testable points from lecture.  (In summary: God bless the M2 who recommended this book to our class.  It’s great.)

The Physical Exam:

Ranking:  3.5

Yes, your school will tell you to get Bates or Mosby, and you probably should (at least the pocket guide).  But this book is absolutely a godsend in figuring out how useful tests really are in a clinical setting, as well as why they’re done, what they’re supposed to tell you, and what they’re really worth.  It’s written in a tone of this grizzly old physician just unleashing everything he knows about the physical exam, including every hint and tip he’s ever picked up (check out the hyperbolic reviews!  That’s why I bought it.  I ended up agreeing with the reviewers, luckily).

The big problem with it is how dense it is – tons of text, few pictures.  I love it, but I haven’t read the whole thing yet by any means.  Not sure I’ll ever make it all the way through.  Still, it’s still nice to know answers to questions that other students don’t because you’re learning from a source other than the required book.

Note:  I don’t see any reason to get the most recent edition of any physical diagnosis book.  I mean, I wouldn’t go back further than 3 or 4 editions, just because the illustrations will start to look 80s-tastic, but you know – no research lab is currently coming up with new ways to approach stethoscope placement.  (EDIT [5/11/2011]:  Okay, even 3 or 4 editions turns out to be too far back in time, as you will risk reading the phrase ‘coloreds’.  You have been warned.)

19 thoughts on “Awesome Med Books

  1. OMG the micro book is the BEST BOOK EVER. I also liked kierzenbaum for histology and some basic phys. The BRS phys book will serve you very well for step 1.

  2. I love Lilly. It saved my life in Cardiovascular. I’ve been considering getting How the Immune System works for boards studying- Kaplan’s immuno section is just extremely dry.
    I have Big Robbins, and while it is a pain because it’s so big, it looks kind of impressive on my bookshelf.

  3. For Cardiology, I really liked Klabunde’s Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts. I took a 4th year Cardiovascular Physiology and this was the required text.

    At 235 pages (incl index) it is compact but I feel provides just the right amount of information. Much of the focus of the book is preload and afterload and the various mechanisms affecting them. Great conceptual diagrams.

    • Darn, I never responded to this! Sorry about that.

      You know, for the basics on pharm (pharmokinetics, pharmodynamics, the usual graphs) BRS Pharmacology is great. Unless you have a really great pharm lecturer, those topics are hard and a book is really useful for understanding them.

      But I’d suggest just trying to pick it up from the library, because once the time comes to memorize drugs, it’ll be all about what your lecturer thinks is important. Hopefully you’ll have a drug list you can just memorize, and BRS Pharm won’t be as useful as the list (in my experience).

      That’s all I can think of!

      • Thanks! I found a cheap used copy only and ended up coming across some flash card sets that look to be really useful too 🙂 (though I still love quizlet for making my own). Absolutely love this blog, so entertaining and informative at the same time 🙂

  4. Hey AP, I’m starting med school in Feb (Australia), and am nerdily contemplating textbooks. Do you happen to know whether the single Thieme atlas is better than the newer divided up general anatomy/head and neuroanatomy/neck and internal organs ones? Hmm.

    • Hey Lucia! So I’m of the mindset that the problem with anatomy is that there’s too much information and it’s too hard to condense it down. So generally speaking, I think it’s a lot better to just get the one Thieme atlas – that way they’re doing the job of condensing the information FOR you. (Also, their more specific atlases go into more detail than is needed for med school anatomy – as crazy as that is to imagine.)
      BUT, if you already know you’re strongly interested in surgery (or ob/gyn!) I’d get one of the specialty ones in addition to the single atlas. (Later on, if you decide you want to go completely specialized, you can easily sell the single Thieme and use the money towards another one.)

      That’s just me, though! I’m always a fan of more medical books. I have the most absurd collection possible, and I love them all. 🙂 GOOD LUCK!

      • Thanks a bunch! There’s a definite “but I must learn EVERYTHING!” feeling. I also love books and am a bit of a hoarder… I just got my pre-reading list (aarghgh, will mostly disregard) and bought the one Thieme atlas. Now to chill out until semester starts.

  5. Fact: I take Lilly with me on the bus as leisurely reading. Love Lilly! What do you think about the other ‘ridiculously simple’ books, I’m thinking of ordering a few more based on how great the clinical microbi one is.

  6. hey dear can u say website address where i can download such books in pdf/ebook versions for free (which actually works too :p). I will be so grateful to u.

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