A simple guide to getting started with Anki

by Gabe

Anki is the best way to memorize information for the MCAT.

But a lot of people don't know how to use it. And I get it: Anki is a weird program. It’s old-fashioned looking, it's clunky, and it takes a while to get used to it.

So if you’ve considered using Anki but found it hard to get started, then this guide is for you.

Why use Anki?

The real genius behind Anki is the algorithm.

Imagine that your MCAT is in three months. You’re studying psychology, and today you memorize the three stages of general adaptation syndrome.

If you never think about general adaptation syndrome again until your test day—three months from now—then what are the odds that you’ll still remember those stages? Very low.

Anki solves that problem. It schedules your flashcards for you so that you keep seeing them again and again, each time reinforcing your knowledge a bit more. But it doesn’t just repeat them all at the same intervals. In other words, it doesn’t just show you every card once a week or something like that.

It actually schedules the cards based on how difficult they are for you. When you study your flashcards it asks you to rate their difficulty as you answer them. The ones that you mark as easy you won’t see as frequently. But the harder ones you'll see more often.

That way you can focus on your weak points, while letting the easier content coast in the background. If you keep up with reviewing your flashcards each day, then you’ll never forget the stuff you put in Anki.

Installing Anki

You can download the desktop Anki app for free here: https://apps.ankiweb.net

There’s also an Android app (free).

And an iOS app ($25).

(Even though the iOS app costs some money, it’s 100% worth it in my opinion.)

You have to start with the desktop app, though, because that’s the only one you’ll use to actually make flashcards.

Making flashcards

In Anki, flashcards are organized into decks. So when you download Anki the first thing you should do is click the “Create Deck” button at the bottom of the screen.

Click on the new deck you've made and you should see a screen like this:

Click "Add" and then you can start making your own flashcards.

Don't worry about card types, tags, or any of the other settings for now. Just fill out front and back like you would on a paper flashcard.

When you're done making cards, click close and then it should look like this:

Here's what those terms mean...

New: cards you've made but never looked at.

Learning: cards you've just looked at for the first few times but haven't memorized yet.

To Review: cards you've already learned but Anki has scheduled for you to see today.

Click the "Study Now" button to start studying your flashcards.

Studying your flashcards

So you've got your first Anki card staring you down...

(That's a tough one.)

Think about it for a minute and when you've got the answer—or you're stumped—click "Show Answer."

Now this is where the magic happens.

Here you have to rate your answer. "Again" means you got it wrong. "Good" means you got it right. "Easy" means you got it right and it was easy.

The numbers above those buttons tell you how long it'll be before you see that card again. "1m" means 1 minute. "4d" means 4 days. So let's say you got it right. You click "Good" and then Anki will cycle through your other new flashcards (assuming you made some others). Eventually, because you haven't fully learned this one yet, you'll it again—about 10 minutes later.

At that point, you try to answer it again and then it'll look like this:

This is the best part because if you got the card right then you click either "Good" or "Easy" and you send the card off into the future. If it was "Good" then you'll see it tomorrow. If it was "Easy" then you'll see it in 4 days.

When you've studied all the flashcards for a given day then Anki will say "Congratulations! You have finished this deck for now."

Next comes...

The waiting game

It's really important at this point that you trust the process.

The geniuses over at Anki have put a really good algorithm into the program. If it says you're done for today, you're done for today. Wait until tomorrow.

Tomorrow when you come back, you'll see that card again. Answer it, and it'll look like this:

Now you'll see that the time options have changed. If you say the card was "Good" then you won't see it again for 3 days. If you got it wrong, you click "Again" and it'll show it to you in about 10 minutes (and it'll keep doing that until you get it right).

This is the basic idea behind Anki. If you keep getting the cards right then those intervals will keep increasing in length. In other words, you'll see the card less and less often—because you know it, so you don't need to see it as often. If you get a card wrong, you'll see it more frequently.

Another important thing to note here is that you have to rate your cards honestly. If you didn't get the answer right, you have to click "Again". Don't ever tell yourself, "Oh I didn't get it, but I actually knew that. I was just forgetting." That'll destroy the whole process. In order for the algorithm to work you have to be honest with yourself.

So yeah...that's pretty much it! Each day Anki will have a pile of flashcards for you to review. You'll go through all those cards and then you'll be done for the day. It can feel a little weird sometimes if you know Anki isn't going to show you a particular card for a while. You might be worried you'll forget it if you don't see it sooner. But don't worry. Like I said, the algorithm is really good. You just have to trust Anki to tell you when to review things.

Other questions and concerns

What settings should I use?

You don't need to mess around with the settings too much, but here's what I do. First off, you get to settings by clicking the gear icon next to your deck.

You can change "New cards/day" (on the "New Cards" tab) to control how many new cards you get. Don't set it too high though. 20 or 30 is a good starting point. Later you can bump it up closer to 50 if things are going well.

I also have "Maximum reviews/day" (on the "Reviews" tab) set to 999. That just means Anki won't hide any cards from me that are scheduled to review for the day. That doesn't mean it'll actually give you 999 cards to review each day.

What plugins should I get?

The only one I use regularly is Image Occlusion, which lets you cover up parts of images to make flashcards with them. It's very helpful for memorizing diagrams.

Should I use pre-made decks?

You can, but it’s much better to make your own. I know that sounds like an “eat your vegetables” type of thing to say, but it’s true.

At least start by making your own flashcards. You can always supplement with other decks later if you need to.

I like making paper flashcards more than using the computer.

Not once you start using Anki, you won’t.

Can I take days off of reviewing?

Every once in a while, but it’s best if you review almost every day. When you take days off the reviews really pile up and it’s hard to get started again.

Improve your CARS score in 5 days (for free)

Sign up to get my free 5-Day CARS Guide. You’ll get one email each day teaching you the same approach I used for a perfect score.