What is a Good Surgery Shelf Score?

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Do you want to test your knowledge acquired during your clinical rotation? Well, not only is the Surgery Shelf Exam an ideal way to do it, but it can increase your chances of being accepted places. However, it’s not required of you to sit for the examination to obtain your medical degree. Despite that, the exam is still quite popular among medical students.

The Surgery Shelf Exam, also known as the NBME Surgery Shelf Exam, is based on case studies. Hence, it tests students on how capable they are when managing surgical patients, diagnosing, and determining the appropriate surgical procedures required. It spans numerous topics, all the way from pediatrics to Ob-Gyns.

However, things get a little complicated once you sit for the actual exam and get your score. Hence, throughout this article, you’ll learn how to read your exam scores, enhance them, and know the best study resources.

How to Interpret Your NBME Surgery Shelf Score?How to Interpret Your NBME Surgery Shelf Score?

First of all, you must understand that the score you receive is not a percentile reflection, nor is it a reflection of your raw score. Hence, you won’t be able to find out how many questions you answered correctly. However, some schools would ask for access to the raw scores for in-house grading.

Keep in mind that if you’re sitting for the examination as part of your school’s course curriculum, then the passing score for the NBME exam might vary. Hence, consult your professor for detailed information about the scoring system.

Moreover, the NBME Surgery Shelf Exam has multiple subject tests included. These are mentioned in the list below, along with the link to that exam’s specific score interpretation guide:

Despite various interpretation reports, below is a general guideline to access your scores. These will help you understand how are NBME shelf exams graded, as they’re not assessed based on a score. They’re evaluated around a mean of 70, which changes according to the difficulty of the exam. Below is a general idea of what to expect from your NBME shelf exam scores.

Subject Examination Scores

Subject Examination Scores

The subject examination score includes a set mean of 70 with a standard deviation of 8. These numbers were set back in 2013 and are not subject to change. These scores will range anywhere between 45 – 95, but while it’s tempting to interpret them as a percentile or percentage, it is not.

The score you will see is statistically equated across various test administrations. Still, they also vary slightly according to the difficulty of the exam. Hence, this score is often used to evaluate how well the examinees performed compared to the whole nation.

Precision of Scores

Almost every standardized exam has a standard error of measurement (SEM). Hence, the SEM index indicates how far away your actual score is from finding out how proficient you are on the subject. Thus, if you received a score of 60 with an SEM of 3, your score will light between 57 – 63.

Score and Performance Feedback

On each page of the feedback provided to you, you’ll find detailed explanations of several scored items, the purpose of the examination, and the examinee group tested. Depending on the subject test you’re sitting for, you might also receive an Examinee Performance Profile that portrays your strengths and weaknesses.


The surgery shelf exam percentiles will tell you how well you score nationwide. It can be anywhere between the 5th – 99th percentile. For instance, if you score within the 85th percentile, you performed better on the exam than 85% of students. That places you within the top 15%.

What is a Good NBME Surgery Shelf Score?

What is a Good NBME Surgery Shelf Score?

The surgery shelf exam passing score is approximately 65. However, it also varies according to the subject you’re sitting for, as all subject exams have different curves. Hence, your score will inform you with information differently according to which exam you’re taking.

However, while that is merely a number, others argue that the minimum passing score is 56. But to keep things simple, consider the following information when you’re looking for a passing grade:

  • Score a minimum of 60
  • Land on the curve higher than the 5th percentile
  • More than 2 SD below the mean score to be able to pass

As for the surgery shelf average score, it was placed back in 2013 and is deemed to be 70. However, the number slowly started to rise over the years and currently resides somewhere in the mid-70s.

But are you worried about attaining that perfect score in the NBME Surgery Shelf Exam? So what is a good surgery shelf score? According to a meticulously conducted study, examinees received an honors score between 74 – 91. Hence, aiming to score within that range should be your goal.

How Can You Score Better on the Surgery Shelf Exam?

How Can You Score Better on the Surgery Shelf Exam?

If passing the surgery shelf is a concern, as numerous students do state how difficult the exam is, then there are a few tips that will help you score high. You probably administered all your clinical rotations at this point, and you’re about to sit for the exam.

The first thing to note is not all physicians are kind enough to immerse you in the experience of surgery. However, other doctors include their students by asking them questions, asking for suggestions, or even explaining things in a more detailed manner.

Hence, sometimes you will have to rely on yourself much more than you expected. But generally, with the proper preparation (sometimes taking as long as 14 weeks), you’ll ace the exam.

Create a study schedule

If you’ve taken the Medicine Shelf before, you can use the same study material you owned. Either way, you need to start planning as soon as day 1 of your rotation begins. You must be able to spare at least 2 hours a day to dedicate them to studying meticulously.

For every day, cover whichever topic you’re not feeling confident about. Then, find some online resources to help with sample questions. Moreover, keep note of all vital information mentioned during rotation, as that will help you in moments of need during the exam.

Don’t be afraid to reach out

You might already have a friend or two going through rotations with you. Hence, if you witness yourself struggling with some parts, reach out and ask for advice. Sometimes it’s easier to recall information someone else says aloud as you create all three of visual image, auditory sensation, and note-taking.

Find the best resources

Now, the Surgery Shelf exam covers a vast number of materials. Many students often compare it to the Medicine Shelf Exam simply because of how difficult it is and the sheer amount of material that needs to be covered.

While centering around the works of the operation room (OR), the examination includes pre-operation and post-operation care. You’ll also have to be able to manage your patient’s needs, not only surgical ones. If you’ve already taken the Medicine Shelf Exam, this will be relatively easier. However, if you haven’t, studying for this one will help you with the other.

Hence, you should obtain the best resources, which are discussed in the next section.

5 Best Study Resources for the Surgery Shelf Exam

5 Best Study Resources for the Surgery Shelf Exam


The UWORLD preparation material includes all necessary material for every clinical rotation. Hence, it provides you with several questions that you can go through to practice for the exam. However, you’ll only find around 500 surgery-specific questions in the questions section.

Divine Intervention Podcasts

When on the go, resort to the Divine Intervention Podcast. Not only does he cover the shelf exams, but the method of explanation used simplifies things to allow you to better grasp the concepts.


AMBOSS contains side-by-side explanations along with content guides. These are mainly used for review purposes, and you can do it during your spare time throughout your shifts.

Surgery: A Case-Based Clinical Review

If you don’t want to waste your time or money on various resources, then the Surgery: A Case-Based Clinical Review is the book you’re looking for. You’ll find every detail you need in there.

OnlineMedEd Outlines

If you’re looking for a more video-based review, then OnlineMedEd Outlines is the source you’re looking for. There is a subscription fee, but you can always check out the free videos. This is one of our favorite ways to study, as it allows you to recall information through visual effects.

Wrapping Things Up: What is a Good Surgery Shelf Score?

Overall, the Surgery Shelf Exam is not incredibly difficult; it is doable. The general advice we would present is to keep your attention focused during rotation, as most vital information will be learned there. Moreover, you should never be afraid to ask questions or inquiries. The only way you can learn is through curiosity. Hence, show that ambitious side of yours through adequate preparation and a sense of passion.

Picture of Professor Conquer
Professor Conquer

Professor Conquer started Conquer Your Exam in 2018 to help students feel more confident and better prepared for their tough tests. Prof excelled in high school, graduating top of his class and receiving admissions into several Ivy League and top 15 schools. He has helped many students through the years tutoring and mentoring K-12, consulting seniors through the college admissions process, and writing extensive how-to guides for school.

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