Study Tips for Med School
Developing Successful Study Strategies in Medical School
For Students of All Ages & Levels
So, you got into medical school/graduate school, huh?
First of all, big congratulations, that’s no easy feat! Now, gear up for the ride of your life.
I always joke that if I had have been half as productive and focused in undergrad as I’ve learned to be in medical school, I could have cured world hunger. But, alas, I was not. It’s not all awash however; I got into medical school and I’ve been successful during the course of it. My mentality on studying is to work smarter, not harder. I hope this guide will help you to establish a strong study routine early in your medical school/graduate school career to optimize your success.
This blog discusses mindset, best practices, study tips, and how to select resources that augment/complement your study style.
It will feel daunting and you’ll feel uneasy when you first start, but it truly is the best way to learn and cement the material.
1.There is no easy-way-out
Ah, anatomy lab. The smell of formaldehyde, the ambiguity of the tangled nerves (or are those blood vessels…?), the minutiae of details you have to learn. What a time.
Anatomy is both the easiest and the most challenging class I have taken in medical school.
How is that possible? Well, with regards to being easy, anatomy is a detail-oriented, rote-memorization course. In systems classes, you’re likely going to have to interpret a clinical scenario and even choose a next best step - requiring more systematic, algorithmic thinking; this is not usually the case in anatomy. Anatomy is actually pretty straight-forward: what is the muscle, what is it’s function, what happens if its damaged, what nerve innervates, etc.
Okay…so why is it so hard? Well, it’s the first class (or one of the first classes) that you take at most medical programs. It also requires the memorization of a massive amount of information. So, you just (likely) moved cities, got to school, you’re in an adjustment period, and now you have to learn the path of every nerve in the body. Yep. That’s exactly what you have to do and that makes it hard AF because you have to adjust your mentality, which is more difficult than the studying itself.
And guess what?! There’s no easy way out. You actually have to learn this, you have to put the time into visualizing these structures, understanding their paths, functions, etc. Whether its via listening to lectures, doing flashcards, or drawing it out (whatever works best for you), you have to put the time in.
In undergrad, I’d maybe go to class (big emphasis on the maybe) but would avoid studying until three-days leading up to the exam. Then I would hardcore study, staying up late for three nights straight. I did good, not stellar or extraordinary, but I got by and even graduated with honors. Guess what? This is not going to cut it in medical/graduate school. Staying up the night before and cramming is not an effective strategy. Honestly doing so will just make you exhausted and unable to think clearly on the exam. For the past two-years, I’ve studied virtually every single day for 4 - 8 hours total (not including my daily study breaks, after exams, summer, etc.) You have to look at the material several times then apply it in order to understand it well enough pass/ace the test.
There is no shortcut and there is no way to not put in the effort and consistently do well. Once you accept this reality, medical school gets easier and your focus shifts from studying more aggressively to studying more efficiently.
2.Identify what your study-style is
Are you a visual learner? Auditory? Kinesthetic? Do you even know?
Have you had to figure that out?
Before medical school, I had no idea what worked for me. I would attend lectures and re-listen to them over and over again hoping to absorb the information. Since I’d always had to attend lectures, I just figured this is what worked for me.
Actually, only 30% of medical students are auditory learners. And I am not amongst this 30%. Rather, I’m a kinesthetic learner. I learn from doing: rewriting facts, reading them out-loud/teaching to myself, developing concept maps of interrelated concepts, working cases in groups, and doing practice problems.
It’s important to understand your learning style so you can allocate your limited time wisely. This is something, I’d wager most students have not figured out when starting medical school. Be sure to spend some time in your first few months figuring out what works best for you. Here’s a fun quiz that might get your started on your path of discovery.
3.Identify the best resources for you
There are an infinite amount of resources in medical school. One person prefers First Aid, one person exclusively uses Amboss, one person reads Robbins. It’s hard to know what resources to consult.
I have a few tips for selecting resources:
Identify your study style first: if you’re visual, you might want textbooks, anatomy atlases, etc.; videos/online lectures work well for auditory and visual learners, etc.
Reach out to older students at your school. If your curriculum is (at least) similar, they’ll likely have great intel on what works best for specific courses.
Don’t get too attached to any one resource. Different classes might require different resources; don’t be so tied to a resource that you fail to use another/more appropriate resource
Make sure you’re not using to many resources. There are a multitude of resources out there - it’s better to use a few resources thoroughly than to use many resources poorly.
4.Be mindful of your time
Time is you most valuable commodity in medical/graduate school, and honestly in life.
Always be mindful of how much time you’re allocating to tasks. It’s easy to end up down a rabbit hole or chronic kidney disease and get into novel research, which is interesting but likely will not appear on your exam. It’s important to feed your scientific curiosity, while managing your time and being sure that you are prepared for more immediate tasks/tests.
No one else can manage your time for you, so it’s up to you to manage your time well. I personally like to use my iCal on my phone as well as a Pomodoro timer to split up how I’m allocating my time during the resources I use.
5.Allocate specific time for your extra-curriculars
One of the coolest parts of medical school and graduate school is that you have an automatic platform for advocacy and pursuing causes you’re interested in. There are so many opportunities to lead and engage; it’s truly been one of the greatest experiences of medical school.
This being said, it’s very easy to get caught up in your extracurriculars and to over-extend yourself. Once in an IRB meeting, the dean reminded me, “Don’t get too caught up in this research and neglect your schoolwork. You’re here to go to school and get an education, not to do research.” THIS IS SO TRUE. Medical students are amazing and faculty and research mentors know it. They have high expectations for us, and sometimes they might ask for a lot, not knowing that you have so many other things on your plate.
I was the QUEEN of allocating an hour a day to specific projects or 30 minutes after 5 PM to catching up on emails. When you designate specific time you carve out specific time that you’ll dedicate to that extra-curricular. This also allowed me to fully focus on emailing or data or attending meetings during that time and not feel pulled in different directions.
Clubs, leadership activities, and research are excellent accoutrements to your academic performance on your CV, but they are not stand-ins. Never forget that your job is to learn and get an education. Allocate your time as such, education first then extracurriculars.
6.Don’t be afraid to reach out for help
Your school most likely offers free tutoring and academic advising. It can be scary to reach out for help, but if you are struggling, you need to. As someone who has been tutored and who has tutored, I can tell you the hardest step is reaching out. In house tutoring is great because it’s usually older students who have been in your shoes and know exactly what concepts to help you with to succeed.
You can reach out to your school’s academic affairs office for anything: school, grades, time management, test prep, etc. I highly recommend reaching out to academic affairs when planning board/examination preparation - they will be happy to look at your plan and help you prevent burnout.
7.Practice Problems! Practice Problems! Practice Problems!
The single best advice I have for doing well in medical school is to do practice problems and do them often. Start them early: before you’ve mastered the material. Wait. What? Won’t I miss all the questions? Probably. But, being forced to actually apply knowledge is extremely critical to mastering the material. Applying your knowledge to practice problems is a great way to see what gaps exist in your knowledge.
My second semester of medical school, I shifted my study style so that I was reviewing the material just one time before starting practice problems. Doing practice problems helps you to truly understand the material as you are being forced to apply it to a clinical situation.
The single best, bottom line advice I can give you is: DO MORE PRACTICE PROBLEMS. Start them early, begin them as early as possible, and do as many as possible. You will reap the rewards on your exams.
I hope this guide is a helpful first-step! Are you a veteran medical/graduate student? What did you do to set up a successful study strategy? Are you an incoming student? Let me know about your experience establishing a study routine in the comments below.
One Hangry Millennial
Buşan AM. Learning styles of medical students - implications in education. Curr Health Sci J. 2014;40(2):104–110.