How I Study in Medical School

I’ve always been an early riser but I never had to be an early studier — I didn’t have many courses with tests that required memorization in college or graduate school, I wrote a lot of papers. And so it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to study as I made the transition from a career in public policy and graduate school to memorizing the Krebs cycle and trying to understand anything about physics. Over the course of my post-bac program and studying for the MCAT, I realized that my challenge was the fact that my productivity took a nose dive around 6pm. I could review notes over dinner, but I wasn’t taking new notes or doing serious active studying.

During the second semester of my post-bac, I was taking four courses (Biology II, Organic Chemistry II, Physics II, and Biochemistry) and studying for the MCAT. I ended up taking the MCAT only a month after those courses ended. Looking back, I sometimes have no idea how I finished that semester with good grades and scored where I wanted to on the MCAT (#ALLTHECOFFEE). But then I remember how tightly I scheduled my time and didn’t really socialize at all for about four months. That’s not really a reality in medical school — I’m involved in student organizations, research, the blog, a small business, and need time to stay up with friends and family.

But, my main “job” is attending school and learning the material, so I do still need to prioritize studying, and then schedule everything else around it. And that’s where being a natural early riser — with a bit of help from my alarm clock and an early bedtime — comes in. I try to be in bed by 9:30pm every night and wake up between 4:30-5:30am, depending on the day. [Thanks to Andrea Tooley for teaching me to take advantage of my natural highest productivity time and for awesome study tips!]

Since most of our lectures are recorded, I don’t have to be on campus every day. Some students attend each lecture in person but I prefer to watch them at home — it allows me to pause, rewind, and hear a concept more than once if necessary before moving on. I try to stay on top of watching each lecture the day it is recorded, but also know I have the weekend to catch up on a lecture or two if needed. Case in point, last week was a 4-day school week week but still had 5 days worth of lectures. I didn’t finish the last one until Sunday morning! When I watch each lecture, I highlight important points on the slides and take notes in the PowerPoint.

Typically the next day, I will go back to that lecture and take handwritten notes. Sometimes I’ll print out a slide or two if it has an important list or chart — it’s always nice when I don’t have to do the work of organizing important information. Once I have made my handwritten notes, I rarely go back to the slides. [Color pens are also a necessity. Who wants to look at black or blue notes all day.]

An example of what my notes look like.

Simply reading my notes over and over again does not get them to stick — and I’m not a huge fan of flashcards. A number of my classmates love Anki but it just doesn’t work for me; it’s too passive and easy for me to get distracted. My study tool of choice is a huge white board. I’ll do a “brain dump” from a particular lecture on the white board and seeing it in writing helps me figure out what I know, what I know incompletely, and what I’ve totally forgotten. Studying with the white board also helps me connect concepts across lectures as opposed to learn each lecture in a silo.

A “brain dump” about inflammation during our pathology course.

Thankfully, we usually have at least two full days between our last lecture and the exam, as well as a review session to ask questions about any confusing concepts. During these days, I will either use my white board (or just paper if I’m at the library) to re-write my notes on challenging topics. Sometimes I’ll even talk out loud to myself — but never in the library, I’m not a monster! I try to put my notes away by 8pm the night before test and watch something fun on T.V. [If you’re not watching Outlander, what are you doing with your life? I’m also rewatching Smash and The Office. So yeah, sarcastic, time-traveling, historical fiction, Broadway is my general aesthetic.]

The morning of the exam, I get up around 4:30am to do some last minute review with my notes and then head to campus for my exam morning Panera breakfast sandwich! This is what has worked for me so far, but that doesn’t mean it will work for every module. We start our first organ module (Cardio!) in a week and it’s structured a bit differently than our past modules. So, there might be some tweaking to my general study plan. I still have over a year before I really start studying for Step 1 (the first part of a three step licensing exam that is typically taken at the end of our second year of medical school), which will most likely require me to reevaluate my study techniques.

I know how much I valued people sharing their study habits when I was trying to figure out what worked best for me and how to schedule it all in; medical school is no joke when it comes to the sheer volume of material. But my techniques work best for me and might not be the right choice for you — it took a lot of trial and error to fine tune my method but I try to be flexible knowing that it won’t work for all modules.

And with that, it’s time to schedule out my week. I have an exam on Friday so it’s time to get back to it! Happy Monday!


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