Journaling is an incredibly powerful tool for anyone, but it has specific benefits for students—benefits that can give you an edge as a premed or medical student. If you’ve ever brushed off the idea because you either don’t have the time, don’t like to do it, or don’t see the value, this post is for you.
Practically, journaling helps you recall specific details and memories that can be used to describe experiences on medical school or residency applications or to spark ideas for personal statements or other essay questions. Additionally, journaling aids self-reflection, helps you organize your thoughts, clears your mind, and gives your brain the break it needs to maintain productivity.
We’ll discuss the many benefits of journaling, how you can utilize journaling to bolster applications, and how you can make time for this healthy habit.
The Benefits of Journaling
1 | Recall the Details of an Experience for Applications
You’ve been gathering clinical, research, and volunteer experience for years, and now it’s time to impress the admissions committee. You turn to your laptop to describe an important experience from two years ago, and your mind goes blank.
Was the job six months or eight months? What was your role/title again? What was the name of that hospital you volunteered at? Who did you report to? It’s difficult to craft an engaging description or tell an informative and amusing anecdote when you yourself have trouble remembering the details. It’s the details that enrich a story and give it authenticity.
The work and activities section of your medical school application may only be one piece of the puzzle, but it should not be overlooked. This is your time to effectively convey all that you’ve worked on and been a part of in the years leading up to applying to medical school. (The same is true of applying to residency.) The section gives admissions committees a sense of your personality and whether or not you fit the mold of the medical student they’re looking for.
As much as you may think you’ll remember all of the details of your experiences, the further you get from them, the fuzzier your memory becomes. You’ll forget the details, or worse, you may connect the dots wrong while trying to piece the story back together, causing you to include misleading facts on your application. Lying on your application, even unintentionally, will have dire consequences for your future medical education.
No matter how embedded the experience is in your mind while it’s happening and just after it ends, your memories will fade—both your grasp of the details and your ability to remember precisely how you felt about the experience at the time.
Keeping a journal leading up to both medical school applications and residency applications is an ideal way to keep track of your experiences, including when they took place, how you were feeling at the time, what you learned, how you felt about the experience at the beginning compared to when it concluded, etc. You’ll be able to go back in time to revisit your thoughts, concerns, epiphanies, and triumphs to craft engaging descriptions and meaningful anecdotes throughout your application.
Looking back on your journal notes from this time can also serve as a refresher before interviews. If you include an experience in your application, the admissions committee will expect you can speak about it with clarity and ease during interviews.
When using a journal to keep track of extracurricular activities, whether paper or digital, ensure you use clear and accurate dates and titles so that you can easily find what you’re looking for years down the road.
2 | Reflect and Track Your Own Progress
A journal serves as a database of your past experiences, thoughts, worries, ideas, and more. It captures how you are feeling and what you are thinking at any given moment.
By keeping a journal, you are able to look back on those entries months or years later. How have you grown and changed since the beginning of college? What were you worried about most when you started medical school? How have your ideas and thoughts evolved over the years?
As a self-reflection tool, journaling is incredible, and it only continues to grow in value the longer you continue the practice. You can look back years into the past to track your progress and reflect on your own growth. For premeds or medical students working on personal statements, looking at past journal entries, especially from key times in your life, can spark ideas for essay content.
3 | Vent Your Frustrations
You just failed a test, got into an argument with your parents or significant other, or received a less-than-ideal MCAT score. Whatever it is you’re frustrated about, don’t act on it in the heat of the moment.
Sending a scathing email to your professor about a grade you don’t agree with or yelling at your group project members because they aren’t pulling their weight will not get you anywhere. When emotions are high, people say things they regret, and reasoning skills go completely out the window. (And you’ll need those reasoning skills to ace the CARS section of the MCAT.)
Before acting on whatever it is that’s bothering you, take it to your journal. You don’t need a filter there. You can let it all out, which will help you calm down and sort through what you actually want to say or how you want to proceed.
The next step is to take some time away. Do some chores, exercise, go for a walk, etc. If you still feel upset and like you need to take action after venting in a journal and taking some time away from the problem, look back on your notes to figure out what you want to say. There’s a good chance you don’t want to be as harsh in reality.
Is it really the best idea to tell your professor he’s a hack who’s wrong about your grade? Do you really want to tell your group members they are dumb, lazy, and useless, or would a better tactic work?
Utilize a journal to sort through your thoughts, especially when you are upset or angry. The mindful act of journaling will help you calm down, and getting your thoughts down on paper will help you work through them so that you can decide how to proceed reasonably.
4 | Practice Mindfulness
In a previous article/video, we made the case for why every student should meditate and practice mindfulness. As a refresher, mindfulness decreases emotional reactivity, provides mental clarity, and improves focus, among other benefits. While journaling doesn’t replace the practice of meditating, it is a healthy form of mindfulness. When you journal, you’re able to tune out the rest of the world, reflect, and give yourself a much-needed break.
Many premeds and medical students hear the word “break” and automatically think they don’t have time for them. We are by no means telling you not to work hard. You’ll need to work extremely hard just to make it into medical school, and then you’ll need to work even harder to complete your schooling and residency. But what matters most is how you perform, and without taking care of your body and mind, you’ll never function at 100%.
Giving yourself time to rest and reset is the ultimate productivity hack. After taking intentional, healthy breaks, you’ll find you’re able to sustain your focus for longer periods of time and maintain a higher level of intensity when you get back to work. Trying to be productive all of the time will certainly lead to burnout in some form or another.
Optimizing your downtime as well as your productive time is the key to success as a medical student—and to life in general. Ensure you make time for breaks, and utilize those breaks for mindful activities that help you reflect, recharge, and reset, such as journaling.
5 | Clear Brain Space
There is only so much information your brain can retain, and while you can work to expand your mind and improve your memory, clearing a bit of space will help you retain what you need to when studying.
Our minds are always bursting with ideas, tasks, opinions, what we want to say to people, what we wish we said to someone, and so on. Journaling allows you to free yourself from some of the busyness within your own mind, clearing space for what you need to remember—like MCAT content.
When you feel overwhelmed by your turbulent thoughts, turn to a journal and let those thoughts out. This way, you’ll know you can come back to them if you need to, but the simple act of writing out your thoughts will calm your mind and help you focus on your studies or whatever else is a top priority for you.
How to Journal Effectively
Paper vs. Digital: Choose What You’ll Use
There’s definitely an argument for both paper and digital methods of journaling. A paper journal is traditional, and some people wouldn’t have it any other way. Paper has the benefit of taking your eyes away from your computer and phone screen to unplug. You’ll want to avoid the blue light from your screens if you choose to journal at night before bed.
Digital methods of journaling are easier to search if you need to recall a date or are looking for a specific entry. You’ll also have a digital journal with you at all times since you’ll be able to access it from your phone. This has clear benefits because you’ll be able to fit in journaling whenever you have the time or feel you need to clear your head.
When it comes down to choosing your tool, pick whatever you are most likely to follow through with. The benefits of one over the other won’t matter if you aren’t using it. If you try an app and find you’re not sticking to it, switch back to what you know and are comfortable with. If you try a paper journal but find you never have it with you when you need it or frequently lose track of it, opt for a digital method.
Build the Habit
Building habits is the clear path to making any improvement in your life, whether that’s with your studying, health, fitness, or mindfulness. We’ve spoken extensively about the power of forming habits on the Med School Insiders blog and YouTube channel.
Habits are all about making small, incremental changes that lead to big results.
To create lasting change, put systems in place to help you reach your desired outcomes. To journal more frequently and with regularity, you’ll need to build the habit slowly, one small increment at a time.
Begin by choosing the time of day. You might choose to journal every morning for a few minutes as part of your morning routine or every evening as part of your night routine, which has the added benefit of helping you wind down and clear your head before bed. As you experiment, you might find a completely different time throughout the day works best for you, such as on your lunch break or on your daily commute. The key is figuring out what time works best for you and sticking to it.
Start small and track the habit to ensure you’re keeping up with it. The tracking component is critical. You won’t know if your habit is actually sticking if you don’t track it, and you won’t be able to see your progress, which you need in order to motivate you to continue. Tracking will also help you pinpoint what’s working and what’s not.
Do you have better results when you journal at different times of the day? Are you more likely to complete the habit as part of your morning or night routine? When you don’t fulfill this habit, what is standing in your way?
Depending on your needs and how well your habit is sticking, you can adjust the amount of time you spend on it. Even 5-10 minutes every day will help clear your mind and give you something to look back on.
If you’re reflecting on or documenting your extracurricular experiences, dedicate more time to journaling at least once a week to ensure you’re recording all of the relevant details. Who are you working with? What is the day-to-day like? How do you feel about it? What surprised you? What are you learning?
Utilize Journaling Prompts
If you get stuck on what to write when you journal, begin with prompts. Journaling prompts give you a starting point, but you don’t need to limit yourself to the question asked. Allow your thoughts to wander if other ideas, grievances, or memories come to mind.
If you find a prompt that works, keep using it. If not, play with different prompts to see what inspires you. Find whatever is easiest to stick with.
At the beginning of the day, you might start with:
- What three things went well yesterday?
- What three things didn’t go well yesterday?
- What three things do I hope to accomplish today?
If you journal at the end of the day before bed, you might use the following prompts:
- What three things went well today?
- What three things didn’t go well today?
- What three things do I hope to accomplish tomorrow?
Other journaling prompts include:
- What are you grateful for today?
- What was the most eventful thing that happened today?
- Describe a moment that sparked joy today or this week.
- Who are you happy to have in your life?
- What was the most important thing you learned today?
- What can you improve upon tomorrow?
- What can you improve upon next week?
- What would an ideal day tomorrow look like?
- What are you least looking forward to about the week? How will you overcome these upcoming challenges?
- When did you feel most fulfilled this week?
- When did you feel most challenged this week?
- What are you most looking forward to this week?
- Who did you work with this week? How did that go, and how can you improve that relationship?
- Describe a family member, friend, or colleague. What do you admire about them?
- If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
- Describe the lunch or dinner you ate. What did you like or dislike about it?
- What did you think of the last book you read?
- What did you think of the last movie you watched?
- Who do you enjoy spending time with?
- Who do you dislike spending time with?
- Which class or aspect of your job do you enjoy the most?
- If you could go back in time and speak to your past self, what would you say?
It’s okay if your journal isn’t strictly about school and professional development; in fact, you’ll get more out of the practice and enjoy it more if you branch out and open up about other areas of your life. Just be sure you’re still clearly documenting and categorizing journal entries surrounding your extracurricular activities as well.
Let Loose and Watch Out for Perfectionist Tendencies
Don’t worry so much about what you write; allow your thoughts to flow. You’re not trying to win any writing awards here, and remember that no one will be reading your writing. You don’t need to go back to edit your work—perfectionists, this is your time to practice self-restraint!
We know this is a hard sell for soon-to-be doctors, but as soon as you go back and try to edit your work, you’ll take yourself out of the process of journaling. You’re only journaling for yourself, so it’s okay to make mistakes. If you choose to use tidbits of your journaling for experience descriptions, your personal statement, or other essays, you’ll have plenty of time to fine-tune and edit your writing then.
Your journaling may not follow any specific pattern or structure either. Do whatever feels best for you. If you start on one path but get struck by a new idea, follow that train of thought instead. If you get lost, it’s okay to stop where you are and begin again with another idea or writing prompt.
A Comprehensive Library of Resources for Students
Let us know whether or not you’ve built the habit of journaling into your routine below in the comments. Do you have any favorite journaling prompts?
The Med School Insiders blog is filled with resources, strategies, comprehensive guides, and personal stories. We have hundreds of articles that are continually updated with the most recent and accurate information for college, premed, and medical students.
Our content focuses on helping premeds succeed at getting into medical school, adapt to medical school, match into residency, and continue on into fulfilling careers. In addition to our how-to guides, we emphasize strategies that go beyond grades and simple study tricks, such as building habits, creating routines, maintaining balance, and establishing effective processes to keep your body and mind at peak performance.
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If you’re a college student beginning your premed journey, we recommend Understanding the Medical School Application Process. If you’re a medical student trying to choose a specialty, we recommend our So You What to Be… series, which provides insight into what it’s like to pursue different specialties. We have dozens of articles/videos, and we’re always adding more. If you don’t see a specialty you’re interested in, leave a comment below to make a request.