Anatomy of a Successful Medical Student

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Those that enter medical school have already proven they’re intelligent and hard-working. But during those 4 years, there is a subset that thrive and not only enjoy the process, but also place themselves to match into the most desirable residency programs. These are the strategies of those highly successful medical students.

Dr. Jubbal, MedSchoolInsiders.com.

Thriving in medical school isn’t about forgoing any semblance of a life and having a committed relationship with your textbooks. Rather, it’s about focusing on these 5 key elements.

 

1 | Prioritize Evidence Based Learning

The medical students who can manage the immense volume of information aren’t smarter than those who cannot. Rather, they rely on evidence-based learning principles rather than the antiquated and more comfortable passive strategies that we’ve all come to know and love.

I thought I knew how to study in college. I had strong grades and did well on my MCAT, so surely I could handle medical school without issue.

I was wrong, and the first two months were a wake up call. It wasn’t until I revamped my study strategies that I was able to live a more balanced life, rather than spending Friday nights at the medical school buried in books.

Some students are overly focused on their VARK learning style, meaning visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic. It turns out that using your VARK learning style to guide your medical school studying will hold you back. Although it may feel more comfortable to you, the scientific literature suggests that studying to your VARK preferences is not correlated to better academic performance, even though it may feel more comfortable.

Instead, relying on active learning principles is a reliable way for everyone to improve their test performance. The two main ones to focus on are (1) spaced repetition with active recall, and (2) practice questions. There are five other strategies that I’ve elaborated on in my Evidence Based Study Strategy article.

I can tell you from personal experience that active learning initially feels quite uncomfortable. You’ll probably be tempted to regress to passive methods that are much more comfortable and less challenging.

The reason active methods are initially uncomfortable is because they’re working. They’re causing your brain to have to process on a deeper level and with greater intensity. It’s just like lifting weights in the gym. If it was too easy, you wouldn’t be stimulating meaningful progress. This may at first feel unpleasant, but with time you’ll adapt and it will become your new baseline.

 

2 | Approach Medical School as a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Burnout amongst medical students and resident physicians is a systemic problem requiring reform. However, we’re not going to fix that problem overnight, so rather than waiting until things change for the better, you must mitigate the risk for yourself. Take responsibility for your own health and wellbeing even when the system seems stacked against you.

This may look different for each person, but the foundations hold true for everyone: be uncompromising with your healthy habits around sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

Some students get caught up with the latest nootropic or hot productivity hack, thinking that will give them the edge they need. The truth is that none of those will yield anywhere close to as strong of returns as focusing on these foundations of sleep, nutrition, and exercise. And I’m not just talking about a 2x improvement by focusing on getting better sleep compared to gulping down coffee. There will be an order of magnitude improvement by focusing on the fundamentals.

In medical school, I had an extremely clean diet which definitely did its part in helping me endure higher intensity. I was also regular about getting exercise in through the form of weights at the gym and riding my bike for transportation rather than driving my car. But in hindsight, I didn’t prioritize my sleep enough, and I averaged 7 hours a night during my pre-clinical years and less during my clinical years.

During your preclinical years, depriving yourself of sleep points to a lack of efficiency and focus during your waking hours. During your clinical years, there may be times when you’re on call or simply have to be in the hospital for over 16 hours in a single day. In those instances, you won’t get adequate sleep, but they’ll be the exception, not the rule.

 

3 | Question Assumptions

You’ll find that the top-performing medical students don’t blindly follow the pack – instead, they question assumptions and seek to understand why things are done a certain way. In doing so, they are able to adapt and improve their own approach to yield stellar results.

When I was in medical school, I was told that research was done a certain way, and if you followed those principles, you could hopefully get a publication or two. I questioned the assumptions, knew there must be a better way, and created my own systems that resulted in dozens of publications and presentations, which was a strong selling point of my residency application. Research is one of the most powerful ways to differentiate yourself from other applicants, particularly in highly competitive specialties.

By adopting this mindset, you’ll learn to experiment and improve upon your study methods, hone your research skills, and find better ways to navigate the seemingly insurmountable challenges that inevitably arise.

This mindset will serve you well not only in medical school and future residency training, but also elsewhere in life. This is where you’ll unlock so many hidden opportunities that are difficult to even imagine now. The possibilities are endless. For me, it started with questioning why my school didn’t have a biomedical incubator – so I decided to start one. I then fell in love with entrepreneurship, started some side hustles, and ultimately those gave me the option to redefine my future career in ways I couldn’t have imagined just a year prior. For you, it could be something totally different. Perhaps you invent a medical technology to help those with limited resources in developing countries, or maybe discover that you enjoy hospital administration and want to improve healthcare in meaningful ways for both physicians and patients. Or something else entirely different. It’s completely up to you.

 

4 | Relentless Pursuit of Efficiency

If you haven’t experienced it yet, you’ll realize learning in medical school is far different from college because of one key factor: volume. The volume of content and the pace with which you need to go through it is immense in medical school. The actual subject matter isn’t necessarily as conceptually challenging as some college majors, but you’ll be pushed to your limits in learning a great quantity of information in a short period of time.

Medical students who focus on efficiency are the ones who don’t drown in the content or fall behind. This pursuit of efficiency translates to better use of downtime and breaks. For example, using breaks to get through chores or tasks you’d otherwise have to do anyway, like cooking or handling errands, which gives you a mental break from studying while still taking care of necessary things. This focus on efficiency also means knowing when is the best time to apply yourself – for example, if you experience an afternoon slump, you’ll learn to study before or after that time to maximize the value of each minute you spend studying.

This isn’t to say you need to push yourself constantly to the limit. That’s a recipe for burnout and suboptimal performance long term. Optimal performance occurs from brief, high exertion bursts followed by high-quality rest and recovery. This occurs not only in physical performance and sports but mental performance as well. Remember, go all-in on work or relaxation, but never both at the same time.

 

5 | Invest in Themself

The last principle of the successful medical student is that they understand the importance of investing in themself.

I didn’t come from a privileged background. But even still, my family always highlighted the importance of investing in my own education. We could be frugal with clothes, travel, food, tech, and just about anything else. But anytime I needed a book or resource, I was reminded that my education is a priority not to be taken lightly.

I could have downloaded the textbook PDF from a friend and saved $100, but the experience of reading the paper book and taking notes and marking it up gave me a marginally better experience, and that marginally better experience could be the difference of me getting through 50 practice questions or just 15.

Just as people invest in the stock market to get a return on their investment, your education is an investment in yourself. The main difference is that your education can have a significantly higher ROI. By focusing on my education and investing in myself, I was able to get into multiple top medical schools, and little did I know, even make me competitive enough to earn merit-based scholarships that saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you want to get more meta, this investment paid off thousands of times more because without it, I wouldn’t have been successful with Med School Insiders. Think about it, if I was an average student that barely got into medical school, aspiring physicians like you would be less eager to learn from me, and the quality of my insights or advice would also be compromised.

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