Lessons in Medical School Study Strategies

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“You need to figure out how to study”. This was the overarching advice I constantly heard no matter who I spoke to in the medical field, whether it be current medical students, residents, or experienced attending physicians. I really thought nothing of the matter. ‘I know how to study. How tough can that be to figure out?’ I naively told myself. Fate would have a rude awakening for me once medical school started.  

Studying in College/Undergrad

Throughout undergrad, studying was a very passive endeavor for me. I simply read through my notes a few days before the exam, and this resulted in good grades. Soon after medical school started, I learned that my passive studying from college would not suffice for the full-throttle pace of medical school. Using my passive studying methods, I found myself falling behind very early. This led to panic, anxiety, and sleep deprivation before my exams, and ultimately impaired performance. This was not working. My grades were suffering. I was suffering. I realized that something needed to change. Either I would improve my study habits or risk poor performance on future exams. What follows is a journey of self-discovery where I intimately learned my strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately became a stronger medical student.  

The Change in Study Habits – “The Shift”

This journey, as with any other of its kind, was tough in the beginning. I was overwhelmed. I did not know where to begin. I tried everything from highlighting all that was on the page to making countless flash cards. Soon enough I realized that this wasn’t an efficient use of my time. And ultimately, that’s what it came down to: efficiency.

Acknowledging My Learning Style

I started looking into various study methods on the internet and tweaked them to fit my learning style. I came to the realization that I was a very visual and auditory learner. Creating diagrams and summarizing lecture material in my own words out loud allowed me to retain information better than any other method. I also found that using different colored ink and highlighters to make note of important concepts aided in my visual learning style. However, since buying and carrying multiple highlighters or pens may be a burden to some, I recommend getting an iPad or other similar tablet with a stylus. For me, the iPad and Apple Pencil were two of the smartest investments I made in my medical school career. I no longer had to lug around a heavy backpack filled with notebooks and paper; everything was conveniently there in my iPad. Two apps in particular, Notability and OneNote, proved to be extremely useful – downloading lecture materials and taking notes was easy. In the past I used to take very dense and verbose notes. I learned to streamline my note-taking process, focusing more so on the bigger concepts and highlighting/annotating those ideas rather than wasting time trying to learn every little detail. There is just too much material presented in class. Learning to streamline and understand the big concepts will be far more useful and significantly less tedious.  These changes to my study methods vastly increased my overall efficiency.

The Power of Efficiency

But perhaps the most essential life skill which exponentially increased my efficiency was allocating my time smartly. My time management skills were abysmal. I used to sit down and “study” without a plan. I didn’t make time for breaks and would inevitably burn myself out. And when I did take breaks, I ended up losing track of time and lost the motivation to study. I began to scour the internet for advice on time management. I came across a video on YouTube titled “How To: Superhuman Productivity and Efficiency” by Med School Insiders. This video changed my medical school trajectory and changed my life. The key takeaway I got from this video was this: maximize your time. The video strongly emphasized the importance of either fully enjoying your time, or using it to be highly productive. Trying to do both at once is obsolete and ultimately is a waste. The key is to be present in the moment and focus on one task at time. Humans are notoriously bad at multitasking; it just doesn’t work. The second piece of advice conveyed by the video was to treat time as a valuable asset. There are only 24 hours in a day and it is vital to spend that time wisely. For instance, using breaks to complete daily, mundane tasks is a great way to improve efficiency. In my case, I used my study breaks to take care of items on my daily to-do list, such as laundry, cooking and cleaning. This did two things. First, it let me complete tasks during my break, which I would’ve had to complete anyway. And second, it freed up more of my later time, and allowed me to pursue my hobbies, or get even more work done.

Simple Tool for Efficiency and Focus

The video also goes into the Pomodoro technique. This is a time management method which utilizes a timer to break work down into manageable intervals. These intervals are usually 25 minutes in length, and followed by 5 minute breaks in between. The Pomodoro technique vastly improved my efficiency and focus while studying. In the designated work time interval, I put my phone away and focused exclusively on studying. I used the breaks to use my phone, eat a snack, or use the restroom if needed. The key is to stay disciplined and stick to the time constraints. Taking breaks that are too long is inefficient, but skipping breaks or keeping them too short is also detrimental to endurance. I eventually got to a point where I made my study intervals 45 minutes each and my breaks 7 minutes each. Everyone is different. Tweak your schedule to find one that works for you.  

New Perspective on Medical School

After enduring a brutal first semester, I had  the following epiphany: the material in medical school isn’t hard. Rather, it’s the sheer volume taught in a short timeframe which tends to intimidate people. Learning to manage time and figuring out an effective study method are two of the most important skills absolutely necessary to traverse medical school. I promise you that if you do some introspection and figure out what works for you, you will end up excelling in medical school and even having fun in the process. I wish you all nothing but success and good fortune on your endeavors to become successful physicians. Onward!
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