The novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes, COVID-19, are upon us, and we’ll be experiencing the ramifications not just for several days or several weeks, but for several months. Over the past couple of weeks, it’s been amazing to see how social media can be used for good, to educate those of the importance of social distancing and flattening the curve. Higher risk populations, which I am a part of because I am immunosuppressed, are incredibly grateful for the efforts of those who are acting responsibly and in the interest of the greater good. These actions are saving lives. This post won’t be speaking to the details of the virus or the importance of flattening the curve, but rather how to best manage these challenging new times as a student.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s the importance of your mindset whenever confronted by a novel obstacle. As a student, whether you’re premed or a medical student, I understand that these uncertain times can cause a great deal of anxiety and stress. That’s normal. What I want you to focus on is the self-talk you have about your life and surrounding events, and through what lens you choose to view these new circumstances.
If you’re able to view these new challenges and restrictions imposed by social distancing as an opportunity for growth and learning, more so than a highly restrictive inconvenience, I promise you will be rewarded generously.
If you’re highly anxious and concerned about how this will affect your studies, medical school application, or something else, remember that everyone is in the same boat. We’re all in this together. It’s a level playing field, and you’re not going to be more disadvantaged compared to another student due to coronavirus.
If you want to learn more about how I’m changing my own personal habits and strategies to cope with these unprecedented times as a high-risk individual, check out my YouTube channel, Kevin Jubbal, M.D.
Foundations for Students During a Pandemic
First, understand that social distancing does not mean social isolation. If you coop yourself up and don’t interact with other people, you’ll experience a rapid decline in mood, energy, and productivity. We’re social animals — even the introverts among us.
You’ll be relying more on modern technologies like Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or phone calls to stay in touch. Now’s not a bad time to reach out to your family and close friends and schedule a weekly call to keep in contact at regular intervals. I call my mom every Sunday evening minimum, and I’ve scheduled recurring calls with a couple of close friends during certain weekday evenings. Think of this as virtual social time. If you would normally spend evenings relaxing with friends, you can still do so virtually. Schedule a group chat or group dinner or play Cards Against Humanity with your friends where you all attend via video chat.
Studying solo is generally more effective, but during this time it’s completely fine, and even encouraged, to have more virtual study sessions with classmates or friends. In these times, the social support of virtual study groups will generally outweigh the ding to your focus. I still recommend you keep these virtual study groups small, with ideally only 1 or 2 other students.
Second, maintain a routine. There are two ways of going about this. You can either drastically shift your routine and maintain those new changes. This is what I did early on during the coronavirus outbreak, as I wanted to limit my exposure to individuals at the gym. I either woke up very early and went to the gym painfully early or went to the gym very late and slept very late. Alternatively, and arguably much more easily, maintain the same schedule you had prior to social distancing orders. As my gym has now been closed, this is what I’m reverting to.
Even though you’re confined to your apartment or home, you should still shower, change, have breakfast, and follow your regular routine as if you were still attending class. This regularity provides structure to build momentum for the rest of your day. If you normally would walk to class, feel free to go outside for a brief walk to get fresh air and sunshine, but just be sure to avoid other people while doing so.
Lastly, sticking to good foundational habits will become even more important than usual. During this time of stress and uncertainty, it may be more difficult to get restful sleep. For that reason, following proper sleep hygiene regarding limiting your screen use, the temperature in your room, and other often-overlooked factors will become more important in maintaining your long term sanity and happiness. Similarly, you want to maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise to keep your immune system functioning optimally.
With social distancing, you should view the increased time you have alone as an opportunity to tackle and experiment with your study strategies. We’ve recently covered the 7 evidence-based study strategies that will improve your effectiveness and efficiency whilst studying.
Don’t forget the power of music. This is one that I used on a daily basis back in college, medical school, residency, and even to this day. Finding the right instrumental song to groove to while you get work done can help you build momentum in your work and even facilitate getting into a flow state, where doing the work is actually enjoyable. I’ve put my favorite study tracks on my Study With Me playlist on Spotify.
Be careful with your additional time at home. Some students may fall into the trap of thinking they need to spend every waking hour studying, which accelerates burnout and decreases effectiveness. Remember that the quality of studying is more important than the quantity of studying. Use the Pomodoro technique to your advantage and plan your days beforehand. When will you study? When will you take a break? When will you exercise, eat, and socialize? I’m finding for myself that during this time of amorphous uncertainty, increasing structure in my daily schedule has proven beneficial.
Self-directed learning is a skill that you must develop the further along you go in training. In grade school, you’re spoon-fed. As a premed, you’re a bit more on your own, but still have a great deal of structure with classes. As a medical student, your preclinical years will require slightly more self-directed learning as you begin learning from the proverbial fire hydrant, which is further exaggerated once you begin your clinical years and have minimal time in class. You’ll become far more self-reliant for learning. As a resident, you’ll have minimal didactics and will almost entirely be studying on your own. And by the time you’re an attending physician, you’ll be completely self-directed.
Understand that most of what you’re learning in school is not terribly complicated, and you can figure it out. Be resourceful — obviously look at the textbook, but if you’re stumped on a concept, search YouTube for additional help, find other online resources, or reach out to friends, the TA, or even the professor. This is a tremendous opportunity to hone your self-directed learning skills that will continue to serve you well as you progress through your education.
Classes, Exams, and Uncertainty
If you’re enrolled in classes, then use this time to study and prepare for your exams, even if they have been canceled or delayed. After all, your knowledge of the material will be tested at some point. If you were planning on taking the MCAT but must push it back, use this additional time as an opportunity to further bolster your content review and go through additional practice questions to boost your score on test day.
For those of you studying for standardized tests like the MCAT or USMLE, be wary of burnout. If you study too long at a high intensity, you increase the chances of experiencing burnout. If your time horizon is expanded, then proportionally decrease the intensity of your studying over this time. For example, let’s say you were going to take the MCAT in 2 weeks, but due to test date closures, you’re now anticipating taking the test in 6 weeks instead. If you were studying 10 hours per day before, you could now study for 7 or 8 instead, and use the extra time socializing or exercising. And don’t forget to save adequate high-quality practice questions and practice tests for close to the real test day. For the MCAT, that means a couple of AAMC full-lengths, and for USMLE that means a couple of NBME’s.
If you were planning on applying to medical school this June, don’t fret. Understand that everyone else is in the same position you’re in. If you had to cancel your clinical volunteering opportunity, don’t worry — medical schools are going to be more than understanding. This isn’t a time to frantically reach out to programs and the AAMC requesting details on how to proceed. We’re all facing this pandemic together, and these organizations face a great deal of uncertainty as well. Do the best with what you have for now and wait.
Maintaining your physical fitness is important not just for your physical health and immunity, but also for your mental health and mood. I’ve noticed drastic effects in my own mood when I’m regular about exercising at home and can see detrimental effects on my sleep, mood, and energy if I skip a day.
Unless you have a home gym, you probably don’t have all the equipment you’d like, but that’s fine. You can still make do with regular household items in a pinch. Bodyweight exercises like pushups, pull-ups, and crunches, not to be confused with sit-ups, are great starting points. I also have a set of elastic bands that have proven very effective, and you can catch me riding on Zwift with my smart indoor trainer at least 3 or 4 times per week. Riding or running outdoors solo is also a valid option.
I know that these are uncertain times, but trust me when I say that your mindset and how you react to the situation is more important than the details of the actual situation. I wish you all the best, and I know that you can grow stronger, more independent, and more badass through this process. I’ve been tested as well, and I’m learning a great deal about my own systems and habits and ways I can further improve them moving forward. Much love, stay safe and see you soon.