You’re in school to become a doctor, and you’ve been putting in the hours, but you still can’t quite get those perfect grades you’ve always wanted. Those that ace all their classes simply have some X factor that you don’t. Maybe it’s their smarts, or discipline, or willingness to have no life. That’s not quite right, and I’ll tell you why.
It’s alarming to me how often I come across students that have a self-defeating mindset when it comes to their academic lives. And the unfortunate thing is that by believing they cannot get better grades for whatever reason, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
1 | Top Students are Naturally Smart
The first and most common misconception is that to be a top student with a 4.0 GPA or a great MCAT score, you have to be inherently smart. While intelligence certainly helps and can give you a leg up as a starting point, it isn’t enough on its own.
I had a friend in high school who everyone knew was a genius and we’d joke that he was going to cure cancer. He got a perfect SAT, aced all his classes, and yet was constantly asleep in class. It seemed so effortless to him. He chose an easy college major, so that wasn’t much of an issue for him either, and of course he crushed his MCAT. But by the time he got to medical school, he reached out to me and told me he was struggling. He lamented there was too much information to learn, and he was now in the bottom quartile for the first time.
Everyone has to learn this sooner or later, but smarts alone will not suffice in becoming a doctor. Discipline and how you approach your studying is more important than individual variations in intelligence. An inherently intelligent student with no discipline and poor study strategies will lose out to a less intelligent student who is willing to invest serious time and effort into addressing their weaknesses.
For example, I’ve tutored C students who were quite confident in telling me they were too dumb to ever get an A in any math or science class. After addressing one student’s gaps in understanding and deficiencies in study strategies, he was shocked to get an A on his subsequent chemistry midterm.
2 | More Knowledge = Better Grades
The myth of needing to be smart leads to the next misconception, which is that the difference in academic performance is a result of how much you know.
Your performance on any school test or standardized exam like the SAT, MCAT, or USMLE comes down to three domains: memorization, understanding, and application. The exact balance of each will vary based on the test. For example, the MCAT is much more about application and less about memorization than USMLE Step 1, which is heavier on memorization.
If you were to focus all your efforts on memorization, and you knew every single fact in the textbook, you still wouldn’t be guaranteed a top score. After all, there may be curveballs on the exam that don’t test your knowledge, but rather your understanding of concepts. For example, let’s say you memorized everything about neuron action potentials, but on the test, there’s a question where the threshold, opening and closing duration, or function of certain channels are altered. This question is focusing on your understanding of core concepts and their interplay rather than your ability to regurgitate memorized facts.
Too many students focus on memorizing more facts, thinking this will lead to improved test-day performance. But in reality, those efforts would have a higher yield if they focused on solidifying their understanding and application. A Deeper understanding can be honed through a variety of practices, including the Feynman Technique, which I’ve covered in a previous video. The application can be honed through the proper use of practice questions and practice tests, which I’ve also explored elsewhere.
Each person has a different natural inclination in each of these domains, and to achieve optimal performance, you must address your weaknesses. For some, memorization occurs much easier, and for others, it’s application or understanding. Going back to my friend, he naturally excelled at understanding and application, which is how he and I both scored in the 99.9th percentile on the MCAT, even though I had to study much harder. I was working to address my deficiencies, and when the USMLE came around, I was able to score in the high 260’s while he was dozens of points lower.
3 | Learning Styles
The third lie that you’ve been told is the idea of learning styles. Maybe you’re an auditory learner, while I’m a visual learner, and therefore we should approach our studying differently.
That’s nonsense. The studies that promote the idea of the VARK learning styles, meaning visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic, lack key criteria for scientific validity. And in recent years, multiple studies have demonstrated compelling evidence that the idea of learning styles is detrimental. Even when you allow students to study in their preferred learning style, they don’t perform any better.
What does change a student’s performance is whether they follow evidence-based learning principles in their studying.
This all makes sense when you realize that evidence-based learning principles are all somewhat uncomfortable when you first start out. Active learning, spaced repetition, desirable difficulties, and interleaving all add complexity and require increased mental energy to properly execute. On the other hand, passively reading your notes again and again is much easier, and watching a video explaining a topic is more enjoyable than doing practice problems on it. It’s natural to prefer the easier route, but just because you prefer it doesn’t mean it’s working any better.
If you don’t enjoy active learning with spaced repetition or doing lots of practice problems initially, keep at it. You’ll learn faster and it will soon feel normal.
4 | Top Students Have No Life
The fourth myth is that to be a top student, you have to be willing to have no life and dedicate yourself fully to just studying. If you believe this lie, you likely fall into one of two categories. Either you value your social life and believe that’s why you can’t get good grades, or you throw yourself at the books nonstop, believing that will get you the grades you desire. Both are wrong.
Top students get there by having a balanced and well-rounded life. Sure, they aren’t going to be partying every weekend at every opportunity, but they also aren’t going to study 12 hours every single day. Sustainability is the name of the game here. To get straight A’s and crush your exams, your mind has to be operating at full capacity. If you’re not allowing yourself to exercise, destress, unwind, and enjoy your life, it’s inevitable that you’ll experience some form of burnout. And that burnout will decrease the effectiveness of each hour of studying.
As I always say, you must be intentional with your time. Either deliberately work or deliberately play, and never both at the same time. This way, you can be intense with your work, getting more done in less time, and intense with your personal time too, fully immersing yourself in exercise or relaxation without guilt.
The reason I started Med School Insiders, and the central theme of it today, was to teach students that they can learn to be better. What you believe is a fixed characteristic is just misattributed to a make-believe identity you have of yourself. You can learn how to be more balanced, more effective in school, crush your tests, and be a top performer in a happy, sustainable way. To get there, watch my Study Strategies playlist, or my video on the 7 evidence-based study strategies and how to use each. Much love, and I’ll see you guys there.