How to Study in Medical School: 12 Study Tips for Struggling Med Students

If you’re anything like me, then school has always come easily to you. Sure, there might have been hiccups in your prestigious academic career, but ultimately, you had little doubt that you would succeed and attend, pass, and graduate as a fully-fledged physician. And, if you’re anything like me, when you got to medical school, at some point, you got smashed over the head with a Tom and Jerry-sized mallet when it came to studying, and exams. Like me, you’ve probably barely passed an exam or two during your time as a medical student…

It turns out, my lack of effective, efficient study habits has kicked my butt much more than I care to admit, and I’m only now realizing-after some hard lessons-what it means to study the right way in medical school. That’s why I’m writing to you today-to hopefully assist you in learning from my mistakes. I’m not going to say anything profound or brilliant, but I want

1. Plan Your Studying

This seems like an easy one to overlook, but it must be said. I’m talking a “big picture” idea of what you want to accomplish daily, weekly, and monthly. Figure out a daily, weekly, and block/monthly schedule that works for you, and stick to it (I recommend an app called Fantastical). What sort of content do you want to be studying the afternoon after class? Are you an am or pm studier, 9-5? What about on the weekend before exam? For added, effect, have a ToDo List for studying (Any.do is great). Find a pattern to your life that works for you, and don’t worry about anyone else (this goes for every tip). Both a ToDo list and a calendar will give you a feeling of forward motion, progress, that is sorely lacking as we go through a seemingly endless cycle of class and exams. Trust me on this one that the feeling of forward progress will help you study longer and harder.

2. Set Goals 

Do you want to pass, or do you want to excel? Figure out what you want, and spend time working out what has to be accomplished to achieve this goal. Break down content into accomplishable bytes, and reward yourself when you achieve a goal.

3. Find Your Quiet Place

Batman has the Batcave, Superman has the Fortress of Solitude, you need to find yours. I don’t have the time to go through all the science that demonstrates that quiet, individual, and intense study is the best way to master a subject. Study groups are good, but only after you’ve learned the content on your own and can discuss, clarify, and teach others. And in this quiet space, it’s important to minimize distractions like our phones, social media, people, and heck, even music. I admit, this is a hard one to give up, because I love listening to music when I study, but all of the science shows we retain less information when we study with anything but classical music at low volumes. If you absolutely need noise, white noise apps are an awesome alternative.

4. Engage Actively With Content

Active learning is always better than passive learning. We produce stronger mnemonic ties to facts and information when we do something that forces us to ask questions of the material. This is a hard one for me too, but after we’ve read the content/watched the lecture, it’s important to create note sheets, take practice tests/questions, and discuss with others (after we’ve studied on our own of course!) This also means reviewing frequently, and not just before the test.

5. Use Different Modalities

The idea of being an “auditory” or “spatial” learner is a lie. While you might prefer one modality, it’s been repeatedly shown that by introducing multiple modalities of information- sight and sound at the very least-we retain that information better. It’s the reason why anatomy isn’t simply taught theoretically, but you get to smell the humidor, and dig into your body, and see it. It’s even a pretty good  reason to consider switching to handwritten notes-the tactile feedback engages more of our brain with the information at hand. As an aside, I also encourage you utilize multiple resources when studying to break up the monotony.

6. Take Frequent Breaks

Look, I don’t know about you, but I get burned out from studying at about the 40 minute marker. It’s important to take breaks between slogging through textbooks and notes. The general rule is 10 minutes for every 50. Get up, stretch, walk, relax your eyes (so don’t stare at your phone), get a snack. When you return, jump topics or the way you’re studying. These regular breaks will help consolidate information into your memory. I suggest using a Pomodoro Timer to force this on yourself, if you’re like me and like to stretch your breaks just a little bit longer.

7. Do The Hard Stuff First

Yep, pretty simple. Do the hard work when you’re fresh, and save the easy stuff for the end when you’re burned out. It probably sounds awful, but it works.

8. If Something Isn’t Working, Change It

Guess what? You have permission to study the way you want to. If a place isn’t working anymore? Move. A particular Q Bank or SketchyMed being a pain? Quit using it!

9. Nothing Can Compensate For Time

I’m too lazy sometimes. Nothing can compensate for not putting in the hours, so do yourself a favor, and put in the hours, even when the content seems easy. Especially when it seems easy (here’s looking at you M2 pulmonology exam).

10. Be Weird

This one comes from my roommate, and it’s a great one. He says, “Do whatever you need to do to remember.” He paces, others dance around the room, make stupid puns, dirty mnemonics. Really, just be your crazy weird self, and do what has to be done to make content memorable. And don’t worry about being weird-everyone In med school is a freak-you’re in good company!

11. Take Care of Yourself

Heart, mind, soul, strength. You are a holistic person, and have to treat yourself as such. It’s easy to lose ourselves in the vast streams of knowledge and thought, but make sure you take care of your relationships, your emotions, your mental health, your sleep, your diet, exercise, your spiritual nature (if you believe in such things).

12. Get Help

It’s there when we need it. Your professors don’t want you to fail, so get help when you need it-classmates, office hours, tutors, the resources are there. There is no shame in using them.

Matthew Wright

Medical College of Wisconsin – Class of 2019
Editor at Motivate MD

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