Medical school is rough. It’s exhausting, and draining, and requires your all. I still remember looking at my lectures during my first week of school wondering how anybody ever made it past this beast. I’m currently halfway through my second year and I still sometimes feel like this, but within the past year and a half I have undergone so much academic, mental, and personal growth in handling the challenges of medical school. While the vast majority of it is a huge learning curve that I think is very necessary, there are definitely some tips and tricks to keep in mind while beginning–and at any point along your medical school journey–that I think are so important to have a successful first couple years. Here are some insights I’ve gathered that I would tell my past self to get on right away!
Tip #1: Create a rigorous schedule… and stick to it
One of my strengths right off the bat was that I am a serial schedule maker. I make schedules for each of my modules that indicate all the lectures, small groups, labs that I have and any corresponding question sets, and external resource videos I want to watch. This helps me see what I have to accomplish day to day and week to week and especially module to module. This also ensures that I get more than one pass of all my lectures, complete all my question sets, and keep track of any videos I watched.
One thing that I didn’t do previously, but found helpful in medical school, was scheduling my day hour by hour. Now I know this may sound crazy to the average person, but I literally block out the hours in a day that I have lectures and small groups/labs, and then fill out the rest of my schedule with the specific lectures/topics I intend to study. This helps me not only physically see and cross off my goals for the day, but also helps me realize where my time was going. This technique is really useful if you’re someone who is easily distracted. When I first started doing this I realized that I was spending a lot of time on my phone because I wasn’t getting tasks done in my allotted time frames that were totally doable! This also helped me schedule in time to go to the gym, to take breaks etc. I find that being disorganized in undergrad is something that you can get away with, but when there is so much information being thrown at you, being organized and having a method to ensure that all your prioritized tasks are met in medical school can put you ahead of the average student.
Tip #2: Be adaptable
To be successful in medical school you HAVE to be adaptable. You have to be willing to switch it up, and do so quickly. Things can be so different from module to module, and something that worked for one module might not work for another. Don’t be afraid of trying new study habits, and don’t try to force the old same habits just because they worked for you previously.
During first year I had to change my study habits module to module in order to be able to study the different types of topics. Physiology is different from anatomy which is different from biochemistry, and each will require a different approach. Being able to switch it up and keeping your mind open to different resources will help you achieve your goals.
More broadly speaking, I used to be a serial note taker in undergrad to the point that I would rewrite all my notes for my classes. While that worked while I was in undergrad, of course that just wasn’t feasible when I entered medical school, so I turned to typing notes and investing in an iPad and apple pencil for when I wanted to feel like I was writing. I found this to be much more effective. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and use new tricks in order to get ahead! It can be scary, but if you’re able to change with the fast-paced nature of medical school, you will get a lot farther!
Tip #3: Everything connects
If you want to crush the basic sciences, you have to be able to start making connections in the material you’re learning right away. It’s medicine after all, and although you may learn topics in discrete modules, that doesn’t mean the information just leaves your head as you move along. Everything connects in the human body, and the earlier you learn that, the further you will get with your studying. Try to make those connections as early as possible and come back to reviewing material because that will save you in the long run! Most medical schools try to teach in a way that requires you to come back to material regardless which helps make those connections for you, but if you take the extra time to see the human body as one whole connecting body, things will start making sense!
Tip #4: invest in the right resources
The right resources will save you the headache and the time. Both the resources you use to take notes etc as well as the resources you use to learn are worth the investment. Get a good computer, get an iPad (no really, do it!), and make yourself as comfortable as you can. It’s a long journey, and the last thing you need is your technology being the bane of your existence. Invest now in things that will save you time in the future. In 2020, only the odd student uses physical textbooks. Attempt to get oriented to using online resources to save yourself from having to flip through pages and allow Control-F to become your best friend!
Use good external resources as well. As you try to pass your school exams, you’re also inadvertently studying for STEP. The two often go hand in hand but we could all use clarification once in a while. Invest in resources that will help you remember information and learn it in a clearer, succinct way!
TIp #5: Find your tribe
A big part of medical school is the people you surround yourself with. The friends you make in medical school become your family as they are the only ones who understand what you’re going through. Surround yourself with good people who lift you up and who you can rely on when things get difficult (because they undoubtedly will). Find good study partners who you can bounce information off of. Having a tribe you can rely on makes studying a lot less lonely and having good study partners helps you pick up on information you might have missed out on! Medical school is a long journey, but you will also come out of it with special relationships that can only be forged there.
Tip #6: Study smarter not harder
There just aren’t nearly enough hours in the day to be able to do it all! Therefore, you have to prioritize and learn to study smarter, rather than harder, because you will inevitably burnout otherwise. Prioritize what is the most important and focus on understanding that material before you get into the mundane details. Focus on bigger concepts before honing down in the finer detail. For example, when it comes to pharmacology, the first thing I do is try to understand the drug’s broad mechanism of action before I try to memorize every little thing it increases and decreases. This allows you to understand why things are happening which makes it easier than rotely memorizing.
You could spend all day studying and not know as much as someone who put in a solid 8 hours of study. The most important tool in medical school is active recall. You could read your lecture notes 8 times over and still not know anything if you aren’t actively trying to regurgitate the information after you study it. Using a whiteboard is a great technique for this! Test yourself on what you know before you go back to reviewing it and you’ll get a lot more out of your study time! Use anki if you like it, use external resources, and try to stay on top of it so that you have enough time to review come exam time! Quality over quantity is absolutely key.
Tip #7: Accept that you can’t know it all
Rarely have I ever gone into an exam in medical school knowing that I have studied everything on the topic. There will never be a point where you feel like you finally know everything, and it can be easy to get trapped into the notion of pushing yourself further and further. The studying can quite literally never stop because there will always be additional things that you don’t know. Therefore, it’s also so important to know when to cut yourself off.
If your brain is saturated, take some time off and don’t force more information. At the end of the day, we’re all human and we can’t know everything, although as med students it’s definitely our nature to try. Know when to take a break and when it’s healthy for you to say no. Prioritize having a healthy lifestyle and other hobbies so that you don’t get stuck in the endless hole of medical school! Take one evening off or one day off a week to take care of yourself, see friends or family, and do something other than study! Sometimes taking a break allows you to come back with a clearer focus.
The basic sciences are a challenging time, and one that definitely seems impossible at first. Keep an open mind, take care of yourself, and be smart with your studying and the people you surround yourself with! There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and there is absolutely a way for you to make it as comfortable an experience as possible! It will come with its challenges regardless but follow these tips to ensure that you can make the transition!