Making it into medical school might seem like finally crossing the finish line of a race. While that’s true to a certain degree, it’s really just the first step on your route to becoming a doctor. Think about it like finishing the swim portion of a triathlon—you still have the cycling and running legs to complete.
But that shouldn’t have you feeling discouraged. You just need to start thinking about how to be equally successful in the next phase. This means it’s time to focus on how you can prepare yourself for clinical rotations, licensing exams, and matching for residency. You know you’ll need to hit the books a lot, but you might not know exactly how to study in medical school.
While you could spend months trying out different strategies, going in with a handful of expert-approved ideas is probably a better use of your time. Take a look at what some practicing physicians have to say about study methods that worked for them.
10 doctor-prescribed study tips
Keep in mind that you won’t benefit from every strategy. “Everybody learns differently, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind and not worry if somebody else is doing something different than you are,” says Dr. Malini Reddy, Internist at Reddy Medical Group. Find the methods that work best for your learning style and stick with them.
1. Review material regularly
The need to study regularly is one piece of advice just about every doctor recommends. Dr. Inna Husain, Laryngologist and Assistant Residency Program Director for Simulation Education at Rush University Medical Center, realized early on that her habits from college weren’t robust enough for medical school.
"I quickly learned that daily review was necessary to keep up with the volume of information."
“I quickly learned that daily review was necessary to keep up with the volume of information,” Dr. Husain says. Trying to play catch-up or cramming at the last minute simply won’t cut it.
2. Write it down
There’s no denying the vast amount of reading you have to cover in medical school. While covering the text is essential, you probably shouldn’t expect to remember all of it. For Dr. Reddy, writing things down was a must.
“I did a lot of note taking as well,” she reflects, saying it was helpful to jot down anything that stood out. Dr. Reddy also mentions flash cards were really helpful for reviewing material when she had a little bit of downtime.
3. Create an effective learning environment
Where you study and what’s around you is just as important as the study methods themselves. You want to make sure you aren’t distracted.
“I found private study cubicles in the library the most helpful since ambient noise was reduced and distractions were minimized,” Dr. Husain offers.
Dr. Reddy did a mix of reviewing material at home and in the library. While both worked, she liked how efficiently she could study in the latter location.
"I think the library’s a good place to go so you’re not distracted by the TV or whatever."
“I think the library’s a good place to go so you’re not distracted by the TV or whatever,” she offers.
4. Improve memorization with mnemonics
Many people have relied on mnemonics, memory tools that help you recall information, at one point or another. For example, elementary students rely on the acronym mnemonic “Roy G. Biv” to remember the order of colors in a rainbow. Research suggests mnemonics can aid in learning large amounts of information, particularly when combined with other strategies.
Both Drs. Husain and Reddy relied on mnemonics to recall crucial information. “Especially when you’re trying to remember all the nerves and things like that, it’s really a good way to keep them straight,” Dr. Reddy offers.
5. Use visuals
If you’re a visual learner, take advantage of opportunities to use imagery. You don’t have to be an artist to sketch out something that could be useful. It’s more about presenting the material in a way that makes sense to you.
“Diagrams were helpful for organ systems, such as renal, or reviewing drug metabolism,” Dr. Husain says. “Creating the diagram also reinforced the information.”
6. Incorporate auditory methods
Some individuals find they’re able to recall information better if they hear it. Goljan Audio is an incredibly popular lecture series many medical students swear by. Dr. Reddy is among those who found it useful.
"I would listen to those if I was working out or if I was in the car."
“I would listen to those if I was working out or if I was in the car,” she says. “It’s a different way to get the information.”
7. Consider forming a study group
If you’ve never tried a study group before, medical school is a perfect time to give it a shot. Just know that it may or may not work for you. For those who do learn well when collaborating with others, study groups are a must. They can be particularly beneficial for certain types of material.
“Study groups are helpful for reviewing clinical scenarios, which are more prominent in later years of medical school,” Dr. Husain says. She also found them helpful for quizzing each other and for working through particularly difficult topics. Dr. Husain has several recommendations for forming a group of your own:
• Keep study groups to a maximum of four students.
• Form a group with students who have similar goals.
• Share the work equally.
• Avoid studying with your regular social group.
Avoiding your friends during study sessions might sound rigid, but it’s in your best interest to heed Dr. Husain’s advice. “Forming study groups with close friends can lead to increased distractions and less efficiency during study time,” she explains.
You may even be able to utilize your school to form a group. Some institutions, like St. George’s University (SGU), build collaborative review sessions right into the program along with other support services.
8. Test yourself
Regularly testing yourself is essential to prepare for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1, sometimes referred to as “the boards.” This rigorous test lasts for eight hours and contains up to 280 questions. You need to be comfortable taking exams to do well.
You can quiz yourself from your own notes or as part of a group, but also consider question banks. Most students find them invaluable tools. Dr. Husain says question banks help you get used to the USMLE format. And consider that there are multiple ways to test yourself with the same list of questions.
“It just helped it stick a little bit more for me.”
“When I was studying, especially for boards, I would go ahead and see what the answer was before I went on to the next question,” Dr. Reddy says. “It just helped it stick a little bit more for me.”
9. Ask for help
Many students have a tendency to keep quiet if they’re struggling. But it never works out well to put off seeking help, especially in medical school. There’s just too much material to get through.
“You can quickly fall behind,” Dr. Husain warns, “so it is better to ask for help earlier rather than later in the semester.” She adds you can seek assistance from instructors as well as classmates.
10. Take care of yourself
Effective, regular studying is obviously key to succeeding in medical school. But don’t forget to take care of yourself. Incorporating regularly timed breaks will keep you from burning out.
“Pencil in some free time or gym time as well so you have something to look forward to,” Dr. Husain advises.
"Pencil in some free time or gym time as well so you have something to look forward to."
Create your strategy for success
Now that you have a better idea of how to study in medical school, you can feel confident about gearing up for your eventual licensing exams. Having some trusted strategies at your disposal can help make USMLE preparation a lot less daunting.
That said, it still helps to tailor your study habits specifically to the USMLE Step 1 as it draws closer. It’s particularly useful to know that you should begin preparing as soon as you start medical school. Learn more by reading our article, “How to Study for Step 1: Tips for USMLE Success.”
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