As the old saying goes, medical school is like a marathon. You should be constantly studying given the amount of knowledge you are expected to accumulate during your four years of school. I have also heard it likened to “drinking from a fire hose,” given the sheer amount of information you need to cram within a short period of time. But my personal philosophy to studying in medical school is like high intensity interval training (HIIT). I believe in short bursts of extreme productivity. There are plenty of study tips out there, so I think it’s best if you incorporate your favorite tips into your own study schedule! My approach won’t work for everyone, but it has helped me score consistently in the top percentile on exams (and trust me, I’m not smarter than your average med student), while keeping my sanity.
1. Know when your exam is.
This is my number #1 rule! Having a FIRM deadline is the best way to motivate yourself to study. I’ve never met anyone who prepares for some random marathon in the hypothetical future. They always know the specific event they’re training for, and have a 20- or 15-week plan that they’re on. It should be the same thing with major exams like the MCAT or Step 1 (see my Step 1 study guide here). I know plenty of people who register for exams, but continuously push it back when they don’t feel ready. This is a guaranteed way to lower your productivity. Why bother studying so hard for a June exam if you can always push it back to July or August or September? Pick a date and stick to it.
And don’t give yourself more time than you need to study for an exam. Can you imagine training a year or two for a marathon? You don’t need four years to study for the MCAT… you would probably do just as well in 1-2 months. The same goes for exams in school. Know the exam date well in advance, so you can put it on your calendar and know how you should prioritize your time.
2. Once you know the time frame, carve out your study schedule in advance.
At my school, we learned in an organ systems-based approach and had exams 2-3 weeks after starting a unit. If I knew I had an exam coming up, I would look at my schedule and try to map out when I could realistically study. If I knew I had major plans on Saturday, I would fit in extra time Friday or Sunday so I could free up Saturday. You don’t need to lose all of your free time if you plan out your study schedule. In fact, I was often more productive when I had plans scheduled for a particular day, so I knew I had to be more productive during my “study day.” We have all been in that position where we cancel weekend plans to stay home and “study,” and end up spending hours surfing the web aimlessly. We probably would’ve gotten more done had we gone out to dinner and spent one day actually studying.
And if you’re studying for multiple units at once, it’s important to figure out how many hours or days you need to learn everything for each exam. For instance, if exam A and exam B were within two days of each other, and I needed three days to study for each exam, I would prioritize exam A first, but made sure I dedicated an extra study day for exam B well in advance.
3. Can’t stay focused? Try these apps.
No one likes sitting hours on end studying. And since most of our studying is done on our computer, it’s too easy and tempting to surf the internet or check our social media. Many students have tried the Pomodoro technique, a regimented way to time your studying and free time. Some good Pomodoro apps are the TomatoTimer for your computer, Focus Keeper (iOS), or ClearFocus (Android).
If you can’t keep yourself from checking social media or YouTube, you can also block those sites temporarily while you study. You can choose to block sites for however long you choose, and will be banned from accessing those sites until the designated time is up! Some good apps are ColdTurkey or SelfControl (iOS). Alternatively, you can always have someone else be in charge of your social media password until you’re done studying…
4. Exercise helps.
There have been numerous studies showing that exercise improves multiple facets of your health, including cognitive and mental health! Sitting for hours on a chair frequently gave me cabin fever, so during my Step 1 study period, I always made sure to allocate an hour of exercise daily (see study guide here). Exercise also helped break up the monotony of my day.
5. Know what environment works for you.
Some people like studying alone at home, some like studying in bustling coffee shops, some like studying in groups in the library, and others need to change up their environment. You’ll have to see what works for you. Don’t study in groups if you never get anything done! And don’t study at home if you can’t get in the right mindset. I will say that for big exams like the MCAT or Step 1, it’s important to take mock exams in a test-like setting. If you’re at home, you might be too relaxed and take too many bathroom or snack breaks at your leisure. Try public spaces like the library instead.
Same goes for music. I personally like listening to classical or ambient music without lyrics while I study. Otherwise, I’ll be too distracted following along with lyrics if I’m listening to my favorite songs.
Be sure to check out my ultimate medical school survival guide for additional advice and resources.