HealthJanuary 30, 2020

6 medical school study tips to master in your first semester

By: Kunal Sindhu, MD

A mentor once described medical school as “drinking from a firehose.” Upon entering medical school, I quickly came to understand what he meant.

The knowledge requirements simply to pass medical school classes can be enormous. Medical students, for example, are expected to learn as many as 13,000 thousand new words over the course of their first year alone.

However, if you approach it in the right way, you’ll feel a lot less overwhelmed. Here are 6 medical school study tips that will help you master your material during your first semester.

1. Keep up with your classes

In college, there are usually only a few exams per class, and each one tests you on a limited amount of information. Cramming the week before the exam, while not advisable, is possible.

In medical school, things are different. Exams often occur much more frequently—generally every three or four weeks—and the amount of material covered on each exam rivals what you would see on a final exam in college. This is why to succeed in medical school, it’s crucial to not fall behind.

Aim to read your notes from each lecture at least three times before each exam: once the night after the lecture occurs, once the following weekend and once in the days before the exam. Maintaining this schedule will help you master the information taught in class.

Even if your preferred study schedule is different, don’t attempt to wait and cram in the days before the exam. You might pull it off once or twice, but there’s simply too much covered on each exam in medical school for this kind of strategy to be sustainable.

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2. Use practice questions

While mastering the material in your lecture notes will take you far in medical school, an even better way to learn is to test yourself frequently. Completing practice questions the week before an exam will help solidify important concepts and reveal any gaps in your knowledge, providing you with an idea of how to spend your remaining study time. Outside resources or old exams from your institution can be good sources of questions.

As a bonus, making practice questions a regular part of your study schedule will help prepare you for the rigors of board examinations. Avoid diving into board-specific study tools too early in medical school, though. Save those resources until you actually begin preparing for your board exams.

3. Choose your resources wisely

While college can be difficult, most of the time you at least know what you need to study for exams. In medical school, though, you’ll find yourself navigating a wide variety of additional outside resources in addition to lectures, assigned readings and problem sets.

With so many resources to turn to, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Focus on lectures, readings and problem sets and consult outside materials when you need to clarify and crystallize concepts. When you do consult outside resources, go with a limited number—one to two at most.

4. Weigh the usefulness of study groups

In college, where a lot of the learning is conceptual, study groups can be great for clarifying difficult topics. In medical school, though, study groups are generally less useful because the material there requires more memorization than discussion.

This is why you’ll likely find studying on your own to be more efficient. Study groups can still play an important role for you in terms of social support, but check in with yourself to decide whether they’re worth the time they take up.

5. Embrace imperfection

Unlike in college, it’s not always possible to memorize all the content tested on exams in medical school. But if a concept or piece of information is truly important to your education, you will see it several times throughout your training.

Try your best to learn as much as you can before exams, but if you can’t master all of it, don’t worry.

6. Remember to relax

Medical school is an exciting time in the life of any physician and you should try to take advantage of all the opportunities you can. That said, you will be busy constantly and it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

To protect your mental health, one of the most important but overlooked medical school study tips is to carve out some time each week to focus on yourself. Designating a Saturday afternoon free from studying or work will give you an opportunity to recover from the last week’s stress and prepare for the week ahead.

As daunting as medical school may be, the good news is that most students ultimately succeed. In fact, nearly 96% of students at American allopathic medical schools obtain their MD within six years of entry, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. What helped these students succeed were strategies that allowed them learn the vast amount of information required to become a physician in 21st-century America. While you should start with the strategies described here, talk with your peers—and older students—to see what has worked for them. And don’t be afraid to experiment with different study styles in order to find the combination that works best for you.

Kunal Sindhu, MD