Top view of group students
HealthFebruary 12, 2020

Falling behind in medical school? Catch up with these 5 steps

By: Ogie M. Ezeoke, MD

We’ve all heard the metaphor of trying to drink from a fire hydrant. It’s not so far off when describing medical school, particularly in the first year. Whether due to the often overwhelming amount of studying necessary for staying on track or pressures from life outside the classroom, falling behind in medical school is a situation many students find themselves in.

If you’re facing this problem now or you’re worried you will be soon, here’s what to do to get back on track.

1. Know the signs

An important first step to keep from falling behind in medical school is to recognize when it’s actively happening—don’t wait for poor grades on tests, if you can help it. Instead, look out for early red flags, including:

  • Having more than two days’ worth of new material to study.
  • Not being able to describe concepts in your own words.
  • Feeling unprepared to move on to a new topic.

One important lesson I learned in medical school was that the amount of time I needed to study to understand new material was specific to me, and I had to discover what study techniques were best for my learning. Once I figured this out, I was able to recognize when I’d spent sufficient time with a new subject to move on to the next. Picking up on these signs early can help you adjust your studying before any official tests come up. And when you do take tests, you can use them as a way to make sure you’re staying on track for success.

2. Find yourself a study buddy

If you do find that you’re falling behind in medical school, consider teaming up with a classmate who has a solid grasp on the material you’re learning.

One of the challenges of medical school is how isolating it can feel to manage such a large volume of information. You may feel like your struggles are unique, but know that you’re not alone in the process; every student has their own struggle. Check in with your friends about studying together, and talk through material to keep track of your understanding. You can also ask your professors for recommendations for study partners outside your friend group.

Most medical schools also offer study support programs such as tutoring, which is another way to find a partner who can provide study tips and other ways to manage your learning and stay ahead. And keep in mind that your study buddy might not be someone you can sit down with in the flesh. Digital tutors like Firecracker are personalized to your needs, whether that’s catching up or staying on your game.


Sign up for a free 7-day trial of Firecracker here.


3. Set realistic goals

The next step to staying on track with new material is to set realistic goals for yourself.

My study plan was usually based on getting through at least 75% of the day’s material in my study session, and then making up the rest on weekends. This ensured I was able to stay on track with studying without feeling overwhelmed and while still getting a good night’s sleep for the next day.

Other students study for a set amount of time before taking a planned break. This works if you’ve discovered how much time you need with new material to understand it fully.

4. Reward your discipline

The most important way to keep from falling behind in medical school is to stay disciplined when it comes to studying. Even when catching up, studying requires your entire focus in order to be effective. That said, it’s equally important to maintain your well-being by taking breaks. Finding a balance of focused studying and refreshing breaks will allow you to keep your momentum going and prevent you from feeling burned out.

Remember that medical school is a marathon, not a sprint, and be sure to pace yourself accordingly. After studying, I usually planned an hour to watch my favorite show or drive out into the city. These small rewards to myself were a form of positive feedback for staying disciplined when I needed to.

5. Use your support network

Finally, remember that you’re surrounded by a supportive network, from upperclassmen to assigned advisers to your colleagues. Asking for tips to stay ahead and avoid falling behind can keep you on the path to success. Whenever I asked for advice, I inevitably learned of a new study resource—picture-based online learning tools, interactive textbooks, videos, question banks, flashcard decks. The number of resources available to support medical learning is infinite, so you’ll be sure to find ones that match your learning style.

Other ways to stay ahead include asking professors how other students in the past may have mastered the material, so you have an idea of how to get started, and asking upperclassmen which subject matter has historically been the most difficult to manage, so you can make a realistic plan for studying. Your journey to medicine isn’t a solo one—remember that you’ve got people who can help keep you with the pack.

Ogie M. Ezeoke, MD