Succeeding in Medical School

Finally!  This has got to be the most common question in my mailbox, and since I love reading/studying, I'm so excited to finally put together an explanation of what worked for ME to succeed in med school and continued studying throughout residency.  No matter what you read on any study tip blogs/books/friend's mouths.. always remember it MUST be individualized. While some techniques work for the majority, there will still be methods that simply don't work for you. It takes a lot of trial and error. If you're still pre-med, I highly recommend you try different methods and once you find what works.. stick with it unless it is no longer effective!  

And also remember, studying should be FUN. It should be bearable and you should feel excited to really understand the material. Especially in medicine, the better base of knowledge you form, the easier it will be to add to your brain as you move along.  Never underestimate the benefit of investing time into basic sciences-- it truly carves the way!

  • Mindset is everything.  No longer a pre-med, everything you learn has a purpose to one day help you be a knowledgable doctor. Change your focus from "the next quiz or test" to "practicing medicine."  If you're passionate, you'll find this very motivating to learn the material in front of you.  The stronger your base, the easier it will be to strengthen your medical knowledge along the way. 
  • Early on in medical school, team up with a very good study buddy. I would avoid large groups for studying as this becomes unproductive, but one other person will keep you on track. Additionally, you both could be reading and studying but quizzing each other on the material. I  truly feel that one of the best ways to put information to memory is to be tested on it. My study buddy was AWESOME (if you're reading this HEYYYYY Omar I miss you!) and we kept each other sane throughout the first two years of med school.  We would sit at the library (or Panera.. I probably spent like $10K each year of pre-clinicals!) for ~10 hours per day and just barrel through reading material.  
  • Regarding note taking, I highly recommend actually taking handwritten notes. This is not personal opinion, but there's actually science behind it.  Handwriting is typically more effective than digital typing, as it forces your brain to selectively pick out more relevant information rather than regurgitating your professor's content verbatim.  Read NPR's great summary about this research here.  Nerd out on paper and pen supplies, it makes the whole experience more enjoyable.  I would draw (and then later, re-draw) figures and diagrams and color code them.  This active involvement in material was crucial in putting it to memory.
  • Probably the most important piece of general advice: take your studying seriously.  Make it undistracted.  Another reason why you should move away from your laptop is to avoid the distractions it brings (just one click away from youtube.. or this website ;-)  Sitting at the library for 12 hours on a Saturday is useless if 75% of that time was staring at instagram.  Turn your phone off and hide it in your backpack.  

When you are a med student, your JOB is to study and learn.  Don't get fired from your job! Do it with full effort and commitment.  

When it comes to studying for Step 1, I want you to completely ignore this test during 1st year. You should be working hard on developing a strong medical knowledge base rather than skimming the surface trying to pick up on "high yield" material for your boards.  Once you move into second year and alongside your regular curriculum, you can start adding in review.  You'll need to refresh on, for example, biochemistry, so reading snippets from First Aid (the bible of Step 1) of biochem that's relevant to the pathology material you're studying can really help.  


Many students (myself included) chose to get their first aid unbounded and put into a 3 ring binder so they could add additional pages or notes

Many students (myself included) chose to get their first aid unbounded and put into a 3 ring binder so they could add additional pages or notes

As you move closer to Step 1, I recommend completing  Doctors in Training.  It's a little laborious as it's a LOT of videos to watch, but it requires that you go through First Aid in its entirety and a good amount of extra material that shows up on the test. For those also taking COMLEX (I'm a DO and took both) the above review sources are still highly recommended.  In addition, add in Savarese for OMM review and you're good to go :-)

Truly the MECCA of success on Step 1 (and Step 2.. and Step 3) besides creating a strong base of medical knowledge is PRACTICE QUESTIONS!! I did all of Uworld twice through, and reviewed every question, and took notes on the explanations in first aid to review later. As i mentioned earlier with benefit of a study buddy, getting tested is such an effective way to learn.  It's easy to skim through a review book, think you know it, only to show up to your test baffled.  When you are ever in doubt how to spend your study time for boards, Do. More. Questions.

Conveniently get questions on your phone to do while on the train, in between classes, going #2....

Conveniently get questions on your phone to do while on the train, in between classes, going #2....

Prior to your boards, take full length practice tests.  Half the battle is mental endurance, and you want to go in prepared for the fatigue you'll inevitably feel. 

What about 3rd and 4th year?  

So important.  Your education is only beginning after you take step 1 and move into clinicals.  You'll likely experience this strange sensation of missing all that studying because it was comfortable and following a plan made things easy.  All of a sudden you're thrown in to real life, practical medicine and you have this sinking sensation that you know absolutely nothing.  (Because let's face it, you kind of don't.)  Now your time will be divided between learning how to navigate the medical system, learning how to gather a useful history & performing an accurate physical exam, and STILL learning background & foreground material.  I promise that 3rd year is better than 1st/2nd year, but you will definitely feel growing pains.  

  • You'll spend much of your time in the hospital.  Keep review materials on your phone or an ipad so that in the inevitable down time you'll have, you can read.  You'll be reading material that your attendings assign to you, but it's important to cover all the background material for each subspecialty you'll be rotating through.  While I loved casefiles for overview, I recommend asking a resident or attending very early on what their favorite textbook is for that specialty, then checking it out from the library.  (Remember, always back to forming that base, skimming isn't enough!) 
  • Be weary of TOO many resources. I noticed especially for 3rd year shelf exams, there was SO much advice on what book or online sources were the best, and I got lost early on in just too much access.  Once I focused on using one or two resources, I learned the material much better as compared to jumping around and barely getting to the content.  
  • Never underestimate what you'll remember from patient encounters. Just today during morning report we were discussing possible salvage treatment options for ITP (immune thrombocytopenic purpura) and my mind immediately went back to a patient I cared for during third year, who didn't respond to steroids and required a second line medication called rituximab.  I remembered all of the options because I had learned the material in the context of HER and her story.  This happens all the time and it's awesome!!  Creating connections with your patients isn't just fun, it's extraordinarily helpful in your education.  

And obviously, I can't leave this blog without stressing the importance of self-care for maximizing success in medical school.  

Every hour of studying, stand up, walk around, stretch, take deep breaths, drink some water.  Without these mini mental breaks, extended hours are useless.  Recharge with simple rituals-- study SMARTER, not harder.  

Don't listen to the haters telling you you'll never have time to work out, sleep, or do other things you love.  If you don't make time for these things, eventually you will break.  Maybe not during medical school.. but perhaps during residency, or your first few years as an attending.  Good self-care habits are equally important as study habits for creating a lifelong successful career as a doctor.  I had a STRICT rule during medical school: every single day, you get one full hour for self-care.  This was usually for working out, but sometimes it was for an extra hour of sleep, or more time prepping dinner, or flopping on the couch with my husband to watch something mindless on netflix.  MORE does not always equal better when it comes to study time.   You will spend a lifetime caring for others, make sure one of those people is yourself too :-)

Love Always,

Shanny, D.O.