Earlier this month, I watched my younger sister begin her medical school journey as she walked on stage in front of family members and peers to be officially “white-coated.” I had never been to another white coat ceremony since my own years ago. It was fascinating to observe it from my now-more-seasoned fourth-year medical student eyes — especially at another institution. Watching the baby-faced, naïve newbies line up to walk on stage gave me a strange combination of emotions. Part of me smirked and thought, “They have no idea what they are in for.” But another part of me felt a longing to reach out and give them whatever words of wisdom I could.
Some of the new student doctors appeared nervous — probably doubting themselves and thinking their academic records prior to medical school were not as spotless as those of others. Some appeared smug and confident — the next crop of gunners, no doubt. Whatever their situation, I wondered how many of them planned to seek advice from upperclassmen. As medical school has taught me, different styles of learning work for different people. Some people come in and more or less have their methods established. At that point, it is all just a matter of time and discipline. Others, like me, had to discover how to learn effectively before achieving academic success.
I have compiled my top five medical school pro-tips here. Please take note: these worked for me, but they are not for everyone. It is important to talk to several people to gain different perspectives and ideas.
If the medical school journey is a flight, these tips really helped me with takeoff and have since kept me in the air. I am not saying the flight has been turbulence-free, but come this March when I finally land and reach that graduation destination, I will be thankful for everything I have learned along the way.
#1: Find a way to make learning fun.
Almost all aspiring physicians write on their medical school applications that they love science. But, let us be real here: some of the material we learn is pretty boring. What helped me was adopting a “level-up” mentality. Back in middle school, I used to play role-playing games (RPGs), video games in which you generally have a party of characters that you “level up.” Leveling up characters was tiring work: you had to run around in the grass and defeat weak monsters to gain experience points. But it all paid off when you defeated the bosses. This made the entire growth process enjoyable.
In the same way, I approached test-taking as building up my knowledge base by utilizing resources I found interesting. Specifically, I would use Microsoft OneDrive to organize my files. I typed my notes on a blank Word document in bullet form and would begin each section with the lecture title followed by the learning objectives. Every few days I would return to these notes to review old lectures. I identified the material I was likely to forget and created notecards of those concepts via an online flashcard resource called Memorang. I used this mainly because it had an application I could download to my smartphone, and when I was walking to class, I could easily tap through cards. By the end of most modules, I would have around 100 pages of notes on my Word document. A week before the exam, I would print all my notes and mark them with different color highlighters. Something about physically highlighting and underlining information, rather than staring at a computer screen, helped the material stick.
With regard to question banks, I see no harm in getting your hands on one early. Firecracker was helpful to fill in gaps during the preclinical years. I also purchased the Kaplan Qbank several months before taking my boards. I randomized the subjects and started with about 30 questions daily. Of course, I was scoring horribly initially (especially since much of the material we had not even learned yet), but over time I did better. The Qbank really helped me to recall information. I used USMLE World during our dedicated study period of around five to eight weeks prior to Step 1. Question banks really helped, so I continued using them throughout my clerkship year and will continue using them during residency.
Do not be afraid to venture out and use resources that you have not tried before. Find what works best for you.
#2: Time is extremely valuable. Do not do what you do not need to.
I initially found going to lecture very helpful. It gave me a chance to engage in a full learning environment and to observe everything firsthand. That being said, having all your new friends in a giant lecture hall can come with some issues. Our medical school has a ping-pong table in the student lounge, and I looked forward to playing my classmates during breaks. At one point, I found myself looking at the clock during lecture, just wishing the lecturer would hurry up so I could go play. That is when I knew there might be a problem. Thus, I found a quiet spot in the library and started reading lecture transcripts and listening to the audio. After trying this routine, my grades markedly improved. For lectures that did not require mandatory attendance, I personally benefitted from learning the material at my own pace in the library. Over time, I became faster at reading and better at listening. By the end of my preclinical years, I could learn a full lecture by listening to it at 2x speed, two times in a row.
I remember making lunch for myself every night and brewed coffee every morning during the first few months of medical school. Taking the time to chop up grilled chicken and toss it with salad and dressing in a plastic container every night is unfathomable to me now. While it is important to eat well, finding healthy options at your school food court is typically less time-consuming than food preparation. Though it may be a little more expensive, you eventually become numb to the whole “hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt” thing. Your grades will thank you more than your wallet will chastise you. Of course, the best thing to do is cook massive amounts of food at the beginning of the week to last you the rest of the week, but this is not always plausible.
#3: Surround yourself with good people.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to interact with peers. Without roommates I could come home and talk to every night, I would not have been able to spend countless hours in the library taking notes on lectures. Your small group members are also incredible, and they should be seen as your friends. The magic of the medical school class is that you are surrounded by people who have done extraordinary things to get to the same place as you. There probably will not be another time in your life where you are chasing a goal with so many other talented and motivated individuals. Meet these people — and not just for studying! Joining a volunteer student group is a great way to build solidarity and to learn how to work with a team. Meeting up with non-medical student friends is also important and at times provides a much-needed alternative world outlook. Importantly, you should find at least two mentors (at least one should be a physician) to meet up with quarterly and talk about life.
For the little leisure time you have, spend it with friends and make it memorable. This is coming from the perspective of someone who still is — albeit on a lesser scale — an avid Netflix enthusiast. Sitting down in my room with dinner and Netflix used to be pure bliss. Over time, however, I realized that, while binge-watching Breaking Bad was temporarily satisfying, I enjoyed spending time with others much more. My most unforgettable experiences are ones in which I intentionally set aside time to do activities with friends.
#4: Do not forget to think long-term.
It is easy to get caught up in the student mindset: study for the test, take the test and then flush the information out of your brain. What I found was, when I attempted to learn information with the intention of knowing the concept for my own knowledge and not just the test, it would stick better. I know it sounds a bit silly and obvious, but if this is not the way you have been learning, then shifting to this mindset may be a huge breakthrough. There are obscure facts I remember from early in medical school that I will take to my grave. These have stuck with me because I had a strong desire to commit them to memory and repeat them in my mind intermittently.
Understand that the purpose of all your training is to provide the best quality of care for your patients, now and in the future. This is especially applicable to third year — the most difficult year of medical school, in my opinion. Working all day in the hospital, seeing patients, writing notes and trying to dazzle your team members are exhausting on many levels. The cruelest part of it is returning home at the end of the day and still having to study for exams. What helped me through third year was understanding that everything I was doing was for the patient and not for a grade or to impress anyone. Having a genuine desire to engage with patients, understand their conditions and spend time with them, even when no one else is watching, will transform you in a remarkable way. Your longing to see your patients healthy will bring out the best in you.
#5: Reinvigorate your mind daily.
Medical school is full of ups and downs, so how you cope with setbacks is important. After a shaky first semester, I realized I needed something to help me achieve consistency with respect to motivation and time management. I made a compilation of quotes from my journal, bible verses, emails, photos and social media posts that resonated with me. With these in mind (and after re-reading my medical school personal statement), I reflected for a while. I then began to write. My mind had never before been in such a clear state. I took out a notecard and wrote down 10 short bullet points, which I extracted from my writing. I taped the notecard to my dresser, and every morning, I read over it to motivate myself for the day. It was life-changing. As imperfect beings, we are not always in our clearest state of mind. Things get hectic, but having some sort of short routine or custom that reminds you of your goals and purpose can make all the difference. Habit is the antidote for what you do not want to become. Developing good practices is one of the most powerful ways to become your ideal future self.
While these tips were mainly intended for those at the start of their medical school journey, I believe most of these are ideas that are applicable to any part of life. Knowing how to respond to obstacles and transform yourself and your efforts are the key. Six years ago when I was a college junior, I watched Conan O’Brien give the senior class commencement address at Dartmouth College. The majority was comical, but one part really stood out to me: “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention.” All in all, be molded by your imperfections into a more experienced you and then build resolve with zeal. You will be pleased with the results.