Medical students often wonder how to study in medical school. It requires memorizing huge amounts of material and applying complex medical knowledge in a tough licensing exam. Students want the best to give them the best chance of passing their exams and becoming a physician. Below, students can learn how to up their studying game by using the best preparation strategies.
There’s no question that medical school students need to study rigorously to succeed in their program. And there’s plenty of questions and opinions on how long to study every day, what topics to study, and how to memorize the huge amounts of complex information medical students are required to know.
But there are study methods that work most effectively, and tips you can use to prepare yourself for how best to study in medical school. As a medical student, you’ll need to learn the best study methods to prepare yourself for one of the biggest challenges of medical school: board exams. To pass medical school exams like the USMLE and MCCQE, you’ll need to not only learn and memorize a large amount of complex information, but you’ll also have to be able to apply that knowledge in your exams.
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The USMLE and MCCQE exams are some of the toughest and most stressful evaluations you’ll ever face. They cover a very broad range of subjects in medicine and require students to be able to learn and apply complex information to hypothetical situations.
Everyone studies differently, and there is a lot of debate on the right and wrong way to study. However, there are some methods of studying that are proven to improve your learning, your memory, and your active recall, all of which you will need to pass your medical school exams.
The keys to good studying include methods for active learning, better note-taking, effective reviewing, and fostering a good study environment.
Review every day
The first key to better studying is to take time to review what you’ve learned every day. Avoid cramming before your exams at all costs! Cramming the days leading up to your exam actually increases your chances of forgetting the information you’ve memorized during test prep time. Reviewing your notes regularly, understanding the information clearly, and comprehending it helps solidify the concepts in your long-term memory and makes it easier for your brain to retrieve it when you need to. This is part of active recall. Instead of relying on your memorization skills, you’ll know and understand the information on a deeper level.
Reviewing your notes regularly also takes pressure off yourself, making the examination less stressful in your mind. If you took the time to actively learn the information, review it and can now use active recall to remember it, you’ll feel much more confident walking into your exams.
Take better notes
The biggest roadblock to actively learning your study material is that most students don’t take effective notes. Believe or not, there is a system to good note-taking that can help you learn your study materials more effectively. And when you’re learning a field as complex as medicine, it can really come in handy.
The Cornell note-taking system was developed by a Cornell education professor named Walter Pauk. Pauk’s system revolves around writing notes that are actually useful in helping you study and retain the information, not just repeating what is said in class.
To use Cornell notes, divide the pages in your notebook in 3. On the left, create the “cues” column. The majority of the page, on the right-hand side, will be reserved for your notes. The bottom of the page will be your summary.
Notes are the key information discussed in class or rotation, and students are encouraged to use abbreviations or diagrams to speed up the note-taking process. Write down only the important concepts and details, don’t write down every word that’s said in class. In the cues column, jot down any questions or keywords. These will help you remember the key concepts you’ve written down in your notes and remind you to ask questions of the professor for any concepts you don’t understand. The summary section should be written soon after class is over, and answer the question “what did you learn today?”
Use visuals and auditory tools
Some learners study best with visuals or auditory tools to help them remember information. Visual tools include things like diagrams, charts, drawings, pictures, or flashcards to improve memory. Auditory learners might use things like videos, lecture recordings, reading notes aloud, or rhymes to help with memorization.
Whatever your learning style, it’s beneficial to review your study materials in a variety of different active ways. By presenting yourself with the same material in numerous different ways, you’re activating your brain far more than just re-reading your notes.
Mnemonics and memory
Medical students often use mnemonics and other memorization tools like flashcards to improve their memory. These tricks definitely help with active recall, especially with the huge amount of information medical students need to retain. Medical school examinations cover a wide range of topics in medicine, so it’s good to have a set of flashcards or mnemonic devices for each subject the test will cover.
Practice tests are a great way to gauge how well you’re retaining the information. Once you’ve studied the material, put it aside and see how well you can recall it. This way, you’ll be able to pinpoint any knowledge gaps or areas you need more study in. Question banks, practice tests, and flashcards are all great tools to make use of either on your own or within a study group.
The environment you study in is just as important as how you study. You can’t retain information if you can’t concentrate on review. So you’ll need a space free from outside distractions and noises. Find a quiet, clean workspace free of clutter. Make sure you have good lighting in your space, to avoid eye fatigue. Set up an ergonomic chair and desk space, and bring all your necessary materials with you, including your computer, notebook, paper, pencils, and textbooks. Everything you need should be on hand and everything that could be a distraction should be put away. Get comfortable and ready to study.
Along with your physical environment, your mental environment needs to be comfortable and optimized for study. As a medical student, there will be long days of learning and studying, and it can get stressful and exhausting very quickly.
Break up the overwhelming amounts of information you need to study into more manageable pieces. Make a study schedule and study a small section every day. You don’t need to put in a minimum amount of study hours every day. What matters is your comprehension and ability to apply the information you’re learning, not how long you study.
And when you’re studying, don’t forget that it’s okay to take breaks. Taking a break from studying a concept actually gives your brain time to process it. After reviewing your notes, take a step away for a moment, then go back and test yourself to see if you remember the material.
If you feel like fatigue is setting in, get up from your chair and get some physical activity, or make yourself a snack. Doing an activity or allowing your brain a break from studying will help you avoid burnout and exhaustion.
Studying in medical school is a huge undertaking, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Even if students did well in their undergraduate degrees, they can bring bad study habits with them in the transition , only to find the programs are much more demanding. Some of the biggest problems students face when studying in medical school are forgetting the material or using passive studying techniques.
Students in medical school are required to understand all the information that will be on their examinations, and many of them struggle with improving their memory and application of knowledge. At the time of taking their tests, they experience spontaneous forgetting, and they can no longer recall all the material they spent so many hours trying to memorize. The study techniques above are all good ways of ensuring the material is stored safely in your long-term memory, making it easier to recall.
Another pitfall students have is the tendency to use passive learning techniques, passive studying methods or give into the temptation to cram before a test. Cramming only increases the feeling of being overwhelmed or burned out, since it requires reviewing and memorizing all of the program material in a short amount of time. It also means you’re more likely to forget the information in the short-term, or you won’t be able to properly apply the concepts you’ve memorized because you didn’t fully learn them or understand them.
It’s important to develop active learning and studying skills in medical school, otherwise you’ll fall back into comfortable habits of studying and you won’t be actively retaining the information when you’re in the classroom. In the classroom, active learning looks like following along with the lecture and taking notes on what is being said, rather than simply recording information from teaching materials to revise later, which is a passive activity. Try to write down your own definitions of concepts, and any examples, diagrams or abbreviations that will help you remember them. It’s useful to jot down any questions you have or concepts you’d like clarification on, so you can ask your professor to elaborate as you’re learning.
Being able to develop these study skills in yourself is a process, too, since it sometimes requires us to overcome a fixed mindset or mental block. For example, countless students believe themselves to have a bad memory or memorization skills and hope that cramming before a test will ensure the information is “fresh in their minds”. However, memory can be improved, and memorization is a skill that can be developed just like any other. The key is using effective methods to improve a student’s long-term memory, not their ability to stuff in as much information as possible.
When it comes to studying in medical school, your best offense is a good study plan. Your study plan should include all those little details that will set you up for your success down the road. If you can, prepare a study plan in advance and arrive at medical school a step ahead.
There are plenty of good resources out there for medical students for a bit of extra help. Make use of every resource possible and utilize the ones that make sense for you and your learning.
Study groups can be very helpful for students. Choose a group of like-minded individuals who will help test your knowledge or discuss concepts with you around the study table. Don’t form a study group with the people you socialize with to avoid distractions.
Professional study guides
There are hundreds of professional study guides available online, both free and paid. Students can download study guides designated for medical students or get study support from online programs that offer interactive practice quizzes, flashcards, and online guides. Many of these services are specifically aimed at medical students preparing to take the USMLE or MCCQE exams.
A study tool often used by students, and medical students in particular, is ANKI flashcards. The good thing about ANKI is that they are media-rich, so they include visuals and audio for different types of learners. ANKI is freely available online and can be a great addition to your study materials.
Med students can also benefit from professional study help. There are many online resources and services that help students like you with exam prep, how to create a study guide or study schedule, and developing good study habits. Professional study help services vary in what they offer, but many are focused solely on medical students and how to prepare for medical school exam study.
Studying in medical school is a daunting amount of work, but it can be tackled with proper preparation and good techniques. Using better study methods and engaging in active learning can help students feel more prepared as they begin medical school and get ready to face their biggest challenges before becoming a physician.
1. How many hours a day should I study in medical school?
There is no set answer for how many hours or how long students should study in medical school. The key is to study more effectively, and not to try and cram before your licensing exam.
2. What should I study in medical school?
The USMLE and MCCQE cover a range of topics in medicine, including biochemistry, physiology, anatomy, medical ethics, immunology, microbiology, pharmacology, pathology and more. You’ll need to study all the covered materials for your exam.
3. How hard is the USMLE/MCCQE?
The medical licensing exams in the US and Canada are notoriously difficult, as they require memorizing large amounts of knowledge and applying medical knowledge in a broad variety of disciplines to hypothetical situations.
4. What are the best study methods for medical school?
The best study methods to succeed in medical school include active recall and active learning. The best way to study starts with taking useful, structured notes, actively participating in class, and reviewing what you’ve learned regularly.
5. Should I use ANKI to study in medical school?
If memorization is a weak point for you, using ANKI flashcards could be helpful in retaining the large volume of information you’ll need to learn in medical school.
6. What are the best study resources for medical students?
Students make use of a variety of study tools and resources to succeed, including study groups, online study guides, flashcards and practice tests or question banks.
7. How do I start studying for medical school?
The best way to prepare for studying in medical school is to start developing effective study methods and come to class prepared to learn.
8. Do I need to memorize everything in medical school?
Memorizing all of the material you’ll learn in medical school is necessary to succeed on your exams, but there are ways to help improve your memory and memorization skills.