Studying in medical school is the hardest in the beginning of each class. For me, the beginning of each class is the month of August, the beginning of first year and second year. I have no clue what the teacher expects or what is important and not. So if you take a look at my grades, it is usually on par or lower in the beginning compared to the class average and then it gets much higher at the end. The reason for that is because I experiment with my study habits for the first two or three exams.
There are lots of ways you can tackle studying in medical school. I will present the different choices I had to make when studying. And I now have a pretty refined method to doing well (sometimes high pass, mostly honors) in my classes.
Studying in Medical School Decision #1: Going to Class vs. Skipping Class (and Teaching Self)
This is one of the first choices you will have to make. Should you go to class or should you skip class? If you go to school where all classes are mandatory, then the choice has already been made for you. As for my school, there are a few mandatory classes but the rest are optional.
During the first few weeks, pretty much all your classmates will be in class. They want to check out the teacher, check out what is emphasized in the course, and check out each other. And I encourage you to go attend class in the beginning, just so you get to know some people and see how well you learn in class. Maybe you learn really well by listening. If so, class would benefit you. In addition, if you always attend class, it is less likely you will fall behind.
But if you are like me, and not an audio learner, class would be a waste of time. If you choose to skip class, most likely you learn faster by reading a book or even just class notes. UMDNJ records most of its lectures, so you can follow along in the comfort of your own home. So if you live too far from school, you can skip class without missing out.
Winner: Skipping Class
Most of my classmates prefer skipping class. I prefer to skip class, too. The main benefit of skipping class is saving time. When you are in medical school, you will find that time is a precious but scarce commodity. There are just too many things you have to know when studying in medical school. If you can save 30 minutes without commuting, then that is an extra 30 minutes for studying. In addition, if the lecturer is especially bad, then attending class without understanding the information is a waste of time. There just is not enough time in a day for most people to attend class and self-learn.
Exception to Skipping Class
The exception is when the professor is really good (of if he or she gives out test questions). Then it is more efficient to attend class. But you will find that good professors are an exception and not the rule. However, if you do find one, he or she will save you lots of time.
Studying in Medical School Decision #2: Books vs. No Books
Using or not using medical school books correlates highly to if you are going to class or not. If you do not go to class and do not follow the professor through recorded lectures, then it would be wise to go through a book. Clinical pathology should be the same coming from the teacher’s presentation or a textbook, right?
There are some extremely studious students who go to class and read a book (or books). These are the gunners of the class. They know everything. I am not one of them.
But overall, reading class notes and lecture slides are enough to prepare you for the class examinations. And if you pair the notes with scribe notes (which are lecturer’s presentation in written form — word for word — generally compiled by fellow students), that is already enough information to do well.
Winner: No Books
I personally do not use books because they are too dense. It takes me longer to read the book instead of going to class, and going to class is mostly a waste of time for me.
The exception is when preparing for boards. I do use First Aid because it is the first two years of medical education condensed into outline format. It is quick and good for reviewing materials you should have covered.
I would also recommend Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. It is helpful to get an idea where the organs and vessels are, before doing dissections. Thieme Atlas of Anatomy is good for the origins, insertions, and innervations. And Savarese OMT Review is good to really understand OMM. But I can count the total numbers of medical books I purchased for classes with one hand. Overall, they are just not worth it.
Read the medical school books section to learn which books you need and which books you do not need. Make the right decisions and save yourself some money.
Exception to No Books
However, if the lecturer is really bad and if the class notes really suck, then you may have to shell out some money for some books.
Studying in Medical School Decision #3: Notes vs. No Notes
When I talk about notes, I do not mean should you use class notes or not. Looking over the lecturer’s presentation is one of the highest yielding things you can do to do well on the exam. Usually, whatever is stressed by the presenter will show up on the exam.
Rather, in this case, notes refer to creating your own notes based on your studies. The benefit of writing your own notes is that the materials are in your own words. When you study for exams, it should be faster to study from. The downside of creating notes is that it takes a lot of time. A LOT OF TIME.
I personally create my own notes because that is how studying in medical school works best for me. I write notes on the topics which I think will show up on the exams. They are in my own words, so when I review them, I can remember the items faster. In addition, if I need to recall something that I learned in the past, I just pull out my notes.
I only know the study habits of two other people in my class. And they create notes and they are doing well above average as well. I know a total of 3 people is not enough of a sample size, so take what I say with a grain of salt.
I attribute notes to one of the reasons why I do well in class.
Exceptions to Taking Notes
The exception to note taking is if you have a really good review book. For example, I use Pathoma for pathology, a light 2 lb book. I do not read the 15 lbs Robbins Pathologic Basis of Disease book. I do not need to take extra notes because all the information is already there in outline form. I do take additional notes on the book, but they are sparse.
Studying in Medical School Decision #4: Paper vs. Technology
While studying for medical school, do you like to print out everything or keep them on the computer?
During my studies in undergraduate class, I printed everything out and took notes on paper. I did well. I tried again the paper method for my first physiology test. I did well. But towards the end of the class, the pile of notes accumulated and it was just too burdensome to bring around. Some people in my class like their paper and would bring their big binders around. They print out all the slides and carry around a 6 inch binder. That’s not my preference.
I wanted all my notes to fit into my laptop. One of the first things I did learn while studying in medical school is how to use my laptop effectively. My notes are taken in my laptop. My class slides are in my laptop. I asked others how they took note on their computer, what softwares they used, and more. And based on what I heard, I came with my own electronic method of studying.
All my notes are in my computer. If I have any questions about subjects covered in the last semester, I can easily pull up the lecture slide or my own writings. Obviously, if you adopt the paperless way, you will need to backup constantly. If your computer breaks and you lose all your data without a backup source, you’re out of luck.
Exceptions to Using the Laptop
For me, there is no exception to this. All my notes for all my classes can be found in my laptop.
Studying in Medical School Decision #5: Individual vs. Group
Do you study solo or in groups? The main advantage of studying in medical school by yourself is that it is faster. The main advantage of studying in group is that it is more comprehensive. It is also harder to setup because you have to work with the schedule of multiple people. The bigger the group, the harder it will be to set up a study schedule, and the longer each study session will take.
I study by myself because I prefer speed over comprehensiveness. I like to do things when I want to.
Exception to Studying by Yourself
The exception to this is when I have already studied and I’m at lunch with my friends, we may review some things may be on the exam. I have earned extra points by what my friends pointed out.
If you adopt the solo method of studying in medical school, I highly encourage you to make friends and get at least one buddy to bounce things off of. For example, if I miss class, I would ask my buddy on what the teacher emphasized. Of course, this would be a give-and-take relationship. Do something to make your buddy’s studying easier. Share your notes for instance.
Studying in Medical School Decision #6: Practice Questions vs. No Practice Questions
When I first started medical school, I would spend 90% of the time studying. And once I know my notes inside and outside, I would do practice questions. I waited until the last night to test my knowledge. It worked out well.
But as I transitioned into second year, my previous habits were not getting me the results I wanted. I was doing average or lower. Studying in medical school constantly requires you to adapt. If you don’t, you’ll have a hard time. So I spent more time doing practice questions and less time studying my notes. And my scores have increased.
Winner: Practice Questions
Practice questions are your best guides into the type of questions you can expect on your exam. If you have access to old exams, that is even better because some questions are repeated.
Practice questions are the main reasons for my academic success in medical school. Whenever I can, I would try to find old exams or online quizzes from other medical schools. And even if I get the questions wrong, it is ok. I learn from my mistakes.
After an hour of just reading notes, new facts are replacing old facts. But if I quiz myself, I am more likely to recall what I need, even tiny details such as if thiazides or loop diuretics causes hyperglycemia. (The answer is thiazides.)
Exception to Doing Practice Questions
None. Do them.
When you are in medical school, it is necessary for you to experiment with your study style. Let your exam grades tell you if what you are doing works or fails. I personally have found classes to be a waste of time. Books are overrated. But taking my own notes helps me understand the materials. Adequate and organized notes are best done with a computer. I study better solo. And most important of all, doing lots of practice questions is key to my high grades.
Hey, you! Do you want to know how an accountant, without a science background, made it through medical school without any difficulty? Do you want to know how I memorized a sea of information without cracking my skull in half and dumping the books into my brain? No, I did not slave away all night studying in the library either. If you want to know my complete study system, check out The Secret of Studying.
This article is part of the How to Survive Medical School series. Click on the link if you want more tips and hints about surviving academic hell.