For first-year students, getting used to the speed of medical school and processing mass amounts of information are often the biggest challenges.
“Try not to focus so much on the minutia of the first year of medical school,” says 2nd Lt. Mosab Ali, OMS IV, at A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona.
In second year, most students have figured out how to study, but then have to take their knowledge and conquer board exams. In third year, students balance clinical rotations and their academics before encountering the match process during fourth year.
While academics will take a front seat, figuring out how to learn the material efficiently can help you find extra time for wellness, decompressing and family and friends.
“You have to go through so much material, so how you do it will influence the amount of free time you have,” says Kevin Yang, DO, a psychiatry resident at the University of Rochester who has worked as an exam tutor for Kaplan.
The following are six ways to help you balance studying with the rest of your life during medical school.
1. Find out how you learn best
For most students, the first two years of medical school are taught didactically, but not everyone learns well sitting in a classroom listening to lectures.
Dr. Yang preferred studying with videos and question banks.
“It took some time to make the flashcards, but it helped me memorize the information and think about it, instead of just reading it passively on a page,” Dr. Yang says. “It was much faster and helped me retain the material, and my grades were better as a result.”
Dr. Yang and Ali both used flashcards to employ two learning techniques: spaced repetition, in which one reviews information at progressively increasing intervals, and active recall, in which one answers questions about the material they’re studying in order to engage with the material at a higher level.
The flashcard app Anki helped both Dr. Yang and Ali study on the go.
“The app allowed me to study while doing other things,” Ali says. “When I was at the gym, I would go through some flashcards on the bike or in between sets.”
2. Assess if you’re actually studying
Too often people trick themselves into “studying” mindlessly, says Samantha Collins, OMS IV, who has blogged about study methods.
Dr. Yang agrees.
“When folks are truly studying for five hours, it’s important to examine how much of that time was used effectively,” he says.
Have a friend ask you questions or summarize what you learned without looking at any resources for a quick check-in, suggests Collins, who attends Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
If found herself re-reading a sentence, she would take a break or study a more engaging topic.
If you’re struggling, focus on understanding concepts at the most basic level, suggests Ali, who has previously spoken about information retention in med school.
“Once you have a solid grasp of the basics and build that foundation, you can answer a lot of questions without having to memorize everything,” Ali says.
This tactic also helped him with board preparation.
3. Create a study schedule
Ali would plan backward based on his test date and aim to be entirely prepared two days before the exam.
He’d set goals for moving flashcards from his short-term memory pile to his long-term memory pile and make Google Calendar reminders to help him stay on track. If he had extra time, he would reward himself with more time at the gym.
Dr. Yang also used Google Calendar to manage his time, which he found useful because of its accessibility on his phone and computer. He plotted out all of his classes and activities and checked it every morning.
4. Know when you’re struggling and pivot quickly
If you’re having difficulty in your classes, ask for help immediately, Dr. Yang says.
“No one wants to look like they’re struggling,” Dr. Yang says. “Everyone is going to stay they didn’t study too much and that the exam was easy. But take heart, a lot of people are having trouble and there’s nothing wrong with saying you need extra help with your classes or you’re not doing well.”
Time is finite in medical school and there are limited opportunities to bounce back. If you didn’t do well on your first exam, don’t just say you’ll do better on the next one, Dr. Yang says.
Talk to your professors, use on-campus study centers or ask a classmate who did well for help.
“While preclinical grades are lower on the hierarchy when it comes to matching, you still don’t want to fail a class because it’s a red flag to programs,” Dr. Yang says.
5. Incorporate wellness into your life
While pushing self-care activities such as exercise and sleep off might work for the short-term, in the long-term it can be detrimental, says Collins.
Dr. Yang agrees.
“It seems to save you time, but your overall performance suffers and you’ll work slower,” Dr. Yang says. “You’ll be more distracted and spend more time making up for your deficiencies.”
Investing time upfront in wellness activities will keep you functioning at your peak performance.
“I would try to prioritize things that make you happy and give you the energy you need to keep learning,” Collins says.
To make time for friends and family, Collins made a list of all the people in her life that were important to her. She makes sure to set aside time with them or catch up at least every couple of months.
“There will be times when you have to sacrifice to get to your goals, but that doesn’t mean you should be unhappy every single day of medical school,” Collins says.
6. Enjoy the process
In the thick of school, it can seem difficult to take a step back, but Ali says this can help put things in perspective.
“Your only job in these protected four years is to learn,” Ali says. “You do see patients and do procedures, but you don’t have the same stress of a bureaucratic environment and someone else’s life in your hands as an attending.”
Remembering why you’re in medical school can also be a way to find purpose in the process.
“Taking care of patients and creating a fulfilling life are much more motivating than studying for weeks at a time, only to get an average grade,” Collins says.