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During my 6 years in med school, I encountered countless freshman students asking for advice on how to study more effectively.
My answer would always be the same.
The most important is to gather all the motivation and self-discipline you can and apply it to your studies. This can be summarized in one word, focus. If you are able to focus, the rest will come by itself.
There are many different tips and tricks that can help you stay focused while studying. here are 8 actionable tips that helped me to stay focused and study more effectively.
Set up a study schedule
Set up a study schedule for yourself. Whether it is for a month, a week, or just a day.
Having some sort of structure allows you to work more effectively and gives you a certain degree of guidance. In some ways, you should think of it as your work schedule.
Make it adaptable
No single month, week, or day in med school is the same. This is why you shouldn’t aim to make your study schedule applicable month after month, year after year. Not only is this very difficult, but it can also make you bored having the same routine over and over.
Try to change up your schedule from time to time. Also, remember to schedule some rewards after hectic and stressful periods (going to the movies, parties, etc).
Make one that fit you
No single med student is the same. Therefore, try to create a schedule that fits you as a student.
If you find that you study more effectively in the evening, schedule most of your studying in the evening and vice versa.
If you require lots of physical activity to stay focused when studying, or participate in other activities outside the university, make room for it in your schedule.
Taking the time to do something else can clear your mind which can help you to stay more focused when studying.
What I did when creating my schedule was to look ahead for 1 month, at least. I would then make a rough study schedule for that month(s). This included which days to study a lot and which weekends I could take some time off.
Most importantly, I would also highlight which subject(s) focus on. Optimally you should study all subjects simultaneously. This was not an option for me.
I liked to look at which subjects were the biggest ones and required more studying, and which subjects had a test coming up. I would then plan to spend the bulk of my time studying those subjects.
Include a timeline
You should also create a timeline for what you would like to get done for the period.
I usually had topic lists for the different subjects. So I would set goals for what I wanted to get done within a given period of time.
For example, getting through the first 25 topics in 2 weeks, then finish 50 topics by the end of 4 weeks, and so on.
Here it is common to overestimate your ability to get stuff done. Don’t put too much on your plate, it will only leave you disappointed and discouraged for not reaching your goal.
If you notice that you are never able to follow the timeline that you set for yourself, you might have to schedule in more time.
This is not to say you shouldn’t push yourself when setting your study goals, but try to find a balance between hairy goals and your capabilities as a student.
From your rough monthly schedule, you can make weekly schedules.
Here you can detail what subjects to study, when, and for how long. Here you should also include any other activities, like workouts, appointments at the hairdresser, when to go grocery shopping, etc.
Finally, at the beginning of any study day, you can make a daily study schedule. This can help you stick with your monthly and weekly schedule for that given day.
This one should not be detailed but scribbled down on a post-it note to be kept on your desk as you study.
I liked to schedule study intervals of 1 hour each. Each interval would include 45 min of studying, after which I had 15 minutes to relax on the couch or check my phone etc.
I would also put in lunch and dinner breaks, as well as some occasional breaks to get out of the apartment to get some fresh air.
In my daily schedule I would also allow myself 3 unscheduled breaks. They could not be more than 10-15 minutes, but came in very handy on those days where I struggled to focus.
Whichever way you decide to structure your study schedule is entirely up to you. The most important is that you actually take the time to make one and that you stick to it. It certainly helped me become a better and more efficient student.
Get familiar with some study techniques
A good study technique is in many ways the secret sauce to success in med school. Unfortunately, study techniques that work for some people are totally worthless to others.
In addition, a study technique that really helped you in one subject might not work as well for the next one.
I remember some fellow students constantly asking around how other students studied for the various subjects. I’m pretty sure I caught myself asking the very same a couple of times. You can try to avoid this by implementing some good study techniques from the get-go.
Finding a good study technique is not hard as there are plenty of resources highlighting various study techniques. The hard thing is to find one that works for you, and the subject that you are studying.
There are a lot of different subjects, some almost entirely theoretical, while others being visual and/or interactive. Ask yourself what kind of category your subject fits into (theoretical, visual, or interactive).
- If it is largely theoretical, you might want to find a study technique that focuses more on memorization and understanding the material.
- When the subject is more visual, adapt a more visually centered study technique that might focus more on pictures and diagrams.
- If the subject is interactive, don’t sit with your nose in the book, interact!
You’re most likely not going to find the optimal study technique straight away. Try out a few when starting out and see how they work for you.
Make sure to pick the one you fund the most effective which might not be the one that is the most relaxing and fun.
Chances are you might have to combine two or more study techniques, as some subjects are both theoretical and visual (e.g. microbiology or histology).
Choose your environment
When you study, try to find the environment where you are the most productive.
No student is exactly the same. Some prefer to stay at home, others feel more productive in the library or in a crowded coffee shop.
I tried to study in various places but ended up preferring to stay in the comfort of my own home.
There I had the freedom to make some noise without the guy next to me getting annoyed. I also had my own bathroom and coffee machine, and the Wi-Fi did not slow down due to high traffic.
Try out various places to study, and pick a couple that you like. Try to find a place where you study efficiently while still remaining comfortable. You might study efficiently in one place, but you can study for longer at another place. Find the places where you have the optimal balance of comfort and efficiency.
Try to avoid having only one place so that you can change it up every once in a while. This way you can avoid getting sick and tired of sitting in the same place every day, which might prevent you from studying efficiently.
Bring what you need, leave distractions behind
You might be the type of person that likes to study with a group of friends, but every time you do, you end up spending half of the time chatting.
You might also be the one that gets easily stuck on your phone or watching youtube videos. If you are, try to leave those distractions behind when studying.
Personally, I was a master at getting sucked into the weirdest corners of youtube.
It almost felt like a trance. All of a sudden I would come to my senses, realizing I’ve been watching the video “top 10 chimpanzee pranks” for the last 15 minutes or spent 40 minutes watching the first episode of a documentary series about the British empire.
This is not to say that that you should never study with friends, or never bring your phone or computer when studying (you might use it for studying). But you should identify your distractions and leave them behind whenever you really want stuff done.
It is easy to fall back on the illusion that you don’t have enough time to work out while in med school.
I did it several times myself. However, I was much more satisfied and focused during periods I took the time to work out.
Getting in a solid workout does not require much time nor effort. Simply getting a small gym mat to put on the floor in your home will be enough to perform lots of bodyweight exercises.
This can give you a solid workout in as little as 30 minutes. Alternatively, get a pair of sneakers and go for 30 min jog 2-3 times a week.
No matter what type of exercise you start doing, the trick is to keep it going week after week. It is so easy to convince yourself to drop the workout whenever you get into a hectic week before a big exam.
In reality, you would be much better off spending some of that precious time working out. It can really improve your state of mind, enabling you to study more effectively.
Stick to the material
Every source will include things that are totally unnecessary to know for the subject you study.
Although it is cool to know that Mel Gibson has a horseshoe kidney (a rare condition in which the inferior poles of both kidneys are fused), I doubt it will help you pass your embryology or genetics class.
If you’re using material prepared from the university (e.g. lecture slides or topic lists), you should be able to separate the important stuff from the trivia put in there in an effort to keep your attention.
If you’re using some of the textbooks recommended by the university, it might prove a bit more difficult, especially when you’re just starting out.
Remember that some of the textbooks are not only for medical students but Ph.D. students and professors alike. This means that there is material in there that is not required to know for med students.
There are several ways to determine what you leave out when studying. The easiest way is to compare the material covered in the book to the material covered in lectures and classes.
If you haven’t seen a single histology picture in your pathophysiology class, chances are you’re not getting it on your exam, so leave it out.
Many universities provide you with lecture slides from classes. A good idea is to use them as a reference for what to study from the book.
If you are not given the lecture slides, a good idea is to actually attend the lectures and take some short notes (duh).
Learn the material not only memorize it
Whenever we had oral examinations, I would (unintentionally) eavesdrop on my fellow students. Often, I was surprised by the superficial level of their knowledge.
After a while, I started to understand why. They would constantly ask around for past papers or notes for the various subjects.
There’s nothing wrong with using other student’s notes (given that they are good), however, many used them as their sole source of material when studying for a subject.
This would often result in these students being able to answer most of the questions they got on their exam, thanks to pure memorization. But when given a follow-up question, they would be unable to answer, which is actually where you can impress your examiner with your level of knowledge.
Always try to study in a way that you actually understand the material. Not only is it beneficial when preparing for a test, but it will also leave you with a firm understanding of the subject(s), which often helps you in other subjects later on.
If you have a firm understanding of physiology and pathology, I can guarantee that the theory in internal medicine becomes so much easier. A firm, fundamental level of knowledge enables you to connect the dots easier and expand your knowledge faster.
Listen to music
This one might not be applicable to everyone out there. During my time in med school, I spent most of my time studying wearing big, noise-canceling headphones, listening to music while studying.
My choice of music would change along with my mood.
In general, I found rock and classical music to help me study more effectively. When I felt exceptionally energetic, more up-tempo melodies would help me focus better.
Listening to music while studying is not for everyone. Some can find it to be too much of a distraction, for others it can prove beneficial. Try to listen to different types of music while studying to see whether it might be beneficial to you.
There are plenty of hints and tips on how to study more effectively, others more beneficial than others. There is, however, no silver bullet to replace focus and dedication, which you can translate into hard work that will carry you through your studies.