9 useful study habits for medical students

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Back in med school, I was often asked by new students how to study the various subjects, and how to study more effectively. Recently I also got asked the question if I had any good study habits to recommend.

I hadn’t really thought about whether I had any and if they were any good. After thinking about it for a little while I came up with 9 study habits that I think made my studying more disciplined and effective.

Table Of Contents

Treat your studying as a project and manage it with a schedule

I think this was one of the best habits I had as a med student. I would always look at the subject as a project. First, every project has a development phase, which is where you set your goal and how and when to achieve it. You then have to schedule the execution creating a timeline on how to follow through.

In med school, this can be making a list of the subjects to cover for a given test/subject and how and when to get it done. By organizing your studying in this way, it becomes structured. The structure will make you an organized student, which in turn enables you to study more efficiently.

It will also help your time management. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of material at times. This can leave you slightly paralyzed if you don’t have a clear-cut plan and schedule for how to get through it in time.

Although I made this a habit, I didn’t always manage to stick to my schedule. Sometimes i would make the schedule too tight. Especially when there were multiple exams in short succession. Nevertheless, my schedule helped me to avoid drifting into procrastination, which can happen when you feel overwhelmed.

Create a to-do list to keep track of your progress

One of your worst enemies as a student is yourself. When faced with stress and anxiety from your studies, your mind won’t necessarily focus your attention on the work to be done. In order to avoid this, you should have a few psychological tricks to help you make studying more rewarding and enjoyable.

One such trick is to make a to-do list. This can be a part of your timeline in scheduling your studies as suggested above. Your list can span the entire subject over the course of the whole semester, or it can be for the material you want to get through by the end of the week or day.

Whichever you choose, have your to-do list nearby or on your computer. This way it is readily available and you can cross off objectives on your list as you complete them.

This might seem rather juvenile, but you’d be surprised by the effect it can have. The reward lies in actually seeing the progress you are making. This is particularly helpful at times when you feel as if your studying takes forever without making much progress.

In addition to the mental effect, keeping track of your progress will give you a pointer on whether you will be able to keep your schedule or need some more time.

Get to know yourself as a student to avoid procrastination

It is so easy to start procrastinating in the face of massive amounts of material you’d yet to start studying. This happened to me several times. I could decide to postpone studying because I was so into a TV series which were approaching its season finale, or some other stupid reason.

However, the joy of this type of procrastination is quickly overshadowed by guilt and stress when you realize that you have even less time to cover the same amount of material.

It doesn’t have to be watching TV series or youtube, we all have an Achilles heel that steals time away from our studies. The trick is to become aware of these flaws and get to know yourself as a student. In this way, you are more likely to be able to avoid your Achilles heel or make it as little of a time thief as possible.

I had more than one Achilles heel, plus some additional time thieves on top of that. By looking at my own behavior, I was able to identify them. This helped me managing them better, or sometimes avoiding them altogether.

For example, I knew that watching 1 episode of a TV series when coming home from the uni quickly turned into 2 or 3. In addition, I would often allow myself to watch stupid youtube videos which made what was going to be a quick study break to become an hour long.

Another example was that I would often postpone studying to later in the day. I did this mainly because I studied more effectively in the evening. I did, however, often postpone it to the point in which I would cut my study session short with having to go to bed. If I would have started a couple of hours earlier, I would have had plenty of time to get more work done.

Once I identified these flaws, it made it easier for me to manage them, or completely avoid them. Your mind will make up excuses for you to procrastinate all the time, therefore, it is important to be a little critical of yourself and reflect on your choices.

That is not to say that you should be extremely hard on yourself, which can bring you down even further. However, try to avoid telling yourself “I don’t have enough time”. There is plenty of time available, it is just a question about managing it efficiently. In order to do so, identifying your time thieves is a good place to start.

Choose the best time of the day to study

Like I mentioned above, I studied more efficiently in the evening. Because of this, I tried to schedule as much of my studying as possible for the afternoon/evenings. This made me scheduling in other activities like working out or going grocery shopping etc. to earlier in the day.

That is not to say that I would spend hours on Saturday waiting for the evening to set in so that I could study more efficiently. But most people tend to be either morning or evening students. Try to identify when you are the most efficient and schedule the bulk of your study time around that hour.

Get organized

If you are able to be as organized as to make your own study schedule, you should also be able to organize your stuff. I’m talking about everything from your notebooks, pencils, and clothes to the kitchen and your bed. Nobody feels great about living in a mess, and it certainly won’t help you to study.

Organize your stuff, make your bed in the morning, and strive to keep your living space clean and tidy. It might sound like something out of a military academy, but it certainly helped me feel better about myself, which would make me study more efficiently.

Make your own notes

Whenever we had a new subject for the semester, there were always a bunch of my fellow students asking around for notes. In my school, it was pretty popular to share notes on various subjects written by formers students. Some solely relied on these as their source of material for the subject.

There nothing wrong with studying from other people’s notes, however, but having them as your only source for the subject is dangerous. Initially, you have no clue whether they are bad or not. Over the years, I have looked through a lot of bad notes.

They aren’t necessarily bad because they state stuff that is wrong, but they were often written by people who didn’t understand the material, they just scribbled down notes straight from the book.

I liked to combine the material in books, lectures (both from the uni and youtube, etc.), and good notes. From these sources, I would try to really understand the material and make my own notes. It took some time, but it can be so rewarding.

One of the largest subjects in my university was physiology in the 2. year. While many of my fellow students struggled, I stayed disciplined, and wrote my own notes every week. Eventually, the big, dreaded physiology final exam turned out the be the easiest exam I ever had. Give it a try, but do it your own way, and it will do wonders for you.

Treat yourself like a dog

Whenever you want to train your dog a new trick, it’s a good idea to keep a pack of goodies in your pocket. This way you can constantly reward it for doing the right thing until they do it automatically.

Treat yourself the same way when you’re studying. In my study schedule, I would study for about 45 minutes, followed by 10-15 minutes of free time, before studying again. In addition, I would give myself some treats every now and then to keep going.

These treats/rewards could be watching an episode of a TV-series or take a break for a quick stroll in the park. Giving yourself small rewards like these will help you ease the urge to procrastinate, which can be so detrimental when trying to study.

Stay hydrated

There is nothing worse than having to study when having a headache. Sometimes headaches can be caused by dehydration. If you’re experiencing a hot spring leading up to the exams, be sure to stay hydrated by drinking enough water (yes, not light soda or anything else).

Most health authorities recommends that you should drink at least 2-2.5 liters of water every day. It might not sound like much, but you’d be surprised of how many days you actually don’t drink enough if you try to keep track.

You should also keep in mind that working out or doing sports will increase your daily water need. A good guideline is to drink around 50 mL for each kg body weight. This means that if you’re a male weighing 80kg, you should drink 4 liters. For a 58 kg woman, you’ll manage with 2,9 liters. Both these examples have to be increased even further when working out in warm weather, due to excessive loss of fluids.

Staying hydrated doesn’t take a lot of effort. Even if it doesn’t do wonders for your studies, it will make you feel healthier, which indirectly can improve your studying by elevating your mood.

Avoid comfort eating and munching while studying

A lot of times, studying feels like a drag. Having some snacks within an arm’s length is often tempting in an effort to make it a bit more manageable. It’s easy to fall into this trap, but not only does it increase your intake of food with poor nutrition (which is not good for your brain), it can also make you gain weight.

I tried to stay in reasonable shape throughout med school but fell into the munching while studying trap over and over again. It is easy to stop working out when the exams were approaching rapidly as you don’t feel you have the time to work out. This is a big mistake, to begin with, but you should definitely not make it worse by starting to comfort munching as well.

I hated to study if I was feeling hungry, which made me prone to start munching something. To avoid it, make sure to schedule mealtimes in your daily study schedule.

It is easy to postpone having a meal because you have to get something done. However, including meal-time in your schedule can help you eat more regularly. This keeps you from feeling slightly hungry for long periods of time, which makes to prone to start munching on something.

If you are unable to resist having something to chew on during your studies, replace the snacks with something a little more healthy, like nuts or dried fruit.

Closing remarks

I hope you found these tips helpful and that they can help you study more effectively. If not, i hope you got inspired to recognize your own useful habits that make you more efficient.

If you have any other useful habits not mentioned here, or any other inquiries, don’t hesitate to send me an email which you can find on the about page.