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5 Ways to Ace Medical School Exams by Maximizing Study Time

Medical Students Wearing White Coats Study for Exams


More than anything else, you want to practice medicine and become a doctor. You jumped through some major hoops to get to medical school. But before you can work with patients, and get that coveted M.D. after your name, you have to get through a mountain of coursework in a short amount of time and score well on your exams, without losing your marbles in the process! Will the skills you gained as an undergrad be enough to carry you through the marathon of medical school?

Have you ever heard of the 80/20 rule?

Eighty percent of your success comes from 20 percent of your effort. As a medical student, can you identify the 20 percent of your effort that is causing most of your success? Once you have identified it, do more of those activities so you increase your level of success. Sounds simple, right? But how can you actually do it? Two words: time efficiency. Learn how you study best and reduce the number of “time sinks” into which you allow yourself to dump time.

Here are some great strategies for efficiency:

1.  Pick your study location to minimize distractions. Facebook will have to be off limits, cell phone and TV turned off.

It’s critical that you leave all social media applications and mobile apps closed while studying. Having them “on in the background” is too tempting. If you MUST check them, schedule a time—say, every 90 minutes—and don’t cheat.

Where do you study best? It is up to you to determine the location. Do you like ambient noise? Absolute silence? Music (instrumental or vocal)?

2.  Commit to a certain time frame for studying and what topics you will cover before you start. This will give you a clear goal to reach during your study time. Scheduling: commit to your schedule by writing it on a calendar so you are sure to cover everything in the time allotted. And set calendar reminders so you are flagged about upcoming study periods. By writing it down, you are holding yourself accountable to accomplish your goal for that study time.

3.  Be self-aware as you study and do not allow yourself to get distracted. You are your OWN BOSS in medical school and must be accountable for any time you lose to distractions. If you worked on Wall Street, your boss would notice if you spent too much time texting, watching TV, surfing the Internet, posting on Facebook and Twitter, etc.—and you might be fired! You need to treat your time as a medical student with as much care as if you were working for a boss. The hard part is that you have to be accountable to yourself.

4.  Reward yourself. Don’t allow yourself to dump time down the drain. At the same time, provide yourself rewards (as if they were bonuses you might get from a boss) for good work and staying on task. You are not a “study robot,” so make sure you schedule time to do things you enjoy as a reward for all your hard work. Just studied for three hours? Reward yourself with a run or a workout. Just don’t go overboard and distract yourself with too many rewards!

Have some intellectual “candy”—material you can study when you cannot be efficient in working on the main topic any longer. Use this as a tool to refocus yourself back to your study plan. Most medical students are less interested in the details of science and more interested in clinical applications. Within the topic you are learning, try answering practice questions, reading patient cases or identifying disorders that may inspire you to learn the details. For example, if you have to learn the structure of hemoglobin, start reading about sickle cell anemia or thalassemia. All of a sudden you’ll gain respect for the structure of hemoglobin and see how it can adversely affect patients when it is altered. This can help reinvigorate your interest in learning the structural details. Proceed with caution if your “candy” source is the Internet. Don’t get lost while surfing the Web. Be sure to use the “candy” to refocus you back on the task at hand.

This technique can also be useful at the beginning of a study session when you have “study block.” Every once in a while it’s okay to start with the dessert and then move to dinner. Trust me. It’s better than staring at your main course and not taking a bite.

5.  Be willing to diversify your study techniques (group study, taking notes on topics, practice questions, drawing diagrams and figures, etc.). If you aren’t satisfied with your scores, try implementing something new. Nine out of 10 students I meet with find that working with other students increases their understanding—and their exam scores—significantly.

(Next: 8 Tips for Getting the Most out of Study Groups!)

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dr. Burt Goldberg September 14, 2012, 5:38 PM

    This is the biggest problem with both medical students and graduate students, they do not know how to be self learners and rely on study tactics that worked in high school. Kristina was an exception to that as a student and I am glad to see her sharing her successful approach to studying with others. She has become an amazing educator, and i am very proud of her.

    • David Lloyd September 18, 2012, 9:49 PM

      Both Burt and Kristina were exceptional students and their experience, wisdom and advice on approaches to study cannot be faulted. Their enthusiasm and dedication to teaching and research are exemplary. I am proud of both of them.

      Please look at Facebook Cardiff Old Microbes to see details of a free book “Microbiology, Past, Present, and Future” which has more on study methods and much else.

  • muneeb September 18, 2012, 5:36 PM

    The problem I face being a med student is that in face of so many distractions it’s always very hard to focus ….and you very rightly pointed out that we’ve got to understand that we are our own boss…

  • Nose in a book May 18, 2013, 12:39 PM

    I love this .. ESP study candy. I do that and was =) to see it as actual advice.

  • kotambri badnikai July 15, 2013, 4:57 PM

    Hello. I am a 4th year BDS student. It took me 7 years to reach from 1st year to 4th year. Every year i’ve had 2 or more than 2 attempts to pass an academic year. After reading your article, my frustrations have come down because I’d been scratching my head asking “HOW?” and this is what I wanted to know from past so many years. Now that I know how it is supposed to be studied, I see that I did not study the way I was supposed to or say, I could not take things very seriously which isn’t going to make me a good dentist. With the 4th and final year coming to an end, I ask your help to tell me how to study all the 20 subjects systematically in the very short period of time of 1 year of Internship. Not being a good dentist or being just another ordinary dentist is as heart wrenching as not being one. So please help me out and tell me a way by which I can be a good dentist.

  • joshua August 15, 2013, 2:16 PM

    thank you for this article..i’m a registered nurse student in my last year..and after qualifying i will love joining medicine..i have learned from this..be blessed..

  • JR Faulkner August 28, 2013, 11:34 AM

    Great article.

    I would add the additional point of revising with peers when covering practical tasks such as examination and communication skills once the core knowledge has been covered.