How should you study in medical school?
In a basic sense, we all learn the same. We must understand the material and then see it over and over again. In college, due to the low volume of learning, a pre-med can get away with all sorts of weaknesses. On the other hand, the best pre-med students might not have to alter their study methods at all for medical school.
To be a good student, the intangibles are required: work ethic, dedication, and self-confidence. However, in medical school, almost everyone has those qualities. The filtering process of college has removed most who lacked these intangibles.
At this point in medical school, it comes down to having the best study methods.
Fair enough, but you might be asking:
We got you covered with answers to these FAQs and 25 tips on how to study in medical school.
Medical School Prerequisites and Majors
There are a lot of prerequisites for medical school—general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, physics, etc.—so it’s in your best interest to think about them sooner rather than later. These classes are hard, and your schedule needs to be developed to allow enough time to study for them.
At the same time, don’t let course requirements keep you from pursuing other classes that catch your attention. Many medical students obtain their bachelor’s degree outside the biological sciences. For example, majoring in Spanish might be a way to chase your interest in foreign language while also preparing you to accommodate more patients in the future.
Develop Personalized Studying Strategies
Most doctors will tell you that medical school was far more difficult than their undergraduate education. This is why it’s essential to figure out how you best learn new material. It will likely make the transition to medical school a bit easier. Evaluate which study methods work best for you and stick with them. You might study completely differently than some of your friends (even the smartest ones).
Developing solid study habits isn’t just about performing well during medical school. Since continuing education is a requirement for physicians, having good learning strategies can help set the stage for success throughout your entire career. The more you develop your ability to learn and retain information, the more successful you will be as a medical student, resident, and physician.
Physiology is one of the most important courses you will take as a first-year medical student. Physiology is a conceptual course that can be better grasped if you avoid memorization and try to understand the principles through careful study.
A strong understanding of physiology can help you excel in the basic science years and when you take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States (COMLEX-USA).
Strong knowledge in physiology is also useful during your clinical years. Much of what you learn in a physiology course about the workings of the human body will be applicable as you rotate through different clinical services such as internal medicine, surgery, and OB/GYN.
Read About Medical Humanities
Beyond medical sciences like physiology, being a good doctor also requires you to understand the human side of medicine. The months leading up to the start of medical school are a great time to explore issues related to the medical humanities.
One popular book among aspiring physicians, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures" by Anne Fadiman explores how culture influences the medical care that patients and family members receive. In another book, "Being Mortal," Dr. Atul Gawande explores end-of-life care through a multidisciplinary lens, taking into account the psychosocial issues that physicians need to be aware of.
The Journal of the American Medical Association also has a section on the medical humanities, with insightful essays and articles that can promote greater thinking about these topics.
Learn Another Language
The few months before medical school is ample time to become conversational in another language and learn medical terms in that language.
Depending on where you go to medical school, Spanish will likely be of greatest value. However, if there is another language you are more interested in, take this time to learn it, even if you will not have many patients who speak it. The linguistic framework you develop from learning the language will help if you decide to pick up Spanish or Mandarin later on.
Learning a new language, whatever it may be, is a great way to tap into a new culture and understand people better. Also, once you begin to learn a second language, picking up a third or fourth language will become easier.
There are many great resources for language learning, such as the Michel Thomas Method, an online program with strategies that help you learn a different language faster than you otherwise might.
Review Material Regularly
The need to study regularly is one piece of advice that just about every doctor recommends. You should develop diligent study habits and a daily study practice as soon as possible. Daily review is necessary to keep up with the volume of information. Trying to play catch-up or cramming at the last minute won’t cut it.
Write Things Down
While reading all of your assigned text is essential, you probably shouldn’t expect to remember all of it. Writing things down is a must. Do a lot of note-taking, jot down anything that stands out, and create flashcards while studying.
Regularly testing yourself is essential to prepare for the USMLE Step 1, sometimes referred to as “the boards.” You can quiz yourself from your own notes or as part of a group, but you should also contemplate question banks. Question banks help you get used to the USMLE format. Consider that there are multiple ways to test yourself with the same list of questions.
Create an Effective Learning Environment
Identifying a good learning environment is a key component of figuring out how to study in medical school—perhaps just as important as the study methods themselves. Private study cubicles in the library might be the most helpful since ambient noise is reduced and distractions are minimized.
Improve Memorization with Mnemonics
Elementary students rely on the acronym mnemonic “Roy G. Biv” to remember the order of colors in a rainbow, and that same strategy can work just as well in medical school. In fact, some medical residency programs use a mnemonic approach to help trainees retain critical knowledge.
If you’re a visual learner, take advantage of opportunities to use imagery by creating sketches that make it easier to digest complex medical material. Diagrams are helpful for organ systems, such as renal, or reviewing drug metabolism. Creating the diagram also reinforces the information.
Incorporate Auditory Methods
Some individuals find they’re able to recall information better if they hear it. For example, Goljan Audio is a popular lecture series that many doctors recommend. It contains more than 30 lectures. You can listen while you’re in the car or working out.
It’s one of the most efficient ways to study in medical school.
Consider Forming Study Groups
While reviewing material with others doesn’t work for everyone, study groups are a great option for those who learn well when collaborating with fellow students. Study groups can be particularly helpful for reviewing clinical scenarios and answering practice quiz questions:
Ask for Help
Because there’s so much material in medical school, it’s essential to be proactive about seeking help when needed. You can quickly fall behind, so it’s better to ask for help earlier rather than later. Seek assistance from instructors as well as classmates.
Take Care of Yourself
While good study habits are important, make sure to incorporate regularly timed breaks to allow yourself some time to recharge. Pencil in some free time or gym time as well so you have something to look forward to.
Some medical students study anywhere between 8-11 hours a day during their exam period, with most students hovering around the 3-5 hour mark on a normal day.
However, it often depends on which year they are in (first year vs. final year), how far away exams are, and the individual’s motivation to study.
One study found that during exam times, medical students studied an average of 10.6 hours a day. However, this is only in the lead up to their USMLE Step 1, which may not represent how they study on a normal day.
The surveys are also self-assessed. Therefore, the medical students have to judge for themselves how much they studied, potentially leading to study times appearing longer than they actually were. So take 10.6 hours a day with a pinch of salt.
Another study found slightly different results. It found that the majority of medical students studied for 3-5 hours a day, with the most successful students (those who got the best exam scores) studying 6-8 hours a day.
So why is there so much variation? And why do some medical students work so much more than others?
Well, there are many factors involved:
You can study medicine more effectively by understanding and implementing active recall in each of your study sessions, and then practicing hundreds of sample questions and exercises across each subject.
Here’s what most medical students typically do wrong:
If most students focused more on learning the content well the first time around and then put in a small amount of effort to actively retain it, they’d be much better off. And they’d save a ton of time and stress in the process.
Use Active Recall
Active recall is the practice of stimulating your memory during the learning process.
Unlike passive review, it exploits a psychological testing effect that helps build long-term retention. This means you’re more likely to remember facts months and years down the line, long after you first studied.
Research suggests active recall is the quickest, most efficient, and most effective way to study written materials for factual and problem-solving tests.
It works by testing you at all stages of the revision process, not just that last-minute period spent cramming.
Here are several active recall strategies you can use to better remember things fast.
This one’s simple. Instead of note-taking, you write simple questions. These questions are designed to target specific pieces of information that can help you understand the broader context.
The Cornell Note-Taking system, for example, is a good technique. It moves you away from passive note-taking and gets you to think about the information you consume in terms of concept-checking questions.
Going through these questions later in the review, you’ll find you’ll remember more of what you learned as a result.
Closed Book/Paused Video Strategy
This is a good method for people who enjoy (and don’t want to stop) reading text books or watching videos. It works by breaking down your passive activity and forcing yourself to think actively.
Here’s the process:
Doing this helps you hardwire those hard concepts and helps you remember them more quickly come exam time.
Named after the famous physicist Richard Feynman (check out Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman), this technique is similar to the closed book strategy.
It works by putting yourself in the imaginary role of a teacher. Pick a topic, pretend to explain it to a really young learner (i.e. a five-year-old), and break it down as simply as you can.
Similar to the “question strategy,” you use flashcards to reinforce your learning.
Netter’s flashcards for Anatomy is a great example. It’s a super comprehensive resource with images and constant quizzing to supercharge your brain.
Likewise, you can also use digital apps like Anki and SuperMemo in the same way. These incorporate special algorithms that space out your learning (spaced repetition). Combined with active recall, this is incredibly powerful.
Keep Up With Your Classes
In college, there are usually only a few exams per class, and each one tests you on a limited amount of information. Cramming the week before the exam, while not advisable, is possible.
In medical school, things are different. Exams often occur much more frequently—generally every three or four weeks—and the amount of material covered on each exam rivals what you would see on a final exam in college. This is why it’s crucial to not fall behind.
Aim to read your notes from each lecture at least three times before each exam: once the night after the lecture occurs, once the following weekend, and once in the days before the exam. Maintaining this schedule will help you master the information taught in class.
Even if your preferred study schedule is different, don’t attempt to wait and cram in the days before the exam. You might pull it off once or twice, but there’s simply too much covered on each exam in medical school for this strategy to be sustainable.
Use Practice Questions
While mastering the material in your lecture notes will take you far in medical school, an even better way to learn is to test yourself frequently. Completing practice questions the week before an exam will solidify important concepts and reveal any gaps in knowledge, providing you with an idea of how to spend your remaining study time. Outside resources or old exams from your institution can be good sources of questions.
As a bonus, making practice questions a regular part of your study schedule will help prepare you for the rigors of board examinations. Avoid diving into board-specific study tools too early in medical school, though. Save those resources until you actually begin preparing for your board exams.
Choose Your Resources Wisely
While college can be difficult, most of the time you at least know what you need to study for exams. In medical school, though, you’ll find yourself navigating a wide variety of additional outside resources in addition to lectures, assigned readings, and problem sets.
With so many resources to turn to, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Focus on lectures, readings, and problem sets, and consult outside materials when you need to clarify and crystallize concepts. When you do consult outside resources, go with a limited number—one to two at most.
Weigh the Usefulness of Study Groups
In college, where a lot of the learning is conceptual, study groups can be great for clarifying difficult topics. In medical school, though, study groups are generally less useful because the material there requires more memorization than discussion.
This is why you’ll likely find studying on your own to be more efficient. Study groups can still play an important role for you in terms of social support, but check in with yourself to decide whether they’re worth the time they take up.
Unlike in college, it’s not always possible to memorize all the content tested on exams in medical school. But if a concept or piece of information is truly important to your education, you will see it several times throughout your training.
Try your best to learn as much as you can before exams, but if you can’t master all of it, don’t worry.
Remember to Relax
Medical school is an exciting time, and you should take advantage of all its opportunities. That said, you will be busy constantly, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
To protect your mental health, one of the most important but overlooked medical school study tips is to carve out some time each week to focus on yourself. Designating a Saturday afternoon free from studying or work will give you an opportunity to recover from last week’s stress and prepare for the week ahead.
As daunting as medical school may be, the good news is that most students ultimately succeed. In fact, nearly 96% of students at American allopathic medical schools obtain their MD within six years of entry, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
What helped these students succeed were strategies that allowed them to learn the vast amount of information required to become a physician in 21st-century America. While you should start with the strategies described here, talk with your peers—and older students—to see what has worked for them. And don’t be afraid to experiment with different study styles to find the combination that works best for you.
Don't Skimp on Sleep
It may seem like a no-brainer, but it's worth mentioning that without the proper amount of sleep and rest, your body and brain are less capable of performing at their best. According to the CDC, individuals over the age of 18 need a minimum of 7 hours of sleep each night to perform their best. That means that pulling all-nighters on the regular won't do your studies any favors; in fact, ignoring your body's need to hit the hay may only hurt you in the long run.
Get as much sleep as possible; otherwise, you will burn out quickly. The consequences are three-fold. Your body will suffer, your memory won't be as sharp, and as a result, your grades will reflect the neglect.
A lot of students wait until the last minute to prepare for tests. If you really focus on your time-management skills, you won't have time to even think about "cramming."
Here's the deal on why cramming is terrible. As a medical student, your goal is to become a trusted medical doctor. The classes you're taking in medical school focus on complex topics, from anatomy to pharmacology with a wide ranging variety of subject matter, which all connects these aspects together in one way or another.
Authentic learning means understanding the concepts and building upon each idea and theory you learn. Cramming, for the most part, may get you by with a brief stint of temporary memorization. Medicine is more than memorization. Waiting until the night before an important test tends to leave you with one option, cramming.
Overall, cramming for tests at the last minute is not only a bad habit, but it will not get you to where you need to be—whether you're looking at graduating or maintaining a successful medical career.
Learn From the Best in a Small Environment
Some research indicates that smaller class sizes lead to better student outcomes. We firmly believe that learning in a smaller environment has proven to be more successful when compared to larger ones.
And even though you'll certainly find strong opinions on both sides of the class-size debate, we prefer to look at it in a practical sense:
Get to Know Your Faculty
Speaking of learning environments—a medical school that has a small faculty-to-student ratio means that you're much more than a number to your professors.
Getting to know them on a personal level gives you access to a knowledge base that extends far beyond the curriculum they teach. The unique level of personal attention provides a tight-knit community to support you every step of the way.
In addition to leading classes and assigning projects, don't forget that your teachers can be invaluable resources as you embark on a career in medicine. Learn from them by scheduling one-on-one time, asking questions, and developing a relationship.
Make Time for Mental and Physical Wellness
During med school, you should have plenty of time to get to all of your classes, with plenty of time leftover. Make sure you balance your time appropriately between classes. Doing so will give you the time to kick back and relax—which means taking care of your physical and mental health.
Of course, relaxing for some may include catching their favorite streaming series, talking or video chatting on the phone with their best friend, or reading books that have nothing whatsoever to do with school. Whereas for some, getting to the gym and exercising may be their preferred way to unwind.
No matter what you enjoy doing in your free time, make sure you're prioritizing off-hours activities that will keep you in good shape, both emotionally and physiologically. Work to develop or keep up habits such as:
Find a Mentor and Be a Mentor
As you enter medical school, you'll have a lot of questions regarding a variety of topics. Upper-class students are good people to seek out for advice. After all, they've been in your shoes and know what you're going through.
Mentorship is valuable for both the mentor and "mentee." If you are the person who is being mentored, you have access to tips, support, and guidance from someone who has walked your path before. Providing mentorship for others hones your leadership skills and helps the medical industry as a whole.
Find out if your school has a peer mentorship program. Additionally, professors and attendings can be great mentors. If you're an upper-class student, offer guidance to your younger peers. If they ask you to be a mentor, say yes. If for whatever reason you are unable to, give them a few names of your friends who you know that would make great mentors.
Perfect Your Study Method
Find the best study method for YOU by testing various approaches and sticking to your optimal one. You can find ideas for ways to study with a simple Google search, such as the one we found via the MDJourney called “brain dump,” where students who feel comfortable with class material attempt to recreate the lecture on a blank piece of paper. We recommend browsing YouTube channels and blogs to find your preferred method of hitting the books.
Master Organizational Skills
If you’ve always been unorganized and chalked it up to a whimsical personality or absent-minded genius charm, now is the time to stop. For the next few years, you must make it a practice to be very organized. It’s best to start your first year off right by creating these organizational habits. You’ll need to keep track of your medical school schedule, slides, lecture notes, book notes, and required reading.
Input important dates immediately, and if your calendar is digital, set reminders. Save paperwork related to each course in one spot. Consider a note-taking or organization app like Evernote. Prepare as much in advance as possible by purchasing notebooks, highlighters, page tabs, notecards, and everyone’s favorite medical school study partner, Picmonic.
With Picmonic, your high yield facts for medical school are all in one place—in your Picmonic account. Then, with just a click of the mouse, you can organize Picmonic videos by subject, keywords, ranking of how well you know the material, and more. You can also search for any Picmonic, meaning no more hurriedly shuffling through a deck of cards or stack of notes to a topic.
Don’t Limit Yourself in Medical School
Every word spoken in lecture or written on the syllabus, slides, or notes could become a question on an exam. Don’t think you’re going to get all the information by attending every class and not reading the lecturer’s notes. Likewise, medical students are wise to not assume all the important information will be contained in the notes and slides.
In other words, all those different materials exist for a reason. You will likely need to leverage a combination of lectures, review books, question banks, and a mnemonic study aid to truly learn and retain everything you need to know. Take some time to figure out what works for you and stick with it.
Remember Your “Why”
As a medical student, there will be times when you feel like giving up… usually at the end of an 80-hour study week. Keep something around that reminds you of why you want to become a doctor and what you will contribute to the world when you finish medical school.
Is it a picture of a loved one who passed away from a (currently) incurable disease? Is it a picture you drew as a kid of your white-coated future? Is it a copy of Patch Adams? A copy of Dr. Seuss?
Whatever the reason was that spurred you to finish college, pass the MCAT, and get into medical school, it’s a worthy reason. Let it be a beacon of hope for you on the most difficult days.
Approach Medical School Like It’s Your Job
One of the biggest problems for medical students is a lack of discipline. Approach medical school like it’s your job and scheduled free time when possible. Treat medical school life as a 9-5 job (or however heavy your schedule is). Going home knowing that you’re done for the day and can rest is such a liberating feeling.
Embrace Failure To Fix Mistakes
A real growth mindset is what will get you through medical school successfully. Don’t be afraid of failure. It’s the best teacher. You must take each failure and rigorously analyze what went wrong, and what strategies or skills to home in on in order to fix those mistakes. This will vary widely for each person, and each time may have you addressing a different specific issue.
Get Experienced Insight At The Start Of Each Course
We’re a huge believer in this tip. Every semester, you should contact some of your friends in higher years to see how they’d suggest tackling school-specific classes.
First, before you start a class, ask about it from someone who took it before. This cuts out a lot of “nothing work” at the beginning where you’re trying to find out what to read, what not to read, who are worthwhile professors, etc.
Make Lectures As Active As Possible
If you have to go to lectures (or aren’t sure if you want to yet), then try and make them as active as possible. Doing so helps you stay engaged and hopefully stops you from sleeping!
Speak up in lectures. It’s stupid whenever a lecturer asks a question and everyone just sits there in silence. Who cares if you’re wrong? If you actually interact with the lecturer, you learn so much more and won’t fall asleep.
Learn To Synthesize The Material
You’ve got to constantly ask yourself what’s going to give you the most bang for your buck in terms of time spent studying. Learning to figure out the wheat from the chaff should be the first step on your list.
You have to learn to recognize which details are worth knowing and which are not. This comes with time studying and reviewing some of the well-regarded resources. It’s good to know things beyond what’s in the board review books, but there’s also a point where you can get bogged down in the details.
When In Doubt, Go With Your Gut
This is a huge one. Many times, medical students will switch out answers in multiple-choice quizzes only to find out their gut reaction was right.
Never overthink a question. Some professors like to make questions confusing for no reason. Half the time, you’ll realize that you know the exact slide they were referencing in the question. You’ve looked at the slide a million times, You remember small details about it (some types of receptors, a clinical sign, lab values).
Just pick the answer you remember seeing on the slide. Most of the time, it's the correct answer.
Repetition Is Key
Yes, most of medical school is just brute-force memorization…
Always do 3-4 passes with the lectures. First pass should be streaming the lecture and taking notes on what the professor emphasizes or is not readily available in the slides. The second pass should be on the same day as your first pass and include a handwritten one-page outline of the lecture. Reorganize the information from the slides in a way that makes sense to you and densely pack that page with notes. For your 3rd and 4th pass, study your handwritten outline.
Settle On A Workflow
Ultimately, you want to take all these tips and get a workflow or process going that works for you. Here’s how one medical student does it…
The details of the approach vary from block to block, but always have the same principle: preview-learn-review
1. Preview – read lecture notes or a review book just to get an idea of what’s important
2. Learn – watch lecture, read a textbook, or both
3. Review – make flashcards, reread notes or books, try practice questions; some kind of recall-based learning is best for this
Keep A Sense Of Perspective
Finally, when the going gets tough, you need something in your armory to help you find the motivation to keep going. We’ve included this advice because we think it’s a great reminder or reality check when studying isn’t going your way.
Although we have lots of recommendations and tips on how best to study, you’ve got to remember; there’s no one single way. You’ve got to be open-minded and as flexible as possible to the idea of switching tactics and trying new things.
The first year of medical school is really all about figuring out what kind of studying works best for you. You’ll get a million potential ideas, but it’s your job to go through all of them, succeed with some (not all), and find the best fit!
Best of luck!