This post was written in response to the most common type of question I’m asked – general tips for studying. We’ve all heard the horror stories of studying 10+ hours per day, having no social life, and having to sacrifice one’s sanity just to keep up with the growing volume of medical knowledge and research. 😯
Learning is a highly individualized process, and as a result, study habits vary from person-to-person, the material at hand, and even around one’s work schedule. The last of these is important because in undergrad and even med school, students have so much more time dedicated to learning their trade and coursework. As a resident, balancing a full work load (60-80 hours per week) while ALSO attempting to study for in-training exams and boards can be a daunting task. Here are some study tips which have served me well over the course of my training:
Quality Over Quantity
“How many hours do you study?” I never understood the point of this question. With all the distractions we have in the modern era, the sheer volume of “hours spent studying” probably has little to do with actual comprehension and retention.
I study in very short bursts (no greater than 30 minutes) with distractions between sessions, but I’m extremely focused when I read. It’s also why I have to take my exams very quickly, because I can’t sustain that degree of concentration for very long. Naturally, the overall time commitment ramps up just before exams and falls off immediately after an exam. And that’s okay. Just focus on how much material you were able to get through (and retain) rather than the number of hours. 🙂
“Burnout” is an incredibly important concept in healthcare training, but individuals have different thresholds where they cross the proverbial line. Know yourself and the circumstances surrounding your work schedule and personal life. Don’t feel guilty if you find yourself choosing sleep or recreation over studying from time to time.
That being said, sacrifices must be made to truly commit oneself to healthcare. I can’t tell you how many times I chose studying over celebrating special occasions, hanging with colleagues, vacation, etc. Fortunately I’ve found studying with the goal of teaching to be a very zen-like experience which brings me a great deal of happiness. Find your motivation and resilience to stay afloat amidst a life of sacrifice. Learning will become a natural extension of your daily pursuits, and you’ll feel like studying is less of a chore and more of a hobby. 😎
Standardized Exams – Practice Questions
Programs are always looking for “well rounded” individuals, but standardized exams (USMLE, SAT, MCAT, etc.) are still way more important than applicants want to acknowledge. Think about it – they’re objective exams. For example, it doesn’t matter where you want to college, everyone takes more or less the same MCAT. In this sense, these exams are an (imperfect) assessment of one’s fund of knowledge and critical thinking which can be compared directly to other applicants. That’s just how our system works.
With that in mind, for each of these exams, find a single text to use as your primary book (i.e., First Aid for USMLE Step 1). Minimize the number of additional resources you use, annotate material from those sources into your primary book, and focus on doing thousands of practice questions.
In a world of podcasts and PowerPoint lectures, it’s very easy to rely on our auditory and visual senses to learn difficult concepts or volumes of information. I used to do this too. Sitting in the back of the lecture hall just flipping through slides as I half heartedly retained the information… it was frustrating, ungratifying, and very routine.
Then I pursued more active engagement with the material. I put away the PowerPoint slides and wrote notes based on the lecture. Writing is a much more active process than listening (or typing, for that matter). By listening to the lecturer, I distill down the concepts into easy-to-understand phrases with the intention of sharing my notes and diagrams with others.
These days, I use an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil to actively annotate textbooks and journal articles with PDF Expert as well as doodling notes/diagrams with GoodNotes. This work flow has significantly improved my critical thinking, retention, and even spurred me to investigate these topics further. It also facilitates my interest to teach across social media. 🙂
In the end, learning how to learn is half the battle. Find something you like and stick with it! Also, drop me a comment below with any other tip(s) you recommend!