Beating the Learning Curve: Study Tips from an M1 Student

It’s no secret that medical school is difficult, but with planning and the right tools, I’ve been surprised by how manageable it’s been so far.

It’s no secret that medical school is difficult, but with planning and the right tools, I’ve been surprised by how manageable it’s been so far. I’m now five months into med school, and am hitting a rhythm with a study plan that has worked well for me. Here are some thoughts and tips on managing hard-pressed time and preparing for Step 1, from what I’ve learned so far.

Ditching Old Study Habits

In undergrad, I was a good student, but I could get away with doing homework assignments right before they were due, and start binge studying for a big test just a few days before. I have found that this doesn’t cut it in medical school, and I’ve had to ditch the old approach and start applying tactics that are more conducive to learning and retaining this vast amount of knowledge.

Now, I work hard to maximize learning efficiency and balance the studying with life. I worked in industry for six years before coming to Carle Illinois, and I generally try to keep the 8-5 schedule that I’ve become accustomed to. I usually study for about 5-6 hours a day outside of my regular class time. On days I’m in the clinic, these may end up being longer study days that can creep into the evening, but I can make up for this time on lighter days later in the week. I owe a lot to living by my calendar, and by finding a routine and resources that work for me.

Picking Up New Study Tools

The good news is that there are endless study tools available to med students. The key is to identify which work best, and then commit to them. The first few weeks were trying as I worked to figure out where to invest my time, but here are a few tips I’ve found to be effective in my first five months:

  • Identifying the right books. I frontload information at the start of each curriculum block, and I’ve found these three books to be the most helpful so far: Costanzo for physiology, Pathoma for Pathology and First Aid. Learning the physiology early really pays off toward the end of the block.
  • Anki flashcards. These are digital flashcards with card decks containing information designed for high yield Step 1 learning. It has an algorithm that determines when you see the cards based on past performance history. Today, I have about 800 cards I’m going through, and I usually spend 3-4 hours a day on these flashcards alone. By Step 1, I’ll have worked through approximately 30,000 different flashcards. I used to hate going through these cards, but because they work, they’ve become a key part of my daily routine. It helps to play some of my favorite music – anything from Reggaeton to Country – while I crank these out.
  • Practice questions. Before every quiz or test, I go through practice questions. There are different question banks you can pay for as well as the platform where we conduct our quizzes that Carle Illinois provides us.
  • Staying close to the clinic. I head over to the Sim Center when I need extra help with a certain clinical skill, or need a refresher on one I’ve already learned. I also try to book extra time in the clinic on top of my already scheduled time, which allows me to shadow physicians for additional real-life experiences and perspectives.
  • Office hours. You can always visit a professor’s office hours. I especially find it helpful to have a conversation with a professor who might share their clinical experience to help further conceptualize and provide case examples of what I’m learning in the textbook.
  • Finding the right study spot. I personally enjoy the study spaces in Everitt Lab, which come equipped with a large monitor and whiteboard. Other classmates enjoy studying at Grainger, the large library on the Bardeen engineering quad.

Here for the Long Haul

My biggest motivation for staying organized with my calendar is to be able to maximize my free time, so I can do the things I enjoy and not face early burnout. So far, I haven’t had to spend many weekends catching up, and instead, I can go to the gym, play sports like tennis or softball, or go salsa dancing. I can also take occasional trips to nearby cities like Chicago, and hangout with my fellow classmates.

For those looking to enter medical school, I’d encourage you to be open to trying new study methods. There are so many resources and tools available to you, so you just have to find out what works best for you. The class ahead of you will be here to share our best tips. And, while some of our methods overlap, we each have our own individualized study plan that works for us or that we’re still experimenting with, so there will be plenty of information available to you.

So far, the workload in medical school has compared with my expectations. I knew it’d be hard, and as long as I don’t procrastinate, it’s turning out to be both manageable and enjoyable.

Alex Lucas