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Student-to-Student Study Tips: Medical School

Disclaimer: All students study differently and the ideas below may not work for you. They are simply offered as possible approaches.


Student-to-Student Tips: College of Medicine

(From UIC COM students Sabrina, William, Whitney, and Leah)

Keeping Up

Leah: They say that medical school is a job and you should treat it as such. Well, that’s all and good except the job is much more intense than a 9 to 5. I view it as a job where I’m paid on commission; that is to say, the harder I work, the more I am rewarded. The first year is very difficult and wearing but it is by no means impossible.
Whitney: Don’t be mistaken when you find that the first week or two of M1 lectures consists of an undergrad review. The classes take off after that and you need to stay current right from the start or it will be tough to catch up.
Sabrina: Before starting med school, I had heard that I might have to study 10 hours a day. I didn’t really believe it and I didn’t think I could ever do that. Well, I ended up studying harder than I ever thought I could. I worked really hard to keep up, but at the same time I didn’t freak out if I fell 3 or 4 lectures behind in a course because of the demands of another course.
William: I set the goal of reviewing 3 lectures a day. If I didn’t attend a particular lecture I would spend that same time studying the co-op notes for the class.

Time Management Systems

Whitney: I use an 8 ½ by 11 Blue Sky Academic Planner (you can buy it at Office Max). I know that during my 3rd and 4th year I’ll need to use a PDA, and so I’ve started integrating a PDA with my planner. But during my first two years I prefer my paper planner because it helps me see the big picture. On my planner’s monthly calendar I write in the dates of exams, meetings, etc. Then every Sunday night I write my plans for the upcoming week in the weekly section of the planner. On the left side of each day I write in the classes I plan to attend and then on the right side I list the homework I’m planning for that day. I keep a separate “to do” list of any personal items I might need to do.
Sabrina: I use a monthly calendar where I record exams and other deadlines. Also, every Monday morning I write up a “to do” list on a sheet of paper. I fold the paper in half; on one side I write a “to do” list for Monday through Wednesday and on the other side for Thursday to Sunday. For each day, I have two columns, one for homework and one for personal items. (Note: I recently switched to using a PDA.)

Organizational Systems

Sabrina: I keep an accordion file that holds a separate folder for each class and all the materials I will need for the week. In the middle section I keep a course schedule and my “to do” list. On the weekend, I empty the folders into separate ring binders for each course.

Daily Schedule

Whitney: During my M1 year I would typically get home at 5:00 or 6:00 to shower and eat dinner. Then I would return to the COM to attend one of the UHP tutorials. I thought of the tutorial as a review for one subject, and after the tutorial my study partner and I would study a second subject. We worked individually, but we were able to ask each other questions as they came up. At the end of the night we would agree on tomorrow’s subject for review.
William: I would start studying every day at 8:00 – whether I was attending a lecture or not (I skipped many of them). I would eat lunch at noon and then study again from 12:30 to 5:00. I studied hard all day and then at night I exercised and relaxed and got to bed early. On the weekends I would work on any of the lectures from the week that I hadn’t quite finished in terms of reviewing the co-ops and writing my review sheets of questions (more about this later). I would also spend weekend time studying for upcoming exams.
Sabrina: On anatomy days (when I was in class all day), I would review anatomy as my only homework for the day because I was too tired to do more than that. On days that I only had class in the morning, I would go straight to a coffee shop after class. (Occasionally, I would take a couple of hours in the morning or afternoon to do errands. I like to group my errands into one time block.) I would usually eat dinner at 7:00 or 8:00 and then stay at home to study, although sometimes I would go out to a library or coffee shop to study in the evening. During times I was really busy I might bring snacks such as cereal bars to the library so I wouldn’t have to take time out to eat.

Maintaining Balance: Taking Breaks & Having Fun

Leah: Time management is the key to doing well in med school; there’s no question about that. Just remember that balance is also key. You’ll find you are much more productive and focused if you take time for yourself, even it it’s just the commute on the El or sitting down to a dinner you just made for yourself. It’s okay not to study every waking moment! I like to set mini–goals for myself – maybe I’ll study until a certain time and then reward myself by going to the gym.
William: Typically, I work hard all week, but I do some relaxing on the weekend. Besides the usual things – going out on a Friday or Saturday night – one of my favorite ways to relax is to walk by the lake. Sometimes during my walks I mentally review some of the course material, or I might take my notes with me and study as I walk.
Sabrina: I like to take a 10–minute break after 1 ½ hours or so of studying. I might play with my cat, eat a snack, check my email, or call someone. As for having fun, I like to plan things way in advance so I have something to look forward to and can use it to motivate myself. I often set a goal. For example, I might tell myself that if I get through 6 anatomy lectures by 8:00 on Saturday, I’ll let myself go out that night. I only plan a light load of homework for Sundays and I try to get things done before that as a kind of deadline. I like to have time for myself on Sunday, but I know that if I don’t finish everything before then, I can use that day to catch up.
Whitney: You need to be careful about over-committing to various student organizations. Also, realize that if you walk through Edelstone Student Center it can be tempting to spend a lot of time talking to classmates. I figure it’s okay to socialize for a while as I check my email, but then I try to remind myself that if I spend too much time talking now, I’ll have to stay up studying until 1:00. If a classmate keeps on talking for too long, I try to give nonverbal cues to the person or I simply say, “Gotta go to ____.”


Leah: No good comes from studying late at night when you’re half-sleeping already and then tomorrow you won’t be able to concentrate because you didn’t sleep much the night before. Don’t be counter-productive!
Sabrina: I notice that some students keep studying even when they’re exhausted and this doesn’t make any sense. If I find myself reading something over and over again and I still don’t get it, I put the books away and go to bed.

Study Locations

Sabrina: I like to move from place to place as I’m studying. I might study in one location for a while and then go somewhere else. While I’m walking or driving to the new location, I get a nice break. During the week, I typically go to a coffee shop in Wicker Park to study. On Saturday, I might study at the DePaul library for the full day or I might go to DePaul in the morning and then a coffee shop in the afternoon. The DePaul library has a nice environment for studying and it helps that I can’t get online there! If I really need to concentrate while studying, I might study at home. Edelstone is a good place for group study. Student Center West (CIU) can be a decent place during off hours, if I face away from distractions.

Lectures: To Attend or Not to Attend

Whitney: Not all professors are great teachers, but you should at least check all of them out. Also, deciding whether to attend a class depends on what type of learner you are. But even if you are not going to attend a particular class, still come to school at that time to study. For myself, I found that attending lectures was an important part of the learning process.
Sabrina: Go to all of your classes the first 2 weeks and then decide which ones you’ll keep attending on a regular basis. If you don’t attend a class, read the handout and ask classmates if you missed anything important. Also, be sure to return to check on the class if another professor is teaching later on in the semester. Warning: There’s a real danger that if you’re not attending a course on a regular basis, you’ll start falling behind. To avoid this, if I miss class I always go over the handout on the same day as the lecture. Also, I go through the same number of lectures as were offered that day. Finally, if I decide not to attend a course on a regular basis, I still attend once in a while, just to check in on the course and see if anything has diverged from the syllabus. I also make sure I have a “connection” in the course – another student who attends that course regularly.
Leah: I began med school by attending every lecture, but I soon became overwhelmed. Here’s what was happening: I didn’t absorb the material from hearing it in lecture because there was just too much and so I had to essentially learn it from the beginning later on. But I had already spent 5 hours in class that day plus the 2 hours commuting. There was simply not enough time to both attend the lectures and also read the material. After a while, I decided to be more selective and didn’t attend every lecture.
William: I’m not a good auditory leaner and English is my second language, so lectures weren’t as helpful for me and I didn’t attend many of my M1 lectures. I plan to go to most of my M2 classes because I’ve heard it’s important. If I miss a lecture and have a question from the coop, I email the professor for an answer.

During Lecture

Sabrina: As I listen to the lecture, I try to relate what I’m hearing to what I already know about the subject. To stay tuned in, I “talk to myself” (“Oh, I see…). Also, I try to think of questions and then listen for the answers. Finally, I really examine the visual aids rather than spacing out. I tell myself that if I bothered to come to class, I should try to get something out of it. (If I have too much trouble staying tuned in, I know I probably shouldn’t be attending the lecture.)

Using COOP’s

Leah: If you listen to no other advice, listen to this: Invest in the coop system to receive a complete set of notes written by students in the year ahead of you. This will be vital for keeping up and staying on top of the subject material. The human body hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years or so J and that’s all you’re learning the first year, basically, so the lectures are almost exactly the same as they were the year before. Thus, you probably don’t need to read the coops from your own year. Here’s the routine I ended up using my M1 year: I would read the coop notes and consult a textbook as needed to understand the material; then I outlined the coop notes; then, before an exam, I studied my outline again.
William: I like to look at coops from the past 2 years and then pick the best one for each lecture as my main source to study from.
Sabrina: I like to use last year’s coops as a reference, to check as needed. For molecular bio and immuno, I mostly used the handouts but also consulted the coops as needed. For bio-chem, I just used the handouts.

Using Textbooks

William: My undergrad physiology professor pointed out that figures and diagrams are the most important part of most biology/medical textbooks, so you should focus on studying these and skip a lot of the reading. I agree. Also, I find it helpful to skim the reading and try to visualize what’s going on as I read.
Sabrina: I use my books primarily as a resource: If I don’t understand an item on the lecture handout, I consult a text. I only read a book from cover to cover if it is a very, very good book for a very, very hard class.

Particular Book Recommendations

William: Find the best source of info for each course. I think BRS is the best for most subjects other than renal. For renal physio I liked the NMS Board series. For anatomy, Clinically–Oriented Anatomy is a great book! It has case studies at the end of each unit – something that’s useful for both the course exam and the Boards. After studying each subject area, I also like to review by using the multiple choice questions in the Pre–Test series of books. (This is a great series, with the exception of the one for behavioral science.)
Sabrina: Anatomy and histo are both very visual courses and so the color pictures in the textbooks are really helpful. For anatomy, I used Essentials of Clinical Anatomy. For histo, I skimmed the textbook and focused on the pictures. (I noticed that students who didn’t do this tended to do poorly in the class.)

Study System/Study Routine

Sabrina: I didn’t use this study system for easier courses such as nutrition, brain and behavior, or human development (for those courses I just read last year’s and this year’s coops). But for my other courses, here’s how I like to study: For every lecture given that day, I write a summary of the lecture, following the handouts (and sometimes the coops) and looking at books to cross-reference the info. I get rid of all the fluff from the lecture and write the notes in my own words and with my own diagrams. As I do this, I’m not just trying to “get through” the lecture but to learn it (especially for a course like anatomy). I like this system because writing things out in my own words helps me learn it, and this also gives me a single source to study from (not 6 different sources). The whole process might take 1 to 3 hours per lecture and I might end up with 2 to 8 pages of notes.
Whitney: The tutorials were excellent and were an important part of my study routine. For information about the tutorials, stop at the UHP office.
William: After using the Pre-Test book for histo, I suddenly realized how helpful it would be to study in a question and answer format. So, for my more difficult classes, I started writing up question and answer summaries for each of my lectures. I would read a couple of paragraphs of the coop notes and/or lecture handout and then stop to type up a question and corresponding answer on my laptop. Then I would move on to the next section of the coops. I wrote numbered questions in a column on the left side and numbered answers in the right hand column. It would take 2 ½ to 3 hours to do this for each lecture and I would end up with 20 to 50 questions per lecture.
When writing my questions I tried to think of what would be on the upcoming exam as well as on the Boards. (It really helped my studying to think in terms of preparing now for the Boards.) After writing my Q & A review sheet for a lecture I would review it and begin to test myself on it, covering up the answer side. Later on, when an exam was coming up, I would simply review all my Q & A review sheets. This system helped me store the material in my long-term memory because I had typed the material, reviewed it right away, reviewed it 2 days before the exam, and glanced at it the morning of the exam. With this system, I was ready for both the upcoming exam and the finals; I was also partially ready for the Boards.
Here’s an example of a Q & A for anti– hypertensive drugs:
Q: How do thiazide diuretics work?
A: They lower BP by initially increasing sodium and water excretion. This decreases extracellular volume, decreasing CO and renal blood flow.
Here’s another Q: Draw a flow chart describing how blood pressure changes as a result of baroreceptor effects on the sympathetic nervous system firing.
If I want to include a diagram or chart on my review sheet, I can use Paintbrush to cut and paste a diagram from the lecture notes into both Q & A columns of my notes. On the A side, I use the eraser function to erase most of the words from the diagram so I can quiz myself on it.

Studying for Exams

William: I studied for my exams by using the Q & A system described above and by also studying with my study group. A technique I used for studying a flow chart/process was to first write it on my Whiteboard (writing it large helps with memory) and then type it up in my notes. This really imprinted it on my memory.
Whitney: All-night cramming might have worked for undergrad courses, but it definitely doesn’t work in med school. There’s too much material and it’s too complex and besides, 75% of finals are cumulative. COM exams tap into higher order thinking skills, something that’s compromised when you don’t get enough sleep. Finally, when studying, you should always look for the relationships and correlations between facts. It’s not just about memorizing. Ask yourself how one subject correlates to another.
Sabrina: I use my lecture summaries (described above) to study for exams. I try to focus on concepts, reading a whole set of notes and looking for the big picture in the midst of all those installments. (It’s especially important to do this for bio chem. and neuro-anatomy.) Another way to see the big picture is to read an intro or summary in a textbook. After my individual studying is finished, I work with a study group and I also do some practice tests.
A few other tips: Mnemonics are great for anatomy. Writing things down and drawing pathways also helps. Histo Time is a great computer program to help you study. Go over computer programs for histo and for neuroanatomy again and again to help you remember. Look at an image or a heading and quiz yourself.

Study Groups

Whitney: I found that the problem with studying entirely on my own is that it’s hard to know if I really know the material. Trying to verbalize a concept lets me know if I understand it. If I can explain something to another person then I fully understand it. When working with a study group, you have to understand that things might not work out with a particular study partner and you have to be willing to tell the person it’s not working. I my experience, this doesn’t cause hard feelings. Most people understand that you work better with some people than with others.
I have a portable dry erase board and I take it with me when studying with my group. Sometimes, we go to the 9th floor study rooms of Rush, but if it’s busy with Rush students we back off and go to the library.
Sabrina: If I’m confused about something, I like to go to either the professor or a single student for an explanation. When I’m working with my study group I like to review material I have already learned on my own. I like to meet with my study group a day or two before the exam for maybe 4 to 5 hours. We might go over some tough questions from a practice exam or we might just go around the group, making up our own questions. I might ask a question and then turn to the person on my right for the answer; then that person makes up a question for the next person, etc. We also challenge each other with follow-up questions.
Leah: I don’t participate in a study group per se, but I do like to study in the same location as one or two other students. We just sit near each other, doing our own thing and studying furiously. At random times we can ask each other questions if we’re stuck on something. I guess misery loves company, but it feels good to have another student nearby.
William: During M1 year, I would meet once a week for 3 to 4 hours with my two study partners. We would split up the lectures and each of us would write up questions and answers for our assigned lectures. We would email these to each other and then meet to discuss the material. If one of us didn’t know an answer when we went around the circle with our questions, we would provide clues and ask the person to think of the logic behind it. Or, if the person got the wrong answer, we’d point out errors in logic: “Why would it be ___ if ___ is true? Think again.” This really helped all of us. We wouldn’t forget something if we did this. Our group didn’t meet during the week of an exam, but if we had questions we would call each other.

Practice Tests (TLE’s, etc.)

Whitney: You really need to learn how to think through multiple choice questions. I learned test taking skills and study strategies during my post-bac program and I think that’s one reason why I’m doing well.
I start working on practice tests 3 or 4 days before an exam and I might spend as much as 8 or 9 hours on this, depending on the difficulty of the course. I use both TLE’s and the questions in the BRS series. Sometimes I work on questions with my study group. We each work through a page of questions on our own and then we get together to discuss the answers and rationales. Then we each go on to the next page of questions. Sometimes, a question will become a springboard for the discussion of a concept.
William: The TLE’s seem almost too easy. I like working through questions in the Pre-Test series and in the BRS books.
Sabrina: I would typically spend 2 to 5 hours doing T.L.E.’s before an exam. If I missed a question, I tried to figure out the rationale for the right answer. (It’s important to realize, however, that there are a few wrong answers on the T.L.E.’s.) If I had time, I would retry any questions I missed.


Sabrina: I would skip tough or time-consuming questions and return to them at the end. I always checked to see that I had bubbled in my answers correctly. If I thought a question was poorly worded, I would write a note at the front of the test booklet. (Sometimes, these questions are thrown out.)

Managing Stress

Leah: Working out at the gym relieves my stress and it’s something I can do that doesn’t make me feel like I’m being lazy or making excuses not to study. Also, I think I’m able to stay focused on my studies for longer because I take the time to de-stress. I go out with friends on occasion as well. Afterwards, I’m able to hit the books, having recharged my batteries.
Whitney: Working out (sometimes between classes) is a great stress reliever and it also ties in with my philosophy of health.
William: I like going to the gym to relieve stress, and I also enjoy meditation. Many people think meditation is absurd, but it really works. I simply close my eyes, listen to soft music for 5 to 10 minutes and concentrate on peaceful settings. I also like to pray.
Sabrina: The only thing that will really help you relax is making some headway on your “to do” list. (Watching a t.v. show won’t help.) Sometimes it can feel good to commiserate with other med students, but at other times it can be nice to get together with friends or family outside of school, just as a reminder that there’s another world out there. I think it’s important to find something you enjoy – dinner, a movie, dancing – and use that as a reward at the end of the week.

Other Resources & Tips

Sabrina: The UHP Survival Packet was great and I also found the Big Sib-Little Sib program very helpful. SMNA and LARAMA are good organizations and I heard that the anatomy reviews were great.
William: I would go to the Gross Anatomy lab on weekends when I could dissect on my own, with no time pressure. It’s important to work on more than one cadaver because they can differ significantly.
Whitney: I’m really glad I was in the COM summer program. It was good to get to know the tutors and we have stayed in touch since then. The Big Sib – Little Sib program was also a great resource for me. My Big Sib gave me advice about classes and she also gave me her old books and notes.