Top 10 tips for thriving at medical school

Avant media

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Medical students standing in a group
Picture: Sam (second on the right) with his study group just before their OSCEs

Dr Samuel Kirk completed his medical degree in 2021 at the University of Tasmania. During his studies and placements, he became a father, built a house, and undertook research, so he’s got plenty of tips on thriving and getting the most out of medical school. Here are his top ten.

1. Work smarter, not harder!

It’s no secret that medical school is hard work, but there a few proven short-cut methods to lighten the load.

Testing yourself at regular intervals is far more effective than pouring over textbooks or lectures. Spaced repetition flashcard apps like ANKI take the thinking out of when to revise.

Mnemonics are another fun tool that can help with those tough exam questions.

Condense an entire semester subject to one A3 page of written notes and diagrams. It forces you to synthesise all the important information and doubles as an exam revision piece.

2. Avoid paralysis by analysis

An easy trap to fall into, and we can all be guilty of this, is binging on medical school advice.

Every YouTube medical student or doctor-come-author has their own secret to success and, while some of these resources are useful, it can also be information overload. Trying to incorporate every ‘uni hack’ or exam-prep tip will leave your wheels spinning.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, simply being proactive and incorporating a few tried and true techniques will get you 90% of the way there.

3. A desk is for study

Numerous studies show having a dedicated study area increases focus, productivity and motivation.

It doesn’t have to be a desk per se, as long as it is a quiet, distraction-free area where your brain knows “ok, it’s time to get down to business”. Fill the area with study materials and medical paraphernalia to get you inspired and remove items that will distract you from the task.

4. Say yes to opportunities

The great thing about the medical school experience is that it extends way beyond the classroom.

Get involved with extracurriculars such as committees, research, mentoring junior students, and even writing articles. Two to three per year is the sweet spot, keeping it manageable with study and placements.

Not only is this a great way to build your CV for that all-important intern application, but it’s a fantastic way to find mentors and work on other skills like communication, teaching and critical appraisal.

5. Assemble your team

Make no mistake, medicine is a team sport!

Forming a study group of four to five people is the single best investment you can make in medical school.

A tried and tested strategy is to divide notetaking during a semester among your group. At exam time, you each pick a topic to revise and then teach each other about them.

Not only will this slash the workload, but you will be learning by consolidating your knowledge. Best of all, it doesn’t feel like study, it feels like hanging out with friends.

6. Learn to juggle

Medical school is a huge commitment, but that doesn’t mean everything else stops either.

Many of you will be juggling commitments outside of school too. The key to managing them all is to be organised.

There’s nothing a giant-sized year calendar and a weekly planner can’t fix. Get both, so you’ll always know when things are due, where you are in the lead-up to exams, and where you need to budget your time to meet all your responsibilities.

7. Life beyond medicine

Medicine should feel like a part of your life, not your whole life.

Whether it’s playing a sport, volunteering or taking on a new hobby, making regular time for something you enjoy will not only recharge your batteries but will make you a more well-rounded student and intern applicant later.

Carve out a portion of your day or week as a ‘medicine-free zone’, and stick to it no matter what, especially during exam time when taking time out for yourself is even more important.

8. A problem shared is a problem halved

Everybody struggles during medical school at some point – those worries or stresses you’re experiencing are shared by a few of your peers, if not all of them.

If you’ve had a tough day or feel like you’re struggling, talk to your peers or the medical school staff; they are there to help you.

9. Tackling large tasks

You will be given mountains of information to memorise and synthesise, but it doesn’t all have to be done at once.

To make it more manageable, pick a few meaty subjects (e.g. physiology or anatomy) and learn those subjects every week.

Then when it comes to exam season, you will only have the small subjects left to memorise. Even if it’s learning one lecture a day, it all adds up.

10. Fortune favours the bold

Initially, feeling like an intruder, or you are inconveniencing a patient when taking their medical history or doing an examination, is very common.

The reality is, it’s your job to get qualified, and many patients don’t mind if you want to practice an examination or take blood.

Learning to be bold and confidently walk into a patient’s room and initiate an interaction is critical to nail. Once you’ve mastered this skill, you will take in much more while on the wards.

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