Two keys to doing well in your courses are:
- approaching your courses with a passion to learn and
- managing your time efficiently.
The medical profession requires constantly keeping up-to-date with a rapidly changing field of knowledge; i.e., it is a lifelong commitment to learning. The sooner you develop a passion for learning, the better off you will be. Learning can be fun if you strive for understanding and study to satisfy your curiosity. On the contrary, studying can be dull, tedious, and totally ineffective if you try to memorize so as to score well on exams. If you study with a passion to learn, you are very likely to build good academic credentials and to impress people with your scholarly attitude. This is especially important for your teachers who will be writing letters of recommendation.
If you learn one thing early in your academic career, learn good time management. You will need to do many things well, and this can be overwhelming if you find yourself never having enough time to complete what you start. You will probably find it helpful to set up a schedule for every day of the week. Allot enough time to prepare for lectures in advance, attend all classes and labs, complete written assignments, and review your text and lecture notes every day. Most importantly, leave time for meals, lots of sleep, and extracurricular activities that keep you active, physically fit, and engaged.
Here are a few specific tips as to how to approach learning and manage your time. They may not work for everyone, and ultimately you have to find what works for you. However, it is worth going over them and at least trying a few.
- Read the text before attending lecture.
- Take complete notes, but try to think about what you write. Don’t hesitate to ask the professor to explain something that wasn’t clear or that you missed because you were writing so fast.
- After lectures, copy over your notes and supplement them with material from your text. You can also make “flash cards” that are easy to use later to test yourself. This only works if you make the cards on a regular basis, i.e., not the night before the exam!
- Before going to bed every night, spend 20 to 30 minutes going over your notes or flash cards, starting with day one. This “cumulative learning” process helps to establish connections among the many facts you will have to learn. It is these connections that can trigger your ability to answer questions on exams. Try doing this twice a week for each one of your three most demanding courses.
- When taking exams, scan all the questions, and then answer the easiest ones first. This will build confidence and allow you to begin making the connections you established as part of your “cumulative learning.” Don’t get stuck on an especially difficult problem; this can make you frustrated, and then you enter that vicious cycle of frustration coupled to poor performance.
- Start working on written assignments early. Set your own deadlines for completing them at least two days before they are actually due. This will allow you time to actually finish them and to provide the attention to detail, even at the last minute, that can improve your grade significantly.
- Go to bed early and get up early. Sounds corny, but once you get into the habit of working early in the morning, most people find that they study and perform much more efficiently. Of course, this also means that you should go to bed at a reasonable time to allow a good night’s sleep.
- When preparing for an exam, test yourself. Find or make up some questions you think might be on the exam and try answering them under timed conditions without referring to your notes or the text. A set of previously prepared flash cards is a convenient way to assemble such questions. This will help you identify areas you need to work on. Review the material you had difficulty with and then repeat the process.
- If you work with others in study groups, take turns trying to “explain” a topic or a problem without using your text or notes. This really tests your understanding and provides immediate feedback. Do not get trapped in a study group that is not focused on studying.
- Set aside some time every day that is sacred. Get away from studying, work, and other “responsibilities.” Escape. However, keep in mind that doing anything illegal or just plain foolish will quickly destroy all reasonable chances of you becoming a doctor.