Category Archives: Study Strategies

Review or Reveille: My Secret to Staying Awake

Don’t laugh. I have a habit of getting really sleepy during review.

I’m not sure what that’s about, but I’ve been that way since undergrad.

Give me information that I previously tested on and ask me to review it, and for some reason my brain goes into twilight mode and I can hardly keep my eyes open.

In undergrad, it was manageable. After all, most of undergrad courses are fairly stand-alone. Even the bits of, for instance, General Chemistry that you need to retain and build on are manageable.

In med school that’s all turned catywonkus and it just doesn’t apply. EVERYTHING you learn has to be retained long-term. Well, at least through that all-important Step 1 exam – my be-all, end-all goal at this point.

Until recently, I’ve been stumped by how the heck to efficiently and effectively keep up with reviewing, regularly, without literally falling asleep. I was beginning to get frustrated. Then that frustration began turning into a fatalistic “ugh maybe I can’t do this” mentality (oh how fast I go there!) and I knew I had to come up with a solution.

Even though I’m in my 50s, my mother is one of my biggest fans and heads up my cheering section through this process. I never mentioned to her how I was struggling to stay awake during review sessions. But she messaged me the other day saying she had found me a gift.

A treadmill.

But not just any treadmill. This one has a handy-dandy shelf on it just perfect for my laptop.

Now, I walk while I review. Every day. Talk about the ideal “killing two birds with one stone” solution!

I’m no longer playing reveille during review sessions. I’m staying healthy. And coincidentally I’m retaining review information way better for going through it while I’m moving!

Challenge solved. Whew! I’ve even begun ‘attending’ live lectures while walking, going through flashcards and lecture notes – its amazing how much better this is!

Now back to the books – its time to review heart sounds. While walking.

Its NOT Hard

From being quite sure that my age would be a negative determinant of medical school success, to being willing to take any acceptance I could get, then moving to an intentional choice of which school is right for me – this has been an amazing journey. Through all the ups and downs I’d say the most powerful realization has been this: ITS NOT HARD!

As I write those three words, I’m well aware that there are students right now in classrooms, study cubicles, huddled in apartments and bleary-eyed in libraries – who are feeling the overwhelm of what’s been aptly called “drinking from a fire hose”. With the sheer volume of information presented during medical school, how the heck do I keep stating ITS NOT HARD?

Here’s the thing.

You have to completely  change the way you study. If you use the same study strategies you used to be very successful as an undergrad, you will fail in medical school.

That’s a pretty hefty statement to make, but I believe it with every brain cell I’ve used to “decode” medical school study strategies that actually work. With the sheer volume of information presented in medical school, its easy to get stuck in thinking that your primary ‘job’ is to memorize all those facts. To become a walking, talking encyclopedia of information.

Bottom line is that if you do that, you’ll absolutely fail to synthesize information in a way you can use to pass the med school exams and boards. The tests you’ll see in medical school are different than anything you’ve seen before, and that long list of facts you spend hours storing in your tired brain is just the beginning. In med school, its all about the story, the experience, using those facts as the foundation but going so much beyond facts to what they call “secondary and tertiary questions”.

If you spend your time simply memorizing facts, you’ll be shocked when you get to exams and realize you have no idea how to answer the questions – even though you’ve spent every waking moment studying.

Here’s what works.

  • Listen to the lectures – that’s just a recitation of facts. You do need those facts as a foundation.
  • Immediately begin composing “stories” – how might these facts come together with an actual clinical scenario.
  • Spend the bulk of your time studying clinical vignettes – ‘stories’ that present a case, then ask you to pull together those disparate facts into a cohesive whole. Use q-banks as your bible, read the questions aloud, and talk your way to a solution before you ever glance at solutions.
  • Judiciously make use of study aids such as flashcards and flowcharts.
  • Another absolutely priceless way to use the q-banks is to review why other answer choices are incorrect. Regardless of which software you’re using for review, they all provide an explanation of why a particular answer choice is correct or incorrect. Don’t simply scroll on by if you chose correctly – review why the other choices were not the best answer.

I’m daily blown away by how simple this really is, so long as I first get the factual foundation then spend time practicing incorporating all those facts into clinical scenarios. By faithfully putting in the time to study this way, you’ll find that medical school is not hard  – it simply requires you to learn a completely new way of studying!

Feeling overwhelmed? Feel like you’re drowning in a sea of information overload and can’t find a way to pull it all together? SecondChanceMentor offers a super cool service and we’d be glad to help you get back on track so you can actually enjoy this amazing learning experience!  Send us a message today and let us help you revise your learning style so you’re successful!

All-Or-Nothing Hell

I’m writing this on a Sunday morning. Feet up and cozy in my fuzzy slippers, steaming coffee in hand. I’ve got my clear plan for studying this morning, but first I need to address an issue I keep hearing about from those who have asked me to help them on this journey.

One of my student mentees emailed me this morning: Please help. I feel like I’m floundering. I don’t want to study all the time. I’m in ‘all-or-nothing’ hell and don’t know how to get out of it, and right now its stuck in ‘nothing’. Help!

Can I ever relate to that feeling! As a super intense and driven person absolutely intent on achieving goals that some say are “unrealistic” (whatever that means), it took me awhile to find ways to keep myself going, keep the study schedule even on boring days or overwhelmed days or just blah days. There’s some switch in my brain that turns to the OFF position sometimes, and it used to make me absolutely twitchy until I figured out what was going on and a few effective work-arounds.

If you’re stuck in all-or-nothing hell, here’s some ideas to help.

  1. STOP COMPARING. Stop comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides. We all know students who appear to never struggle with study motivation. But those who seem the most confident are sometimes the ones who struggle the most – silently.
  2. USE TIME AS YOUR BEST FRIEND. I’ve learned that what works best is to study every day for a set amount of time, taking regular timed breaks so my brain is more efficient. This will help you avoid procrastination and those frantic last minute cram sessions (that really don’t work anyway).
  3. DON’T CHECK IN SO OFTEN WITH HOW YOU FEEL. While it is vital to do what you need to do to stay emotionally healthy, you can waste tons of time asking yourself if you feel up to the next study marathon required. Just DO IT. Just pick up the books, grab the q-bank, review the Powerpoints, run through some flash cards as if you absolutely felt like it.
  4. TRICK YOUR BRAIN. Everyone’s experience is unique. Some people need to find ways to push themselves, others need to find ways to justify taking breaks or finding balance. Try setting up rewards for consistent daily studying – like a favorite snack after an hour of intense study, or checking in on social media at the end of a productive study day, or imagining you’ve got a reality-show camera documenting your good study habits. It may sound hokey, but these mental exercises do actually work!
  5. GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION. To have a blah day. To feel unmotivated. To even feel like you’ve just spent four hours studying and can’t remember a single thing. Just like the weather, your feelings will change. Clouds are replaced with clear blue skies. Sunshine follows rain. Snow melts. Blah days end and brain-fog lifts. Rather than feeling frantic when those down-days happen, remind yourself that the feelings will pass.
  6. SCHEDULE JOY. Medical school is intense. There’s an enormous never-ending volume of information to learn and retain. Since this is a life-long learning journey, start NOW to schedule JOY into your life. For the rest of your life, you’ll be busy. For the rest of your life, you’ll be learning. Don’t put off joy.

I promise you, every single human being experiences blah days, days when the motivation runs dry and the “off” switch seems stuck. Stop comparing, use time as your friend, ignore the unmotivated feelings and just study anyway, trick your brain, give yourself permission (to be human!), and make sure you intentionally incorporate JOY into your daily life.

This path we’ve chosen is exciting. And boring. And overwhelming. And worth it. You can do this!

Is Your Brain Bleeding Yet?

Today I thought about revising my ‘this isn’t hard’ statement… but no. Its not “hard” in the sense that its still not difficult to understand. But it is most definitely a ridiculously ginormous amount of information presented very fast.

Between Immunology (the body’s defense mechanism), Microbiology (bacteria and viruses) and Pharmacology (a seemingly endless array of drugs that treat bacterial, viral, and fungal infections), my classmates and I are now saying our brains are bleeding. Just a little joke to try to express the feelings of overwhelm as we begin yet another lecture with the announcement, “Okay, we’re going to speed up just a little, the last couple of lectures were really just the basics…”.

I spent a bit of time over the last few days with practice questions – those little vignettes that paint a picture, then ask a question with multiple choice responses to choose from. In one sense, the practice question exercise was encouraging – a bit of the volume of information is actually ‘sticking’ and I’m able to recall just enough to do what I call intelligently guess.

In another sense, it was a humbling experience. So much still that I do not know well.

So rather than simply sit here with my brain-bleeding joke and feel overwhelmed, I decided to change something.

Knowing how my brain works (taking pictures of information I know, then adding in details), I first drew a map. There really is a logical organization to the different categories of bacteria. Then I printed pictures of plates of the different bacteria that I’ll need to be able to recognize. Then I added lists of specific bacteria, then finally added in ‘matching’ drugs with their mechanisms of action and contraindications.

Whew! This now covers one whole wall in my living room… if you were to visit right now you’d be certain I’m headed for the loony bin! But now I’m confident I can continue adding information for the rest of the block – after all, we’re only two weeks in to an eight week course, which means tons of new bugs and drugs to add to my creatively wallpapered wall.

I will admit, at times my brain glazes over with paralyzing overload. But most often, I’m thrilled that I have this amazing opportunity and that I have the ability to actually learn this huge amount of information.

I think I’ll go do a bunch more practice questions, using my “wallpaper” as a tool to answer correctly. And thank goodness there’s only three more hours of lecture this week – which will allow all these bits to gel into long term memory before the next onslaught.

Like Primary Colors – How I Study

When I returned to college in my 40s intent on simply discovering if my brain worked well enough to successfully tackle a Biology / PreMed degree (truly, I wasn’t sure), I had to learn how to learn. In many ways, I hadn’t the slightest clue how to study – especially the hard sciences. And without a strong foundation of basic science and math classes in high school, I often felt like I’d been dropped in the deep end of the pool with a bag of rocks tied to my feet.

I discovered that learning won’t happen just because I read a book. Understanding won’t happen just because I sit in a lecture. And application of the information nuggets stored in my head will be absolutely useless unless I have an intentional strategy.

I’ll admit, I have a bit of an edge simply because I read very fast, and I “picture read” (create pictures of the information as I read it) and retain information once its stored. However, it took me a long time before I understood the intentional strategy required to learn, retain and apply the ginormous volume of information presented at Mach 5 speed in medical school.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Pre-read

As someone who did the majority of elementary, highschool, and even college by homeschool, I always said that my preferred and most effective method of learning was to read. (That has since been modified significantly, but in my undergrad experience, this was very true).

As a medical student, I’ve modified that pre-reading thing. Its not enough to simply skim through the slides for the week’s upcoming lectures as when I would skim through the next few chapters in the 40 pound General Chemistry book. I actually pre-study. To learn. To understand. To retain. To apply. As if I’ll never have the privilege of sitting in a lecture. Over the course of each weekend, I go through the upcoming week’s lecture slides three times.

2. Pictures

I don’t draw or paint. But as a classical musician, part of how I remember music is as a visual “picture” of notes on the page. To this day I can close my eyes and “see” the music on the page for Chopin’s Etude Opus 10 number 3.

Applied to medical school courses, I’m constantly “drawing pictures” in my head as I study. The list of essential amino acids I remember as a picture of a list on a page, and as a picture of the different R groups, what they look like, how they compare to each other, how the specifics of the different parts impact their function. Physiology is the same way – digestive processes and enzymes I remember as mental pictures, complete with color and movement. Each new bit of information gets added to the ‘picture’ in my head.

3. Verbalizing

When I’ve read the information and have pictures in my head, I run up against the biggest danger, at least for me.

I think I know it.

However, recognition does not equal knowledge. It took me a long long time to really get this one. If I can’t SAY IT, I do not know it. Period. So that third time through my pre-study every weekend, I’ll simply glance at the slide for the next item, close my eyes, and explain it out loud in my own words. 

4. Attending every lecture

It seems to have become fashionable lately to find ways / reasons / excuses to skip lectures. Not me. If I can’t attend in person, I watch the replay. Every time. Here’s the thing. Not only is it a huge respect thing (the amount of knowledge in the minds of my professors is astounding to me – as is the fact that they’re passionate about passing that information on to someone like me). But hearing the information is also another powerful way to understand new knowledge and put it together with the growing body of information that I hope to retain in some useful fashion.

5. Post study

There is nothing magical that happens for me just from sitting in a lecture for an hour. If I don’t do something with that new information, it will dribble straight out of my head and I might as well have slept in or watched a comedy on Netflix. Immediately I skim through the slides right after lecture, adding to my mental picture those points that were made more clear by listening to the presentation. Then in the evening, I spend more time doing “actual studying” where I use repetition and review to retain the new information. The final hour before I fall over into bed is spent in a quick preview of the slides for the following day.


Look up and name the first color you see. Did you have to guess? Did you struggle to remember the name of the color? How the word was spelled? How it interacts with other colors?

Recognition is not knowledge. However, my conscious goal is to know the ‘new’ information I’m being taught – just as well as I know my primary colors.

I remind myself daily to actually study, not to think I know what I need to know just because it looks familiar.

Pre-study. Make pictures. Verbalize. Attend every lecture. Post study. Review (the subject of a whole ‘nuther post).