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Ten Habits of Highly Successful Medical Students

Here are Ten Study Tips and Habits of Highly Successful Medical Students that Can Help You Achieve Great Results.

Being a medical student is surely challenging. No matter how passionate you are about medicine it and can be overwhelming sometimes due to the hard work and several hours of studying. However, regardless of the numerous advantages of being a doctor, you should be aware of the fact that achieving a career in medicine is a difficult task. 

You triumphed the MCAT, and now you are planning to fly over to an international medical school. But wait before you jump start your career in a medical school you need to develop some habits that can not only help you in medical school but in your life too. Here are ten habits of highly successful medical students that can help you achieve great results.

Habit 1: Attending Class

Chances are, you probably know (or knew) someone from school that complains about having to go to class (or just doesn’t attend lectures). Perhaps you’ve heard them say “I already know the material” or “I can just watch the lecture online.

But going to class is likely more helpful than these students think. A majority (52%) of students who got all A’s said they attended classes in person five days a week, and 42% of the students who got mostly A’s reported going to class three or more days a week.

In contrast, 63% of the B students and 75% of the C students said they went to class two or fewer days a week. (It should be noted that 75% of the C students is only 6 students, but we’ll talk more about that later.)

Though the study did not indicate whether class attendance was mandatory for the students who took the survey, the association here is clear: students who were more successful tended to attend lectures. Whether or not it’s mandatory, we at VB definitely support going to class!

Habit 2: Learn How You Learn. Then Just Do It

Medical school can be a bit of a shock. We all know it will be hard, requiring long hours, but the sheer enormity of knowledge we need to master (or at least make a passing acquaintance with) can be overwhelming. You will need to figure out how you learn best, and most efficiently. Is it taking copious notes in class? Drawing pictures of dissections?

What is the best way to take notes when you have to read a lot and understand many concepts?
What is the best way to take notes when you have to read a lot and understand many concepts?

Re-listening to lectures on your iPhone while out for a run? I was a solitary studier all through college, poring over all the required reading and taking notes. I tried to continue this pattern in medical school. This worked fine during the first term, which was largely a review of basic science principles I knew well already.

However, after getting my results back on the first anatomy exam at the start of our second term, I realized something had to change. My response was to join a study group. While I might have avoided my areas of weakness when studying alone, in a group, we’d be sure to go over all those annoying branches of the brachial plexus.

This is a habit that will help you beyond medical school. The field of medicine is one of life-long learning. We will constantly need to update our knowledge of our field by reading journals, attending conferences, and discussing interesting cases with our colleagues.

Habit 3: Devoting Time to Studying Every Day

If you want to get good at something—a sport, a musical instrument, speaking a foreign language—you’ve got to devote time to practicing every day. Well, studying for med school courses and a big test like Step 1 aren’t that different—spending time studying every day is vital to succeeding. But how much time is the right amount?

This study showed that students with the highest grades typically studied either 3-5 or 6-8 hours a day. Fifty percent of students who got all A’s studied 6-8 hours a day. Of the students who received mostly A’s, 42% (24) of them studied for more than six hours a day and 49% (28) studied for 3-5 hours a day.

Fifty-two percent (45) of the students with mostly B’s and 63% (5) of the students with mostly C’s also studied for 3-5 hours a day. So it looks like the sweet spot for these students’ study time is somewhere between three and eight hours a day, probably closer to the 6-8 range.

Only a small number of students (nine all-A and five mostly-A students) reported studying for eight hours or more per day.  That’s why the authors concluded that eight hours of studying is probably a reasonable daily maximum.

After all, it’s important for students to take time for doing things that aren’t studying—things like eating, exercising, socializing, and just relaxing. Doing well on exams is important, but so is maintaining one’s physical and mental health! 

Habit 4: Look Beyond Your Books

You may feel like you need to study 24/7, but if you never leave the library, you will miss out on a lot your medical school has to offer. Join clubs, get involved with student government, sign up for a committee.

Not only will you contribute to the culture of your medical school and help make it a more enriching place for other medical students, you never know what connections you might make. One of my peers who joined the student government found herself rubbing shoulders with many faculty, including department chairs.

When she decided she was interested in radiology, she was able to set up a time to have an informal chat with the department chairman, as she already knew him. By being involved, you will be learning how to network and establish connections that will serve you throughout your career.

Habit 5: Give Back

become a better applicant, er, and to give back to the community
Become a better applicant and to give back to the community.

We all spent time in our pre-med years scurrying amongst volunteer experiences in an attempt to become a better applicant, er, and to give back to the community, of course. Don’t stop with that acceptance letter.

Medical school provides lots of opportunities; you have a chance to contribute to the community, make connections, develop new skills and, yes, they can go on your residency application.

I served as a co-director of our student-run free clinic. It not only gave me a chance to work on my leadership skills, but also helped me discover that I enjoy the administrative aspect of medicine as well, something that impacted my career decisions.

Habit 6: Be Adventurous, both Professionally and Personally

You never know where it may lead you! What you may not realize at the beginning of medical school is how quickly the time goes by and how soon you will need to be making decisions about your specialty. Early exploration can be invaluable in helping you make your decision.

The summer between first and second year, another of my colleagues had the opportunity to do a research project with the ophthalmology department. Although it wasn’t a specialty she was particularly familiar with, she liked the people she was working with and threw herself into the project.

She found her passion and is now starting her ophthalmology residency. Many medical schools offer opportunities to go abroad. Even (especially!) if you’re not an international traveler, these can be great experiences, exposing you to other medical cultures.

Habit 7: Recognize Your Own Strengths and Weaknesses

To get into medical school, you’ve likely been at the top of your class most of your life. The thing about medical school is that all of your classmates have as well. And, when grades come out, not everyone can be at the top of the class. For me, this moment was rather sobering – and demoralizing.

Allow yourself not to be really good at everything. Work on your weaknesses so they don’t become your Achilles’ heel, but don’t dwell on them. Instead, feed your strengths. Nowhere in my Dean’s letter does it say, “And she is not so great at anatomy.”

Habit 8: Establish a Circle of Mentors

Some schools have formal mentoring programs, connecting students with faculty or senior medical students with junior medical students. Take advantage of these. If your school doesn’t have one (and even if it does), be on the lookout for others who may serve this role – you’ll meet many if you follow Habit 4.

For me, my mentors come from various backgrounds and fields – a radiologist, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a bench scientist and a number of more senior medical students, to name a few. Other medical students can provide invaluable advice on issues they recently dealt with, ranging from how to study for boards (“Make a schedule!”) or how to survive surgery (“Always eat breakfast!”).

Faculty mentors help to provide perspective; they’ve seen many students go through the ups and downs of medical school and can give a broader view, or at least assure you that how you’re feeling is not unique. That time back in first year when I did poorly on my first anatomy exam?

It was one of my faculty mentors who encouraged me to join a study group. Now, sorting through residency programs, my mentors have helped me weigh my options and look at my priorities.

Habit 9: Using a Small Number of Well-Established Study Tools

Though the results for outside study resource tools didn’t reach statistical significance, the authors did report on a few noteworthy trends.

Essentially what that means is that using more resources doesn’t necessarily ensure success. 
Essentially what that means is that using more resources doesn’t necessarily ensure success.

When it comes to studying for Step 1, most of the highest-performing students (69% of the all-A students) reported that they focused on one or two study tools, such as Pathoma and First Aid. (Overall, around 75% of the surveyed students reported using these resources—they are among the most popular Step 1 prep tools).

Speaking of USMLE prep tools, it’s interesting to note that only 22% (11) of the A students used UWorld Question Bank during their preclinical years.

This isn’t to say that you can’t be successful using more than 1 or 2 study tools (you do you!), but the results of this survey indicate that “using an increasing number of resources was not associated with success.” Essentially what that means is that using more resources doesn’t necessarily ensure success. 

Habit 10: Take Time for You

You are more than medical school – you were before and you will be after. Take time to nurture your relationships, with friends, family and significant others.

You may feel all that you are up for after a week of courses is studying in your pajamas interspersed with watching cat videos online, but take a real break and go grab coffee with friends. Take care of yourself. Go to the gym, cook a real meal on occasion, take a walk.

Your life should not go completely on hold while you are in medical school. Finding that balance is critical for your career. A friend who graduated last year was weighing his options for residency, including going to his “dream” institution. In the end, though, he realized he would be happier going to another institution that would keep him close to his family and friends.

Now, as he slogs through intern year, he is buoyed by his support system. Give yourself the chance to flourish and your career will as well.

By Megan Riddle / Laura Snider

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