Study Habits

I just got admitted to Tulane. I’m honestly not sure I ever really thought it was going to happen. I’ll be the first grad student in my family. Ever. I got my BS at the Naval Academy before PowerPoint. I heard the same line at every interview "Everybody goes to class at the beginning. Now, I’d say half go."
What are the commonly successful study methods? Any research results? What methods best fit various personalities? I did very well in my post-bac classes, but mainly because I totally obsessed about them. I get the impression there’s to much in medical school to obsess about everything. Or do some obsess about everything? Is that possible? BTW, anyone going to Tulane, class of 2009?

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I just got admitted to Tulane. I’m honestly not sure I ever really thought it was going to happen. I’ll be the first grad student in my family. Ever. I got my BS at the Naval Academy before PowerPoint. I heard the same line at every interview "Everybody goes to class at the beginning. Now, I’d say half go."
What are the commonly successful study methods? Any research results? What methods best fit various personalities? I did very well in my post-bac classes, but mainly because I totally obsessed about them. I get the impression there’s to much in medical school to obsess about everything. Or do some obsess about everything? Is that possible? BTW, anyone going to Tulane, class of 2009?


Hi there,
First of all, you have that “the admissions committee made a huge mistake” feeling for most of your first year as you make the adjustment to ramping up your study habits as to effectively and efficiently master the material that you need. No, they didn’t make a mistake and yes, you are correct in that you cannot learn it all but you find out very quickly what works and what does not work.
For some people, who are used to being the top scorers on most exams, to fail an exam can put them in a tail-spin. For some, that tail-spin is the beginning of the end of their career but for others, it is a wakeup call to shift their study habits. You plow through and find out what works.
Things NOT to do: 1. Obsess about every little factoid that is said in class. In fact, anything mentioned in class, in the text or in the syllabus is “fair game” for the exam. If you obsess about everything, you will find youself in a “straight-jacket” by the third week of classes. 2.Listen to your classmates brag about how little they study and how much they know. For some folks, this is their favorite way to let off steam. Go the the gym and pump some iron but don’t buy into this. Everyone studys or they fail out. 3.Worry that you are not as smart as everyone else because you may be struggling at first. Better to struggle in the beginning and make the adjustments than later on when the stakes are higher. There is always some class or something in medicial school that is going to “bust your chops”. For me, it was biostats and epidemiology. I hated the class and hated the course. Today, my love or hatred of this subject has little relevence to my career as a surgeon. I know enough to do my job and the rest does not matter.
Most people fail out of medical school because something (illness, substance abuse, family emergency) does not allow them to put in sufficient time to master the material. It has nothing to do with intelligence and more to do with not letting yourself get behind. One of our wonderful convention speaker, the Dean of Academics at WVSOM, emphasized over and over the importance of not getting behind. Keep up with your coursework and classwork.
The truth is that you are going to start out with what got you into Tulane in the first place and make your adjustments as your go. At the first sign of trouble, get some help (peer tutors, professors office hours, a chat with the academic dean etc.) Realize that you may struggle a bit and that is totally normal. Go to class prepared: read the syllabus and notes from previous lecture reviewed. Use various methods of studying the material both aural and visual. Concept map some things, outline others. Make small note cards of things that have to be rotely memorized and keep one or two in your pocket to pull out while you are in line at the bank, in line for lunch or sitting on the “porcelain convienence” in the morning. Make notes in the margins of your books as you digest materials; Post-Its are good for this too.
Finally, congratulations on your acceptance and please keep posting so we can learn about Tulane and Nawlins. I know that you are in for the time of your life.
Natalie

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Things NOT to do: … Listen to your classmates brag about how little they study and how much they know. For some folks, this is their favorite way to let off steam.


Yes, I did that as an undergrad and paid, dearly. Liars.
Any advise on taking notes on a laptop? I’ve seen a few people do it, I’ve got one, but I don’t know the opinion of anyone who’s done it after an entire semester.

An interesting article from the New Yorker

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Dedicated to the well-rounded ideal—to be a valedictorian, after all, you must excel in classes that don’t interest you or are poorly taught—the valedictorians had “used their strong work ethic to pursue multiple academic and extracurricular interests. None was obsessed with a single talent area to which he or she subordinated school and social involvement.” This marks a difference, Arnold said, from what we know about many eminent achievers, who tend to evince an early passion for a particular field.

A few things -
If you are very lucky, your existing study techniques will work perfectly in med school. If not, don’t be afraid to try new things.
I have been collecting my classmates’ descriptions of their MS1 study habits. More than anything else, this project has convinced me that there is an enormous range of effective techniques. Some people just read over the lecture note packets multiple times and never take notes. Some people read them over only the night before the test. Some people preview the notes before every lecture, review after every lecture. Some make computerized notes. Some make flash cards.
I am one of those people who had to radically change my study methods. Early on, I was going for the big picture, conceptual understanding. I failed a bunch of exams, gave up and started to memorize details. Passed everything. I hate to think that anyone else will have to go this way, but the lesson is to not be attached to some ideal or preferred way of studying. Do whatever it takes.
The best advice I got was to study as hard as I needed to. At one point I was putting in about 50 hrs/week including lectures, but doing poorly. Other students said I was spending too much time studying, because they only needed a day or two before each exam. A senior faculty member told me that might not be true for me, and that putting in more time might serve me better. She was right.
Note cards/flash cards are about the only universally popular/common trick. Make them yourself. Use them at every opportunity, as Natalie recommended. The other technique that will pull you out of the hole is the preview/review method. It is time-consuming, but it may be necessary.
As far as taking lecture notes on my laptop: I am a very fast typist and am used to taking notes during meetings etc… I found that this method was useless for me in lectures; I would not really understand or remember the material afterwards. It was more helpful, with unfamiliar material, to set up a diagram with the basic concepts before lecture, then fill in the details during lecture, then write notecards later. However, I have classmates for whom computerized notes are very effective. It will really depend on you.
Good luck!

Thanks for the study advice! I will plan on buying a huge pack of flashcards before school even starts.
I am kind of starting to panic though. It’s less than two months before I start med school! My mind has been on completely different subjecÝs for months and months now–I HOPE I will be able to shift into gear when classes start.
Also, does anyone have specific advice about how to study during the first two years so as to be prepared for the USMLE? Are there study guides and stuff like there is for the MCAT? Is there any general strategy I should have for this?

USMLE First Aid and USMLE Step-Up are two great small review books. Use them as a guide to what you need to know, and if you can tie them in with your studies as you go, it’s a great help. For those who are PBL and are designing their own learning issues, during the second year it is really helpful to try and tailor your issues around subject matter found in these two books.
Other great study guides are Kaplan materials and Gold Standard tapes or CDs.
Now. About med school. Don’t panic!! Everybody feels that way before they start. If you want a head start, find a book of useful medical terminology and become comfortable with the prefixes, suffixes, and trunks of words you will see often during your school and career.
When school starts, stay focused and find the study techniques that work best for you. You’ll be okay! Best of luck as you start this exciting new venture!

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Thanks for the study advice! I will plan on buying a huge pack of flashcards before school even starts.
I am kind of starting to panic though. It’s less than two months before I start med school! My mind has been on completely different subjecÝs for months and months now–I HOPE I will be able to shift into gear when classes start.
Also, does anyone have specific advice about how to study during the first two years so as to be prepared for the USMLE? Are there study guides and stuff like there is for the MCAT? Is there any general strategy I should have for this?


Hi there,
I will repeat this over and over: “You STUDY for your coursework and you REVIEW for USMLE Step I.” You cannot review what you have not learned in the first place. Any medical school in the United States will present the more than enough material in coursework for USMLE Step I preparation so that you do not need to study for USMLE during your first and second years course time. You will have ample time between the end of second year and the first or second week of June (when 90% of US medical students take Step I) to review for Step I. In fact, you will become sick of reviewing if you even wait that long.
Your best prep for Step I is to master your coursework as much as possible. You will be building upon a foundation.It is totally counterproductive to buy a bunch of review books at the beginning of first year and start memorizing. In the end, you will have taken time away from your coursework and you will be redoing the review anyway.
First Aid for USMLE is a good guide to have and the only review type book that I would recommend purchasing. I strongly recommend that you throw your energies into your coursework and set up your review when the time comes (at the end of your second year).
I had a paid fellowship and had two weeks to prepare for Step I. That turned out to be enough. I suspect that with the four to six weeks that most people have, that you can more than review for Step I. Now, enjoy the rest of the summer because you are going to want this time back come fall.
Natalie

Natalie,
Thank you for your posts. I needed to read your advice in this area right now. I’m thick in the middle of second semester (Biochem, Neuro, and Physio) and am in the middle of re-vamping my study habits in order to perform better in the future.
Kathy

There are all sorts of things I could say about this topic, but the most important one is this:
The biggest barrier to academic success for me and for other students I know is not cognition, it’s mood. Depression, irritability, disorganized mania or any other psychiatric challenge will knock you down much harder and longer than your approach to study cards. Most importantly this kind of challenge will make it more difficult for you to evaluate your own failures and correct them. You will blame intrinsic and unchangeable factors for your failures (i.e, you will start thinking you’re stupid, your professors are mean, your professors are stupid, you don’t care how you do, you’re not going to be a doctor anyway, and/or no one understands the trouble you’ve seen, and so on.)
Depression is extremely common among medical students and physicians, and suicidality is notably higher than in the general population. But let’s start talking about something that might wake us up to doing something about this–aside from the inherent dangers of depression, the internal suffering that it causes, and the tragedy of suicide, depression really cuts into your USMLE success. If you are thinking about how worthless you are you will not be able to learn the intricacies of arterial supply to the colon because you won’t be able to get past all the st in your brain. Deal with that and you’ll realize that roughly speaking it’s SMA to the first two-thirds and IMA to the last third, and that the splenic flexure is a watershed between those two regions. The blood flows and the st just keeps moving through and heading out the distal end. Now, there are all kinds of things about ischemic colitis and approaches to colon surgery that follow from this arrangement of arterial supply that doubtlessly Nat could tell us a lot about, but you won’t be able to learn the anatomy that allows you to hear, understand and digest the interesting things Nat might tell you unless the starting point (the arteries) are just an interesting few facts to be learned and remembered. Interesting facts, that is, instead of barriers, walls, symbols of what a stupid schmuck you are. Depression, of course, weights you towards the latter sort of analysis.
So, I’ve been known to recommend counseling for all sorts of problems on this forum–but I have a method to my madness. I recommend it because for otherwise high-functioning people placed in a situation that is designed to inspire self-doubt and emotional instability (i.e., medical school) it is often just the thing. Antidepressants and other meds can also play an important role in getting through medical school for many people.
So, think about study cards; concept maps; and anything else. (God knows I’m still working on developing study skills that are better than the ones I keep muddling through with.) But above all, take care of yourself so you will have the emotional wherewithal to get to the place where the difference between concept maps and flash cards is your biggest challenge.
–joe