How do top medical students study? How do I avoid burnout? Do I really need 13 hours a day?

Think of your learning process as river, adding in visual, kinesthetic, details, and big vision from tributaries before flowing into a much larger body of water we can call true understanding

I’ve worked with medical students and students wanting to go into medical school and I think the biggest change we see in our students that go from underperforming to excelling is they:

  1. Have a strategy and get comfortable with it changing over time

  2. Understand how to learn

  3. Accept the stages of learning

Have a strategy and get comfortable with it changing over time:

Most medical students come in ready to brute force every detail into their brains using some combination of anki cards, video lectures, and practice questions. These are all good tools to use to study, but this is not a strategy. It’s the difference between asking yourself “what” and “how”. Many students have no problem figuring out the what. They learn about different tools they want to use either by talking to other students or researching online, etc. but few actually sit down and plan the how.

Strategy formulation is the process of using available knowledge to write your goals and then identify the actionable steps to reach those goals. In my opinion this is the most important step. When using your available knowledge you have to decide what you can realistically devote to the process and what are your current resources. You don’t have to study 13 hours a day to be successful and that may not be feasible if you have a family or just don’t have the stamina to keep it up. Maybe you don’t have an endless budget for study tools so you will rely mostly on free tools. Nothing wrong with that either.

Once you’ve challenged yourself through this assessment, write goals by using a SMART goal setting template. Remember if you look at your goal and think “I don’t know where to start” then you haven’t broken it down into its simplest form. Keep it simple to avoid the overwhelm later. An example can be:


Get an A in pathology.


Finish reading chapter 1 of Robbins by October 12 by reading on subsection a day. I will make a flash card that shows the structure of the normal anatomy, the function of the organ, and gives an overview of the related pathology and how it changes either normal structure and/or function. Success is a 10% improvement in the number of practice questions I get correct compared to the previous week

I know what I’m using: Flash cards, book, and practice questions

I know when I need to finish: October 12

I know how I will measure if my strategy is effective: 10% increase in number of correct questions

That’s how you work SMARTer and not harder.

Understand how you learn

There is no one size fits all approach to learning. Some suggestions:

  • What is my learning preference?

There is strong research showing that understanding your learning preference could actually help you in some courses like anatomy.

Some of us are social learners while others of us find it incredibly distracting to even be in a classroom with other people. Both are totally fine, but you have to know that about yourself to plan accordingly. You can discover your learning preference and track it with others going into medicine by going here: GABA health careers | Mentors | Tutors | Coaches

  • How can this tool allow me to get the best from the way I naturally learn? How can this tool help me strengthen the ways of learning that don’t come naturally?

Most students stop at big picture vs detailed, visual vs auditory, but learning preference goes much deeper than that. Many of us switch between these categories when we’re learning different things. Instead, try to think of your learning process as river, adding in visual, kinesthetic, details, and big vision from tributaries before flowing into a much larger body of water we can call true understanding.

Accept the stages of learning

Believe it or not confusion is a very important stage in your learning process. Ever heard of the Gestalt principles? Your brain tries to put things into patterns. It’s why we can see constellations or clouds formed into the larger structures we are familiar with. The secret is that while this is happening many of experience the sensation of confusion.

While you’re laying on your back trying to figure out if a cloud looks like bunny ears or a peace sign, this doesn’t alarm you. You flow through the confusion state and eventually you see the image clearer, but for medical students being confused becomes highly emotional and political. And for good reason. There are attendings and professors that will penalize students for “not knowing”, but not knowing is actually a very important step in the journey to knowing. It involves your brain taking what it does not, forming relationships, and helping us predict the outcome. We can then refute or confirm that outcome with further study.

Students that perform get to a place where they know they can’t understand everything right away and that helps them sustain the confidence to keep learning later.

I’ve said all this and the truth is there are top students that just brute force their way through without any strategy. I challenge you to expand your own goal to be about being a top student and being healthy mental/emotionally. The student that just white knuckles through will be successful, but at what cost? By using the above methodology you can be a top student and maintain your sanity.

I hope that helps!

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