How to Not Fail at Medical School: Part 1- Peer Advice

I tried handwritten notes, flashcards made by others, popular mnemonics, and tons of textbook-video lecture combinations. Sometimes being unprepared is the problem, sometimes just not preparing properly can be just as devastating.

Nobody wants to fail. This concern is even stronger for those finally aspiring to their dream of a very selective and expensive profession. The best advice I can give any current or aspiring medical student is don’t listen to anyone else’s advice on how to study. Now, here’s my advice…on how not to fail.

We all learn a bit differently. I’m not talking about “learning strategies” and “multiple intelligence theory”. Each learner well be able to comprehend and consolidate into memory different amounts of information not only by the media in which it is presented, but many other variables as well.

Is it a topic you have familiarity with previously? It is a subject or teacher you enjoy? Are you distracted by other ongoings in our life at the moment?

For these intrinsic differences between medical students, only you can tell where your strengths and weaknesses may lay. Anyone can search the medical student forums and receive an overwhelming amount of useless recommendations that worked well for someone else (or so they say).

Even if they “received a 270+ on my Step score” does not mean they know the first thing about how YOU learn, not to mention their biases are just as strong as anyone’s when it comes to judging what effect a resource had on their scores.

Experimentation and Peer Advice

You may have experimented with a few study skills and strategies during your undergraduate studies, or maybe you skated by without these important techniques. Even if you have a few, this should be an ever evolving process. New courses, course-loads, and degrees of concentration needed for different medical disciplines may require a learner to continuously update what methods work for what class. There’s a balance, however, between updating your methods and constantly starting from scratch and re-training oneself.

I wasted a lot of time over updating my study strategies. I couldn’t find one that was the “most efficient”, so I would try many. Though this can be beneficial at the beginning of a new term in order to see what skills work best in which course FOR YOU, this can easily be overdone. If you find yourself mid-way through the semester and still without a steady learning strategy, it may be time to seek help.

The peers in your class are not always likely to have any great insights as they are struggling along side you. The school may offer counseling services, or you may consider asking an instructor you trust. However, my personal opinion is that the best people to consult are those a few months to a year ahead of you in a program (this depends on annual v. term program start times). They have recent enough experience to know what to concentrate on, know the instructors, and there hasn’t been so much time that has passed they may have forgotten what is crucial to know at this stage in your education.

I know, I know. Earlier I stated not to trust others advice. Though this is most certainly true for online advice (especially when the source is from a different institute), there is still caution in WHO you choose to ask for tips from within your own institute. Make sure to pick someone that is academically successful and honest, even if they are not someone you would normally find yourself talking to otherwise. Asking those who are easy to talk to (those you may even have the occasional beer with) will likely get you some solid opinions, but not always the best advice.

Finding a Mentor

One difficult skill that can benefit you not only as a student, but as a professional as well, is seeking mentorship. Though small business owners can find a free SCORE mentor, I have yet to find an adequate network for this in medical education: and understandably so. Medical students can be type-A, aggressive, and persistent buggers that a mentor may find overwhelming at times. So, if you do find one, be sure to show gratitude and patients to their sage advice.

You can find a few tips to searching for the right mentor at this AAMC article and for current physicians the AAFP offers some tips, but none of these form a network of designated mentors that students can utilize. There may be one resource from the ACP Mentorship Database, but I have not heard one way or the other the effectiveness of this database and it may require a membership fee. So, for the time being, you may wish to turn to a respectable instructor or upper-classmate.

The Verdict

Having a good plan “and sticking to it” may also require many alterations along the way. However, be cautious about too many alterations that distract you from your main goals and waste precious study time. If possible, find a qualified and experienced adviser or mentor when you hit a wall. And believe me, this can happen often! This is the first bit of skill-building advice that will be offered in the coming months so keep checking back for more resources to help you Not Fail in Medical School!

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