Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from medical school, residency and beyond.

Study Skills – Part III

In this short essay, I am going to tell you something that I didn’t do that I should have done. It’s called “Learning by Experience”. When I started graduate school, I vowed to get myself into good physical condition. I had a few extra pounds but nothing that was morbid obesity just about ten extra pounds. I had been a middle distance runner (10K) off and on with my best mile time being 6:25 and my best 10K time being 40 minutes but working in the chemistry lab and getting ready for graduate school had eroded most of my base-line mileage. I saw the pounds creeping on and I decided to “stem the tide” right then and there.

I joined a gym where loads of guys from the U.S. Navy JAG office worked out. Soon I was grunting and sweating with the boys. Those extra ten pounds quickly melted off and I would run 4 to 5 miles daily. My flexibility increased and my brain loved the extra perfusion of oxygen from those daily runs either outside on the bike paths or inside on a treadmill. My workout partners, all JAG guys, introduced me to weight training. Soon I was benching 125lbs and leg pressing 400lbs.

I loved swaggering into the gym in my baggy gym pants and muscle shirt. I would hop on the stationary bicycle for a 6-minute warm up. After a few stretches, I would start my circuit working legs first then arms and finishing up with abs. I wore a red scarf on my head and definitely sweat as much as the guys. When I reached 80lbs on the bench press, I earned a spotter. Nothing gave me more satisfaction then when the guys and I would take turns on the chin-up bar. (No other women came near the bar). My biceps and triceps bulged. I would put 400 lbs on the leg press and just work away with some nice hamstring stretches in between.

After my weight-lifting, I would take a soak in the Jacuzzi and then a dip in the pool. I am not much of a lap swimmer but swimming a few laps would bring my body temperature down and would keep my back stretched out nicely. My entire gym routine took about 2 hours from start to finish. I would get a protein shake in the juice bar and head back to my lab feeling powerful and refreshed.

The best thing about being in such great shape was that the discipline of working out carried over into all aspects of my life. I slept better at night with no stiffness in the morning. I easily ran flights of steps and could carry heavy loads with no problem. My clothes fit great. I had a solid study plan that had gotten me a 4.0 in my graduate studies. While I ran, I thought of new experiments and analyzed my data in my mind. Though my diet was not bad (I am not much of a junk food eater), when I was working out, it was excellent. I ate plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits and little meat.

With all of my energy, I was able to awaken in the morning, run a couple of miles with the Marines from the barracks down the street, and then bike 6 miles to school in the dawn. I would check my experiments and review my lectures for the day. I would then shower (I really sweat when I bike); change into my suit and lab coat, and then do my morning lectures. During lunch, I would hit the gym. After lunch, I would study and prepare more experiments or go to meetings. This was the routine of an assistant professor.

When I decided to attempt medical school, I knew that I needed to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). I had far more coursework between a double major in biology and chemistry with double minors in physics and math. My graduate work was in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology so those subjects were well covered. I knew that I needed to brush up on my verbal reasoning skills so I bought a review book and worked some problems daily. I also worked on my Physics too since it had been five years since I had taken General Physics. I was solid on the Quantum Mechanics but Classical Mechanics and Optics needed review.

My graduate comprehensive exams were also looming that summer too. We would be examined over the course of two days with eight hours of testing on both days. I studied for my comprehensives and studied for the MCAT at the same time. This turned out to be a great strategy. I simply made a review schedule topic by topic and checked off as I reviewed each concept. As a poor graduate student, I couldn’t afford a prep course so I purchased ($35) a huge review book called Flowers and Silver. It was money well spent.

After completing my comprehensives in June and getting my AMCAS application done, I knew I had one month to prepare for the August MCAT. I had stuck to my study schedule and my workout schedule. The funny thing was that none of my graduate school colleagues, except my best friend, knew that I was even interested in medical school. My best friend in graduate school was a neurosurgery resident who was working on his Ph.D. We had been study partners for the comprehensive exams.

On the morning of the MCAT, I hopped on my bicycle and rode the 6 miles to my testing center. It was great rolling off the hills at top speed and feeling the early morning wind in my face. My legs were strong and I imagined myself “smashing” that exam as I pumped up and down the street. I stopped into my favorite coffee shop for a morning cup of fresh “joe” and a high-five from the shop’s owner (a little Korean lady who always offered me encouragement).

I stood in line, dressed in my bike shorts and muscle shirt with my helmet and gloves. I stretched some but other than that, I was pretty relaxed. I could feel the tension all around me. As I got to the test room, I hoped for a seat next to the window because outside, there was a beautiful pink blossomed tree. I knew that I would be able to look up and out the window for a little mental break if the test was too much. My prayers were answered as I took my seat next to the window.

I moved through the Verbal Reasoning. My strategy was to do the passages that I found least interesting first and the things I loved last. I paced myself reading the questions first and marking the answers as I read through the passages. I paid close attention to punctuation, tone and critiqued in the margins of the test booklet. Soon this portion of the test was behind me. About ten minutes into the test, three young men, arose from their seats and left the test center. Was I missing something? The entire test went fine for me with my being able to figure out the “hook” behind each question. It was more like a game than anything else.

At the end of the test, I rode to my lab, checked my experiments and said a “thank-you” to God for giving me a nice day to ride and a clear head. From then on, I was stayed in great shape and kept working out clear up until the last day of medical school orientation. When classes started, I started studying and eating. My study group would feast on Nacho Cheese Doritos as we quizzed each other. By the end of first year, I had gained 30 pounds. My teaching over the summer and second year packed on another 20. By the end of medical school, I had gained 65+pounds and carried that weight around until my third year of residency.

After three years of standing and huffing up stairs, I vowed to get the weight off. I didn’t have two hours to work out daily but I made time for an hour workout even if I lost sleep. On my call days, I would walk the steps. Soon I had a good aerobic base but I am still working on getting my weight lifting back up to my level before. Even today, I work out at least four to five times weekly doing something. My gym opens at 5:00AM so I can get an hour in on the elliptical trainer if necessary.

In short, in medical school, I let my fitness level drop and endangered my health. I am fortunate to be able to get back to my previous level of fitness though the weight is not coming off as fast as I would like. I know that I won’t lose as much weight until I can get my running base back and I won’t pound my knees until I have lost another 20 pounds. That day is coming though.

In short, get a good fitness plan today, if you don’t already have one. It can be as simple as a 30-minute walk after dinner. Keep yourself in good physical condition and take an hour for yourself because you deserve that time. Physical exercise drops your stress level and makes everything in your life hum. I am having some “zone days” now that my physical condition is getting better and better. Having a good physical conditioning strategy is as important to your studies as your textbooks. Get moving.

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27 May, 2007 - Posted by | MCAT, MCAT preparation, stress reduction, study skills

2 Comments »

  1. You most certainly are a very special lady. Your selfless acts of nurturing us premeds and others through this time has definitely inspired, informed, and empowered many. Thank you for I have been following your comments on SDN for quite some time. By the way, happy belated birthday !!!!

    I am a graduate student at a midwestern university studying anatomy, graduating next year, applying for med school entering class 2008.

    Comment by petite elite | 18 June, 2007 | Reply

  2. I really enjoyed all three “study skills” writings. Thanks for taking the time to put this together and sharing it with us.

    Comment by Tim | 27 May, 2007 | Reply


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