Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from undergradute, graduate school, medical school, residency and beyond.

Summer School

For many pre-medical students, summer courses look like a great way to get ahead of the curve and fast-track through your introductory sciences, math or general educational requirements. For some medical students, summer coursework is an opportunity to shore up deficiencies or remediate coursework from the previous year before academic progress is granted. In both the case of the undergraduate and the medical student, there are characteristics of summer coursework that need to kept in mind.

Summer courses at any level go very fast. There simply are not enough weeks during the summer months to allow the same pace as regular-term coursework. Keeping this in mind, prepare to work faster and longer to master the same amount of material as a regular-term course. In the case of repeating a medical course -or remediation of previous course work-you are expected to be able to move through the material faster because this is the second time you will have covered this material. In the case of an undergraduate course, the summer student has to be dedicated and disciplined during a time when many of your friends are enjoying a much needed vacation.

My rules for mastery of coursework apply for summer coursework but let’s call the rules “course mastery on steroids” because you have to devote more time and cover more material at each sitting. There is little time to allow the material to “digest” before you move onto another topic or lecture. To this end, your previewing and reviewing become more focused in addition, the student has to be more adept at moving through the material at a more rapid pace. If mastery of concepts comes slowly, summer school is not a very good idea.

In the case of the remediating medical student, this being the second time through gives you an added advantage in the sense that you already have good insight into what you need to master. Each time the material is presented, you will gain new insight. This doesn’t mean that doing a summer medical school class is going to be wonderful and a “cake walk” but it does mean that you will likely know your remediated material in great depth for your board exams. This is not a bad trade-off for missing your vacation time and staying with the rest of your medical school class.

I never recommend that pre-medical students take pre-med coursework during a summer session. Summer courses move so rapidly that there often is not enough time for good integration and mastery of the concepts in sufficient depth for application on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Good summer courses are English courses, History courses, physical education coursework and math coursework. By taking these types of courses during the summer, a pre-medical student can get pre-medical course pre-recs out of the way or get degree requirements out of way allowing more time for concentration of major subjects.

Other great summer coursework for pre-medical students are “immersion” type courses such as marine biology (on a ship at sea), summer semester in Europe or South America, or summer research. Being able to devote your attention to one subject in total immersion can greatly enrich your college experience. Many undergraduate institutions offer immersion language coursework over a summer or opportunities to work with world-class researchers during a summer session.

Summer Course Study Strategies
As soon as you receive your course syllabus, reading/lecture schedule, sit down and plot your study schedule. You need to figure out how much time you will have to devote to study in order to cover the material. A good rule of thumb is two hours of study time for every hour of lecture time (same as for regular session). Since summer lecture are often longer (or take place five times a week instead of two or three), you have to block out your study time without exception.

Be sure that you have a strong and organized approach to mastery of your material. Having a buddy in the same class to study and work with becomes invaluable especially when you quiz each other and explain concepts to each other. It is also a good idea to meet with your instructor on a regular basis to be sure of your understanding of your coursework. Since summer courses go so fast, you do now want to “dig into a hole” that you are constantly attempting to pull out of. Chances are not good for pulling up, if you get into trouble on a test.

Because of the heavy concentration and course time commitment, working will be very difficult with summer courses. Unless you are taking a physical education course or a performance course with minimal prep time, working will be very hard. The effort that it will take to keep up with your course materials will generally rule out employment except for either a Saturday or Sunday on the weekend (but likely not both). If you need money, opt not to register for a summer course unless you have a job that permits long hours of down-time regularly. Even then, attempting to work and do a summer course will be very difficult.

If your family (or you) have an elaborate vacation planned, do not expect that you will be able to “miss a couple of days” of your summer course. You should have enough time for a weekend at the beach or to take a short trip but missing a day of summer work is equivalent to missing a week of regular session work. Again, opt not to take a summer course if you NEED your vacation time. Taking the time off is a better use of your summer instead of attempting to take a summer course and doing poorly because you had to go on vacation. If summer school is your plan, it IS your vacation.


29 May, 2007 - Posted by | academics, study skills, summer school


  1. Thanks a lot for your encouraging response. It does give me some hope, which is really what i dont have now 😦 Thanks again.

    Comment by sandhya | 5 July, 2007 | Reply

  2. Remediating physiology over the summer won’t make much difference in terms of you getting into a good residency as long as your board scores are good and you do well during third year.

    Be sure to take your board exams where you feel that you are well-prepared. This does not mean that you need to wait until the last minute but it does mean that you want to set a strong review schedule and stick with it.

    After Step I, make sure that you do well during third year. You need to get the best grades possible in every required clerkship (not just the one that you are going into). From there, you can get good letters of recommendation which mention your strong work ethic.

    Armed with good board scores, good letters and good third year grades,you should be fine.

    Comment by drnjbmd | 5 July, 2007 | Reply

  3. Hi, your post was really encouraging to read. I’m a first year medical student who is (un)fortunately remediating physiology course over this summer. It sure does suck to be studying while my friends are on vacation. But as you said, it might help me with the boards.

    I was wondering if you knew anything about how this would affect me when time comes for me to apply for residency. Would this make it hard for me to get into a decent residency program? I’m not thinking about derm or ortho or anything difficult like that as of now. I’m worried and quite sleepless when I think of myself being rejected from a residency program because I failed this course now. Thanks a lot for your time. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Comment by sandhya | 4 July, 2007 | Reply

  4. I recommend that you look at the Non-Traditional Forum on Student Doctor Network then click on the Forums link from the main page. There are loads of stories there about people pursing medicine with children.

    In short, take your time and make sure that your coursework is excellent. Focus on your study skills and develp a deep understanding of the material that you are studying.

    You need a bachelor’s degree (any major as long as you take the pre-med courses) and you need to develp the study and reading skills that will enable you to do well on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Again take your time and do quality work.

    Comment by drnjbmd | 12 June, 2007 | Reply

  5. Hello, my name is Shelli and I am 25 and married with 2 kids – their ages are 4 and 2. I have always wanted to study medicine but I took time off from my goals to have children. I am very excited because this fall both of them will be attending school, which will give me more time to committ to my studies. I was wondering if you could give me an idea of just how much time will need to be devoted to school over the next few years. I am still taking undergrad courses which up until now has been 2 night classes each semester. One step at a time . . . I am looking for a little insight on what it really takes to follow my dream

    Comment by Shelli | 12 June, 2007 | Reply

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