Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from medical school, residency and beyond.

Study Skills – Part IV

On the first day of your class, you will be issued a syllabus that outlines the professor’s grading policy, what will be expected of your in the class and a lecture/test schedule. Once you have that document in your hands, you can begin to set up your schedule for the rest of the semester. Ideally, you may want to purchase a very large desk blotter but the calender in MS Outlook (or something like it) will do just fine. On that calender, you want to place the date and time of every lecture, the topic,  and the required reading. You also want to place the dates of your exams and note the dates of 3 weeks to exam, 2 weeks to exam and 1 week to exam.  Any papers that are required should be treated like exams with 3 weeks to paper due, 2 weeks to paper due, 1 week to paper due.

 If you are taking a lab course, you need to add the dates and times of your various lab sessions to your calender along with the topics of each lab. If you list your labs by subject matter of each experiment, you can relate these to your lecture material for better integration of the course subject matter. If your course has a recitation section, be sure to list this too as you do not want to skip any recitation sections. These sections can be invaluable when it comes to test preparation time.

Once you have set your master schedule for the semester, fill in your schedule for the week. This means filling in how much time it takes for you to get to school, the times of your classes and labs, your study time – remember one hour of study for each hour of lecture and 45 minutes of study for each hour of lab-your meal times, your work out times and your bedtime. If you are using a computer-based program for your daily schedule, print out your next day’s schedule when you are studying the night before. Look at it and be sure that you have organized and prepared for the classes that are on this schedule.

Class preparation means look at the subject matter of the upcoming lecture. Review the assigned readings – pay close attention to any bold words, headings and topics-review the syllabus and do any assigned problems. If you have difficulty with any of the problems, put notes or checks where you had difficulty so that you can walk into your professor’s office during office hours and get your questions answered. Don’t wait until after the lecture to work pre-assigned problems. Most of the time, anything that you had difficulty with, can be answered in class. If you wait until after class, you will be behind. Attempt assigned problems before your lecture.

Listen to your lecture and take notes only on the things that you know are not in the syllabus or text book. (See my previous study skills posts for how I would cut my textbooks). Take notes on things that help you to understand the important points of the lecture or clarify concepts that you previously did not understand. As I have outlined in other study skills posts, I would take notes on the left side of my notebook only using the right 2/3rds of the page. The left 1/3 of the page would be left blank so that I could write in summaries of the notes or definitions of terms that were important. On the right pages of my notebook, I would recopy notes that were taken in a hurry so that they were legible. I would also place notes and information from my text book.

Most of the time, I took lecture notes on my laptop computer or on looseleaf notebook paper. I discovered the utility of using notebooks that were designed for law students (summary paper) and then resorted to making my own version of these summary pages. I would print out my notes and clip them into a looseleaf notebook so that I could highlight them or make notes to myself as I studied. I would review the previous lecture, study the current lecture and preview the upcoming lecture doing the text readings.

As I stated under Organic Chemistry, I never walked into any lab unprepared. My lab prep consisted of knowing the purpose of the experiment; how long each step would take; what data needed to be obtained and what conclusions/observations I would be expected to make. I kept a sticky note in my lab manual or notebook with the steps of the experiment briefly outlined so that I could refer to my note. This make any lab write-ups pretty easy to finish. If there were pre-lab exercises, these were done before I attended lab. I would also consult my textbook if the material covered in lab didn’t correspond with the lecture (most of the time the lab material was a bit ahead of the lecture).

For courses like English and Math, I made sure that I had a solid reading schedule that kept me ahead of the class. Again, I would have problems worked before coming to class. In English, I would make sure that I had thoroughly covered the readings taking notes as to tone, argument and subject matter as I moved along. Again, sticky notes were good for making extra notes in my reading books. I could past them in and add them to my professor’s notes after the lecture.

Soon after each lecture, I would quickly review the lectured material filling in any words that I had left out or drawing arrows to link materials. I would make any quick notes of things that needed to be clarified during office hours. In terms of Math and English, I would have circles around any problems that I had attempted but was not able to complete before class so that I could get my questions/problems taken care of. If these were not taken care of in the lecture, they would be taken care of during office hours.

My professors got to know me pretty well because I would attend office hours even if I was sure that I had mastered the material. It doesn’t hurt to have a “tune-up” and a “knowledge-check” even if you are sure that you are understanding everything. Sometimes these “tune-up” sessions would give me valuable insight as to what to emphasize for the exams and what to place less emphasis on. I figured that if I was paying thousands in tuition for each course, I was going to get every bit of instruction out of the course that was available. It also gave the professor a chance to get to know me which was good when I requested a letter of recommendation for graduate/medical school. I always received high praise for my business-like attitude and organization of my coursework.

Spending so much time preparing and previewing for each class made studying and review for each exam practically effortless. By the time the exam rolled around, I had been over each lecture a minimum of three times. I reviewed the previous weeks lectures on the weekend. By staying ahead of the professor and the class, I always had plenty of time to integrate the materials for every class. My attitude toward university coursework (honed by loads of experience in secondary school) was that my “job” was to master this material. I needed to thoroughly master my coursework because it was background for my graduate studies and I wanted the best undergraduate education that my university offered. 

Don’t get the idea that I spent every waking hour in front of a book. I used my university time to attend lectures and seminars on any subject matter that was of interest to me. I went to lectures on the Holocaust, aerospace engineering, mathematical theories, social theories, political science in addition to departmental seminars in biology, chemistry and physics. I obtained a departmental seminar listing during the first week of class and added these to my schedule. Even if you do not completely understand everything in a seminar, you can pick up valuable experience and broaden your knowledge base for free. These seminars are also a great opportunity to get to meet the faculty and learn their research interests.

As a medical student, I tried to attend grand rounds in Surgery, Medicine and Pathology as much as my schedule would permit. These grand rounds became invaluable for USMLE (all steps) as the speakers always presented both the basic and clinical science of their discipline. It was my interest in every aspect of medicine that lead me into academics and today, continues to allow me to keep up with basic science as well as clinical science.

As a student of science and medicine, you have to be quite proactive and a bit of a self-learner when it comes to the mastery of your craft. If you take the time to start keeping up with the literature and attending seminars/grand rounds while you are an undergraduate, you can carry those skills into graduate/medical school. You cannot afford to be a passive learner relying on the professor’s lectures for your entire education. I totally attribute my performance on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) and my specialty board/in-training exams to my attendance at all of those seminars and grand rounds. By listening to the “cutting-edge” leaders in various subjects, you learn to analyze information and you learn to present information logically. These skills are free and the seminars are often free and easy to take advantage of.

Finally, approach your studies as you job. If you are working and attending class, you need to be organized but you need to do both well. I always recommend that students who work, need to take less hours. It is not useful to load up on semester hours only to do poorly or mediocre in the coursework. Take less hours in the first place, do well, and if you find that you have free time, use that time to attend seminars/grand rounds. If you are a full-time student with no employment, use some of your free time for seminars and experiences that widen your educational experience.  You only get once chance at your university experience and you need to be sure that you are getting the most out of every class for you money. Make your studies of prime importance and be proactive about getting your needs met.  


31 July, 2007 - Posted by | academics, medical school coursework, medical school preparation, study skills


  1. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your wisdom with people like me who long to be the best in medicine. Thanks for everything.

    Comment by The Comeback Kid | 15 September, 2007 | Reply

  2. I just wanted to thank you for your blog. As an incoming first year med student I have been finding your post interesting, insightful, and invaluable. Please continue posting.


    Comment by Moshe | 2 August, 2007 | Reply

  3. In my preview reading, I didn’t take very many notes. I basically read the material to get an idea of what points might be emphasized in lecture.

    When I heard the lecture, I would only take notes on things that were not in the book but were mentioned in lecture. When the lecture was done, I would do a quick correct/fill-in and leave the critical reading/study for home that night.

    During the critical read/study, I would learn the material circling and highlighting things that were strongly emphasized in lecture. I would connect the present lecture with the previous lecture before I headed into the preview stage again.

    With the review/study/preview, I didn’t miss much in terms of the text or notes. I never had too many pages of notes from the lecture because I highlighted or circled things in my book too.

    The aligning came with doing summaries of the important points or concepts.Does this make more sense??

    Comment by drnjbmd | 1 August, 2007 | Reply

  4. Well, thank you again. I have a few questions regarding taking notes for the readings and lecture. It seems like you may have posted this in response to others’ questions, in an attempt to clarify. So, I do apologize for continuing to throw questions at you.
    From your wording, it seems like when you did your preview reading you didn’t take many notes. Did you “review the assigned reading/do any assigned problems” for the following day’s lectures, reading critically/actively, then take lecture notes on the left side (or back side of loose leaf paper), then review and edit your notes, and then, when going back over your reading from the night before (highlights, notes, etc. included), add relevant notes from the text. Or, am I incorrect, and you did make the time to take notes for preview reading material? I’m confused as to how you were able to align notes from reading (right side of notebook/front side of looseleaf paper) with lecture notes if the reading notes were already taken (say, a full page of notes on the Krebb cycle from your reading material would not align with only 3 lines in lecture notes). Also, if I were to only add reading notes that seemed relevant to the lecture, I would be afraid of not including some textbook details that might be included on the test.
    Basically, I’m wondering to what extent there is time to take notes on reading material, and then the best method for integrating reading and lecture notes. I hope you get a chance to respond to this long comment. Thank you drnjbmd!

    Comment by nmwitty | 1 August, 2007 | Reply

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