5 Non-Medicine Books to Read Before Starting Medical School

Chris Hornung, MD
6 min readFeb 14, 2024

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This post is part of How to med school for competitive specialties, click the hyperlink to see my other posts in the series

Let’s face the facts. Medical school is a busy time when most of your reading is not going to be for leisure. I was able to carve out time to read throughout my first two years of medical school, but that was only because I love reading and made it a priority to read for 15–30 minutes before I went to bed each night. By the time clerkships rolled around during my third year of medical school, I no longer had any time for leisurely reading. If you like to read, try to get your reading time in before you enroll in your first year. There is a plethora of discussion of medically related books in discussion across blogs to motivate pre-meds and medical students to pursue their dreams of becoming physicians, and I have certainly read my fair share of them. In this post, however, I want to highlight some non-medical books I read before medical school that I found to be particularly beneficial to my time as a student.

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

1. The White Coat Investor — James M Dahle, MD

Prospective physicians don’t go into medicine for the money. However, that doesn’t change the fact that medical school and a career in medicine have financial repercussions that need to be considered. Most professionals making a salary similar to a physician do so after many years of promotions and learning how to appropriately manage their assets. Physicians, on the other hand, make a large yearly salary with little to know financial management training or experience. Dr. Dahle, outlines a wide range of financial topics relevant to both healthcare students and professionals from personal finance, investing, insurance, student loans, retirement, and taxes. The book is not an end-all-be-all for being financially literate but provides a framework of information and concepts to topics professionals of the healthcare industry are rarely if ever, exposed to during their education. It is a perfect book to read before you begin your medical school journey because it creates a roadmap for you to make financially responsible decisions throughout your education, training, and early career.

2. Ultralearning — Scott Young

While I was in college, I realized that I wanted to learn more than what I was being taught in my courses. I was very interested in the science courses that I was taking and knew that they would prepare me well for my application to medical school. However, I also realized that there are many other important subjects from courses that I was not taking that would make me a more well-rounded person with a better understanding of how the whole world works. This realization led me on a self-learning journey in which I started studying finance, economics, politics, history, and other subjects. Before I dove into those subjects though, I read this book by Scott Young. Ultralearning describes the stories and tactics of multiple individuals who aspire to reach astounding educational goals, such as developing a video game from scratch to commercial success to becoming fluent in a language in three months. In all of the examples given in the book, the sheer volume of information people can learn in a short period is both fascinating and inspiring. The situations within Ultralearning and medical training are very analogous. Learning in medical school is often described as “drinking water through a firehouse” and the time to do so is sometimes as little as one month. I took the techniques described in the book: metalearning, focus, directness, drill, retrieval, feedback, retention, intuition, and experiment and applied them to my medical studies. I have written about them in some of my previous blog posts. One. Two. Three. I believe the teachings of the book will be even more important as I begin my residency training. While medical school is structured with lectures, exams, and quizzes; learning in residency (and honestly clerkship rotations during medical school) requires intrinsic motivation to learn the relevant material. Ultralearning provides a framework to learn both effectively and efficiently.

3. Deep Work — Cal Newport

In many ways, this book is a great complement to Ultralearning. Deep Work can be considered an expansion on Ultralearning’s theme of “Focus”. Cal Newport provides a background of the neuroscience of focus and distraction to set up practical methods of structuring your daily schedule to maximize productivity. He describes concepts such as the Pomodoro method, turning off phone and computer notifications, and blocking out time in your schedule to work on particular tasks, subjects that I have mentioned in some of my previous blog posts. Figuring out how to be more efficient with my time in medical school is in part what led me to begin my time-tracking project. I determined that I was spending too much time on passive learning (a big no-no per the lessons of Ultralearning) during my first year of medical school and altered my study habits thereafter.

4. Who Moved My Cheese — Spencer Johnson, MD

Who Moved My Cheese is a parable of how to deal with changes and adversity. Four mice are set in a maze trying to find cheese. Different scenarios play out for each of the mice and they have various responses and successes in each scenario. Some of the key takeaways of the book are: getting out of your comfort zone makes adapting to change easier, the fastest way to change is to laugh at your own folly — then you can let go and quickly move on, and you have to find your own way, beyond your comforts and past your fears. No one else can do it for you, or talk you into it. You have to see the advantage of changing yourself.

Medical school is a time of many changes and challenges that will require you to adapt to succeed. I believe the underlying message of this book is the importance of a growth mindset. Not everything is going to go your way, whether in medical school or life, but you can always control your response to the situation, learn from each failure, and get up every time you get knocked down.

5. Thinking Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman

Medicine is both an art and a science. In my opinion, it leans more towards art because its practitioners are humans with their own biases. Thinking Fast and Slow is written by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and describes the many errors in human thinking such as attention, norms, heuristics, fallacies, overconfidence, and more. The book is an eye-opening and humbling work that will allow you to improve your decision-making and how you interact with both your colleagues and patients.

Bonus

Anki Manual

Anki is a spaced-repetition software app that is widely used among medical students to help them retain information in a scientifically proven manner. I used the software extensively throughout medical school and recommend incoming medical students consider using it as well. I am generally a fan of Anki because:

  1. it offloads the need to decide what to study each day from your brain. Once you unlock cards, it automatically creates your study schedule.
  2. Once you have unlocked and learned new cards, it preferentially shows you the information you are not comfortable with.

All that said, Anki is not the most user-friendly software. There is a learning curve to using it efficiently and I recommend you climb that curve before you jump into your classes. I chose to read the manual and practice using Anki before medical school and I believe it paid dividends for me in the long run. Anecdotally, some of my classmates tried to learn it during the first couple of weeks of medical school and were stressed by needing to learn course material, acclimate to a new environment, and also figure out how to use a software system. Do yourself a favor and do your research about Anki before classes start. If you don’t want to start hammering away on medical material before starting med school, consider using Anki to learn a new language!

Conclusion

I hope you find this post useful in coming up with a reading list before you start your medical school journey. If you have any further suggestions please comment or find me via my social media links below. Happy reading and best of luck on your career journey!

Find me

LinkedIn, X, Google Scholar

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Chris Hornung, MD

A twin in the Twin Cities. EVMS Otolaryngology Resident. Former MCAT Instructor. I really like tracking things.