My study workflow for systems-based courses in medical school

Chris Hornung, MD
4 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

At the end of my second year of medical school in 2022, I wrote a post about general considerations for studying efficiently during medical school. These principles are relevant regardless of your year in school or the structure or your institution's curriculum. Every person, medical student or not, has 24 hours in the day to maximize what they accomplish. Given the requirements and stakes to do well in medical school, developing an efficient workflow during your preclinical years is paramount to mastering the material while having time for clubs, research, and time doing non-medical things. Every medical school’s curriculum is structured a bit differently, some follow a “traditional” format where the first year is anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, etc. while the second year is systems-based pathology. Basically, the first year is normal anatomy/physiology while the second year is pathophysiology. Other schools combine normal and abnormal at the same time. At the time I went through medical school, my institution followed the “traditional” model. In the post below, I will include my daily workflow for the systems-based courses in medical school. If your school follows the new curriculum, you can still follow this workflow but will need to supplement it with physiology, microbiology, and anatomy.

Photo by Unseen Studio on Unsplash

For me, I prioritized third-party resources over in-house lectures. Perhaps this is annoying given the tuition you are paying. Nonetheless, your goal is to be efficient, and third-party resources are the most efficient way to learn information and test your knowledge.

Below are the third-party resources that I used:

  1. Amboss
  2. Amboss Anki add-on
  3. Anking
  4. Pathoma
  5. UWorld

Before the start of each system block, I created a spreadsheet of all of the relevant tags for Pathoma within Anking. Anking is a couple of iterations newer since I was an MS2 so the tags I used are probably not relevant anymore to you. However, I have included a link here if you would like to use it as a template. I figured out how many total cards I needed to learn and then divided them by the number of days I had to learn them. Even though the tags were labeled with the date they were supposed to be done, I generally worked ahead and tried to finish learning all of the new cards within 2 or so weeks so that I could focus more time on UWorld. This will lead to a lot of Anki reviews during those first two weeks but will make sure that you have adequate time to test your new knowledge with practice questions.

Knowledge Acquisition

In the morning, I looked at the spreadsheet to determine which Pathoma videos I needed to watch. I watched the videos, unlocked the corresponding Anki cards, and started doing the cards. When a card came up with the topic of disease on Amboss, I checked to see if I had read the Amboss article before. If I hadn’t, I read the entire article and then continued doing the new cards, repeating the process of reading new Amboss articles. I occasionally wrote notes (mnemonics and the like) to help me differentiate between different diseases, etc. within the extra section of the Anki note.

Testing Knowledge

At the beginning of the block, I made a spreadsheet detailing the number of questions on Uworld for the body system(s) and divided it by the number of days that I had to complete them to figure out how many questions per day I needed to do. Don’t start UWorld until after you have learned the material. You will get crushed by the questions if you do. In my opinion, UWorld is a testing resource to be used after you have learned at least the basics of the material through lecture videos and Anki cards. You will end up learning more once you start UWorld and can jot down notes within the extra section of the relevant Anki cards. In practice, most systems (eg. Cardio/Pum) are split into further subsections such as drugs for the heart, CAD, PE, acute coronary syndrome, etc within UWorld, so I didn’t wait until I saw ALL of the cards for the body system before starting Uworld questions, just the particular subsection. If you get a question incorrect in UWorld, make sure that the relevant card within Anking is unlocked so that you can continue to drill it in the future.

In-house exams

When in-house exams came up, I skimmed the slides to see if there was material covered that I had not seen. If there was, I crammed it since it was likely I would never be tested on it again. You will be surprised by how much is covered by third-party materials.

Conclusion

This workflow set the framework for me to score above 90% on all of my in-house exams and be very well-prepared for Step 1 after my second year, and it is backed up by research [Guilbault 2020]. Using these methods, I didn’t need to take any dedicated study time. In addition to my academic success, the workflow was efficient enough for me to also be involved in multiple clubs, volunteer organizations, and research projects. See how I geared up my Step 1 studying during MS2 in this post.

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Chris Hornung, MD

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