Studying Efficiently in Medical School

Chris Hornung, MD
4 min readApr 25, 2022

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

I recently finished up my pre-clerkship years of medical school. As I reflected on the last two years and my experience in working as a tutor both before and during medical school, I noted some habits that I found effective at maximizing my efficiency. The rest of this article elaborates on the below figure.

Figure showing various levels of efficiency where time is the hours allotted to study and the y-axis is knowledge acquisition.

A note on time

Your time in medical school, and more specifically, your pre-clerkship years, is limited and precious. Quantifying your pre-clerkship years, if you start classes in late August and complete MS2 in mid-April two calendar years later, you have 19 months or 12,768 hours of medical school. Assuming you average 7 hours of sleep per day during that timeframe and your available hours are now 9,044 to learn material for courses and board exams (herein called medschooling).

However, being a good candidate for residency programs and being a relatively normal person that still finds time to exercise and hang out with friends and family will dictate that you do not spend all of your allotted hours medschooling. The key then is to figure out how to maximize the time you spend medschooling to free up space to do research, volunteer, get involved with extracurricular activities, and also do normal person, non-school related things. Below are four general principles to keep in mind.

Make a daily plan

Your day will expand to however much time you have available. For example, if you know you have 2 months to write the paper, you will probably wait until the last minute to complete it. However, when you are in a time crunch like needing to complete a paper before its deadline, you can complete it in a matter of hours. Creating a list of the tasks you want to complete in a given day along with a general timeline of when you want to complete them will simulate putting you into a time crunch and allow you to complete more tasks per given time.

Each morning after I ate breakfast, I looked at my calendar to identify gaps in my schedule (ie between lectures or meetings) and wrote down the tasks I wanted to complete during them on a post-it note. I then held myself accountable for using that time period to work only on the specified task. I generally also included some time to act as a buffer (see Option hour below) for day-to-day fires that arose as well as an “Other” period at the end of the day to finish the rest of my tasks that didn’t fit into a specific category.

Emphasize study methods that test your knowledge / Focus on your weak areas

My philosophy is to try to minimize the amount of time I spend initially learning information and move into testing my knowledge as quickly as possible. In practice, this meant watching lecture videos only one time and on 1.5x to 2x speed and then consolidating what I learned with Anki flashcards. 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.

In addition, instead of first reviewing lecture notes while studying for exams, I would opt to begin studying by taking practice tests/questions. I ended up getting a fair amount of questions incorrect but was able to accurately assess information I did not know and focus on my weak areas. Once I knew where I was lacking knowledge, I would control F my lecture PDF’s for the concepts I was shaky on to review them.

Avoid reinventing the wheel

A mistake I made during my first term of MS1 was creating all of my own Anki cards from scratch. While I was effectively able to learn the material, I ended up sinking hours per day simply writing facts and copy/pasting images into flashcards, time that I could have been using for other pursuits.

If you choose to use Anki to study during medical school, use an existing deck such as Anking for board material. In terms of other pre-clerkship courses like anatomy, there are a number of good Anki decks available. I also recommend reading through the Anki manual before you start your courses. It is tedious and boring but will save you a bunch of time in the long run for finding the cards relevant to your lecture materials.

Find ways to “multi-task”

There are a number of great podcasts for Step1 that I would listen to while driving and working out. I personally recommend the Ed Goljan lectures (search on Google or Spotify). You might not get quite as much out of this study time as you would while sitting down at your desk, but I found it was a great way to cram in some extra learning during the day.

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Chris Hornung, MD

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