Studying In Med School – Find Your Study Style

Being in medical school means I often find myself spending the entire day alone at a coffee shop table meant for 6 people with four books, my laptop, a barrage of notes, a white erase board and occasionally a strange teaching tool like “Big Tim.” It also means I sometimes have a powerpoint open in public and don’t realize that I have inadvertently exposed an unsuspecting Comm major to the world of Syphilis and Intestinal Worms while I went to pee. (Actually I just leave disturbing images pulled up on my computer so people won’t steal my laptop while I’m gone ordering my 14th espresso shot.)

It also means that in the midst of all that studying, sometimes I get really, extremely bored. When I’m sick of looking at power point notes…

Power Point Notes on Colitis.

I will occasionally move on to studying like this:

White Board Depiction of Renal Physiology.

When you start med school all the more seasoned med students tell you “Find your study style and stick to it.” Well, I thought I knew my study style – I mean, I made it through undergrad, right? Wrong.* I did okay in my first 3 blocks using my undergrad study method (go to class, skim book, cram 3 days before the test), but it was not until our Microbiology block that I figured out how to actually do well in Medical School classes.

Intestinal and Urogenital Protozoa Flow Chart.

My study style is visual and flow-charty. I had no idea. I had never studied like this in my life. I started making flow charts for everything last year. 

They almost all have pictures. And when I feel like I cannot draw one. more. flow chart. I draw really fun, slightly scary, pictures to help me remember stuff. 

Holy Grail of Gram (+) Bugs.
I am a med student, not an artist.
Don’t judge my stick figures.

And the craziest thing happened, when the test came around I could redraw these charts in my head. And, if I couldn’t remember something I could at least cross off a few answers by thinking about where on the chart page they were located. I also stopped going to class all together. A lot of people scoff when they hear that, but it works for me. I listen to our audio recordings, I can pause, rewind, look something up, etc. and not get behind. I can also listen on 1.5x or 2x speed if I’m getting distracted due to slow speaking. My grades went up a lot when I stopped attending classes. I’m too easily distracted when I sit in the lecture hall.

A lot of our interviewees ask me “What should I do before I start med school?” and they want to hear things like “Memorize Netter’s. Befriend Dr. Goljan and siphon his Pathology knowledge. Read Costanzo Phys 14 times. Sleep with Micro Made Ridiculously Simple for the entire summer before you start.” but I think all of those things would be a huge waste of time.

I wrote this blog in hopes that I can encourage any pre-meds who are reading this to start investigating their study style. Don’t study for med school before you’re here. Med school is not harder than undergrad – it’s just a larger volume of material in a smaller time span. Start looking into what you can do to improve your study efficiency while you’re in undergrad, that way when you get to med school you’ll already have it down pat. I promise you will be so much happier if you don’t do what I did and have to struggle to keep your head above water for the first three blocks while you’re figuring out how to study. 

Also, when you get to medical school don’t let anyone criticize or change your study method. I have a (really awesome, gorgeous, ridiculously smart**) friend that makes a note card for everything. She seriously has enough notecards to fill up a bathtub. I tried making notecards first year and it did not work for me. It was very time consuming and I got behind and frustrated way too easily. She also attends every. single. class. It works for her. She is extremely smart and makes wonderful grades, but when I used those methods I was not doing so hot in my classes. So, now I stay home and make millions of flow charts. Don’t ever let people, whether it’s friends, classmates or parents, make you feel guilty for doing what works for you!

*Err – Right I made it through undergrad. Wrong because I did not, in fact, know my study style. I knew a study style and it worked for undergrad, but it was not efficient enough for medical school. 

**She might be reading this, so I had to throw in something to embarrass her a little. :)

Other Posts You May Enjoy:

20 Comments + Add Comment

  • Thanks for the advice post! I've never been good at studying, but I think that is because, like you, I didn't really need to "study" in high school and undergrad because I could easily get by with cramming a couple nights before and getting decent grades.

    But now that I'm in a more intense masters program which is "as close to being in med school without actually being in med school", I am learning a lot about my study style and how to be efficient in my studying.

    After being out of school for a few years, then going back and having to tackle medical physiology has been a bit difficult for me. But after the first exam, I started tor early think about my studying techniques and found out that, like you, I. LOVE. FLOWCHARTS. And drawing pictures on my giant whiteboard. Just drew a giant nephron last night while studying renal. Made a bunch of flowcharts on the function of RAAS. That being said, I'm a flashcard lover too.

    I wish I would have been a better study-er in undergrad. but I hope that I'm preparing myself well for a future in med school!

  • Genius! I should have used that scary-pic technique to protect my laptop when I was in grad school. Though not a med student, I'm not squeamish! It would have been a win-win!

  • Flashcards never worked for me either, though I kept trying them for a long time. My style was recopying notes, and occasionally drawing pictures. Also a group studier… discussing it with classmates always helped me. As long as it was classmates I could stay on track with, lol.

  • Have you tried mind mapping? It's very similar to your flowchart but has the advantage of being 360 degrees, more flexible and more attractive… the last sounds daft but I think if something's good to look at you're more likely to take it in. Just bung 'hand drawn mind map' into Google images for some great examples.

  • I loooove your bug pictures! They are so adorable. I should really start doing something like that!

  • I'm a flashcard person but only for path, bugs and drugs… other than that i do charts or notes. i have to write stuff though- i can't just read it a few times.

  • Thanks for stopping by my blog and for your comment. Yes, I was all about the new clinic then found out he wasn't board cert and I was crushed. I didn't post this but to add to EVEN MORE decisions, I found ANOTHER clinic in the area too that comes highly recommended. Decisions, decisions!

  • Okay, so this might seem obvious, but do you have any tips for starting to make flow charts? I'm currently studying for the MCAT and know I need to better organize information, but I can't figure out how to get started with a flow chart that isn't just…stuff copied down. Or maybe half the battle IS trying to figure out how to write it down in an organized way?

  • interesting 😀

  • Thank you SO MUCH, Danielle! Unfortunately, I’m finishing up my second year and still not yet keeping my head above water…still trying to figure out the best study method for me because nothing has worked yet! I really love your pictures and flow charts, though. Also, I think it’s funny in your “About Me” section when you talk about the fact that you very well could be a spambot, young boy, etc. because you say “15 yo boy”…which makes it pretty obvious that you’re in med school (or at least in medicine) :)

  • It feels like I discover a great method only to stop using it out of laziness. Anywho, this is a great blog and I have started med school and well…it is a lot of info. Many memory systems use silly or scary images because it is easier to remember. I will try to employ these methods. I love flowcharts, they are fun to make, but I’ve never made much use of color. Guess it might be time to test that out. =)

  • Hey, if you drew on the whiteboard, do you erase it afterwards to make new ones or you just have many whiteboards?

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      I erase it after drawing it and it’s really important info then I’ll draw it again…and again…until it’s second nature and I can visualize it clearly in my head.

      Sometimes I’ll take a picture and study off that. Sometimes once I have the whiteboard picture/flow sheet like I want it I’ll make a hard copy on paper.Other times I’ll start with a hard copy and just re-draw it several times on the white board.

  • Hey there,

    I’ve just started Med school and this has been incredibly helpful; I didn’t realise just how much I blagged my way through A-Levels and I’m seriously struggling to keep up with things here, particularly Physiology which is practically 6 hours a week of mindfucks… I really like the idea of getting a whiteboard and creating flow charts, how big is the whiteboard you’re using?

    Thanks again :). x

    • hey don’t get board so easily . you make me terrified cus this year is going to be my first for medical school . i am fresh and i am scared because of you. relax Dave, by the way is this your first year of medicine?

  • Nice one…………..understand ur self today nd ur head will b above water,dn’t turn into a robot cos u’re in med-schl,just study it ur way nd ave fun,”shalom”……………Dr T………….

  • i think this is the best advice i ever heard…. for medical students. specially about “not refering to medical books befor getting throught it, and just knowing the methods of studying” that is best

  • Thnk u for u’r advice. It’s awesome n worked a lot

  • wow, I think you have completely lost it. this really scares me for med school LOL

  • yea, i fell like i’m similar. I can spend a full day looking at Anki flashcards and retain nothing. But when I put something into a flow chart it is retained like a photograph. I remember something close to the answer, then trace the lines to the answer…in my head.

    I took a test to get extra time on the MCAT and my phsycologist said I had a terrible memory….except when it came to remembering pictures.

    Hopefullly this works for my upcoming immunology final. fingers crossed!

Leave a comment

Trackback URL Link:   

About The Author

I'm an ObGyn. I started this blog as a medical student (some would call that doctor school) and now I'm working as an Ob/Gyn, which is seriously the coolest job ever. I'm a twin mom and recently added a baby brudder to the mix. My life story through November 2010 can be viewed here. The events in the many years following can be summed up as wedding bells, books, exams, babies, and doctoring. I started this blog in hopes of landing a role in a Lifetime movie so I could quit medicine and move to Hollywood, but that hasn't happened...so if you wouldn't take medical advice from Angelina Jolie, you shouldn't take it from me. I may not even be a real person. In fact, I'm probably a spambot. Or possibly a 15 yo boy blogging from a dingy basement. If you're really interested you can read more about me here. If you have any questions or want to guest post contact me.

Dr. Jones on Instagram

Load More
Something is wrong. Response takes too long or there is JS error. Press Ctrl+Shift+J or Cmd+Shift+J on a Mac.

Get Email Updates

Enter Your Email Address:


  • |+| 2018 (1)
  • |+| 2017 (3)
  • |+| 2014 (1)
  • |+| 2013 (10)
  • |+| 2012 (24)
  • |+| 2011 (95)
  • |+| 2010 (17)
  • |+| 2008 (1)
  • |+| 2007 (1)