Time is of the essence.

Also, you should be careful with taking advice from people who have always done well. Correlation =/ causation. Take care that some people are simply better at memorizing/learning or using more time than you (including prior knowledge), but using less-than-optimal strategies. You should actively test and track your strategies including their efficiency.

The first thing is you have to invest in the time and know you have been given a great opportunity to do what you love. Don’t squander it with a half-a** effort.

I grossly underestimated the amount of time needed to study on the first exam. I tried studying effectively (meaning no distractions) 3 hours a day for the first exam. Big mistake. I bombed it pretty bad, but not hopeless.

Now I’m studying effectively 8 hours a day (12 hour cramming week before exam) with at least 7 hours of sleep consistently. My scores and retention shot to the moon. Despite what some “bros” who tell me to “f*** sleep”, it will hurt your retention and make your study effort 2x less effective.

Next, you want to study smarter.

Here’s some tips I’ve procured that are from consensus studies or data that are at least suggestively (not necessarily sweepingly conclusive, because these scientific fields can change) good advice:

Minimum information principle. Try to structure your knowledge to the bare minimum needed. Prioritize. Use symbols and abbreviations. Be careful of going less than minimum though. Again, you shouldn’t try to learn more than needed. I know this sounds rather short-sighted, but you are better off in the long-run, simply because you seriously cannot remember everything in medicine, unless you are a savant with photographic memory. A simple way to verify this is to calculate the amount of knowledge, make it into a deck, calculate your personal forgetting curve (with your own factors adjusted for it), and the amount of time you have. The amount needed is generally more than the time given to get close to 100%. You will specialize later anyways and get the sufficient training needed. Then rarely ever use anything else. Consider that you have a time limit and it is good to know your limits. Note that redundancy doesn’t necessary violate this minimum information principle. I know it sounds confusing, but try to summarize/centralize everything in one sheet of paper and memorize. Then try several layers of knowledge (clinical relationships etc) on top of it.

Mnemonics (visual and verbal) and understand what you are learning before memorizing. I’ll let you figure out the best mnemonics strategies since there are too many. There should never be memorization without understanding. You will forget meaningless knowledge quicker. Evoking unique emotional connections, especially the “dirty” ones, generally work better. Also, beware of similarities of materials spilling in and confusing yourself.

Running sleep basically sleep when you feel like it, but wake up (don’t toss and turn or hit snooze) when you’ve had enough – for most that is biphasic: 12am7am and take a siesta 11: 25pm. It varies by person.

Be in the right environment. The “prime time” to study is first thing in the morning and after your siesta. That means no distractions. No music with lyrics, no TV, no social media. Pure focus. I complete all my dumb admin work at night. Seek convenience when it makes sense – $20 could run a long way if it saves you 1 “prime” hour.

Spaced repetitions, active Q&A recall, (a TON of) practice problem tracking – don’t let your ego fool you into thinking you remember what you study – track your retention meticulously and isolate “memory blocks” – parts that suck your studying time, with little to no retention. Doesn’t matter what you use Anki, Memorang, Firecracker or simply old school flashcards etc. Basically the same principles. Personally I use Firecracker because it syncs with my individual school’s coursework, then off to never-ending Qbanks.

Be brutal about your weak points. Ego or fear will set you back. Don’t waste time on stuff you’ve mastered or easy questions. Revisit your weak points much more often. It is one of the hardest to admit your own weaknesses and just do it, but once you get past the initial barrier, you will see results. Failure on difficult questions or weak points will make you progress the most. Remember, if you do what is hard, your life will be easy. If you do what is easy, your life will be hard.

Get the right material and (re)sources – despite some recommendations of studying together, IMO I advise against having fellow students teach you – get an upperclassman, TA, tutor, professor. Get it right the first time (especially with their thought process after completing the course), so you NEVER get the wrong information or low priority information (generally unintentional). Unlearning mistakes will suck up double your time. Some prep books are filled with mistakes and will hurt you. First Aid book recommendations are solid. You just have to discriminate the source of knowledge and hierarchy of information.

Eat right, exercise right, sleep right. These will make your circulation and sleep quality better and thus better retention/brain blood flow. Your brain constantly needs the right amount of nutrients on demand – no more no less within a range. Avoid simple carbs and sugar like the plague, and turn off all sources of blue light at least 12 hours before bed. Find out your optimal ratio of carbs: fat: protein. Eat a good amount of protein and fiber to avoid hunger pangs. I also recommend buying a tub of high-quality whey protein powder to save money on protein. Also remember that getting really sick or getting injured during exercise will set you back really far on studies, so guard your health!! I could go on about h. GH secretion, sleep quality and memory formation but you get the idea.

Supplementation is fine, but don’t go crazy on supplementation, especially herbal extracts can hurt your liver. I just take small amounts of high quality GMP/USP grade caffeine, green tea extract, and fish oil (well, also creatine for workouts) – generally stuff that’s available in food already with strong evidence, but simply time or cost prohibitive to get good amounts. The BEST supplement is water. Be careful of nootropics or study drugs. I tend to avoid them besides caffeine because of lack of research or quality/cost-prohibitive.

Don’t burnout. Get some fresh air and take SHORT breaks from the computer screen. You should take some time to network too, and have a life. At least 10% of your time. Vacations are necessary. Being a top student because of too much studying, and then burning out will not get you anywhere.

I could go on about tiny details about memory, learning, sleep science, supplementation, exercise physiology and nutrition, but I’ll save it for your own research, especially since I’m too lazy to reference a massive amount of articles (probably over 100). I am a certified NASM personal trainer and nutritionist, I’ve doing sleep/learning/biochemical research and meticulous self-experimentation all my life, and managed to get into a good medical school, despite the odds of running 2 businesses at the same time, while in school. I welcome skepticism, especially since I haven’t referenced anything, so please let me know if you find a better strategy than what I’ve already presented.

If you found this helpful, I would appreciate an upvote and/or comment for feedback.

This answer originally appeared on this Quora question on Studying.


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