How Do Top Medical Students Study?

In this article, I’ll be discussing all the techniques that top medical students use to study. This is a detailed blog post with tonnes of high yield information, so make sure you bookmark it and come back again in the future!

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Quick Answer

In a rush? Here is a summary of everything I talk about in this article.

  • Everyone studies differently, even top medical students
  • There are study techniques and mentalities that every good student uses. They include:
    • Hard work
    • Exercise
    • Knowing what works for them
  • Here are some techniques that top students use:
    • Determined to be the best
    • Start early and are consistent
    • Limit social activities
  • The best medical students know that doing the work is the most important thing

There is No One Way

In this first section, I talk about how every medical student studies in their own way and how you shouldn’t try to copy someones else just because they are doing well.

Every medical student is different. They all put in varying amounts of effort and study in a plethora of unique and interesting ways, some of which I’ll be discussing later in the article.

Due to this variation, there is no one answer to the question “How Do Top Medical Students Study?”. A true answer would require an article that way 10 times the length of this one, covering all the intricacies and methods that top students use to do so well.

Even if I were to create an article of that length, it would still do you an injustice. And that’s because knowing how top medical students revise is not going to get you very far on its own.

Rather, you need to use the information that I am going to present to you and manipulate it so that it works for you.

For example, one student might write handwritten notes on every single lecture. However, some top students would fall ill at even the thought of writing notes and swear by just doing questions, or making Anki flashcards etc.

And so, even though I talk about different methods that work for different students, you should know that most of those ways will not work for you.

You will have to come up with your methods and techniques built on the foundations that I talk about here, and create a system of revising and studying that works for you. With all of that preamble out the way, let’s look at some general methods that all good students use.

Techniques That Everyone Use

There are ways to study and revise that all good students use, and are things that should be implemented regardless of how or what you are studying.

So although I spent the entirety of the previous section telling you to find your own way to study, now I will contradict myself straight away and say that the following ideas and techniques are methods that you should be using regardless of which way you choose to revise.

That’s because they are powerful study methods that have been tested over many years in many different papers.

Therefore, even if the best students don’t mean to, they are almost certainly going to be using these key ideas in their studying.

Hard Work

You might think that working hard is a trait that only the best medical students have. However, that is far from true,

All students work hard in the lead up to their exams. Some end up doing well and others less so. How well they do depends on other factors like how smartly they study and if they know when to rest to avoid burnout.

The thing that makes the top students different is that they work harder and longer than everyone else. I will be talking more about this later on.

Doing What Works For Them

Another thing that everyone tries to do (at varying levels of success) is to adapt their schedule and methodology to what works for them.

Some people know that going to lectures will be useless and so never attend a single one while others know that making flashcards are the way to go for them.

There are many different ways to learn and so good students try to find the best strategies that work for them. That is what you should also be doing while reading this article, regardless of if you want to be a “top” medical student or not.

Exercise

Getting out and about is a must after spending hours at the desk and/or library typing away at your laptop. It is one of the best ways of having a break as it is proven to improve your mood and mental health.

Good students know that going outside for a walk to go shopping or to do a chore is not a waste of time. Rather, it is an opportunity to get some fresh air so that you can be more focused on the material at hand later on.

Using Technology In the Right Way

Okay, this one admittedly sounds a bit vague, but hear me out.

You should be able to use devices to your advantage and not let them control you. For example, you should know to never use your phone while studying. You will almost certainly get distracted and break your flow.

Other things like researching the best apps for studying and whether you should buy an iPad or not take notes are things you should be actively thinking about. You are in charge of what you use, so you might as well use the best and use it well.

What Makes Top Medical Students Different

Although all of the above habits and methodologies are things that all good students do, there are things which make the top students stand out from the rest. That is what I will be discussing in this next section.

Number of Hours

This one is going to seem like another contradiction.

Earlier on I said how all good students work hard in the lead up to their exams, regardless of which course they do and how well they want to do. And although that is true, the top students stand out simply because of how hard they work.

If you compare the number of hours to the grades that people got in medical school, there is a strong correlation that shows that people who work harder, get better grades.

Therefore, if you want to be a top student, there is no getting around that you will have to work smarter and harder than your colleagues.

If you want more information on how many hours a typical medical student works, check out this article which discusses that exact topic in great depth.

Purpose and Determination

This is something that people don’t often talk about.

One of the reasons that I got good grades before medical school was that I was determined to get the best A-Level grades possible, get into medical school and make my parents proud. These were clear reasons as to why I wanted to do well in my exams.

Unfortunately, when I finally got into medicine, I quickly found out that it was much, much harder to do well when you are surrounded by hard-working individuals who have been able to retain that sense of purpose into their university career. This made doing well in exams hard enough that I began to question what the point of being the best was.

Is there anything really bad about just “getting by” in medical school? For me, there wasn’t.

Since that point I have always focused on things outside of medicine that I felt much more passionate about, leaving the bare minimum amount of work needed to pass my medical school exams.

On the contrary, some of my friends and colleagues were hell-bent on getting top grades. Needless to say, it resulted in them becoming top students.

And so, if you do want to be a top student yourself, I suggest you ask yourself why. If you find a reason to keep on studying and working hard, then great. You have already beaten half of the students at medical school.

Starting Early and Being Consistent

Being consistent with your studying is essential at university. When you are younger, you can get away with revising the night before an exam and still getting a good mark. Unfortunately, as the content in university (and especially medical school) is so much greater than high school, you have to start studying weeks, and sometimes months in advance to get the grades you want.

Therefore, doing well in your exams is about doing less work on any given day, and more work in the long term.

Making Studying a Habit

Similar to what I just talked about, the best students ensure to make studying into a habit.

Do you find it difficult to brush your teeth every night? Probably not.

That’s how top students feel about studying.

So, how do you get to that level of sorcery I hear you ask.

The best way that I have found is to always put time aside for work. In the same way that when you think about what you will do in the evening you will include dinner, make sure you include studying in that mental plan of yours.

By doing this every day, you will eventually make studying a habit.

Paying Attention in Class

Although this is slightly controversial as many students find lectures and other didactic teaching methods archaic, there are still people who find it useful and that is why I am including it.

Some of the best students I know are the ones that attend over 95% of everything the school tells them to attend. They diligently listen to the lecturer and take notes on everything they find important.

They don’t talk or have fun. They are there to learn.

The top students would have already looked at the lecture slides beforehand and would probably go home and continue to go over the lecture until they know it inside and out.

Limiting Social Activities

For some, this is going to be a hard pill to swallow.

Humans are social creatures. We need to interact with friends and family to have deep, meaningful lives.

However, if you want to be the best at anything, you have to be willing to make sacrifices. You should be trying to limit the amount of time that you go out and party and play with friends, especially during exam times.

If you find yourself finding this next to impossible, you probably need to go back and read the “Purpose and Determination” subsection. If you are strong-willed enough, you should be able to sacrifice things to achieve your goals, regardless of the cost.

Don’t worry though, you will have the whole summer to party after exams are over.

Productive Procrastination

In your free time, what do you do?

If you are anything like me, you watch YouTube videos, play some games and talk with family and friends. Although all of those things are important and have their place, there is a way that top students take advantage of this time.

They use it as an opportunity to do something that they love, but that is productive at the same time. For me, this website sometimes falls into that category.

That’s because there are times where I should probably be studying but don’t really want to, and so end up editing a blog or the design of the website.

Now, I do this because I love to work on this website and it brings me joy. If you could find things like that, that are somehow related to your school and university work, it can pay dividends.

An example where I used this technique to further my exam results was when I had an end of topic exam coming up and decided that I couldn’t be bothered to study for it any more and so started searching YouTube for stuff related to the clinical skills session that day.

Thereby I ended up learning content that was relevant to my end of year exams.

This is certainly a technique that you can apply almost every day and can help you work even when you don’t want to.

Planning

If I don’t plan my day, I get much less work done.

This is true because I end up thinking there isn’t anything that needs doing.

However, there is always something that needs doing.

And so, I try to write down everything important that I am going to be doing the next day from the time I wake to the time I turn off the lights before bed. This not only helps me not waste time, but it keeps me on my toes, ensuring that I always feel that stuff needs to be done.

This can be a bit of effort, but I find it well worth the 5 minutes it takes. You don’t have to do it every day, but try to do it when you have your exams approaching.

Sometimes, even if I don’t write anything down, I still think about what I will be doing the next day. This is the absolute minimum that I suggest you do.

Doing Is the Most Important Thing

The best students know that research will only take them so far.

In reality, doing the work is what is going to get them where they need to be. Therefore, although it is great that you are reading this blog, trying to become a better student, I must urge you to stop.

If you know you should be doing work right now, then don’t read any further and get your work done. Once you have done the work, you can always come back and continue researching.

Doing research is not an issue. It is the excessive procrastination that can result which is the real problem. The feeling of being productive by researching how other people study provides comfort for our brains, tricking us into thinking we have done something.

However, greatness comes from the ability to do what is needed to be done when it needs doing.

Anki – The Gold Standard

Anki is something that almost all medical students use. And that is what I’ll be quickly discussing in this section.

Anki is unique to medical students.

It seems that outside the world of medicine, almost no one has heard of it. Yet, almost within the first few weeks of the degree, some people are trying to convince you to not make any notes and just use Anki flashcards.

And that’s for good reason.

  • Anki uses efficient study techniques
  • There are a plethora of pre-made Anki decks that you can use
  • It is perfect to tackle the brute memorisation that is required in medical school

You can see why Anki is so popular.

I have many other articles dedicated to Anki which you can check out here.

If you are brand new to Anki and don’t know what it is, then start with this article where I discuss what it is and why it’s so great. Otherwise, you can see my complete guide where I take you step-by-step on how to use it in glorious detail.

Standing Out in Clinical Years

Knowing how to do well in exams is one thing, but being able to do well in clinical placements is a whole other thing entirely.

A lot of the stuff we have talked about so far is related to lectures and how students study for exams. However, the best students are not only the ones that are book smart but are the ones who learn to communicate effectively with patients and doctors.

There are a few things which make clinical placements particularly difficult.

  • You can come and go as you please
  • Very little structure to the day
  • Can easily waste time waiting for things to happen
  • Need to get things ticked off in your Log Book

The best students use these difficulties to their advantage.

For example, the fact you can go in and out of the hospital whenever you want may result in a lot of students going home to and not doing anything. However, those that are focused on their exams and truly want to do well use that time to go to the hospital library (yes, hospitals have libraries) and do some work.

The same can be said for wasting time.

Although waiting around for late consultants and have 2 hour-long lunches are annoying, you could easily use the time to do some Anki flashcards on your phone or answer some Passmedicine questions.

These small behaviours add up in the long term, resulting in excellent exam results.

How Do Top Students Prepare for Clinical Exams?

Clinical exams (called OSCEs in the UK) are challenging. They require you to effectively communicate with patients while at the same time performing difficult tasks under strict time pressure.

Some students can get extremely stressed even thinking about these exams. However, there are certain things that you should be doing throughout the year to prepare you for these practical exams.

  • Talk to patients – The only way to improve communication skills is to use them. Talking with real patients in hospital while actively thinking about how to improve your body language and speaking skills will result in a drastic improvement in your ability to take histories in an OSCE style situation.
  • Practice with friends – If you find it too difficult to talk to patients, then you can always start by practising talking with friends. Try and make it as close to the exam as possible by having a third person watch you at all times. Give good, constructive criticism at the end.
  • Do practical skills in the hospital and the lab – Depending on your university, you will be able to book out skills labs at any point in the year which has all the equipment that you need for the exam. However, don’t just depend on this. Go to the hospital and try and get involved with the procedures that nurses and doctors do on a daily basis. They are always willing to help if you ask nicely.

Of course, do not forget the tips that I mentioned earlier on in the article. Just because they were general tips doesn’t mean they don’t apply here. You still need hard work, determination and consistency to do well in these exams.

If you are a UK medical student, then I certainly suggest you use Geeky Medics. It is a great website that has all the information you could want when it comes to OSCE preparation.


That’s everything!

I hope you enjoyed this post. It took a look of work to put together and so I would appreciate it greatly if you could share it with your friends and colleagues who might also find some value from it.

If you want more like this then I suggest you read this article on scientifically proven ways of studying. It goes into a lot more depth on the specifics of how to revise like active recall and spaced repetition, interleaving and elaboration etc.

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