Feb 25, 2018

Surviving Medical School: Tips & Tricks

 "Hi, l'm a first year medical student in IPTA. Previously, I was so eager and excited to enter this medical field but now I'm always questioning and doubting myself - Am I strong enough to keep moving forward? I love what l'm doing and studying but somehow the feeling of not being prepared enough or as simply as not being able to answer the lecturer's question always haunt me. Hence, would you please share on how you cope with this situation during your medical school years? Sorry for taking your time and I would be really grateful for your response. Thank you."

Someone actually asked me for advice? I'm totally floored! 

Before I give you my unsolicited advice on how to survive medical school and cope with the stress, let me tell you a bit of my background:

  • I did my two-year A-level program in order to enter uni and my results are not great: AABC. The uni asked for at least AAAB. I still got accepted, but I felt I was not qualified enough to do medicine.
  • Failed my first year final exam in Newcastle and was told to repeat the whole year again.
  • Decided to repeat first year in Malaysia campus to avoid humiliation and to start fresh and anew
  • Almost failed my third year - had to resit an OSCE exam
  • My results are just borderline-pass every year with no distinction or merit at all.
  • Had a major breakdown during final year final exam that I can still remember until now

So despite knowing that, if you still want to know how I did it, I would strongly suggest that after you read my answers, it is better for you guys to ask other people who fared better at medical school on better tips on how to survive the medical school. Also, different people have different studying methods, and ultimately, there are various coping strategies that you can use.

1. Know what type of learner you are.

This is a simple thing to discover yet its importance is something you cannot neglect. Simply put, knowing what type of a learner you are can make your study more effective because you will know which study method is best for you and which method that you need to avoid doing. A short googling led me to this infographic:

This four types of learner can also be further classified whether you are a social or solitary type. A social learner studies best in a group while solitary learner needs to be alone to study.

For me, I can say that I am 80% read/write and 20% kinesthetic solitary learner. Once I resigned to the fact that I literally had to WRITE every single thing that I wanted to learn, the next part is to get organized. I had to find the suitable notebooks, the best coloured pen markers, the sticky notes, etc. I ended up with people borrowing my notes because I had to make my notes easy for me to read and understand (because I am slow to absorb things) and they also found my notes super readable. I am very bad at aural (listening) and visual learning types as I easily will forget what I've heard and just seeing the visuals will not make me understand as much as when I'm reading. 

However, you have to compromise a bit in medical school. For OSCE and practical exams (viva, etc.) a read/write learner like me will definitely fail the assessment if I stick to just read and write. During my final year exam, I'd proposed to my group study (again, I had to compromise my solitary way) that we practiced answering to these practical exam out aloud to each other. We had compiled the whole list of different diagnoses that can come out and we just fire away with the following differentials, investigations and management. By practicing speaking it out loud, you can gain confidence and the first startled block that you always get when being asked a question can be remedied. 

2. Know your academic learning outcomes.

In every module or subject, check with your academic faculty on the learning objectives or outcomes. Essentially, these are the topics that you are expected to understand and be tested on. They will not usually test students with questions outside the learning outcomes. 

Make a list of those learning outcomes in bullet points and paste it on your wall. That way you will be constantly reminded of the topics that you have mastered and which one you haven't grasp the concepts yet. If your semester doesn't have any learning outcomes (which I greatly doubt it), make a list of the lecture topics. That way you can keep track of every topic of the lectures that are scheduled for the whole semester.

You know the transparent plastic sheet that we use to cover our textbooks? I bought rolls of them and I spread it all out onto my walls, sticking them up on the wall with tapes on all corners where now I can write my whole academic year's outcome using a whiteboard marker. People who came into my room would usually stopped and stare at my walls because my room will be covered with a lot of notes and list. They usually will spot me standing in the middle of room, lost in thoughts as I gazed at them every day, trying to think on which topics that I need to brush up on.

It seemed like an eternity to me but I did it for the 5 years of medical school in Johor and it worked for me. Unfortunately I couldn't provide a photo of my room back then to show here as proof. The next advice however, I do have pictures about it and it is about -

3. Plan your study time EARLY. 

You know how people often say, 'failing to plan is planning to fail.' It's kinda true, but not true enough. It should be, 'failing to plan early is planning to fail.' Every semester the faculty should have released the date for your exams, so take note of those dates on your very first day of the semester. Mark it on your calendar (again, paste your calendar on the wall!) as a reminder.

See how early I planned for my final year exam? 15 weeks in advance!

Once the dates for the exams are fast approaching, the study plan should be revised and be more detailed. This is my finalized study plan for my exam in fourth year of medical school. I had divided my study week to three components in a day (morning, evening, night time) - writing notes for the last few topics of the semester (the green colour blocks), doing exercises (pink blocks), and revising the rest of the topics (yellow blocks). You have to discipline yourself and stick with the timetable schedule.

The big advantage of doing a timetable is this allows you to visualize how much time you need to study in order to cover ALL the topics required before your exams. It also allow you to judge whether you have put enough effort into doing exercises (like past-year questions or bank questions test from books) and revisiting topics you have learnt way back during the early part of the semester. 

4. De-stress

A lot of people have a lot of de-stress skills as a way to release the knots of tension in the brain and in the heart. Some people went off jalan-jalan or makan-makan or tengok wayang. Others invest in unhealthier ways like smoking, drinking, partying, and even on drugs (don't be surprised, guys. We are all 50 shades of unlicensed medical professionals here). The main point here is that you have to find a way to de-stress yourself before you feel the burn out or a melt down.

(Aku tengok dia de-stress aku pulak yang stress)

Join the usrahs or a Brazilian jiu jitsu class. Go out and play sports with your friends. You have to do something other than studying medics. God forbid because this is the only time to do so I tell you. Once you became a doctor, you have to be realllllyyyy dedicated to spend your time not sleeping from exhaustion to do things you used to do when you were at school. I wouldn't say it is impossible to do, in fact there's a colleague I know who is deep with cycling, another is with mountain climbing. Me? I'm active in swimming in the bed sleeping HAHAHAH, usually with a PS4 controller in one hand and a McD's triple cheeseburger in another hand. The only constant de-stress way of mechanism for me is here, blogging things away. So find your de-stress mechanism of skill, and then return to study.

5. Reflect and repair

The last bit of advice is regarding how to manage when you have a particular bad day (or a series of days, I know it can get worse sometimes). Studying medicine is like a wheel of fortune - some days you feel invigorated and full of optimism. Some other days you will feel dejected and questioning why the heck you are doing medicine in the first place. That is how life of a doctor is but at the end of the day, you have to think long and hard about your decisions.

Nobody likes it when they couldn't get the answers right or when being scolded for the mistakes made. The point that I always make and bear in mind is that I'm here to learn. If scoldings and humiliation are the ways to get it, that's what I will endure. YES, IT DOESN'T FEEL GOOD, but let the nawaitu of your action, which is to gain knowledge and know things, be the better person. Whenever you get scolded for not knowing things or getting it wrong, think, "Okay, I don't know about this topic. This is important. One day I would need to know about this and when I don't know  things could get a lot worse than just a scolding,".

Write down all the things you couldn't get it right when being asked and look it up when you reached home. It's not easy to force yourself to have a positive mind set, but by slowly reading back on things you don't know you are in a way repairing your foundation. Let it go that you can't answer the question back then. The more important point is that after you reflect and repair, can you answer the question now?

One thing to remember is that different people learn at different times. Person A might know about that topic now and you don't, but it doesn't mean that you will never learn about that topic indefinitely. You might know some other topic ahead of the time that other people haven't learn yet. That's why don't be too disheartened about it. Learn all you can in the best way you can. Medicine is for life, so like I mentioned earlier, if you managed to cover all your topics within allocated time (hence, the timetable), you will do just fine in medical school.

I think that's it for now. To the Anon who asked this, I hope my humble and personal-opinionated tips and tricks I used in medical school will help you through this. Medical school is never easy, but it doesn't mean you have to be so hard on yourself. So all the best and good luck with your studies! 

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