I recently attended a Question and Answer session with a panel of students from the Wayne State University School of Medicine. Tips ranged from the importance of finding a mentor, to methods for picking a specialty; but the piece of advice that resonated with me the most was this: find what works for YOU and stick to it. Even though the focus of the panel was to provide undergraduate students with suggestions about how to enjoy a successful medical school experience, I feel like this recommendation is also applicable to the undergraduate experience and to life in general. Particularly in the intensely competitive atmospheres surrounding pre-health and graduate student life, it is easy to sometimes become overwhelmed or intimidated by accounts of other students’ extensive resumes and intense study habits (I’m sure we all know someone who we could classify as a “gunner”). As the medical student explained, sometimes you just need to put on metaphorical blinders and ignore what everyone else is doing. Everyone is different, and just because you are doing something a different way does not mean that you are doing it wrong. What works for someone else may not work for you, and what works for you might not work for someone else. It may take some time to figure out exactly how you study best, or what extracurricular activities you truly enjoy, but it is absolutely worth it because imitating someone else’s accomplishments in an attempt to secure success will only lead to unhappiness and feelings of inadequacy. You are more likely to achieve your personal definition of success by putting all of your effort into activities that make you happy and give you a sense of self-worth than by channeling all of your energies into someone else’s “recipe for success”.
I experienced firsthand the pitfalls of buying too much into the methods and advice of others while studying for the MCAT. As soon as you make it known that you are studying for the MCAT, you are inundated with advice; some of it good, some of it not so good. People are all too willing to tell you how much you should study, how you should study, and what you should study. I remember at one point, about two months before I was scheduled to take the exam, an older student said to me, “So you should be studying about eight hours a day by now, right?” Um… what? Obviously studying for the MCAT was very important to me, but between taking five classes and being involved in student organizations I could not dedicate eight hours to it every day (… I needed sleep at some point!). For a while I felt horribly guilty and had pretty much convinced myself that I was never gong to get into medical school – to the point where I didn’t want to study at all because I felt like it was pointless since I couldn’t get in eight hours. It took me a while to realize how stupid and counterproductive this was. I knew by the time I took the exam I would have been studying for six months, that I had been staying on my MCAT schedule, and that I was doing what I needed to do in order to do well in my courses. My studying became much more effective and less stressful once I was able to push other peoples’ expectations out of my head.
Another example form the beginning of my MCAT odyssey: everyone knew I was taking an in-person MCAT prep course through Princeton Review, but I knew that I wanted to take an online, go at your pace course. I was going to start my course during the summer, when I was already driving an hour to and from classes and volunteering at Detroit Receiving Hospital three days a week, and I didn’t want to add another driving commitment to my schedule, especially since there were no MCAT prep courses being offered near my house. After doing some searching online, only Kaplan offered the type of prep course I was looking for, so despite others’ skepticism, I signed up for the Kaplan On Demand course – and you know what? It turned out just fine, and I was much happier taking an online course and being able to watch lessons and study on my own schedule than I would have been if I had to drive somewhere to attend a class.
A similar phenomenon occurred while I was taking my Kaplan prep course and studying for the Verbal Reasoning section of the MCAT. As an English major it has always been my favorite subject, and I have developed my own strategies for analyzing difficult passages. I read the passages and highlight as I go along, marking what I think are the key concepts and/or statements that are likely to be important for answering questions. However, because Kaplan is a test prep company, I figured that their strategy of writing a mini summary next to each paragraph of the Verbal Reasoning passages and circling key words must be a better and more efficient strategy than mine, and I began using their methods. Contrary to what I expected, my Verbal Reasoning scores actually got worse after using the Kaplan strategy, and I soon switched back to my original method. Once I did, my scores went back up to their usual numbers. Since I knew my method worked for me, I should have just stuck with it in the first place.
As a result of these experiences and the advice of the medical students who spoke at the January seminar, I’ve made it my personal goal to worry less about what others are doing and focus more on finding and exploring my own niche, my own recipe for success. Although it can be very difficult at times, I believe that I will get better at this with time, and I know this is a skill that will serve me well as I transition from my undergraduate studies to medical school and beyond.
In classes where the exams are the only determinants of the final grade, it is really easy to get behind. I mean, there’s technically no homework, right? Wrong. The trend I have noticed in college classes is that the less homework there is, the more studying is required. At least when homework is assigned, I have a better idea of what topics the teacher thinks are important and what might appear on exams. Where there isn’t any homework, everything covered in lecture, the textbook, and powerpoint presentations (if applicable) is up for grabs. Thinking about all of the studying I will have to do for this homework-less class makes me feel overwhelmed and reluctant to even start digging into the seemingly bottomless hole of papers and notes and lecture slides. In order to prevent myself from falling into the vicious cycle of avoiding preparing for class because of how much preparation I have to do for class (thus increasing how much I have to prepare for class), I created a strategy to keep calm and in charge of your learning experience.
Step 1: Read the syllabus
Take note of exam dates and mark them in your planner. Many planners have a full page layout of the entire month along with the typical day-to-day entries. It is wise to post exam dates in both areas so that you can easily see the exams you have coming up and how much time you have to prepare for them. Also, many professors also give a tentative class schedule which discusses what will be covered each day in class. It is helpful to keep this on hand or copied into your planner so you know what’s going on all the time and can plan your studying accordingly. Other important things to note from the syllabus include office hours, grading policies, and whether or not your professor allows recording of lectures or electronic devices in class. I print out the syllabus for each class and keep it in each class’ respective folder for easy reference.
Step 2: Create a reading schedule
If your professor did not provide you with a tentative class schedule, he or she probably at least gave you a list of lecture topics and chapters that will be discussed in class and told you what chapters will be covered in each exam. Using this information, you can create a reading schedule to keep up with what will be taught in lecture. By reading the material before coming to class, you will already have an understanding of the material. You can spend class further increasing your understanding of the subject and can ask for clarifications. By creating a reading schedule for your classes, you are studying smarter instead of harder and are saving yourself from cramming before exams.
Step 3: Keep up with your study schedule
I find it easier to study a little bit for each class every day than dedicating an entire day to one subject. It’s easier to focus that way since I vary what I’m studying. I find it more efficient as well because the more I review, the easier it becomes for the information to stick. I set up solid blocks of time (approximately 1.5-2 hours) where I study for one subject without any distractions. You can disperse breaks throughout your study period as long as you keep track of time; it all depends of how long you can stay focused on one thing for a period of time. Keeping up with your study schedule creates more free time for you to hang out with friends, catch up on sleep, and do more of what you want to do!
Step 4: Utilize office hours
Visit your professors during office hours! Your professors are there for you to learn from, and they are more than happy to share their knowledge on the subject they love and you show interest in. By visiting office hours, you illustrate your dedication to the class and to your education, and your professors will appreciate that. Even if you don’t have any questions for the professor regarding the material, visit them anyway if only to introduce yourself! Professors want to know who they’re teaching, and getting to know a professor is a great way to get good letters of recommendation down the road, possible research opportunities, as well as recommendations for future classes to take along with what professors to take them with.
Step 5: Form study groups
It’s definitely easier and more enjoyable to study with a small group of students than by yourself so you can learn from and motivate each other. Keep the study groups at around 5 to 8 people so if a few people can’t come for a study session, you don’t have to cancel. Studying with friends is fine as long as you stay focused to the task at hand. By forming study groups, you can talk to each other about the material which is a more active way of studying. The more you read, talk about, listen to, and write about a subject, the easier it becomes to retain the information.
Happy studying and good luck!
This month of January brought me an unexpected, surprisingly beneficial, pre-med experience in the form of an ever-so-pleasant eye infection. Now I’m not talking about your typical case of pink eye. My eyelids were so swollen I thought surely it was only a matter of time until they burst. My eyes were bruising, extremely light sensitive, and watering constantly. I was congested and I had a violent cough, continuous nose bleeds, and a scratched cornea directly over my pupil. After five days of antibiotics with no signs of improvement, I went to the emergency room where they referred me to a specialist. The ophthamologist notified me that it was indeed a virus, which of course explains why the antibiotics weren’t helping. The virus had also made me sick, like a flu virus, resulting in the severe coughing and congestion. In fewer words, there was absolutely nothing I could do!
My symptoms have now subsided, though my vision is still a little blurry, and I cannot explain how appreciative I am to have normal eyes again. We all take our health for granted until we are robbed of even one simple comfort, like breathing through your nose with ease. I’ve obviously made an effort to make my three weeks of symptoms sound like the worse experience any person could possibly endure but that of course is completely untrue, which is scary. There are people struggling with much more severe illnesses every day, people who fear for their lives, not just missing their classes. The month of extreme discomfort that was the beginning of my semester paled in comparison to a chronic illness, but it actually reminded me what it’s like to be a patient, something I think all aspiring physicians need to understand and appreciate.
When your health is compromised, all other priorities move down the bench. That exam you unreasonably thought would make or break your undergrad career suddenly seems irrelevant and frankly downright impossible to complete. Attending your quiz class is not even a thought. All the activities that you normally find so crucial are put into perspective when sickness provides a healthy reality check. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the classes and activities that comprise the endless list of requirements for med school. Though, I don’t encourage anyone to try to get sick for the sake of gleaning some insight, I do recommend making the time to remind yourself why you want to be a physician and why it is so important. Medicine is beautiful and raw because frankly, health is an inescapable aspect of every person’s life; we’re all human. As a future doctor, your job will be to help people accomplish the most primitive human goal: to survive (and that’s pretty awesome).
Hello everyone, I hope you are all beating the mid-semester breakdown. If you’re looking to be more productive for the remainder of the semester, you’re in luck! I’m writing a multi-part series on helpful apps, browser extensions, and programs to help increase your productivity. First, we will start with a study technique I highly recommend for students who sometimes have trouble with balancing their work and break times.
The Pomodoro Technique
This time managing technique was developed in the 1980′s, and is great to use when studying flashcards or writing essays. The only things you will need are: a timer, a task you want to accomplish, and your own willpower.
There are 4 steps to the technique (adapted from Wikipedia)
1. Set your timer for 25 minutes (1 pomodori)
2. Work on your task until the timer rings.
3. Take a 5 minute break (Don’t cheat yourself!)
4. Repeat steps 1-3
5. Every four pomodori, take a longer break (15-30 minutes)
It’s that simple! You’ll be surprised with how much work you can get done using the Pomodoro technique. For me, I didn’t know how fast time flew while studying flashcards for microbiology; I was starting to race against the clock to get the entire stack done in under 25 minutes!
If you’re interested in integrating the Pomodoro technique into your study habits, here’s a bunch of useful apps and extensions from Google Chrome that can aid you.
Timer - This is a no-frills app that has a countdown, alarm clock, and stopwatch functions. Just set the timer at 25 minutes and go! There is the downside of having to manually change the countdown between work and break intervals, but besides that it’s easy to use.
Timout - A Pomodoro app without site-blocking. Other browser users can also use it from this website. Try not to sue the nice red interrupt button to give yourself a break. As this project is still in development, it’s pretty bare at the moment.
Tomatoes – Great for the competitive person, or if you like graphs. It’s a Pomodoro timer that also tracks your progress of how many pomodori you do.
Strict Workflow – A step up from the other timers, Strict Workflow is a pre-configured Pomodoro extension. All you need to do is click on the tomato button, and you work without any distractions. How so? Strict Workflow is also already arranged to block popular internet distractions, which you can customize to meet your browsing preferences. The thing that really bugs me about this extension though is that it does not immediately start blocking those distracting websites when the five-minute break is over. Also, sometimes I saw that the timer pauses if you close your browser and allows you to view your blocked websites. Despite the glitches, the app works fine if you keep it in a separate window.
Morphine – I swear it’s not what you think. This extension is a great alternative to Strict Workflow when paired with any of the first three timers. Morphine gives you free time on the internet if you stay off of distracting sites for a given amount of time. The extension also has a site blocker as well to help you resist the urge to browse. On Morphine’s settings page, set your interval to be every 25 minutes and your charge size to be +5 so you save minutes for your big break and still take your small 5 minute breaks.
Out of all of the apps and extensions, the winning combination for me was Timer and Morphine. I was surprised at how many sites I spent my time on (11!), and how little time I had to use on all. This led to me not going to some as often, or completely cutting out of my daily internet browsing routine.
I hope this guide to the Pomodoro technique encourages you to try it as well. The more you make yourself adhere to the times, the more easier it becomes; and eventually, it will become second nature to you. If you try to Pomodoro technique, please leave a comment with your results. If you try any of the app and extensions listed, comment as well! It would be great to see what results our fellow students have!
After taking the MCAT, I thought the hard part was over… but I was wrong. Filling out my application was the hardest part, not because it was confusing or difficult, but simply because I could not find the motivation to do so. After spending the last two months studying every waking moment, my mind wanted a well-deserved break. So, every time I logged into my AMCAS account or began editing my personal statement, my mind would wander off and find something else that needed to be done. I used excuse after excuse until I could no longer put it off without severely harming my chances at being accepted into medical school the following year.
However, lest I scare you all off, the application process is not as scary as it sounds. Majority of it is pretty basic: personal information, class lists, and education. The hardest aspects are the extracurricular information and developing your personal statement. What makes them so difficult is because you are given free rein to supply any information you would like – meaning this is the information that truly sets you apart from other applicants. In these two sections, you have the chance to become a true candidate instead of your MCAT score. And, of course, this is where I had the most trouble.
When filling these sections out, everyone I asked had a different opinion of what I should include and how to do so. Do I list all my awards in one section? How should I list my research and the conferences? These are just some of the questions I did not want to face; hence my procrastination. However, once I finally became serious about finishing my application, I wanted things to be perfect. Every comma and period had to be in the perfect place. This attitude was even worse when I finally wrote my personal statement.
At first, inspiration struck and I managed to write about half of it in a single sitting. The rest did not come as easily but I managed to put one together. The worst part though was editing. I asked my father and siblings to read it, however, their comments were not that approving. It was then that I had to learn that “ink was love”, and that all of their corrections meant that they cared. This also meant that I went through approximately either or nine drafts before I finally felt it was ready to be submitted.
Then came the next stressful part: letters of recommendation and transcripts. Even though I was ready to submit my application, these parts were not under my control and became a heavier burden then I could imagine. The former can actually be a pitfall for many students who do not think to ask their professors early – especially science professors who, might I add, are notorious for not turning things in on time. However, I did manage to have enough foresight to ask my professors back in April; but for one professor, it was not enough. He finally gave it to me three months later in July.
The application process can be daunting for many people because it is the chance to really personalize their candidacy, but that is also the most exciting part as well. However, it is important to start early, especially before you lose your motivation.