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Applying to Med/PA School

5 Tips To Streamline Your Studying

About Ryan

A native of Katonah, New York, Ryan is currently studying Philosophy, Chemistry and Biology at UNC Chapel Hill. After graduation, he hopes to earn his MD and Masters in Bioethics through a dual degree program, and then practice as a pediatrician while researching bioethics and health policy.

Sometimes, it feels like there’s a reason “studying” has the word “dying” in it.

As pre-med students, we’ve all been there: looking at the bottom of an empty coffee cup as the clock strikes midnight and your 9AM exam breathes down your neck.

You’re not alone. I’ll let you in on a little college secret: nobody actually knows what they’re doing. When it comes to studying, if you feel like you don’t know where to start, that’s okay.

To save you time, I’ve combed through the research and compiled a list of 5 evidence-based, scientifically proven tips for mastering any science topic. Give them a try, see what works, and run with it. You’ll be on track for an A in no time.

“As pre-med students, we’ve all been there: looking at the bottom of an empty coffee cup as the clock strikes midnight and your 9AM exam breathes down your neck.”

TIP 1: Put away your phone while studying.

In 2009, Stanford professor Eyal Ophir conducted research on multitaskers, focusing specifically on those multitasking with media (ex: Facebook or emailing). He found that multitaskers struggle to sort through irrelevant information, organize their memories, and, ironically, switch tasks efficiently. Instead, his research indicated that if we really want to be productive, we should focus on finishing one task at a time.

Of course, this is difficult when many college assignments and study resources are online, such as Webassign, MasteringBiology, Quizlet, Sapling, etc. For that reason, I recommend downloading “SelfControl,” an app that can blacklist websites while you’re studying. (Note: this is Mac-only, though you can download it for Google Chrome here.)

Start with the basics: ban Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. As you go, try to identify additional distractions, and add those to the lists. Start small, with 30 or 45 minute sessions at a time. And remember: once you activate SelfControl, you can’t turn it off until the set time has elapsed.

TIP 2: Study in the right place.

The British Journal of Educational Technology presented evidence that studying is most effective in environments that are free from distractions, that enable access to all materials needed, and that are generally conducive to focus on the material. Great study locations include libraries, student centers, and your dorm. If you choose to study in your dorm, make sure your desk is clear from clutter and distractions, and try to avoid studying on your bed.

Interestingly, psychological data suggest alternating study locations can also be beneficial. Texas A&M University Scientist Dr. Steven Smith posits that different study locations allow us to develop stronger connections with the material. So, when studying, make sure you pick several good environments, and then try cycling through these locations when studying the same material.

TIP 3: Study mixed problem sets.

Researchers in the Journal of Applied Psychology and the Journal of Psychology and Aging have presented data that show that interweaving concepts (abccabcba) allows us to better identify and respond to problems across disciplines than studying concepts in blocks (aaabbbccc) does.

What does this mean for us? When your biology midterm approaches, review each of your units and then practice them all together rather than studying each unit individually ad nauseam.

Try flashcards, or mixed problem sets (like a practice test). Not only will this help you learn the material more effectively, this type of practice will like bear greater similarity to the structure of the test itself.

TIP 4: Maintain a healthy level of stress. 

Over one century ago, psychologists Dr. Yerkes and Dr. Dodson developed the Yerkes-Dodson Law. It showed that there is a relationship between stress and performance: for tasks that are difficult, like learning molecular pathways or organic chemistry, stress and performance are related in the shape of a bell curve.

At low levels of stress, you have low performance — you’re simply not motivated to begin or complete your tasks. As stress increases, you become more focused and diligent, and thus performance rises too. However, at a certain point, this relationship reverses. When stress becomes excessive, productivity decreases; you’re simply too stressed to think effectively.

“When you’re feeling unmotivated, remind yourself why the material is important to you.”

It’s easier in theory than in practice to hit this “sweet spot.” So, when you’re feeling unmotivated, remind yourself why the material is important to you (e.g. your career, your personal satisfaction, etc.) More likely than not, though, the problem is too much, rather than too little, stress.

So what can you do to compensate? Thankfully, there are a number of simple practices that can make a world of difference when practiced mindfully. Here’s one Harvard Health-approved technique you can implement right away. Step 1: “Choose a calming focus.” Choose a word, a phrase, an image, or even just your breath. Step 2: For one minute, bring your attention to that calming focus as you inhale and exhale. As you do this, try to “let go and relax.”

TIP 5: Form a study group.

This, of course, should supplement, rather than replace independent studying. Dr. Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University in Saint Louis, describes group work as “a way for students to make the lecture notes their own” through a series of dynamic interactions, such as division of labor, debate, and other natural but important elements of group work.

But how do you form an effective study group? As I’m sure you know, this doesn’t necessarily mean choosing your friends. In groups, people have the tendency to reduce their effort and shift the majority of the work to one person. You’ve probably experienced this psychological phenomenon, known as “social loafing,” at play in group lab work. Social loafing spans tasks and generations, so make sure you guard against this in the group setting. Try reminding yourself why you enjoy the material and why it is important that you work diligently, as both meaning and evaluation are seen to moderate social loafing.

So, how do we make the most out of group work? According to Dr. Michael Champion and Dr. Gina Medsker, proper composition of a group entails an assortment of heterogeneous, flexible people who have a preference for group work. (So, if you loathe group work, this might not be the study method for you. Keep in mind, however, medical schools are looking for team players.)


I can’t speak for you, but I know I should be studying, so it’s time to wrap up. But before we do, let’s go through the tips one more time. I’ve included concrete actions you can take to start putting all five of them into practice today.

  1. Put away your phone while studying. Put it in your backpack, in a drawer, or even give it to a friend — but get it out of your hand. Turn on SelfControl (or another analogous app), and get to work!
  2. Study in a place that is free of distractions and has access to the materials you need. Try the library, the student union, or the biology department building. Rotate through these locations when studying the material.
  3. Study mixed problem sets. You should certainly review each unit, but when preparing for the exam, you should practice all types of problems together.
  4. Keep your stress levels healthy. This is easier said than done, but breathing exercises will allow you to reign in your stress and maximize your productivity.
  5. Form a study group. Beware of social loafing by focusing on the meaning and evaluation of your tasks. Make groups that are heterogeneous, flexible, and full of people that enjoy group work.

Finally, it’s important to have a good mentality. Education should be an enriching experience and one that expands our mental boundaries. As pre-meds, it’s easy to view college as a function: hard work in, grades out, and BOOM: acceptance into medical school. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s unproductive. Striving for grades alone obfuscates what we’re here for–to learn. Always remember: by studying and learning, you’ve already won.

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