Earning a high GPA while juggling extracurricular activities is one of the hardest tasks to accomplish as an undergraduate premed student. And in medical school, balancing school work with other activities continues to remain a challenge.
Unfortunately, while time is preciously limited, a lot still needs to get done. So it's important to find ways to maximize your time and get the best grades possible. I am by no means a perfect learner, but here are some tactics that I’ve learned from experience, research and friends.
1. Study at the next level: One of the first steps to smart studying is going the extra mile in your learning. You can do this by following Bloom’s taxonomy, a classification of educational learning objectives.
It has six levels. The first three levels – remembering, understanding and applying – are the lower levels of thinking. These levels are necessary steppingstones to higher levels of learning, which include analyzing, evaluating and creating.
College students usually focus on the lower levels of learning, with many simply settling for the mere memorization and cramming of knowledge. In order to improve from B's to A's on tests, you will need to achieve a higher level of learning. The higher levels of learning focus on asking questions like why, how and what if, rather than what, who and where.
For example, let’s say you just memorized the Krebs cycle. The next step would be to ask yourself, "What would happen if a certain enzyme in the Krebs cycle were defective?" or "What physiological change could result from a change in the molecular biology?"
Being able to deduce solutions to these kinds of questions decreases the amount of memorizing you have to do and increases your ability to excel at difficult problems on exams.
2. Focus with short bursts of study time: Many people block out extended periods of time for studying. For example, a medical student may decide that he or she is going to study from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Others decide that they’re going to study “all day” on Saturday.
Unfortunately, having long periods of time to study could be counterproductive because there is less urgency. Try studying in 1-3 hour bursts and giving yourself time off proportional to the amount you study.
Take advantage of your hour breaks in between class. Study for 40 minutes while you are running an experiment in research. Use the two hours before your next premed meeting to study.
If you are going to study all day on Saturday, schedule meals with a friend so you are forced to study as much as you can between those meals. Giving yourself less time to study may actually increase your efficiency when studying.
3. Test yourself whenever possible: Leading education researchers have published studies on the benefit of repeated testing to improve learning and long-term retention. Being tested is not only useful in evaluating how well you learned something; it is also valuable for learning from mistakes. Answering questions unsuccessfully often helps you remember and understand concepts better.
If your professor offers practice exams, use them. And don’t just take the exams; learn from both your mistakes and your successes. Understand why you got certain questions wrong and other questions right.
When studying with friends, quiz and challenge each other. When studying alone, ask yourself questions at the end to consolidate what you know. Force each other to think more critically than you normally would.
I personally like to make practice tests for myself while studying so that I can use those tests to review later on. And writing these tests forces me to understand the material well enough to write a good test question.
4. Prioritize your studying: Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to overcome a low GPA if you want to be admitted to medical school. No amount of extracurricular activities can make up for a poor GPA, so don't take on more than you can handle.
If you know that participating in a certain extracurricular activity will prevent you from studying the amount that you need to, restrain yourself. Do not have the mentality that you will make up your GPA later on.
Being a successful premed student requires balance, and it is up to you to find what works for you. But hopefully these tips can help you study effectively and efficiently, especially amid of all your other responsibilities.