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How do top EMS and medical students study?

Read the response and add your own thoughts in the comments

A question posted recently on Quora asked “How do top medical students study? Drew Young Shin, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and cardiology at Standford University, gave his opinion on the topic. Read his response, and add your own to the comments.

In the spirit of providing concrete (and hopefully helpful) advice: Here are some ideas to to be as efficient as possible to process, digest, and retain the deluge of information medical school (or any vocational school for that matter) offers:


Divide & Conquer. Categorize your study content into the following buckets:

  • Can I learn this right now in under 5-10 minutes?
  • Can I delegate this? (see teamwork below)
  • Can I put this off until later?

After a full day of classes and workshops, many medical students find their study load to be dauntingly heavy, intimidating and disorganized. The content to learn is often significantly more voluminous and complicated than that of college and many students find themselves in uncharted territory trying to expand their mental bandwidth.

Take an hour after classes to systematically divide your study load into these categories. Once completed, take a breath and then conquer the first bucket:

Can I learn this right now in under 5-10 minutes?

Because these are low-hanging fruits, you will find that studying is manageable. Learning items in this category should be at a quicker pace and in a short 1-2 hours, you’ll have accomplished a significant amount. Day by day, the baggy study load becomes organized and manageable which is KEY to efficiency. This approach also provides much needed motivation to tackle the more complicated and dense materials.


No one makes it alone. Find your team. Your study group should be small enough where you must be a participating active member and not a passive silent participant. You have to trust your team: trust them enough to be comfortably wrong.

When organizing your study load, consider which elements can be potentially delegated to the study group (particularly if you lack interest or strength in an area and one of your team members has a particular passion for that subject).

Why burn hours and mental anguish trying to understand renal pathophysiology when a friend can break it down for you in easy to understand principles and concepts? Likewise, things may be delegated to you, at which point you’ll find yourself teaching: an invaluable way to reinforce learning.

An efficient and trusted team will shave off much waste and add significant value to your study time. My team was a group of four trusted stalwarts; more than 10 years later we continue to remain close in friendship.

Can I put this off until later?

This is such an important element to organizing your material. Prioritizing the timeliness of your curriculum is a necessary tool to achieving sustainability in an increasingly additive workload. You minimize the waste of learning something that could have been put off at the cost of learning something you should have focused on due to an upcoming exam, rotation or workshop. Simply by taking the time to categorize when something should be learned will help you stay focused, in-the-moment, and never behind.


Most people believe your mind is your mind and there’s little one can do to importantly augment how quickly you process information. But here are some thoughts than can make incrementally small differences to give you an edge:

Sleep. All nighters to cram has diminishing returns. Lack of sleep and fatigue has been compared to a blood alcohol level of at least 0.1 percent in one Australian study. Your performance (exam, verbatim recall) and your coordination (procedures, surgery) will be significantly better after a restful sleep.

Caffeine. This is a drug. Overuse predictably lends oneself to dependence. The absence of this drug will predictably lead to a state of withdrawal and detract from performance and mental efficiency (headaches, moodiness.

Used sparingly in key moments, caffeine will predictably AUGMENT mental efficiency. A group of us in medical school never drank coffee on a regular basis. We leveraged it by drinking it strategically right before an exam. Our bodies never got accustomed to it and much like an intermittent drug, we felt the augmented mental alacrity when taking it sparingly (n.b. we never experimented with nor recommend “stay awake drugs” such as Provigil).

Stop multitasking. We live in an era where smartphones and tablets are constantly at our fingertips. Distractibility, attention-deficiency and hyper-activity are real phenomenons that children, young adults and professionals struggle with in this information-accessible culture. It is an addiction and the metaphorical quick-sand of efficient learning and productivity. Set predetermined times of studying and breaks to minimize these hazardous distractions.

These tips aren’t meant for everyone. Learning styles are highly individualized - from toddlers to medical students. Visual, audio, oral, organized or procrastinator, repetition or photographic ... the key is to gain insight into your personal styles and strengths (reference: Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences & Carl Jung’s learning style dimensions).

Having achieved entrance to medical school, chances are you are well aware of what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t re-invent! Rather, build on what has already made you successful thus far.

I hope some of this is helpful. Now stop procrastinating and get back to studying!

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