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Improving Your Grades

Course of Study Academic Coherence Lectures Taking Notes
Studying Efficiently Studying: Notes and Texts
Study Aids
Falling Behind
Grades Expected for Medical Schools


Choosing a Course of Study

One of the greatest aspects of current admission requirements to medical schools is the liberty given to students in choosing a course of study. The university student completing an undergraduate degree in economics, biology, languages or psychology, all essentially have the same opportunity for admissions. The importance of this concept cannot be overstated. Every year many students are herded into programs like biochemistry and physiology, not for the love of the program, but rather because of fantasies of an improved chance of admissions to medical studies. The fabrication worsens as students rationalize their choices on the basis that when they take similar courses in medical school, they will perform better.

A few clarifications are in order. To begin with, the person who performs best in anatomy in medical school tends to be the student who never had studied anatomy as an undergraduate student. While the medical student with the major in anatomy is concentrating elsewhere, the novice is learning at an exponential rate. Previous experience is not necessarily well correlated with future success. Secondly, the aspect of your undergraduate record which has the greater impact on all medical schools, bar none, is the grade not the course of study.

If you love biochemistry then please pursue it. If architecture, business or physics is more to your liking, stretch your mind and explore. The key is to choose a course of study and/or electives which you enjoy. Consequently, the likelihood is strongest that you will perform optimally. This is the beauty of the admissions process - to broaden your scope of experience is not simply acceptable, it is laudable.

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Academic Coherence

As a rule, it will work to your advantage to maintain yourself as a full-time student (since the definition of 'full-time' varies among medical schools clarify ambiguities in advance of course selection; part-time students must clarify the conditions of eligibility with individual medical schools). It is also important to have completed the expected number of credits during the prescribed time period, even if this necessitates completing summer courses. A few medical schools, however, will accept credits received for summer courses but will not include the grade into the overall grade point average (GPA) for admissions.

Academic coherence must be evident in your course of study. If the logic of your course selection is not evident then you must address the issue in your autobiographical materials or during the medical school interview. Do not apologize for taking a particular course of study, rather, describe the characteristics you learned or developed which may be relevant to the study of medicine.

Carefully analyze the pre-requisites for the medical schools which interest you. It is critical that you spend time to ensure that you have fulfilled all the basic academic requirements. As a rule, the year of your academic program should generally correspond to the "year" of your courses. If the preceding is not the case then provide good reasons.

It's OK to be different, everybody is! Most students think that their academic history is unique. Well, at this very moment, there are students studying medicine who had taken time off from school, who had had a horrible undergraduate year, who changed undergraduate programs, who had to re-write the MCAT*, who completed a PhD, who completed two bachelor degrees, who are over 40 years old, etc. Medical schools have even designed their admissions requirements to allow for the enormous diversity in the applicant pool. The message is simple. Be sure you are pursuing a course of study in which, each day, you can look forward to attending the lectures.

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Lectures

Before you set foot in a classroom you should consider the value of being there. Even if you were taking a course like 'Basket-weaving 101,' one way to help you do well in the course is to consider the value of the course to you. The course should have an intrinsic value (i.e. "I enjoy weaving baskets"). The course will also have an extrinsic value (i.e. "If I do not get good grades, I will not be accepted..."). Motivation, a positive attitude, and an interest in learning give you an edge before the class even begins.

Unless there is a student "note-taking club" for your courses, your attendance record and the quality of your notes should both be as excellent as possible. Be sure to choose seating in the classroom which ensures that you will be able to hear the professor adequately and see whatever she may write. Whenever possible, do not sit close to friends!

Instead of chattering before the lecture begins, spend the idle moments quickly reviewing the previous lecture in that subject so you would have an idea of what to expect. Try to take good notes and pay close attention. The preceding may sound like a difficult combination (esp. with professors who speak and write quickly); however, with practice you can learn to do it well.

And finally, do not let the quality of teaching affect your interest in the subject nor your grades! Do not waste your time during or before lectures complaining about how the professor speaks too quickly, does not explain concepts adequately, etc... When the time comes, you can mention such issues on the appropriate evaluation forms! In the meantime, consider this: despite the good or poor quality of teaching, there is always a certain number of students who still perform well. You must strive to count yourself among those students.

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Taking Notes

Unless your professor says otherwise, if you take excellent notes and learn them inside out, you will ace his course. Your notes should always be up-to-date, complete, and separate from other subjects.

To be safe, you should try to write everything! You can fill in any gaps by comparing your notes with those of your friends. You can create your own shorthand symbols or use standard ones. 

Many students rewrite their notes at home. Should you decide to rewrite your notes, your time will be used efficiently if you are paying close attention to the information you are rewriting. In fact, a more useful technique is the following: during class, write your notes only on the right side of your binder. Later, rewrite the information from class in a complete but condensed form on the left side of the binder (this condensed form should include mnemonics which we will discuss later).

Some students find it valuable to use different color pens. Juggling pens in class may distract you from the content of the lecture. Different color pens would be more useful in the context of rewriting one's notes.

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The Principles of Studying Efficiently

If you study efficiently, you will have enough time for extracurricular activities, movies, etc. The bottom line is that your time must be used efficiently and effectively.

During the average school day, time can be found during breaks, between classes, and after school to quickly review notes in a library or any other quiet place you can find on campus. Simply by using the available time in your school day, you can keep up to date with recent information.

You should design a personal study schedule to meet your particular needs. However, as a rule, a certain amount of time every evening should be set aside for more in depth studying. Week-ends can be set aside for special projects and reviewing notes from the beginning.

On the surface, the idea of regularly reviewing notes from the beginning may sound like an insurmountable task which would take forever! The reality is just the opposite. After all, if you continually study the information, by the time mid-terms approach you would have seen the first lecture so many times that it would take only moments to review it again. On the other hand, had you not been reviewing regularly, it would be like reading that lecture for the first time!

You should study wherever you are comfortable and effective studying (i.e. library, at home, etc.). Should you prefer studying at home, be sure to create an environment which is conducive to studying.

Studying should be an active process to memorize and understand a given set of material. Memorization and comprehension are best achieved by the elaboration of course material, attention, repetition, and practicing retrieval of the information. All these principles are borne out in the following techniques.

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Studying from Notes and Texts

Successful studying from either class notes or textbooks can be accomplished in three simple steps:

* Preview the material: read all the relevant headings, titles, and sub-titles to give you a general idea of what you are about to learn. You should never embark on a trip without knowing where you are going!

* Read while questioning: passive studying is when you sit in front of a book and just read. This can lead to boredom, lack of concentration, or even worse - difficulty remembering what you just read! Active studying involves reading while actively questioning yourself. For example: how does this fit in with the `big picture'? How does this relate to what we learned last week? What cues about these words or lists will make it easy for me to memorize them? What type of question would my professor ask me? If I was asked a question on this material, how would I answer? Etc...

* Recite and consider: put the notes or text away while you attempt to recall the main facts. Once you are able to recite the important information, consider how it relates to the entire subject.

N.B. if you ever sit down to study and you are not quite sure with which subject to begin, always start with either the most difficult subject or the subject you like least (usually they are one in the same!).

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Study Aids

The most effective study aids include practice exams, mnemonics and audio cassettes.

Practice exams (exams from previous semesters) are often available from the library, upper level students, or sometimes from the professor. They can be used like maps which guide you through your semester. They give you a good indication as to what information you should emphasize when you study; what question types and exam format you can expect; and what your level of progress is.

One practice exam should be set aside to write one week before `the real thing'. You should time yourself and write the exam in an environment free from distractions. This provides an ideal way to uncover unexpected weak points.

Mnemonics are an effective way of memorizing lists of information. Usually a word, phrase, or sentence is constructed to symbolize a greater amount of information (i.e. LEO is A GERC = Lose Electrons is Oxidation is Anode, Gain Electrons is Reduction at Cathode). An effective study aid to active studying is the creation of your own mnemonics.

Audio cassettes can be used as effective tools to repeat information and to use your time efficiently. Information from the left side of your notes (see Taking Notes) including mnemonics, can be dictated onto cassette. Often, an entire semester of work can be summarized into one 90 minute cassette.

Now you can listen to the cassettes in a walkman while waiting in line at the bank, or in a bus or with a car stereo on the way to school, work, etc. You can also listen to a cassette when you go to sleep and listen to another one first thing in the morning. You are probably familiar with the situation of having heard a song early in the morning and then having difficulty, for the rest of the day, getting it out of your mind! Well, imagine if the first thing you heard in the morning was: "Hair is a modified keratinized structure produced by the cylindrical downgrowth of epithelium...". Thus the cassette becomes an effective study aid since it is an extra source of repetition.

Some students like to tape lectures. Though it may be helpful to fill in missing notes, it is not an efficient way to repeat information.

Some students like to use study cards on which they may write either a summary of information they must memorize or relevant questions to consider. Then the cards are used throughout the day to quickly flash information to promote thought on course material.

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Falling Behind

Imagine yourself as a marathon runner who has run 25.5 km of a 26 km race. The finishing line is now in view. However, you have fallen behind some of the other runners. The most difficult aspect of the race is still ahead.

In such a scenario some interesting questions can be asked: Is now the time to drop out of the race because 0.5 km suddenly seems like a long distance? Is now the time to reevaluate whether or not you should have competed? Or is now the time to remain faithful to your goals and give 100%?

Imagine one morning in mid-semester you wake up realizing you have fallen behind in your studies. What do you do? Where do you start? Is it too late?

Like a doctor being presented with an urgent matter, you should see the situation as one of life's challenges. Now is the worst time for doubts, rather, it is the time for action. A clear line of action should be formulated such that it could be followed.

For example, one might begin by gathering all pertinent study materials like a complete set of study notes, relevant text(s), sample exams, etc. As a rule, to get back into the thick of things, notes and sample exams take precedence. Studying at this point should take a three-pronged approach: i) a regular, consistent review of the information from your notes from the beginning of the section for which you are responsible (i.e. starting with the first class); ii) a regular, consistent review of course material as you are learning it from the lectures (this is the most efficient way to study); iii) regular testing using questions given in class or those contained in sample exams. Using such questions will clarify the extent of your progress.

It is also of value, as time allows, to engage in extracurricular activities which you find helpful in reducing stress (i.e. sports, piano, creative writing, etc.).

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