When I decided I was going to try to get into medical school, I’d had thirteen years of grade school, three years of college, and two years of grad school. But the vast majority of this time was spent in classes in the arts, and the art I perfected was that of doing just enough to get an A- in anything. (The trick to that, if you’re interested, is: read the assigned material closely enough to get the gist of the ideas, show up to most of the classes (in particular the first three and the last three), write a paper that is slightly longer than the minimum assigned length, and string together coherent sentences for the midterm and final. So few people (no matter how fancy the school) manage to do all of those things that they’ll feel guilty marking you down much for simple crappiness (and believe me, I was guilty of much crappiness). There were a few classes that I got really into, but it seemed like even when I flayed myself open for a class, the T.A. wouldn’t care for my take on the subject and would give me an A- anyway.)
So let’s say I was a tad unprepared for premed classes. I had a heavy load of them, too, since I pretty much hadn’t done anything in college that counted as a science course, with the exception of Physics for Phreaks (where all I remember doing is going on a field trip to walk through a noise-canceling room while some poor grad student babbled about waves). I crammed into a two-semester period almost every required premed course, including labs. I read the books and got the gist; I showed up for class; and when I sat down for my first test—a physics quiz—I wasn’t too worried.
My attitude was rudely adjusted when the quiz came back with a big red “59” written in the top right corner. Thanks to the curve (a lovely device not often used in liberal arts courses), it worked out to something like a C, but holy shit—a 59??? I had blown 41 percent of the questions?? This wasn’t going to get me into med school. And I’d already quit my job.
OK, so it was firmly established that I was no Feynmann. I needed to get serious. Here’s the method I followed:
- Realize that how painful something is to study is directly proportional to how much you need to study it.
- Go to every class—and stay awake.
- Read all of the material, painstakingly slowly, at least three times over.
- The “gist” is useless; memorization is what counts.
- After you think you’ve memorized something, try writing it all down on a blank sheet of paper. Hmm, maybe not as well memorized as you thought?
- When you quiz yourself, which should be often, make sure you get all of the answers right three times in a row.
- Beware the mnemonic. Mnemonics only work in very specific circumstances. For instance, “NAVY” is a handy mnemonic for remembering the order in which one encounters the important structures in the groin: Nerve, Artery, Vein, Ying-Yang. Most mnemonics, no matter how clever or bawdy, just inspire one to invention. Does that I in “PILES of POOP” stand for Ischemic? Infectious? Iatrogenic? Ipsilateral? Italian? Who the hell knows? I found that making up a memorable saying works much better. For instance, if you drink enough alcohol to affect your liver, there is a tell-tale pattern to the increase in the liver enzymes: the AST, aka the SGOT, is usually twice as high as the ALT, aka the SGPT. I remember this by saying “You AST for it, you SGOT it.” (I know it’s stupid. But it works—I remember not only the pattern, but that AST=SGOT.) Corny tricks like the ones for remembering someone’s name (you know, picturing Mr. Heinz as a giant ketchup bottle, for example) work well also.
- You will never be hip again. Obviously.
- Get enough sleep. Cramming all night the day before a test does not work for science classes.
- Study similar things in proximity to each other. Calculus and physics go well together, for instance.
- If studying something is making you fall asleep, take a power nap.
- I said power nap. Do not let yourself sleep longer than 20 minutes.
- Colorful highlighters and tabs and note cards are festive and helpful—up to a point. Past that point, they become time-sucking OCD rituals.
In a few years I’m going to have to take my recertification test, so I’ll be hauling out these methods pretty soon. For now, I confess that I’m often getting by on the gist.