The First Semester of Medical School is Done!

My first semester of medical school is officially done! It has been even better than I imagined. There is no doubt that medical school is tough and demanding. However, the opportunity to work with passionate physicians, professors, students and patients has challenged me and kept me motivated.

Highlights of the first semester of medical school:

  1. Fascinating material: So far we have covered 3 blocks: Public Health, Respiration and Circulation. I really enjoyed the diagnostic aspects of these blocks such as interpreting chest X-rays and ECGs, as well as the anatomy and histology labs. I also enjoyed the various clinical scenarios where we had to come up with a diagnosis.
  2. Family Medicine shadowing: I have been enjoying the Longitudinal Family Medicine Experience where we get to shadow a family doctor in their practice two to three times a month. It has been so interesting to see what we learned in class reinforced in the clinical setting.
  3. Surgery shadowing: I had the wonderful opportunity to shadow an OBGYN endoscopic surgeon in the OR. It was an incredible experience!

Study Tips:

As the months have progressed, I have been refining my study methods and trying out new techniques:

  1. Keep up with the material: In medical school, it is critical to keep up with the lectures on a daily basis otherwise the amount of material becomes unmanageable.
  2. Be strategic: Learn to identify what material is “high yield” and focus on that. It is almost impossible to memorize every single detail presented and you may burn out trying to do so.
  3. Test yourself: I have found it very helpful to test myself often, either using online quizzes or building my own quizzes using key material from the lectures. My strategy is to write out 15 to 20 questions in an excel sheet following each lecture, upload the questions into an app called cram.com, then regularly test myself.
  4. Explain it: Try to explain a difficult topic to a classmate (or in my case, usually my husband) to see whether you have really understood it. This will help to solidify the material and you will recall it more easily.
  5. Remember the ultimate goal: Remember that the purpose of your learning is to become the best doctor you can be for your patients. Try to learn the material in a way that you can remember it in the long-term, rather than just short-term cramming in order to pass an exam.

How is balancing medical school with a family going? Generally, it is going well. I try to get the bulk of my studying done during the day and during the week so that I reserve my evenings and most of the weekends for family-time. I also try to multi-task listening to recorded lectures while commuting, cooking, cleaning or exercising. I don’t always succeed in finding a balance but I keep trying!

How to handle the heavy workload? If possible, it is important have a support network in place. I am very thankful to my husband for his help with our children and around the house, as well as my friends who have upheld me in prayer. Also, I try to reserve some time for my music hobby, devotional time and to exercise. This keeps my physical, emotional and spiritual life healthy. Planning my week also helps with getting things done in the most efficient way. Things don’t always go perfectly and I do feel overwhelmed sometimes. But developing a plan, being organized and reaching out for help when you need it can help you get through those particularly difficult moments.

Overall,  I am very happy with how the first semester of medical school has gone. I feel incredibly privileged to be pursuing a career in medicine. If you have a dream, don’t ever give up on it. Keep persevering, keep your head up high and surge forward with all your strength. You can do it!

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Getting ready for the OR!
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Enjoying the last of Fall before the snow finally came!
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Getting ready for Christmas!
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Ten Tips to Be at Your Best on MCAT Exam Day

You’ve studied. You’ve given it your best. And now exam day is nearly here. I would like to share with you some tips that helped me to be at my best in the lead up to the MCAT and finally on the day of the exam itself.

  1. Start getting to bed early and slow down on studying: Because the exam is now about 7 hours long, there are no options to take the exam in the afternoon. Therefore you are going to have to be at the testing center by about 7:30am at the latest for the exam that starts at 8am. Training your body to get up early will help to ensure you get a full nights rest before the exam and give you the stamina to get through the exam and ace it! Depending on your philosophy, taking a day-off from studying the day and night before the exam could be a good way to give you a small break before you take the actual exam.
  2. Psychological factors:  I drove to the testing center location (which was 30 minutes away) two days before the exam, scouted out the parking options and went right into the testing center to see what the layout looked like. This had a profound effect on my frame of mind the day of the exam because I knew exactly where I needed to go. I wasn’t worrying about it the night before the exam. Not everyone has the luxury of going to the testing center beforehand. But in my situation, I found it to be a big psychological help to have been to the testing center before the actual exam.
  3. Take a deep breath: Before I started each section of the exam, I would take some deep breaths and try to get focused before diving into the passage and questions. It’s true that you have to be fast on the exam, but you can probably afford 5-10 seconds before the start of each section to regroup your thoughts.
  4. Test-taking strategies: You may have developed a strategy for answering questions as you went through the practice tests. Mine was not to linger on a question for more than 1 minute. If I was stuck, I marked it and came back to it at the end of the section. Also, if a passage had a lot of dense information, I did not read the passage word for word. I breezed over it quickly for the general idea then looked at the questions to determine what was really needed from the passage. This will save you time as a lot of information on the passages is extraneous.
  5. What is the basic science? As you have probably already gleaned from the practice tests, there are some passages where it will seem like you have no idea what the passage is about. The material will be disguising itself under a veil of the unknown. Try to remind yourself that the MCAT generally only tests the fundamentals of science you have studied. Try to tease this out from the passage and apply what you know.
  6. One answer is more “correct” than the other: There will be some answer choices that both seem “correct” however you have to ask yourself whether the answer is addressing the question being asked. Pay attention to key words like “Except”, “Most likely”, “Explicitly”, “Implicitly. This will guide you to the truly correct answer.
  7. Carry snacks, lunch and water: Its important to keep your energy up so carry enough food and water to sustain you throughout the day.
  8. Breaks are shorter than you think: Depending on the number of examinees and the level of security at your testing center, allow 2-4 minutes total to be “processed” in and out of the exam room every time you leave for a scheduled break. The 10 minute breaks in particular go by very fast so be quick if you need to go to the bathroom and have a snack. Psychologically, you don’t want to end up feeling flustered because the next section started before you got back to your seat.
  9. Finish a section and then forget about it: From my own experience and from other MCAT takers I have spoken to, it is difficult to judge your performance from how you feel. Therefore, I decided that no matter how I felt about a section, I was not going to dwell on it once it was finished. I was going to give the next section my best shot no matter how discouraged or unsure I felt about the previous section.
  10. Don’t give up: By the time I got to the last section of the exam (Psychology), my brain was exhausted. I had a hard time concentrating on the passage and was finding myself unhelpfully re-reading it over and over. I stopped reading, looked down at my desk, said a prayer for strength, took a few deep breaths and kept going. Don’t get discouraged. The MCAT is a marathon but you can make it through to the end! Taking a few seconds here and there to regroup your thoughts can be helpful in renewing your focus.

I wish you the very best as you prepare for your exam. You can do it!

Related posts:

How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

Ten Strategies to Avoid Burnout While Preparing for the MCAT

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

Ten Strategies to Avoid Burnout While Preparing for the MCAT

spongebob mcat

I received a question from a reader about how to handle burnout when preparing for the MCAT. How does one maintain stamina while studying for this important exam? I would like to share with you my tips on what helped me get through those months of preparation. There were certainly moments when I felt exhausted so I knew I had to find ways to attain balance in my life.

Everyone’s situation is different, be it as a student, being employed, having children or other family members to take care of, among other scenarios. Some of the tips below may or may not be applicable to your situation but hopefully there will still be something you can take away from this post that will help you handle those intense months of studying without burning out.

My situation is that I was working full time during my first two takes of the MCAT (in 2005 and 2008) and then on maternity leave during my third take of the MCAT (2015). All these scenarios required effort to maintain balance. Below you will find my suggested tips for keeping your head above water as you prepare for the MCAT:

  1. Draft a study schedule: On my first two takes of the MCAT, I did not have a clear idea of my study plans. I simply opened books and started reading. The result was that I started to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material and I ended up running out of time towards the end to complete all the material and to practice questions. On my third take, I created a flexible study schedule that gave me an idea of what chapters to study each week. This put me in a good frame of mind knowing that I would eventually cover all the required material and still have time for practice questions.
  2. Strategic studying: It is tempting to put in hour and hours of studying at a time for the MCAT. I have fallen into that trap and it was not the most efficient because our brains only have so much staying power. I found my recall and grasp of material to be much better when I broke up my studying into blocks of approximately 1-2 hours then took a break for about 15 to 30 minutes. A regular change of pace helps to get the brain back in gear for studying.
  3. Rotate subject areas: At some point, you may get tired of reading from the same subject area. When I set up my study schedule, I alternated subject areas on each day, for example, Mon-Chemistry, Tue-Biology, Wed-Physics, Thurs-Psychology, and then threw in a verbal reasoning (CARS) passage 1-2 times a week. This kept things somewhat fresh and helped to keep me motivated. Develop a study format that works for you.
  4. Take care of yourself: Exercising, eating healthily, getting enough sleep and perhaps engaging in one of your favorite hobbies will help you feel more active, physically and mentally strong. Even just a brisk 15 minute walk in the fresh air can do wonders for your frame of mind. Taking the time to pray, meditate and clear your thoughts can also help to renew your focus.
  5. Take an extended break: Depending on your situation, you may or may not have the luxury of taking a break but if you are starting to feel really burnt out, stop all studying for a few days and if you are using a study schedule, adjust it accordingly. Trying to study at the brink of burn-out may make things worse.
  6. Be creative with studying: If you are starting to feel a little overwhelmed with how much material there is to cover and you have limited time to study, look at ways to sneak in some additional study time. I listened to Khan Academy videos while washing dishes, cooking or folding laundry. I had flash cards taped to the elliptical in my basement as I exercised, I had flow-charts taped to my bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth. I also always had flashcards in my handbag to whip out if I was out somewhere and I had to wait in line etc. Yes, you may look a tad bit nerdy but you are on a mission to conquer the MCAT!
  7. Let some things go: As a mother with young children at home, I learned to let some things go so I could focus on my studying. The house was not as clean and tidy as it could have been, the meals I cooked were a bit boring for a while but I kept in mind that all this was temporary and my husband was on board and understood that there were sacrifices to be made.
  8. Get help if you can: I used to be very poor at delegating and wanted to do everything myself. I learned the hard way that this can lead to burnout in many situations so I enlisted my husband’s help and was very specific about what help I needed. Depending on your situation and your responsibilities, if you can get some help to offset some of the other pressures in your life, this can help you to feel less overwhelmed so you can focus on the MCAT.
  9. Write or talk about it: Blogging has become a therapeutic way for me to deal with the pressure of the whole medical school application process. I have found a wonderful support group in the blogosphere and I remember receiving many words of encouragement. If you prefer a more personal approach, writing in a journal can also be therapeutic. Talking about your stresses with others can also alleviate some of the pressure and allow friends and family to give you the support you need.
  10. Be confident: Recognize the person that you are, an individual full of potential who has made this important decision to pursue a noble calling. The MCAT is certainly an important exam but take some of the pressure off of yourself by realizing that there is more to you than the MCAT. You have unique life experiences to bring to the table and the MCAT is not the end of your story! Be confident in your overall ability and uniqueness!

Don’t give up! You may be feeling fed-up and frustrated with preparing for the MCAT but you will overcome it. Be confident and stay positive! You can do it!

Related post: How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me for some tips to prepare for the MCAT. I would be happy to share the techniques I used and in particular what I learned from having sat it 3 times over a period of 10 years! I didn’t feel my scores on the first two attempts were competitive enough for medical school and hence my decision to take it a third time. The retakes are so far apart in time because of some unexpected life circumstances and our decision to start a family before medical school. I was very happy with my final scores from my 3rd attempt which are a definite improvement compared to the first two attempts.

Take 1, 2005: Score 27P

  • Study duration: Approximately 3 months during the summer (while working full time) after I graduated from university.
  • Resources: Examkrackers (EK) and Princeton Review (PR)
  • Strategy: Content review and practice questions from EK and PR.
  • Lessons learned: I focused too much on content review, memorization and not enough on understanding the concepts and practicing questions. I did not have very good test-taking skills and ended up running out of time on the exam, leaving several questions unanswered. I also had not practiced the writing section much.

Take 2, 2008: Score 28S

  • Study duration: Approximately 3 months while working full-time.
  • Resources: Examkrackers (EK) and Princeton Review (PR)
  • Strategy: Content review and practice questions from EK and PR, 2 full-length AAMC exams. I also did a writing sample question every lunch-time at work.
  • Lessons learned: My strategy had not really changed much from the first time around aside from the full-length exams and working on the writing sample. Although the writing section is now obsolete, my point in mentioning this is that regular practice improved my writing score from a P to an S (the highest you could get is a T).

Take 3, 2015: Score 512 (roughly translates to a 34-35 on the old MCAT grading system)

  • Study duration: Approximately 4 months of informal reading (it was something to do while breastfeeding and changing diapers around the clock!) and then 4 months of serious preparation while on maternity leave with baby number 2 (at least 15-20 hours per week during those last 4 months)
  • Resources: Khan Academy, Examkrackers (EK), 101 passages in MCAT Verbal reasoning, Examkrackers 1001 questions in MCAT series (Chemistry, Physics, Biology), AAMC online official guide (120 questions), AAMC question pack (720 questions), 2 AAMC full-length exams (old MCAT version), 1 AAMC full-length exam (new MCAT version),
  • Strategy: Since my score had not improved significantly the second time around, I knew I needed to revamp my entire approach to the MCAT. I first combed the internet for various tips on preparing for the MCAT and the general principle I found was understanding the fundamental concepts rather than rote memorization, and then…PRACTICE!PRACTICE! PRACTICE !

Take Home Lessons:

During my 4 months of concrete MCAT preparation, this was my approach:

  • I drafted a study schedule for the entire 4 months leading up to the exam. I think this step is key because although it can be difficult to know how long each chapter will take, you need some idea of what you are going to study when so that you do not run out of time at the end, especially since the latter months are crucial for practicing questions.
  • I spent the first two months studying. I would read a chapter for leisure as if I was reading a book and then re-read the same chapter and answer the questions at the end of the chapter to make sure I understood the principles. This was also the period when I prepared flash cards, formula sheets and other short notes. The material to study for the MCAT is voluminous so I wanted to narrow the concepts down to something I could leaf through fairly quickly during my final review.
  • During the first two months, I would also listen to Khan Academy videos while performing other tasks. It can be an efficient way to study if you have to commute, do house chores, breastfeed etc.
  • During the last two months, I mostly practiced questions and noted down any problem areas to be reviewed later. I also wrote down some of the questions I had gotten wrong so that I could attempt them again later. I also reviewed flashcards periodically to refresh my memory.
  • Key point when practicing questions: I would time myself strictly. Whatever set of questions I was doing, I had the goal of completing it in 1-2 minutes. If you calculate the number of questions on each section of the actual MCAT (53-59 questions) and the time you have to do it (90-95 minutes), you really only have 1-2 minutes to answer each question (some will take longer, some less).
  • The AAMC practice resources were critical to building my confidence because I became so familiar with the MCAT testing environment that I did not feel intimidated on exam day.

I hope this post has been helpful to any aspiring doctors planning to take the MCAT. There are many approaches to prepare for the MCAT. This is just what worked for me (the third time around, that is!). In a subsequent post, I will provide strategies for you to be at your best on exam day. Happy studying and good luck!

Additional reading: MCAT 2015: Is 508 the new 30?

Image courtesy of anankkml at freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of anankkml at freedigitalphotos.net

How to Put What You Learn into Long Term Memory

Have you ever felt frustrated when you try to commit something to memory but you just can’t seem to remember it after a few days or weeks? Have you ever read a topic over and over only to find that it has disappeared from your mind when you try to recall it?

If you’ve been busy preparing for the MCAT like I have, you have probably come across the new Psychology and Sociology sections. Fascinating stuff! One of the topics I enjoyed reading was how our memory works. We have short-term memory as well as long term memory. Our short-term or working memory can only hold up to about 7 items at a time and is usually brought about by repeating things over and over in a rehearsal type fashion. The problem with this approach is that the information in short-term memory is easily forgotten as more information comes in and displaces it. The better approach would be try to get the information into your long term memory for more effective retrieval in the future. How does one go about this?

Well, as I have been learning from my MCAT studying, you need to assign “meaning” to whatever it is you are trying to memorize, in order to get it into your long-term memory. One way that I go about this, particularly for topics that have a lot of details to remember, is to come up with a crazy scenario that I just can’t help but remember simply because it’s so ridiculous or hilarious. This can be applied to whatever you are trying to memorize (not just MCAT material). For example, if you meet someone for the first time and you want to make sure you remember their name, try to assign some meaning or association to their name such as an unusual facial feature or a funny word that rhymes with their name.

For the MCAT, let’s take the example of the brain. The brain is a magnificent organ of the body that we do not yet fully understand. There are many names and functions to learn for the MCAT. Let’s take the example a step further and try to learn the functions of the brain-stem. In the brain-stem, we have the mid-brain, pons and medulla. What does the pons do? Here’s my crazy schematic for remembering the function of the pons which communicates between the motor cortex and the cerebellum:

My ridiculous cartoon for remembering the function of the pons in the brain stem
My ridiculous cartoon for remembering the function of the pons in the brain stem (Click for an expanded view)

Now you may say, “I don’t have time to draw silly cartoons, I have tonnes of MCAT material to get through!”. ‘Tis true what you say however by finding a way to get material into your long term memory, you won’t have to keep reviewing the material over and over to make sure you remember it. Drawing a cartoon or thinking up some other funny way to help you remember does not actually take that long and will save you time in the long run. Cartoons or funny stories can be used in conjunction with mnemonics to get that MCAT material into your long term memory where you can retrieve it come exam day. Happy studying!

Studying on the deck
When studying, try to find a comfortable place where you can concentrate. I like being out on the deck where there’s lots of light.

Three Mnemonics You Need to Know for the MCAT

The MCAT can be a daunting exam. With the new version of the MCAT now almost double the length of the previous version, and with new topics to study, you may wonder how to get through the mountain of information with your sanity intact. There is plenty of useful information online on how to prepare for the MCAT but the most helpful advice I have found is firstly to focus on understanding the basic concepts (don’t rely solely on memorization!) and secondly to practice as much as possible under timed conditions. My goal is to read each passage in about 3 minutes and answer each question in about a minute. It may take more or less time depending on the difficulty of the passage or question, but this would be the average time to aim for.

With understanding the fundamental concepts being your main goal, there are some aspects of the material that you just have to bite the bullet and memorize. Here are 3 mnemonics that I have been using to help me get some key material down pat:

  1. Ideal Fluids: as velocity goes up, PAT goes down (PAT = pressure, cross sectional area and temperature)-by potentialdoctor.com
  2. Reactivity of Carboxylic Acid Derivatives: From least reactive to most reactive: ACE A KetAl Halide (sounds like “Ace a Kettle Halide” and stands for Amide, Carboyxlic Acid, Ester, Anhydride, Ketone, Aldehyde, Acid Halide)-by potentialdoctor.com
  3. Anterior Pituitary Peptide Hormones: FLAT PeG (stands for FSH, LH, ACTH, TSH, Prolactin and Growth Hormone) from MCAT-review.org

The MCAT does not have to defeat you. With a consistent study schedule, practice questions, good test-taking techniques and a positive attitude, you can conquer one of the most important exams of your life! Happy studying!

MCAT