#12: Overwhelmed! Where Do I Start?

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In this episode I will give you some tips for tackling the feeling of being overwhelmed in medical school.  The bonus PDF is a checklist of tips and links to help you get started.  Enter your email to get the PDF:

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First I just want to offer some words of reassurance.  Based on data from the AAMC in 2013, 97% of medical students graduate.  So statistically speaking, you’ll probably be just fine.  Of course, your goal is not just to graduate, but to do well and match into your specialty of choice.  So you need to have a good plan in place.

Now feeling overwhelmed in medical school can mean many things, so I want to break this down into four categories.  For each, I have two main tips.

#1: I’m overwhelmed because can’t keep up with the reading.

Find out if you are objectively slow.  Google “am I a slow reader?” and take a test.  Most likely you are normal, but if you are truly reading slow you may benefit from a speed reading book or course.  If you are within the normal range, it may be that you are trying to read and retain too much in the first pass.  You need a better approach to the material to take the pressure off the first pass and allow yourself to move more quickly.  

Change your study habits.  Sure, there is a ton of material to read in medical school, but you should be able to keep up.  If you aren’t, I suspect your study strategy is broken.  Are you someone who color-codes the course module?  Do you take “notes” that end up being the entire module re-written?  Do you have a hard time focusing and end up reading everything twice because your mind wanders?  Really look at your study habits to identify weaknesses.  If you can’t find them on your own, go to your school’s academic support staff and ask for their assessment.

#2: I’m overwhelmed because I can’t memorize everything.

Get organized.  You are right you can’t memorize everything.  So you need a system for choosing what is important to memorize and what isn’t.  You’ve probably heard me talk about my 5-step study strategy, which was how I learned to identify high-yield information and streamline my studying process.  You’ll need something like this to keep the process efficient, to allow you to maximize your attention and focus, and to ultimately memorize more.

Get memory tricks.  Find a mnemonic system that works for you.  Trying to muscle through and cold memorize everything in medicine is a daunting task.  We all use mnemonics, and some of us use more memory tricks.  For me, the memory palace was all I really needed, with some time-proven med student mnemonics like “Don’t DROP the baby” thrown in.  For others, things like Picmonic, creating stories, drawings, acronym and number systems seemed to work.  If you are at a point of feeling overwhelmed, the normal med student mnemonics are not enough and you need to find another mnemonic system to add to the mix.

#3: I’m overwhelmed because my grades aren’t good enough.

Define your goals.  Use the NRMP website to figure out what your residency application is going to need to look like.  Most medical students are overachievers, and I know you want to be excellent for the sake of being excellent, but you also need to have balance.  Give yourself permission to have grades that meet your goals, without aiming for perfection.  And remember that a well-rounded residency application includes more than just good grades or good Step 1 score.  Deficiencies in this area can be made up for in other areas, and someone with below average grades can still match into a highly competitive specialty.

Do more practice questions.  Ultimately grades, and Step 1 scores too, come down to actual performance on actual questions.  These questions are formulaic, and getting used to the formula will help you navigate the questions more easily.  It will also help guide your studying, because you will start to predict nuances in the information that make for easy boards-style questions.  Research shows that doing more questions means better boards scores, so start early.

#4: I’m overwhelmed because I haven’t started studying for Step 1 yet.

Focus on class.  You started studying for Step 1 on Day 1 of medical school.  First year is too early to be doing UWorld or worrying about a timetable for boards prep.  Right now, you should be focused on getting a study strategy that works for you.  In second year, you can dabble in practice questions throughout the year, but really the best preparation is doing well in class.  You will have dedicated time to study for Step 1, and it will be condensed, which is the most efficient.  Leave the details for that condensed study time, and focus on paving the way with good study habits.

Reduce stress.  If you are thinking about Step 1 studying very early, you are probably allowing yourself to get overwhelmed by research, letters of recommendation, choosing a specialty…all kinds of things that have their time and place.  Take a break.  Watch some Netflix.  Go out with some friends.  You are the 97%.

Well, I hope listening to this podcast helped reduce your sense of being overwhelmed.  Go to sholamd.com to get the bonus PDF with some links for each tip I discussed today.  One that was extra interesting is a 2015 research paper that quantifies the study habits that correlate with higher step 1 scores including how many days you should study for step 1.  

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