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Study (and make it work!)

A guide by M. Taylor (Baltimore, MD)

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How to Study!

So you've got a big exam coming up-- maybe it's your medical boards (like me), or your MCAT, LSAT, GRE, SAT, ACT, AP...and so on. So you're wondering: how in the world am I going to remember all this? Sure, most of it I've had before in class, but is my brain really capable of remembering all of it at once?

Well, of course it is-- you know that! The real question is, what's the best way to pack it in there? That's what I'm going to describe here. I'll be using my medical boards and the appropriate books as specific examples, but the general trends are applicable to whatever text you're taking. So...let's get to it!

Getting in the mood

All of us have a particular setting or situation where we're most productive. For me, it's at home in our (tiny) back room / office with the door closed and my headphones on. The most important thing is a consistent, controlled setting, where you can stay focused for long stretches. It's up to you to figure out what's best for you, but here's some advice:

1. Avoid loud public places. Libraries are okay; coffeeshops are not. I know that you like the vibe, and the coffee tastes great, and all the college students do it...but that's their mistake. Places like that are full of distractions and unpredictable issues, and like it or not, your productivity will fall. A controlled environment is best, like a library or a PRIVATE room at home (i.e. not in your dorm room where your roommate / roommate's boyfriend is playing Halo or Modern Warfare or whatever!).

2. Noise is a major distraction; find a way to control it. Music is fine, as long as you don't end up singing along with it instead of reading. Ambient music gets a bad rap but for me, at least, it improves my mood and keeps me going. Here's my #1 choice:
Stars of the Lid & Their Refinement of the Decline
Like I said above, TV is a study-killer...I know, it's a hard habit to break. If you don't want music or if you need to block out some ambient noise (i.e. if you can't control the environment yourself), white noise is a good tool. You could get a noise machine, I guess, but there are also free white noise generators online-- here's one: .

3. People are a distraction too. Study groups are fine (I'll go into that later), but "hanging out" while studying is counterproductive. Say you and your significant other both have a big test, so you're thinking, "We can just hang out at home and both study at the same time!" Maybe it will work, although I doubt will end up distracting each other, intentionally or not. An hour of "good" studying is better than four hours of "bad" split up and get your work done individually so you can have quality time together later!

4. Don't push yourself too hard. I've heard it said that you shouldn't study more than eight hours a day. Whether classroom time counts as "studying" is up to you, but it's a good general rule. Remember that this doesn't just mean "eight hours in your study space"-- the time you spend reading blogs, eating lunch, texting your friends, and writing e-mails doesn't count. That said, taking intermittent breaks is a good idea. There's lots of different suggestions out there on how often / how long breaks should be, so I'll just say: find what works for you and stick to it. Avoid "mini-breaks"-- i.e. glancing at your e-mail while writing a paper. Your productivity will go way up!

Actually studying

Okay, so you've got your study environment set. Now how are you going to approach the material?

Basically, the study materials available to you are on a sort of continuum. At one end are the heavy-duty textbooks; at the other are the outline-format, quick-review study books. You can't read the whole textbook, but the review books aren't enough. What to do?!

The best way is to combine ALL the resources available to you, on the fly. My example here is medical school pathology, but you can extend the trend to the appropriate materials for your test.

First is your textbook:
Robbins & Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease: With STUDENT CONSULT Online Access, 8e (Robbins Pathology)
Robbins Basic Pathology, Eighth Edition
Probably you've been reading this during your course, taking notes from it, and so on. That's great for class, and those notes might still come in handy (assuming they're coherent), but chances are that your textbook has WAY more material than you really need to know (or have any chance of learning in the time available). Heck, you might even have several different textbooks that are all relevant-- for example, for medical boards, I have to study pathology (as shown here), but also physiology, histology, embryology, anatomy, biochemistry, get the idea. So set the textbook aside for now-- don't worry, you'll be coming back to it soon.

(The only exception for setting aside the textbook is studying a topic for which you never took a class. My example is learning anatomy & physiology for the MCAT. My degree was in genetics, so all my classes were in molecular biology-- I hadn't taken anatomy since I was a sophomore in high school. So I bit the bullet and read a [small, 800-page] introductory A&P textbook, cover to cover. On the upside, when it came time for the MCAT, I had those topics cold! If you think you'll have to do, I'm sorry; and two, give yourself time! Don't try to read it all at once-- read one chapter / section / topic per day and then go on to study something else.)

Next is your review book:
Rapid Review Pathology: With STUDENT CONSULT Online Access, 3e
BRS Pathology (Board Review Series)
They say you can't learn from a review book, and that's basically true; the point of a review book is to reinforce what you already know (and you already know a lot!). Probably there will be a lot of options for which review book to buy, so here's my advice: buy a book written by a professional in the field (i.e. an MD or PhD for medical books, a JD for law books, a PhD for other fields, etc.). If that seems obvious, I would emphasize that many review resources (I'm looking at you, Kaplan...) are largely written by students (not professionals!). Your professor / instructor may have some advice, as will older students.

The ideal way to use your review book is to consult it during coursework, and write in whatever the book glosses over. Remember that your review book is a fraction the size of your textbook, so yeah, some things will be missing (including some things that will probably be on your exam). By the time you're done with your coursework, your review book will be full of your own notes, written in a way that you understand; basically it will have everything you've learned.

Now, what if you're reading a section in the review book that seems totally unfamiliar? You guessed it-- refer to the textbook! You don't have time to read the whole book, but you can spare a few hours to study up on your weak areas. And remember to keep writing notes in your review book!

Finally there are the "other resources":
Robbins and Cotran Pathology Flash Cards: With STUDENT CONSULT Online Access, 1e (Robbins Pathology)
BRS Pathology Flash Cards
Pathology Made Ridiculously Simple (Medmaster Ridiculously Simple)
These are the flash cards, audio lectures, "fun" books, online courses, etc. Whether these will be useful to you is largely dependent on your style of learning. I would generally advise against BUYING flash cards. Making your own is cheaper (of course), but also a better learning experience-- you learn as much from making them as you do from going through them. If you don't want to kill a tree, and are planning on spending lots of time in front of the computer, electronic flash cards are a good idea. Here's the program I use: . There are also tons of online flash card databases which may be relevant to your test, although I would emphasize that they are written by other students and are not 100% reliable. The other resources may be useful, depending on whether they fit your style. Audio lectures and colloquially-written books are likely to keep you awake and engaged, so that's a plus...on the other hand, it's a slower style of learning (that hour-long lecture might only take you twenty minutes to read), so it's also a question of time.

Plays well with others

A quick note on study groups: they can definitely work and fill in the gaps from your individual study time, IF you do them right. Here's a few pointers:

1. Ask each other questions. This is the biggest benefit of group study by far. In pathology, it might be something like, "We're learning about osteoporosis, which is a disease of excessive calcium resorption from the bone. What do you call excessive calcium deposition? ...Osteopetrosis!" Quizzing each other is great practice for the exam and will help you cement what you've learned.

2. Set out EXACTLY what you're going to do; i.e. "We're going to go over chapters 4 through 6." If everyone understands what the goals for the session are, you're much more likely to achieve them. If the group just gets together to "study pathology," you're more likely to just jump from one thing "I didn't get" to another and ultimately get a lot less studying done.

3. Be selective about the people with whom you study. If someone makes you nervous because they're always flipping out about grades, don't study with them! It's also maybe not a good idea to study with your best friend at home in front of the TV because you will just end up taking a break to play Mario Kart. Don't get me wrong, if you can both focus, studying with friends can be great because you're likely to get along and not have an argument...but sometimes it might be better to study with someone you don't know so well, so you can focus on the material without talking about relationships, TV shows, etc.

The key to exam success!

Okay, so this is the real ticket to success on the exam: PRACTICE! There's only so much you can passively absorb from reading your book...and even group study has its limits. The best way to firmly establish what you've learned is to do questions-- lots and lots of questions. Depending on what test you're taking, there may be question books, online resources, etc. You might also use your old exams from class, although these are less likely to reflect the material on your standardized test. Here are some sources of questions for me:
Robbins and Cotran Review of Pathology, 3rd Edition
Wheater's Review of Histology & Basic Pathology, 1e (Wheater's Histology and Pathology)
The best way to study from questions is to do a block, READ THE EXPLANATIONS (a lot of people don't do this!) and then make notes in your review book. Don't worry about timing yourself when you start; once it's closer to exam time, though, you will want to time yourself to make sure you'll be able to finish on the real thing.

My rule is: the more questions, the better, as long as you're still spending time doing "conventional" studying. A good scheme is to alternate an hour or two of studying with an hour of questions (assuming you have enough questions!). You will probably miss a lot of questions when you start-- that's okay, you will improve! As it gets closer to exam time, I would advise increasing the amount of time spent doing questions; by the time you take the exam, it will seem completely familiar.

An increasing number of standardized tests are including an essay section now. There are two ways to beef up for the essay: READ and WRITE. The more time you spend reading (particularly reading challenging, well-written material-- blogs and How-To lists don't count!), the more you will develop a "sense" for style and language. If your essay prompt is likely to involve current issues (e.g. the MCAT essay), reading a GOOD newspaper will help a lot ( , , ; basically you need a newspaper of public record-- your local newspaper is probably not adequate).

Equally as important is practicing writing yourself. Your review book will probably have several practice prompts; you also may be able to get prompts from the official website of your exam. Write an essay and then have someone else read it-- maybe your parents or a supportive teacher. The amount of time you spend practicing your essay depends on your general strength as a writer, but I would advise you NOT to blow it off or to assume that it will "come to you" on the day of the exam. A lot of people struggle with the essay, so if you can write a real scorcher, it will make you stand out.

The nigh before

Take it easy. I know you're probably still skeptical, so let me be perfectly clear: you WILL NOT LEARN ANYTHING the night before the test. If you try, you will just freak yourself out and will go into the test the next day thinking about all the things you DON'T know, and that will be reflected in your performance. Have a nice dinner, see a movie, read a book, and go to bed early. Trust me, it will all work out.

Exam day and beyond

There are tons of resources on how to improve your test-taking skills, your exam day mood, and so on, so I won't spend much time here. Just remember that you've been studying for weeks or months for this exam, and that you will do just fine. If a question on the test seems TOTALLY UNFAMILIAR...well, don't freak out! You're not expected to know everything, and you're probably not the only person in the room staring at that question in terror. Don't linger-- if you don't know the answer, make your best choice and move can return to it later if you have time, and if not, it's not the end of the world.

That's it! That's my scheme for success in studying. Hope it helps!

Products mentioned include:
Getting in the mood
1.  Stars of the Lid & Their Refinement of the Decline  by Stars of the Lid
$17.39 Used & New from: $12.00
4.7 out of 5 stars   (24)
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Actually studying
2.  Robbins & Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease: With STUDENT CONSULT Online Access, 8e (Robbins Pathology) [Color]  by Vinay Kumar
Used & New from: $14.60
4.4 out of 5 stars   (105) | 2 customer discussions
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3.  Robbins Basic Pathology, Eighth Edition  by Vinay Kumar
Used & New from: $7.99
4.2 out of 5 stars   (30)
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4.  Rapid Review Pathology: With STUDENT CONSULT Online Access, 3e  by Edward F. Goljan
Used & New from: $1.72
4.5 out of 5 stars   (67) | 3 customer discussions
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5.  BRS Pathology (Board Review Series)  by Arthur S. Schneider MD
Used & New from: $3.89
4.6 out of 5 stars   (66)
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6.  Robbins and Cotran Pathology Flash Cards: With STUDENT CONSULT Online Access, 1e (Robbins Pathology)  by Edward C. Klatt MD
Used & New from: $13.56
4.2 out of 5 stars   (18)
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7.  BRS Pathology Flash Cards  by Todd A. Swanson
$44.43 Used & New from: $21.70
2.6 out of 5 stars   (16)
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8.  Pathology Made Ridiculously Simple (Medmaster Ridiculously Simple)  by Zaher
$25.83 Used & New from: $17.69
4.3 out of 5 stars   (13)
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The key to exam success!
9.  Robbins and Cotran Review of Pathology, 3rd Edition  by Edward C. Klatt
Used & New from: $6.90
4.6 out of 5 stars   (52)
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10.  Wheater's Review of Histology & Basic Pathology, 1e (Wheater's Histology and Pathology)  by John K. Young
$40.77 Used & New from: $9.90
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Customer Discussions about products in this guide
Discussion Replies Latest Post
Would the 7th Edition still be OK to use? 1 May 5, 2012
Difference between student and professional editions of Robbins? 3 Dec 17, 2011
confused which one to buy- the latest 2010 edition or the previous 2nd edition of RR by Dr. Goljan? 0 Jun 18, 2010
KAPLAN COURSE 2 Feb 6, 2009
does this book come with a CD with USMLE Step 1 Questions? 0 Nov 28, 2006

About this Guide



M. Taylor (Baltimore, MD)
Qualifications: Medical student
Last updated: 4/16/10
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