How I studied during first two years of medical school: resources, strategies, and the big picture

Hi guys! I've been getting a lot of questions about how I studied in medical school. Studying during first two years of medical school is quite different from 3rd and 4th year so I will mainly focus on the first two years in this post. 

Starting medical school is probably one of the most exciting and daunting experiences of my life. Many people describe the learning process in medical school as trying to drink out of the fire hydrant: unrelenting and impossible. I was told that ultimately I should come to terms with the fact that I will not know everything. 

 It took a bit of adjusting but when I actually started my classes, I was pleasantly surprised to find that studying it medical school felt a lot more natural and cohesive than it did during college. At my school, the curriculum was designed in systems-based blocks (e.g. cardiology block, pulmonology block, etc) which meant that at all times we were studying different facets of the a single subject. For example, instead of having a separate class in pharmacology, histology, embryology, we had a block of cardiology where all relevant information regarding the heart was covered. This approach to learning made a lot of sense to me and it was certainly very nice that I only had to study for one exam per block. My school had a pass/fail system for the first two years of medical school so it took a lot of pressure off as well. It was freeing to shift my focus from getting a "good grade" to really understanding the material.

So with that background, here is how I approached studying in medical school in general & later on, Step 1: 

MS1: One of the most frequently asked questions is how to incorporate Step 1 studying early in medical school. I didn't really give Step 1 much thought during the first year of medical school. I focused mainly on my lectures and doing well in my in-class exams. I tried to do as much deep learning as possible but frequently incorporated fast memorization tools (e.g. Anki) right before exams. I also had a copy of First Aid but the book honestly didn't make much sense to me during MS1 because I had no idea what would be important vs. not important (turns out, everything in First Aid is important and needs to be memorized). 

  • For more physiology heavy blocks (e.g. cardiology, pulm, renal, endocrine) I tried to do as many practice questions as possible. If there weren't any readily available, I reached out to the professor, deans, previous students, etc for question resources. You can find my personal favorite physiology resources here, here, and here
  • I used Anki for memorization heavy subjects like biochemistry combined with lots of drawing out pathways and forcing the material into my head any way possible. This means something different for everyone. For me, it was simply brute memorization with frequent draw-from-scratch as my way to test myself. 
  • I did a lot of group studying/mock lab practicals for anatomy & physiology and neuroanatomy. I spent a lot of time in the lab, pointing things out and talking about the function of each structure with my classmates. I soon found out that not every structure in anatomy is equally important. Certain structures have more clinical significance. For example, brachial plexus has many related pathologies that are frequently tested (vs. one of many small muscles in the forearm that extends the fingers). Figuring out what structures have more clinical significance can take some time and practice. Review books and practice questions may come in handy in deciphering what to focus on during A&P. 
  • For microbiology, I pretty much watched Sketchy Micro over and over again until I knew all the videos inside out. I printed out screenshots of each video and made a booklet out of all the pictures and took notes in them so I can always have them with me. I referred back to them as recently as September of my 4th year when I was studying for my Step 2 CK. The videos are extremely high yield and now they have a great pharmacology section as well which will be more useful in 2nd year. 

MS2: first half of the year was pretty much the same as first year-- focusing on classes and doing well in exams. I incorporated some longer term study tools like Firecracker (you can check off the current block/topic and do short flashcard-style questions during your spare time). Firecracker can be pricey but they do hold sales every so often so I would look out for those. If you're on a budget, I recommend Anki cards made by brosencephalon and doing them throughout the year. Towards the end of my second year, I supplemented my studying with board prep questions from Kaplan (not the prep course, just the Q bank). I got through most of the questions before my dedicated Step 1 period started at which point I transitioned over to UWorld. I won't go into too much detail about what I did during my dedicated Step 1 study period (another post!) but basically my main focuses were content review (review, not learning because there isn't enough time to learn new material-- which is why it's so important to do a lot of deep learning during first and second year), UWorld questions, and content memorization (often via Anki). 

You can watch my videos on how I set up my Anki decks here. I also have an entire video describing how I took notes and used them to study in medical school here

I want to stress that none of the things I did as MS2 would have been all that helpful in MS1. I think it's easy for people to get caught up on Step 1 prep and totally miss out on the things you're actually supposed to learn as a 1st year medical student. For example, you can totally memorize all the biochem pathways written out in First Aid book but that would simply be a review or an abbreviated version of everything you were supposed to learn in lecture during 1st year. It might help you answer some questions but ultimately you will not have the complete picture. I would look to First Aid as a guideline of what is stressed or considered "important" in Step 1 exams but it definitely should not be your only resource. From what I can tell, most of my friends had almost all of First Aid memorized but the true differentiation between a great Step 1 score and an ok score is how much you learned and retained from the first two years of medical school lectures. 

Lastly, I can't emphasize how important it was for me to have a great group of study buddies who eventually became some of my best friends in and out of medical school. I was lucky enough to form a very functional study group with my friends early on in medical school, but I understand that group studying doesn't always work for everyone. Regardless of whether you are actively studying with your friends or independently studying, having a good emotional support system is incredibly important. I think I can safely attribute my academic success in medical school to having a solid support system inside and outside medical school. No amount of studying will help you if you are constantly feeling emotionally exhausted and burnt out. Find your people. They will carry you through the highs and lows of medical school.

That pretty much summarizes how I studied during the first two years of medical school. Hope you guys found this post helpful!