Medical School Life

To flourish as a med student, learn how to budget your time

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

In medical school, time is precious in that there is seldom enough of it. Taking that into consideration, Lisa Rebecca Medoff, PhD—a learning specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine—says time management, particularly when it comes to setting aside study time, is a key to medical student success.

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“When a student is not doing well in a class or fails an exam, it is almost inevitably not that they were being lazy or not doing the work, it was because they had a lot of other things going on and just didn’t have the time to get to the studying that they needed to get to,” she said. “They will say ‘gosh, if I only had one or two more days to get through that stuff, I would’ve done well.’”

Medoff offered a few tips to help students manage their time.

Set a schedule. A study schedule can take on many forms. Physically, it may be a calendar or day planner or a simple to-do list written on a Post-it. Medoff advises that there should be some leeway in that schedule, including time for having difficulty getting started, but also for adjusting your plan if a high-priority task requires more time and energy.

“What I will often talk to students about is, you need to have some kind of structure,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be ‘here’s what I’m going to do in every minute of the day.’ I will usually say are you a time-bound person or a task-bound person? Do you prefer to say, for this hour this is what I’m going to be doing, or do you prefer to say here are the five things that I need to get done today, and if they get done early then I’m done early. If they take me a really long time, then I’m up late and that’s just the way it is.” 

Build in your breaks and social time. For starters, Medoff likes to emphasize what a break is (and what it is not): “I tell students a break means getting up and walking around, getting something to drink, getting some sunshine if you can. A break does not mean 10 or 15 minutes on Facebook or YouTube or anything else.”

Medoff recommends scheduling social activities—those in both the digital and physical universes—on your calendar. Making a general plan a week at a time can yield benefits and help students stay organized.

“[For a student] to sit down every Sunday night and plan out what they need to do for the rest of the week is beneficial,” she said. “If you’re doing that, you need to also plan in social time and plan in relaxation time. You can take that time guilt-free because you’ve planned on it ahead of time and been thoughtful about how to balance your needs.

Are you a morning person or a night owl? The optimal time of day for studying is going to vary for everyone. Knowing when you learn best can mean that it takes less time to maximize results in certain instances.

“Work with your body,” she said. “Think about whether you are really alert first thing in the morning? Then you need to get up before classes and do the harder things early in the morning, learn the new material early in the morning, and then you taper off during the evening. If you’re not a morning person, if you’re an evening person, that’s when you do the harder things.”  

Find the resources that work best for you. The volume of information available to medical students is substantial. There’s simply not enough time to read, watch or listen to it all. Medoff cites an inability to prioritize study materials as a common problem—particularly among first-year medical students.

“It’s not that they are wasting time,” Medoff said. “It’s just that they can be overwhelmed with the amount of information and the amount of additional resources they could be learning from.

“One of the things that I do is I help students figure out how they learn best,” Medoff said. “If you learn best from lecture, spend the bulk of your time learning from lecture and use the readings to make sure you’ve understood everything. Or do you learn mostly from reading and spend most of your time reading? A lot of our students don’t necessarily have to go to class because the lectures are video-taped, so for students who learn better from reading, they might do the reading then watch the lectures on double time to make sure they haven’t missed anything.”