Osmosis Contributors Chime In: Tips for Success

Osmosis Team
Published on Sep 30, 2015. Updated on Invalid date.

Primary Author: Lisa Brubaker, MD Candidate at University of Central Florida College of Medicine

In January 2015, an Osmosis team member published an article titled “Best learning strategies for medical school” (https://blog.osmosis.org/2015/01/best-learning-strategies-medical-school). Now that a new school year is about to start, we wanted to remind everyone of that article and also share some specific tips for succeeding throughout medical school. These tips were amassed from many medical students at different institutions. While no medical school curriculums are identical, we hope some of these tips will be relevant and helpful as you progress on your path to becoming a physician.

For students starting medical school:

  • Is it true that medical school really is different from college?

    • Yes…but just as college is different from high school, you’ll learn how to adapt.

    • Most med students agree that one of the major differences is that they had to switch from hand-writing notes to typing notes during lecture…there is just too much material to write by hand.

    • Don’t rely on assignments/problem sets to gauge your learning because they are rarely assigned. Rather, challenge yourself using flashcards/question sets that you and your classmates generate (osmosis is a great tool for this!).

    • Make sure you are learning both details and “big picture” concepts…a great way to make sure you are grasping the big picture is to quiz yourself on the objectives listed for each lecture.

      • Build memory associations (i.e. generate a mnemonic, create an image in your mind) to help integrate the details with the big picture concept.
    • Problem-based learning is a new concept for many medical students and is approached differently at each institution…while the material covered in these sessions may not be explicitly tested, these sessions can help you learn how to “think clinically” (i.e. generate a differential diagnosis, interpret vital signs/lab values…).

      • You can also use this time to collaborate with faculty and classmates and to teach others.
  • Should I go to lecture?

    • You’ll probably hear a lot of older students voice their opinions on this topic…regardless of the advice you hear, keep an open mind and figure out how to make your classes work for you. This is similar to the “Should I study in a group” question…try studying in a group and individually before you decide what works best for you. Studying with classmates is a great way to teach others and also a great way to learn helpful mnemonics/memory aids.

    • Many schools follow a 50-10 schedule meaning there was (usually) a 10-minute break after each 50 minute lecture. You can do a lot during 10 minutes—even if you use this time to socialize!

    • An Osmosis team member wrote a great article about the benefits of going to class…check it out here: https://blog.osmosis.org/2015/07/articles-miss-school-miss-out/

  • What about research?

    • Try to seek out a mentor if you’re interested but don’t do something that you’re not passionate about. If you do find a mentor, make sure they understand that you will be balancing research with the demands of medical school.

    • Do something different…just because you did basic science research prior to starting medical school doesn’t mean you have to continue. Doing a clinical research project (retrospective or prospective) will allow you to learn about entirely different research methods and will expose you to the world of pathophysiology.

    • Consider looking into a summer research program between years 1 and 2.

  • When will I start learning how to be a good doctor?

    • Most schools have a clinical skills class that students take throughout their first and second years. While this class may not be as time-consuming as some of your other courses, the amount of information you learn will accumulate. Whether you are learning how to take a history or perform a physical exam, practice frequently to become proficient.
  • Are there any resources I should use during my first year?

    • In order to be efficient, use questions to LEARN and REVIEW. Osmosis uses spaced repetition to enforce learning and retention.

      • Be wary that many question banks focus on STEP 1 material…while it is great to be exposed to this material early in your medical career, it might be best to focus primarily on module-specific questions during your first few months. Using the Osmosis web platform for your class group is a great way to collaborate with your classmates to make lecture-relevant questions/flashcards.
    • Start using First Aid for the USMLE STEP 1 early. Osmosis uses an algorithm to search through your lectures and tag information that is also presented in First Aid; Osmosis then provides you with the First Aid page reference and also links to other resources. This is an awesome tool because it allows students to spend less time managing their learning and more time actually

    • Once you start your pathology courses, consider investing in a resource like Pathoma (a series of online lectures that explain many disease processes).

  • If you could repeat your first year, what would you do differently?

    • Adjust your study habits to become efficient early on.

    • Try to create a culture of collaboration rather than competition from day 1. Everyone took a different path to get to medical school and each student will have a unique perspective and unique strengths. Since each student has the same goal (to become a good doctor), work with your classmates to achieve this.

    • Keep things in perspective – this can mean not freaking out over a single quiz grade or making it a priority to maintain balance in your life (i.e. staying in touch with your support system).

For students transitioning from normal structure/function to pathophysiology/disease:

  • Did you have to change your study style between first and second years?

    • YES! Before you start learning about a disease, it is important to know the normal function of that organ system (i.e. review cardiac physiology before learning about heart disease).

    • To get an idea of the diseases you are going to encounter, review the relevant Pathoma videos/First Aid sections. Consider making a spreadsheet that lists each of the diseases reviewed in these resources with columns for etiology/patient presentation/lab findings/pathology findings/”buzz words”/treatment…This seems like a lot of preparation in advance but being prepared for lecture makes a huge difference!

      • Link to example spreadsheet
    • Second year is a critical time to start reviewing for the USMLE Step 1. Consider using Osmosis and other question banks to answer board-style questions that are relevant to the organ system you are studying (i.e. answer cardio questions during your cardiovascular module). Doing questions will help you learn material that wasn’t presented in lecture and will also reinforce the material you did learn in lecture. Stay tuned for an article specific to STEP 1 preparation!

    • Don’t miss an opportunity to study (i.e. listen to Step 1 review lectures while driving, watch youtube videos/read journal articles during downtime). It is helpful to see information presented in a variety of formats…while you may not have understood what your professor said about a certain disease, you may gain a better understanding after you watch a youtube video about a patient who has the disease.

  • How did you hone your history taking/physical exam skills?

    • Practice, practice, practice…whether this means writing extra H&Ps or performing full physical exams, it is important to become proficient in these skills during second year so that you are prepared for your clinical clerkships.

    • While many second years are more focused on the boards rather than the wards, work with 1-2 friends/classmates at least once per week to prepare for your clinical skills’ sessions (make preparing for these sessions enjoyable).

  • If you could repeat your second year, what would you do differently?

    • Not much…most second years become extremely efficient and the studying is more enjoyable.

    • Appreciate how much you are learning because it’s true that you may not ever see/hear about some of those diseases again.

    • Try to talk more to your professors to seek out “clinical pearls”...you might be rotating with some of those professors during your clinical years so it is helpful to know if they have any tips about managing patients etc.


For students transitioning from pre-clinical to clinical years (i.e. clerkships):

  • Should I continue a research project or start a new project during my clinical years?

    • Keep your ear perked for research opportunities as you meet residents/physicians but make sure you have adjusted to your clerkships before you take on a research project.
  • What is the best way to prepare for a clerkship?

    • Practice completing a full/focused clinical exam (i.e. if you’re about to start neurology, know how to perform AND document a complete neuro exam).

    • Even if you are burnt out from STEP 1, start doing questions immediately to retain what you studied for STEP 1 and also to learn about patient presentations and management guidelines.

    • Read about some of the most common cases for whichever clerkship you are about to enter (ex. acute otitis media, seizures, vaccine guidelines for pediatrics). This will help you recognize certain patient presentations. As you see patients, read about the conditions they have…it is amazing how much you will retain if you can relate it to a patient that you helped care for.