Home » Beyond the 3 p.m. Slump: Crafting a Personalized Study Routine in Medical School

Beyond the 3 p.m. Slump: Crafting a Personalized Study Routine in Medical School

A calendar with a stethoscope sitting on top of it signifying the study routine of a medical school student.


Entering medical school is an exciting milestone in every aspiring physician’s journey. However, the transition from undergraduate studies to the rigorous demands of medical education can be daunting. In this comprehensive blog post, we will delve into the essential aspects of creating an effective study routine for medical school, also addressing how to optimize study hours, study methods, ways to maintain focus, and how to master the art of memorization.



The Importance of a Personalized Study Routine in Medical School


Medical school is a unique educational experience characterized by its vast breadth of knowledge, intensive coursework, and clinical responsibilities. Crafting a personalized study routine is essential to navigate this complex terrain effectively. A well-designed study timetable not only maximizes academic performance but also promotes work-life balance and prevents burnout.


When you begin your journey in medical school, you will find that your general schedule is quite different from what you experienced in undergrad. Specifically, many students find that they have a significantly larger amount of free time outside of the classroom. This is because, during medical school, students often do not have as many extracurricular commitments like clubs or campus events. Use this time wisely!  You should very much budget time to exercise, spend time with friends and family, and relax.  However, there is a significantly larger amount of responsibility placed on the learner in medical school as compared to college to learn the material independently.


Lastly, it is important to remember that you need be extremely flexible and adaptable throughout medical school.  At most traditional medical schools, the first two years are devoted to entirely classroom-based didactic learning. This initial period can feel similar to college, and many students are comfortable balancing the responsibilities of in-classroom learning and out-of-class studying.  However, when you transition to your final two years of medical school, the majority of your time will be spent in the hospital or in outpatient clinics. These years tend to be more physically demanding and time-consuming, leaving you with fewer hours to study, and you tend to be physically exhausted in those hours you do have.  During these two years, it will be important for you to develop study habits that are personalized and highly efficient.



Designing Your Study Timetable


Creating a study timetable is the cornerstone for success. Start by assessing your individual commitments, including lectures, clinical rotations, extracurricular activities, and personal obligations. Allocate dedicated time slots for each activity, ensuring a balanced distribution of study hours throughout the week.


When I was a medical student, I, and many of my other classmates, often treated our studies like it was a job (hear me out). When you get to residency, you will often be working ten to twelve hour shifts regularly (sometimes even twenty-eight to thirty-hour shifts!).  These long hours are demanding and require extreme mental fortitude!  While you do not need to replicate this during medical school, it can sometimes help to think of your studies as preparing you for residency (because they are!).  Again, while you should dedicate time to personal activities, remember, you are here to be a doctor and thus should devote a significant amount of time during your day to studying and improving your skills. Consider incorporating the following elements into your study timetable:


Block Scheduling


Divide your day into manageable blocks of time, each dedicated to specific subjects or tasks. This approach helps maintain focus and prevents cognitive overload.


Prioritize High-Yield Material


Identify the core topics and subjects with higher weightage in examinations. Allocate more study time to these areas while ensuring adequate coverage of all subjects.




Allow room for flexibility in your timetable to accommodate unexpected events, review sessions, or relaxation periods. Flexibility prevents burnout and promotes sustainable study habits.


Incorporate Regular Breaks into Your Medical School Study Routine


Integrate short breaks between study sessions to prevent mental fatigue and enhance productivity. Optimal break intervals range from 5 to 15 minutes for every hour of study. Often, if students are preparing for examinations using an online question bank, they feel that they must complete forty question blocks of UWorld, for example. If you find yourself getting mentally fatigued during these long blocks, try and break it up! I often recommend students try and complete ten to twenty question blocks, and then take a short five-minute break in between.  Sometimes it is better to slowly build up your stamina, rather than coming out of the gate hot.  Learn what your body/mind needs the most, and continue pushing yourself every day.



Determining Study (when and how many) Hours


The ideal study hours vary among medical students based on individual learning pace, academic workload, and personal preferences. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, a general guideline suggests dedicating 8 to 12 hours per day for focused study, including lecture and clinical hours. There undoubtedly will be some days that require more or less studying, depending on how busy your didactic and clinical schedules are. However, treat medical school studying/learning as a full-time job!  You are here to become a doctor! Here are some tips to optimize your study hours:


Balancing Quality and Quantity


Focus on the quality of study rather than the sheer quantity of hours spent. Efficient, focused study sessions yield better retention and comprehension of complex medical concepts.


Spacing Effect


Embrace the spacing effect by distributing study sessions over time rather than cramming information in a single session. Spaced repetition enhances long-term retention and minimizes forgetting. When preparing for an examination, I normally recommend students finish learning all of the material three to seven days before the examination date.  This way, you will have multiple days to reinforce the material you’ve already learned and focus on learning lower-yield topics that you find more difficult.


Active Learning Strategies


Engage in active learning techniques such as concept mapping, self-quizzing, practice questions, and teaching peers. Active learning promotes deeper understanding and conceptual mastery.


Time of Day


Many people will agree that there are particular times during the day they are most effective at working (https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-ideal-work-schedule-as-determined-by-circadian-rhythms). I am an early bird and complete most of my work in the morning as this is when I am most engaged and efficient. Think about when you are most awake and focused – during this time, prioritize the active learning strategies as mentioned above. When you are less engaged, practice more passive strategies like watching videos or listening to podcasts. This way, you can break up the day using different study resources, but maximizing their individual yield.



Embracing Effective Study Methods into Your Medical School Study Routine


Medical education demands a multifaceted approach to studying, encompassing various techniques tailored to the subject matter and individual preferences. For your didactic years, it is important to know how you will be evaluated. If your professors are making in-house tests, then study the lecture slides and supplementary material they provide as this will likely be on the test. If they are using premade exams from the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME), then studying the lecture slides will be valuable, but so will using other resources including the following:

  • Anki Flashcards: Utilize spaced repetition software like Anki to create digital flashcards for memorizing complex medical terminology, anatomy, and pharmacology.
  • Practice Questions: Incorporate practice questions from reputable sources such as UWorld, Amboss, or the NBME. Practice questions simulate exam conditions and reinforce key concepts.
  • Primary Texts: Books like First Aid and Step Up To Medicine are great resources for both basic science and clinical concepts.
  • Videos and Podcasts: There are many resources for free on YouTube or online including OnlineMedEd, Divine Intervention, and Pixorize that can help supplement your studying.
  • Active Recall: Test your understanding by actively recalling information without relying on notes or textbooks. Engage in self-quizzing or participate in study groups to reinforce learning.



Cultivating Concentration and Mastering the Art of Memorization


Techniques for Maintaining Focus


Maintaining unwavering focus amidst the myriad distractions of modern life is a challenge faced by many medical students. You want to ensure that you have a distraction-free environment. Designate a quiet, clutter-free study space devoid of distractions such as social media, smartphones, or noisy environments. It would help if you also utilized focus techniques – this will take some time, but experiment with techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique, which involves alternating between short bursts of focused study (e.g., 25 minutes) and brief breaks. Others may work for longer stretches with longer breaks – there is no one correct answer. Try to incorporate mindfulness meditation into your daily routine to improve attentional control, reduce stress, and enhance cognitive clarity.


Memorization Techniques to Incorporate into Your Medical School Study Routine


The sheer volume of information encountered in medical school can seem overwhelming, but mastering the art of memorization is achievable with strategic techniques. Often, many students will develop mnemonic devices or memory aids to encode and retrieve complex information more efficiently. Mnemonics leverage associations or vivid imagery to facilitate recall. They will also use visual aids (drawings, PowerPoint slides, etc.) of anatomical structures, physiological processes, or disease pathways to reinforce memory retention. Drawing diagrams or flowcharts can aid in visual learning. Students also will establish meaningful associations between new information and existing knowledge frameworks. Contextualizing concepts within clinical scenarios enhances retention and application.


One of the most valuable techniques to memorizing any information is to actually understand it, rather than just memorize it. For example, many students will simply memorize the mechanism of action of a drug. But if you understand what this mechanism actually is, then many times, you will be able to predict its side effects. If you understand the different components of the nephron, and then additionally, understand the location and mechanism of action of each diuretic, then you can predict the electrolyte abnormalities that can be expected with each class of medication. While this does take more time, it not only reinforces memorization, but will make you a better clinician when you begin using these drugs to actually treat patients.


In conclusion, crafting a personalized study routine in medical school is a dynamic process that evolves with experience and self-awareness. By designing a structured timetable, optimizing study hours, embracing effective study methods, fostering concentration, and honing memorization techniques, you can navigate the challenges of medical education with confidence and achieve academic excellence. Remember, consistency, resilience, and a growth mindset are essential components on your journey to becoming a successful healthcare professional.

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About the Author

Dylan Eiger, MD/PhD Candidate

In 2016, Dylan Eiger graduated Cum Laude from Duke University with a BS in Chemistry with a concentration in Biochemistry. Matriculated in the MD/PhD Duke…

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