How I Consistently Ranked First at Medical School

Introduction

Medical school is tough. With a never ending supply of content, all-year-round exams and the toll of attending hospital placements, it is no wonder that burnout and mental health problems are common.

Doing well at medical school, and university in general, is as much about how you study, rather than what you study. So how should you study? How can you efficiently revisit content without spending hours and hours studying?

I outline my techniques here that helped me consistently rank the top of my class through 7 years of university.

Let’s be real though, we all know that academic performance is NOT correlated at all with being a fantastic, empathetic, conscientious doctor – but still, we all want to do well in our exams. The focus isn’t about competition, or holding yourself to an unreasonably high standard. It’s about getting through medicine – an exciting yet gruelling course with a wealth of career opportunities on the other side – and helping out friends and coursemates along the way.

How to use this guide:

Ive created this guide to help you improve your exam performance; whether that be to hit the pass mark, hit the top spot, or any rank in between. Upon creating this I realised there’s a lot more to give. I’ve supplemented most sections with further blogs if you want to take a deeper dive, so this serves as a very hefty summary. You’ll get much more out of it by reading the spin offs.

I implore you to question the way you study. Is there anything new you can take away from this? Can you experiment with any other approaches? Leverage your time better? Enhance your memory? Perfect your revision schedule?

This blog is broken down into the following domains:

  1. Develop your mindset
  2. Know the assessment structure
  3. Know the way you learn best
  4. Know these key study habits
  5. Develop your study plan

If you found this helpful (or not), drop me an email and let me know, I’d love to hear your feedback. Similarly, if you’d like to showcase some of your own study tips, get in touch. Contact me here (hello@matt-barrett.com)

My story

I didn’t even get into medical school on my first try. Despite fairly good GCSEs and A levels, I missed out on my med school offer by a single mark in maths. I persevered and came into medicine by the biomedical science route instead – shooting for a place on a graduate entry medicine course.

Despite that, over the 7 years I was at university (3 years of biomedical science and 4 years of graduate entry medicine) I topped the year six times and got distinctions and prizes every year. I was the first in my family to go to university and had no academic mentors. There is a knack to performing well and I strongly believe it lies in the daily habits.

I’ve written this from the perspective of a medical student studying in the UK, but of course, the teachings are applicable across any institution, any country, and if moulded in the right way, any degree.

The invisible bonus:

There is more to this guide than just smashing medical school exams. The overarching principles are to have focus, to develop grit and to mange your emotions to reach a specific goal. These are all fundamental skills which you can take forward throughout your life to succeed in any area you see fit.

I’m passionate about enhancing exposure of entrepreneurship to doctors, students and all other healthcare workers – whether you’re interested at getting into healthtech, or want to create a side hustle to develop passive income whilst in medical school, or later as a doctor. Similar mindset, grit and study habits as explained here can help you condition your mind to spot business opportunities in the future and take the leap.

The first year after graduating in 2020, I did something unconventional. I dropped out of medicine straight away (but only for the year) in pursuit of starting off a medical education company using immersive technologies to enhance clinical decision-making training. We’ve had a successful year and have acquired funding for future growth.

You don’t need formal business qualifications to get into entrepreneurship – I didn’t have any. The hardest step is developing the mindset to get on the entrepreneurial ladder in the first place. Constant exposure will help you develop the mindset, skill set and heart set to get there.

If you’re interested in learning more and immersing yourself in developing business acumen, I’m more than happy to be your near-peer mentor – check out my free entrepreneurship material here: [insert link].

How I consistently graduated at the top of my class at medical school.

1. Develop your mindset

In my opinion, Mindset is the most important aspect of excelling in everything and anything you do. This is a whole topic in itself.

For a deeper dive into goal setting, managing expectations and developing grit, check out this blog: [Insert the ‘Goal setting for medical school success’ blog] for more on this section.

Here are the key takeaways…

Set your goals

Having a clear vision of what you want to achieve will keep you going through the times when you want to give up. We all have the same 24 hours in a day and its how you use it thats the most important.

If you want to do well at medical school, you need to have strength, discipline and focus. You have to want to do well, and you have to remind yourself of it when you find yourself losing focus. Staying on track and managing your emotions is something that gets easier with time. Luckily, you have at least 4 years to work on it through a medical school degree.

So how well do you want to do? Do you want the pass mark? Achieve in the top 25%? the top 10%? First place? Check out the blog above for more clarity.

Why strive for better exam performance in medical school?

  • Every year counts
  • Better academic performance will help you get into the place you want to work
  • Better marks will rank you higher for competitive intercalated degree choices
  • Prizes help you stand out

At the time of writing (for my UK audience), FPAS are considering dropping some parts of the EPM score. Taking away the extracurricular research components will mean that more emphasis on overall FPAS score comes from your ranking at medical school. It’s more important than ever to do well at medical school.

Dont put too much pressure on yourself:

Remember that exams are the hurdles placed to become a doctor. We have little control over how they’re imposed on us.

The reality:

  • You can’t know everything
  • Some exams are BS – questions can be subjective and controversial
  • Guidelines change constantly and so does consensus
  • We’re predominately taught at medical school as if it we’re in ye olde times and as if google doesn’t exist.
  • Only a small amount of content is ever examined – the majority of which is core principles.

Let’s be honest; a disproportionate amount of work we put into medical school is mainly for exams anyway. If you were to strip away what you’d need to be a competent doctor, it would be far less stressful. But unfortunately, thats not how we’re examined.

Another reality point: unless you use it, you’ll lose it. A nephrologist will likely be able to tell you about the pathophysiology of Liddles Syndrome, but will likely frown if you ask them the indications for a pacemaker. After medical school you’ll slowly but surely forget the intricacies of what you’ve been taught – so don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

Expel the myth of the genius

What is a genius? People often think that excelling in academic achievement is for people who just have knack for it – those who tend to do fantastic in exams despite minimal effort. Everyone has their own advantages. Those who are comfortable with rote learning, have a good memory and have less uni commitments/more time than others to spend studying, MAY do comparably better to someone who doesn’t… but that’s not always the case. Someone who smashes MCQs may not do so well at practical exams, for example.

It’s never a good idea to compare yourself to others in a negative sense – it’s much more valuable to look at others for inspiration and reflection. Comparing yourself in the negative sense puts you in victim-mode and clouds your self-confidence with a vail of excuses. Its a fixed mindset to doubt your own potential, just because some others on your course are known for doing well. It’s all in the study habits. Don’t compare yourself to others, instead, try to focus on working smarter not harder.

In particular, don’t compare yourself to those who you perceive to have more time – those who study for longer, with less commitments. It’s how you use your time that counts. Without focused intention, you could easily spend an hour of revision covering only 15 minutes of high yield study. The rest you may spend faffing around, being distracted, or looking over concepts that you already know well.

You have your own advantages and we are all geniuses in our own, unique areas of focus.

You can leverage your time using technology. You can leverage your time to learn in short, sharp bursts, and you can intentionally organise your materials better. You can find how you best study and work smarter, not harder, to better understand medical concepts, and do well enough in your exams to hit the next step. I’ll explain how later.

Get gritty

Grit is the ability to persevere with a cause relentlessly. Grit is about having a growth mindset – a mindset in which you do not know your potential unless you undertake regularly, deliberate practice. There are always highs and lows when studying for medical school exams. Some content you’ll struggle with, others you won’t. Doing well isn’t about always feeling on your A game, it’s about how you persevere to tackle the content you struggle with. Acknowledge what you struggle with and intentionally work on it.

A note on mental health…

Medical school is really taxing. It’s okay not to be okay. External events can knock you off your game. Underperformance can lower your self esteem. Some exams won’t go according to plan. You deserve it to yourself to prioritise your mental, physical and social health over exam performance. If you’re feeling overwhelmed:

  • Talk to friends and family
  • Talk to your university support services
  • Reach out to your healthcare providers

Don’t suffer in silence.


So now you’re sure you want to do well, you’ve defined to what extent you want to perform and appreciate that medical school is just a hurdle between you and an awesome career. You’ve thought about how realistic your expectations are and the reality that medical school comes with both highs and lows. It’s normal to feel like that. Keep bearing this in mind and coming back to it through the highs and lows. Lets move on…

2. Know the assessment structure:

Know your exam content

It goes without saying but you need to be clear on the types of questions you’ll be examined on. Whether thats MCQs, single best answers, essay questions or practical skills, each one must be handled differently.

Every exam counts

The secret to exceptional performance isn’t doing the best in every exam; it’s being an allrounder. You don’t even need to score the highest in any of your papers. Being in the top 10 for every exam may even rank you first place overall.

For those aiming for distinctions, remember, every single point you get counts. An overall year mark of 1-2% more may propel you half a decile forwards in overall ranking, especially if you’re towards the middle of the normal distribution curve. You need to put the effort into every exam that matters. Even if its just a small percentage of your year.

Not all exams are graded equally

Its pretty much universal in the UK for medical schools to break down content into modules. The exams and coursework you complete contribute to specific modules, which in turn contributes to different assessment sections, which in turn contribute to the final mark in some way. You may find that some assessment methods are weighed much more heavily than others.

You should have a clear understanding of how your grades are generated. For example, say you have 5 sections that contribute to your overall year grade. Let’s say for examples sake that they all contribute to the final grade equally. Lets also say that 4 of these sections are made up of a bunch of exams that contribute roughly the same weight. But lets say that last section is based on a single essay. Every percentage point of the score you get in that essay will move your overall ranking more than the other 4 sections. In this context, stellar performance in that section is much more important than the others.

You should also know whether some sections are included in the final year ranking, but left out when it comes to calculating academic performance for FPAS scoring (for my UK audience). This is important to know. If you’re not shooting for merits and distinctions, then its not worth the hassle of holding yourself to a high standard in those sections, if they don’t count towards FPAS scoring.

Tip: Make the most of sending drafts to your supervisors if you’re undertaking essay-based assesments. This may be in the context of student selected components, dissertations or random coursework. If you have a supervisor who will be grading your work and accepts drafts, make your intentions clear. Tell them specifically that you’re shooting for as high a grade as possible, and ask them for feedback on how you can make it happen.

Learn from your peers:

Always look to others for inspiration. You’re part of a whole community of senior and junior medical students. You’re in a fantastic position to learn from others. Speak to your peers and look out for their advantages. If they’re fantastic communicators, reflect on why you think thats the case and practice it yourself. If they’re fantastic teachers, try to arrange some peer learning sessions with them. Many medicals schools adopt a spiral curriculum where you revisit content as the years go on – you can help senior students and they can help you; you can help junior students, and they can help you.

3. Know the way you learn best

Find out what type of learner you are and further explanations on this section in this blog: [Insert the how do you study blog]

Here are the key takeaways…

  • Recognise how you study best – are you predominatley a visual, kinaesthetic, auditory or verbal learner? Are you inter-personal or intra-personal learner? – check the blog for some self-reflection.
  • What are your unfair advantages? – are you a great communicator? Can you extremely competent at calculations? Do you have photographic memory?
  • What are your weakness?
  • When do you work best? – In the morning, after lunch, after coffee, in the evening?

Once you’re aware of the way you learn and where your strengths lie, you can improve your overall performance by constructing a revision plan that complements how you learn best. But more importantly, it allows you to focus on strengthening your weaknesses. Remember, the aim is to be an allrounder, not excel in a couple of areas.

The importance of experimentation

How do you know if you’re studying optimally? What if a new revision technique would improve your performance? It’s so easy for us to stick with what we’re used to. However, I encourage you to spend a small percentage of your time, experimenting with other ways to learn.

Have you ever considered:

  • Forming a small study group
  • Listening to podcasts or making your own voice recordings
  • Watching YouTube videos
  • Brainstorming a subject area on paper
  • Using flash cards
  • Learning by teaching
  • Actively recalling a subject when you’re in the shower
  • Purposefully tried to pick out the key learning points from your lectures

4. Know these key study habits –

A common strategy for medical students goes as follows: Attend lectures; attend placement; sit through them; take notes; make your notes pretty and organised; when the exams get closer start going through content; Oh crap, there’s loads of it; you’ve got through everything once; you’re starting to forget the earlier stuff you covered; bam! the exams tomorrow; let’s start cramming.

Even if the method above gets you through, you probably won’t feel fulfilled by it and it’s likely to put you under a lot of pressure. What you need is to develop key study habits. Here are some key concepts. Be sure to check out the specific blogs for the details.

Be intentional with your time:

One percent per day. Thats all it takes. One percent improvement each day will lead you to producing better study habits and time is your best weapon. The way you use your time will depend on the academic activity you’re taking part in.

We all have the same 24 hours in a day. It’s how you use them thats different. The aim is to cover content regularly, over short time periods, but consistently. You need to make the most of your time. You owe it to yourself to have down time every single day.

For more on how to use your time wisely see the blogs: [Insert Making the most of patient encounters; ward rounds; and lectures blogs here]

Enhance your memory:

Revisit, revisit, revisit.

The number one way to improve your memory is to revisit it. Heard of long-term potentiation? Synapses strengthen with repeated use. The more you go over similar content, the greater your ability to recall it.

There is so much content to cover in medical school, you need to be able to collate a range of sources, and manage your revision workflow to get it in front of your eyes (or ears, or hands if you prefer) as often as you can. Once you’ve drilled down how you best study, you need regular exposure to keep it there.

For those thinking ‘I don’t want to be eternally revising’ – I’m pleased to say, that’s not at all what I mean. If you want to find out the techniques you can use to enhance your memory for content, essays, MCQ exams and more, see the blog: [How to enhance your memory blog; and Memory aide revision note series

Leverage study time:

For powerful ways to exponentially enhance your study time without dedicating your day to hours of revision, see the techniques here: [Insert the ‘Work smarter not harder’ blog]

Here are the key takeaways…

Leverage your time by multitasking!

Ways to multitask:

  • Find the gaps in your day where you can multitask.
  • On a commute to placement? Download a PDF textbook to access on your phone; access your university lectures from your phone; take a book with you; listen to podcasts.
  • At the gym? You can’t use your hands or your eyes, but you can use your ears. Pull up some YouTube videos, download audible, listen to an educational podcasts – there are loads out there.
  • At a party – discuss G-protein signalling with your friends – okay that’s a joke, don’t be that person.
  • Waiting around in hospital – discuss educational content with your friends; practice OSCEs, get adhoc teaching from a consultant or junior doctor.

Dedicate a small amount of time and practice consistently. Not too much, just often. Once you’ve completed your specific daily aims, leave it – no more revision for you. Enjoy yourself instead.

Technology is your friend:

I’d highly recommend using technology to help you revise, whether thats by collating notes in one place or intentionally setting out revision plans. Check out the blog [Insert the Leverage productivity hacks blog] to see if there’s anything you’re not currently using.

Here are the key takeaways…

  • Use questions banks – most people do, if you don’t, you are highly disadvantaged.
  • Collate your lecture and revision notes together – check out Notion, OneNote or Evernote.
  • Commit to flashcards (optional – I didn’t actually do this at all, but its a popular strategy)
  • Have easy access to textbooks and resources
  • Take charge of your time with Google calendar or equivalent software

Now you have the mindset, the knowledge of what you need to study, a familiarisation with how you best study and the tricks that’ll help you revisit content easily, its time to piece it all together and tailor it to a way that suits you…

5. Develop your study plan

The earlier you plan and execute the better.

The plan you make is of course, entirely individual. For a deeper dive on creating a high-yield revision schedule that suits you, see this blog: [Insert the ‘Craft the perfect revision plan’ blog]

Here are the key takeaways:

  • Know your personal list of high-yield resources and webpages
  • Have your revision notes organised and highly accessible
  • Create a plan and stick to it
  • The earlier the better – little and often beats cramming
  • Compartmentalise your time to revise at a time when you study best
  • Allow for experimentation – dedicate a small proportion of your time to revise differently. Tweak and change accordingly.
  • Know when to say no to revision – make sure you regularly have your study breaks and down-time.

Conclusion:

You’ve finally made it to the end! Here are the key takeaways from this whole blog. Remember to check out all the other blogs that are linked on this page for a deeper dive. As mentioned earlier, if you have any feedback I’d love to hear it – contact me at hello@matt-barrett.com.

  • Top performance at medical school is as much about how you study than what you study.
  • Everyone has their own strength and weaknesses – know your strengths, and intentionally improve on your weaknesses
  • Excellent exam performance doesn’t mean topping every exam – be an allrounder
  • To perform your best, you need to have the drive and ambition to stick it through the tough times.
  • Make a revision schedule and start early, little and often rather than cramming.
  • This isn’t about getting the top spot, its about developing effective study habits to enable you to enjoy medicine, consistently study and protect yourself from burnout.
  • Do your best and take it in your stride if it doesn’t turn out the way you expect.

Best of luck 💪

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