The postbac started about a month and a half ago now, which feels like a long time ago and not that long ago at the same time. I started a study group at the beginning of the year which I was nervous to initiate, but it’s paid off because the people in my group are so clever and have really helped me through this difficult material. Our first exam was in physiology which sounded like a somewhat tame course until I found out about all of the physics involved in the study of the neuron…that was unexpected and so confusing! At first, I was waking up at 6 am every morning to get ready and leave for my 8 am physiology class. I would pack lunch and just keep going until my biochemistry class ended just before 2 pm.hese were long days. Then I would either go to volunteering, go to my the library and wait until our study group met up (usually around 4), or go home. Once at home I would relax for a few, then make dinner, socialize with my husband, and then start studying again after he went to sleep (early because he has work that starts at 5:30 am.) This was going okay for a while until I realized that I was absolutely exhausted every day going to bed around midnight or 2 am. Then I found out that my classmates all go to bed by 8 or 10 pm and I was fairly shocked! In that moment I realized that I should probably start sleeping more; my physiology and biochemistry classes are recorded so I began experimenting with sleeping during the time that I have my physiology class. I felt like a new person and was much relieved that this option was available to me. Of course this isn’t exactly the best life decision since once I have a job I’ll have to be crawling out of bed to appear at 8 am and then as a resident working all sorts of crazy hours, but I’m going to be selfish now and sleep in.
By the time the first physiology test rolled around I had been to 50% of the lectures in-person and kept up with the other 50% online. Our study group had met multiple times and I had taken many practice tests. I was feeling quite confident about the material since I had prepared so much, and walked out of the exam feeling that surely I got a B and if I was lucky maybe an A. You can imagine my shock when I found out that I got a C. Everything felt like such a disaster. I had just signed off on those massive student loans and could immediately picture my future as a forever pre-med with thousands in loans working menial jobs and maintaining a false illusion that I could get in, or changing my career choice entirely but feeling unfulfilled. I was feeling so bad about it that I didn’t go to school for about two days and just lolled around sleeping and feeling sad/angry/frustrated/dumb. Of course this wasn’t exactly a genius choice but at the time I didn’t really feel like facing my classmates and the possibility that they would want to know how I did knowing that they likely did very well compared to me. This snowballed into another disaster in which I realized that I had made an appointment to meet with a doctor that I wanted to shadow, but had completely forgotten about it while lying around sad about my exam. Because my phone battery was low on the day I made the appointment, I recorded the date in this planner the school gave us during orientation. However, I never used that planner again and the appointment date stayed in there forever and was forgotten. I was so angry with myself (again) because I had really been looking forward to the chance to shadow this physician. He sounded truly amazing and I thought I would have a lot to learn from him. I had to call and sheepishly apologize to the office for missing the appointment. They kindly asked if I would want to reschedule but I had to tell them that I shouldn’t since I had already wasted their time once and couldn’t ask them to spend time again. All in all it was a very frustrating week and I felt so out of control of my life. Well I felt I had control but that basically couldn’t handle it. I had to have serious think about what I was going to do to ensure that I could keep my medical school dreams alive by doing well in school.
I was talking to one of my friends who is also premed and she mentioned to me that she was amazed that I was able to focus and study for the MCAT for long stretches of time while she felt like she couldn’t focus. When she told me this I laughed; in the moment I felt like I was hardly accomplishing anything. But looking back now, over a year later, I can see that maybe I was extremely focused. I turned my kitchen’s dining area into a study cave, complete with handmade physics posters on the wall. I remember coming home from a shift at the hospital (I worked as a scribe) and would quickly escape my scrubs and rush to the computer so that I could fit in a practice full-length MCAT before I felt tired. When I woke up, literally the first thing I would do before rolling out of bed was use one of these awesome free MCAT apps. I suppose every second my mind was on the MCAT.
Could I capture that energy and dedication again?
I began to think that I could. I reflected back on my more successful moments in school, and realized that I was fairly dedicated to my studies at that time. But now, during the postbac, I had been dedicated to my studied. I kept nice notes, I did practice questions, I talked out topics with my peers…to no avail. So what went wrong? Suddenly I realized that my problems were not a lack of comprehension but a lack of memorization. Studying for the MCAT, the material I needed to know was fairly basic. I would re-teach myself concepts by watching YouTube videos online and once the material got too in-depth, beyond what I knew would be on the exam, my mind shut off to avoid overloading my brain with useless information. Most of the MCAT subjects I had already learned in undergrad, so studying for the MCAT was just an extended refresher course. I had not had to learn new material in a very long time. Furthermore, I opted to retake biology 1 and 2 at a community college (due to the cost after moving to a new state.) This was a good decision financially, but made for a challenging transition to graduate school. The most difficult science course I took was about 2 years ago, so unlike my peers who may have been taking senior-level science electives only a year ago, I only took one junior-level science course and nothing challenging beyond that. I realized that when I was studying I would quickly become satisfied when I understood basic concepts and was quick to blank out when there were gritty details involved. Obviously this was not serving me well.
Fortunately, once you tank an exam as part of the VCU postbac you are eligible for free tutoring services through the school. I went to the Division of Academic Services office and asked to be tutored. This was awkward because I had to tell them how I had studied before and what I think went wrong and they said all of these embarrassing things like “I’m so proud of you for coming to get a tutor.” I wanted to crawl away and hide but I had to sit there and nervously laugh and wait for them to say “You can have a tutor.” This tutor was only for physiology, however. I was a little freaked out about my biochemistry exam which was looming and frantically searched for a tutor for that course as well. Since this was our first biochemistry exam, I was ineligible for free tutoring through VCU since I hadn’t yet failed a biochemistry exam. (By the way getting a C in grad school is failing, so a C on physiology had made me eligible.) I looked online but many of the tutors were only undergraduate students or mainly tutored for AP Chemistry which I felt was a little off-mark for this graduate class. I managed to find a professor from Maryland who was willing to tutor me over Skype for $50/hour. This was steep but I felt like the chance to not fail would be worth it. We drilled down the Hendersen-Hasselbach equation and protein sequencing for two hours and I was feeling a little better about the exam. I did a million practice tests since the professor fortunately recycles questions and styles his exams similarly from year to year. I met with my study group and we basically narrowed down the main types of questions that would appear on the test and walked out of the test feeling much more confident than I did after earning a C on that physiology test. Although it took my professor almost a month to grade that biochemistry exam, I was very excited to hear that I did earn an A! I truly felt like I earned that A, too, after all of that hard work I put in.
Before school started I was motivated to try Cal Newport’s “4 weeks to a 4.0” study skills overhaul series; OMS 2 Ryan Nguyen from www.whitecoatDO.com had recommended this in a chat I hosted in August. You can read the transcript for that chat in the Google+ group here. Some of Newport’s suggestions (such as the Sunday ritual) seemed like they were worth a try. However, did I do any of the suggested things? No. But I don’t feel that necessarily was my downfall in physiology (and later histology.) I put plenty of time into studying the material, but I was not approaching the material in the right way.
What I learned after basically failing:
- the course pack is the “bible” for the course; if it is in there; memorize it and know every inch
- better to study more in-depth than estimate which topics will just be “grazed over” and ignore pieces of the material
- quickly identify weaknesses and seek help ASAP
- study at a regular place in order to better memorize material and sooner identify weaknesses
- make a one page (1-2 sided) review sheet for every day of lecture
Going more in-depth into the material certainly paid off. With my revised study methods I secured an A on my next physiology test. A lot of Cal Newport’s ideas aren’t really helpful when studying for tests that require massive amounts of memorization like physiology. He recommended many things including for note-taking: “only write questions instead of word-for-word what the professor is saying.” This is seriously unhelpful for this course since literally any single sentence in the course pack is fair game for a test question. Not to mention the questions aren’t always straight forward. We learned about phototransduction when the eye is exposed to light, for example, and then the test question asked us what happened in the dark. Instead of wasting time coming up with possible tough questions for every single tidbit of material, I found actually spending time memorizing everything to be a better use of time.
Overall the program is more or less what I expected it to be. I expected the material to be challenging and it certainly has been, although not impossible to understand. We certainly travel at a faster pace through the material than my professors did in college, but I feel like the pace in medical school will be even faster–except for histology at VCU since supposedly we take the exact same course but in a different section. I cannot comment on course rigor at other medical schools or even other courses at VCU since I have not been exposed to them. This experience has been only mildly stressful and is giving me the opportunity to cultivate the study skills I need to do well in medical school. Now I’m just hoping that my performance in this program will be good enough to get me into medical school. That’s the next step and always on my mind! Generally we have one exam per week, sometimes two, which keeps me on my toes. By hacking away at the material a little at a time and constantly meeting with my study group to keep the material from all three classes fresh on my mind, I think I’m slowly moving towards accomplishing my goals. In addition to school, I’ve been volunteering at a free clinic at the front desk which is a really fun opportunity because I get to interact with patients over the phone and help them find resources (such as housing or financial aid). I have been wanting to shadow, and did find a “replacement” doctor after the first doctor-disaster but I haven’t felt that my life has calmed down enough to actually set up a time to go shadow her! Once I do shadow though I will surely report back and blog about that experience. Let me know if you want study tips based on my experience and share yours with me. I’m glad I finally found the time to write a blog post–this has been sitting in my draft folder for the past 3 weeks and I’ve added a little at a time.
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” — Robert Collier