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How to Succeed at Medical School: An Essential Guide to Learning



How to Succeed at Medical School: An Essential Guide to Learning

Dason Evans, Jo Brown

ISBN: 978-1-444-35660-1 August 2011 BMJ Books 192 Pages

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Can you adapt to the wide variety of learning environments in medicine?

Can you learn for exams at the same time as training to be a doctor?

Can you stay focused on the future while getting today’s job done?

Can you achieve a life-work balance?

How to Succeed at Medical School will help you learn these vital skills, and much more.

This excellent guide to the study skills essential for surviving and thriving at medical school gives you insight into what to expect, covering the early days right through to clinical attachments.

With case studies, illustrations, quotes from other students, tip boxes, exercises, portfolios, and learning techniques to help you communicate and to study and revise — it’s jam-packed to help you succeed!

Written by experienced medical school teachers, this is your guide from the start of medical school to the start of your medical career.

Pre-publication reviews:

"… I learned a lot, found the enthusiasm of the text motivating and inspiring and really enjoyed reading it."
–Second year medical student, Royal Free and UCL

"I just wish this book had been available when I started my clinical placements."
–Second year medical student, University of Liverpool

"It helps aid students to learn effectively and efficiently and even tells you how you will know when you know enough!"
–Professor Parveen Kumar



Chapter 1 What kind of learner are you?

Chapter 2 Learning knowledge.

Chapter 3 Learning clinical skills.

Chapter 4 Learning clinical communication skills.

Chapter 5 Working in a group.

Chapter 6 Developing your academic writing skills.

Chapter 7 Portfolios and reflection.

Chapter 8 Life-work balance.

Chapter 9 Revision.

Chapter 10 Exam technique: general rules.

Chapter 11 Exam technique: specific examples.

Chapter 12 Thinking ahead: student-selected components, careers and Electives.


“The book is easy to read. It is well set out and has good revision points in the form of reflective questions at the end of each chapter. Both teachers and students would benefit from it” (MJA, August 2009)

This book has a fantastic layout, making it easy to understand, but also making it easy to find particular sections that you want to focus on. It’s concise and very formative, without any excessive jargon.

The style of the authors really does reflect the book content. The way this book has been written, really reflects and emphasises the fact that the authors really do know what they are talking about. The authors are aware that amongst their target audience, there are different types of learners, and so they have addresses this by incorporating various methods of providing information, ranging from diagrams to tables to flow charts. I also think that the authors have really ensured that no reader of this book finds it too complicated; they really have explained this book well and simplified any aspect which would be new to a college leaver

Amazingly comprehensive book, covering everything I would need to know to survive medical school. On reading this book, I was delighted to see the extent to which the authors have fully paid attention to covering all aspects of medical school, everything from addressing what type of learner you are and your learning styles, down to the exciting planning of electives.

This book is one which will put any student ahead of the game, not only in surviving medical school, but also kick starting you foundation training too. By reading this book, and fully engaging with the activities and questions, you'll really learn new things about yourself and way to take advantage of the way you are and the way you learn.

I'd recommend people to read this book early on in their medical career, because if read later, you'll only kick yourself for the fact that you have missed out on being able to implement all the hints and tips earlier. I'd even recommend some sections to non-medical students who are starting university as they would also gain a lot from this book.

To be truthful, I would never have considered buying a book on such a topic as I always thought that this information would be given at medical school, or that we would pick it up along the way just as every other student would. However, having read this book now, I really do think it would set a student ahead of his peers and allow them to take full opportunity of everything that comes their way. I would definitely advise this book as a gift idea for those who want to buy a gift for those who have just been offered a place in medical school, because this book is not one that I would have gone out to actively buy, yet it would be one that I would really benefit in reading before medical school.

In terms of competition, there are a few books out on the market such as "so you want to be a brain surgeon..." etc.... however this by far covers all that a college leaver would need to know for medical school. (Lina Fazlanie, Sheffield Medical School)

Overall, I found this book very interesting especially the latter chapters, which I found more relevant to my stage at Medical School (3rd year). I liked how the book was clearly laid out and presented in the Introduction and definitely think having the Foreword written by Dr P Kumar would attract more medical students to read the book. I also liked how every chapter started with an ‘overview’ and ended with a summary, and that each chapter included necessary tables, diagrams, tasks and quotes from medical students. Although I would suggest limiting the suggested references (at the end of each chapter) to  2-3 as I doubt medical students would have that much time to read every reference. Maybe the quotes from medical students, should be named the same as how it is done on the back cover (e.g. ‘quote from medical student’, which year they’re from and which medical school they attend, instead of just having their name and year) to show the range of medical schools if this book were to be read by a prospective medical student (which is suggested in the introduction).

To enhance the book I would also suggest adding some colour to make it more appealing, whether that be adding a coloured outlined box to the ‘overview’ instead of having in a grey-filled box, or having coloured diagrams. I think it would be good to also transfer diagrams onto the same page as when it is referred to in the text, as it is annoying having to keep flicking through the pages back and forth.

I liked how the text sounded quite informal, making the various tasks like keeping a portfolio less daunting, but was less keen on the ‘non-clinical’ comparisons made (e.g. comparing buying condoms from a pharmacist to exam anxiety).

The topic coverage was extensive and I cannot think of anything I would add, I really liked how the chapters were ordered chronologically like a medical student’s journey through medical school - starting from basic learning skills which you develop in year one or maybe before you enter medical school to planning your elective in year five/six at the end of the book.

I would definitely recommend this book to a friend, whether they are a prospective medical student or a medical student having problems at medical school. I have definitely learnt more about different aspects of medical school life and will definitely take their Dason Evans’ and Jo Brown’s advice into consideration (including burning rosemary oil when I next revise!). (Jennifer Ho, Nottingham Medical School)

“The book was interesting, honest, informative and often quite funny! I enjoyed the light-hearted comments dotted throughout the book and found them to be light relief from the often fairly heavy content. The questions and answers at the end of each chapter were very useful and interesting to read . Initially I found the student comments punctuated throughout the chapters slightly irritating- they grew on me though and I found them increasingly useful as the book progressed.

Generally, an excellent guide to navigating your way through medical school, which is often quite a challenging and daunting experience.” (Harriet Jones, Southampton Medical School)

How To Succeed At Medical School provides a concise, thorough and pleasant overview of a number of important issues encountered at medical school and is packed to the brim with little gems of wisdom that provide an important “heads up” for prospective or current medical students.

As a final year medical student, I have negotiated myself successfully through the majority of my time in medical school. It has been testing to say the least, and my success thus far has involved an enormous amount of trial, accompanied with a slightly less amount of error. Thus, one begins to settle on a routine or rules of thumb by which life in medical school is dictated.

I read this book with a certain degree of scepticism; I felt ideally placed to critique such a book as a final year medical student, and would have been loathe to entertain “all-knowledgeable authors” dictating how I should have gone about my previous four years. However as I read, I found myself agreeing with the personable style of the authors on numerous occasions thinking, “that definitely worked for me” and on other occasions saying, “I wish I had done that”. In addition to the style adopted by the authors, the various students’ inputs dotted around the book, offering their own perspective of the topic at hand, was refreshing and engaging. It contributed nicely to the personable style of the book and added weight to the opinions expressed by the author. Either way, I found myself agreeing with much of what was being said throughout the book.

An important point I gathered from the various students’ inputs, is that different things work for different people. When it comes to revising for an exam, the same exam technique will not suit everyone. The authors are acutely aware of this and demonstrate this throughout the book. The chapter on learning knowledge was very informative and I found myself taking notes on how my study and lecture note-taking could be refined to become more efficient.

As a medical student, we are drilled on the importance on evidence-based practice; a similar approach is adopted in this chapter and others, whereby different models of evidence-based learning are presented and their relative merits assessed. I found the biological theories of how these learning mechanisms work (e.g. left-hand side of the brain appealing to words and logic and the right-hand side appealing to emotions, feeling and imagery) particularly intriguing, having learned related topics throughout medical school (I suspect the authors were keenly aware of nerdy medical students demanding to know why various learning mechanisms worked best!) This is coupled with quirky tips, such as burning rosemary oil to increase your memory while you study, and lends to an overall very entertaining and engaging read.

This aspect of optimizing life as a medical student is explored throughout the book. Studying medicine often involves pouring over reams of exam notes and books and, it is not difficult to become overburdened. This, along with the high expectations often heaped upon entrants to medical school means many can struggle with the work-life balance - an issue I have struggled with myself in the past. I found the chapter discussing this work-life balance particularly helpful, which offered workable solutions to deal with study procrastination and time and stress management – aspects of life that are crucial to the aspiring successful medical student. It offers relaxation tips and many ideal templates by which one can restore the work-life balance and enjoy the “work hard, play hard” reputation enjoyed by medical students around campus!

In many ways, entering medical school represents a completely different challenge to most entrants. Coming from a school environment, many will be used to being “spoon-fed” information and effectively “regurgitating” this knowledge for exams. The transition to medical school, where one is expected to conduct their much of their own learning on such a vast subject, can come as quite a culture shock to many. The balance between “what you need to learn” and “what you “could” learn” can cause significant problems; I read this chapter, nodding quietly to myself as this mix-up caused me considerable personal anguish in my first medical year. I was quite impressed with the techniques and learning check-lists outlined in the book which dealt with this crucial topic of “depth versus breadth” of knowledge.

In a similar way, the multitude of daunting new exam formats, from MCQs to EMQs to OSCEs to written and oral exams encountered in medical school are very well discussed in this book and I was impressed that, as a final year medical student who has completed many of these type of exams, there was still many helpful and relevant tips to be gleaned from this book on how best to prepare for these exam formats.

Overall, this impressive little book covers many angles on the trials and tribulations of medical school and provides an ideal template to follow for prospective or current medical students.  It is very well referenced throughout, be it from doctors, journals or students and adopts a personable style which makes it quite an enjoyable read. I was impressed with the array of knowledge it encompassed and how relevant this knowledge still was to myself, as a final year medical student. (Cormac Mullins, Trinity College, Dublin)

An excellent introduction to the study skills essential for surviving and thriving at medical school

Provides information on how students can best cope with a range of new learning environments, and gives insight into what to expect and why courses are taught as they are

Written by experienced medical school teachers

Includes case studies and illustrations and covers the early days of medical school through to clinical attachments