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Stop Cramming, Start Learning

Some of the biggest and scariest challenges facing pre-med and medical students are comprehensive exams – tests that expect you to remember material not just from a single class but from an entire year (or multiple years!) of study. Consider the MCAT. You’ll take this exam about 1-2 years before you even go to med school. This exam is one of the biggest pieces of your med school application and it covers almost two and a half years of science content in one long test. As a med student, you’ll face the USMLE, a series of licensing tests that expect you to remember everything you learned in med school in a single go.

These can be a huge challenge for many students because they learn bad habits very early on. After all, if you can spend a single night cramming a bunch of history facts in your head and just spew them out the next morning and get rewarded for that (A+! Yay!) in high school, why wouldn’t you just keep doing what works?

The answer is simple:

The more often you skate by with cramming, the more you’re reinforcing the bad study habits that will make it almost impossible to get into med school or succeed once you’re there. I’ve been a tutor for pre-med MCAT students for over a decade, and seen thousands of people over the years who, despite being excellent straight-A students, had enormous difficulty getting past the MCAT. They’d been so successful for so many years with a cramming technique, that they just couldn’t fathom why it wasn’t working any more.

If you want to avoid this fate:

You can start taking a different approach to how you study for your science classes. Stop trying to cram random facts into your head, and instead try to focus on actually learning. What I mean by that is two things: learning the underlying principles that guide why the facts are what they are, and learning the connections between the ideas rather than isolated ideas themselves. The human brain is much better at retaining connections and reasons than random facts – so that’s how you should learn!

Consider the classic example of learning physics equations in class – you know, all those jumbles of variables involving distance or acceleration or force. If you try to just brute-force it and learn by repetition then sure, yeah, you can memorize the equations for a single exam. But you’ll forget them the very next day. If, instead, you focus on the underlying principles and relationships involved (if distance is doubled, force is reduced by one fourth) and the connections between the equations and the units they represent, your knowledge will be much “sturdier” – it’ll last longer and you’ll understand at a deeper level. That deeper level is what’s absolutely necessary for success on the MCAT, in other year-long pre-med classes, and certainly in med school.

The good news:

You don’t necessarily have to give up cramming entirely – but you should definitely start learning on a deeper level in those classes that form the core foundations of good scientific literacy and understanding throughout college (most notably biology!!).

Written by Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step) content experts.
MCAT is a registered trademark of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which is not affiliated with Blueprint.