Breaking Down Misconceptions About Tutoring in Med School

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • At least once per week, I find myself attempting to explain the practice of tutoring to one of my medical students, co-residents, or attending physicians. Naturally, I always bring up the obvious—that tutoring is a great way to maintain and improve my foundation of knowledge while also becoming a better educator and helping someone else achieve their dreams or unlock their potential. I can quote score improvements (I’m always proud to list my students who ended up scoring higher than me), evaluations thanking me for my service, or emails from a proud former student telling me that they matched in a competitive specialty or at their number one program. If they’re interested, I can show them the qualifications of the tutors working for Med School Tutors; residents and physicians whom I happen to believe are some of the most intelligent, passionate, dedicated, and creative individuals I have ever met. However, I feel like this conversation invariably ends up addressing some of the many misconceptions that exist about receiving tutoring.  So today, I decided share those points of view with you and to hopefully shed some more light on the benefits of working with a tutor.

    Misconception #1:  Working with a tutor means you are less intelligent than your peers.

    This is the most common and most frustrating misconception that I encounter, most often from the students themselves. Most medical students were very successful in college; so it is no surprise that they come into medical school with very high scholastic expectations. When deciding to work with a tutor, many students come in focused on their “failures”—low exam scores, test taking anxiety, or even previously unsuccessful attempts at the USMLE.  Few of them know of any friends that are working with tutors and may often have the attitude of “why me?”

    But why should we be embarrassed to work with a tutor?  Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps would likely be regarded as the very best at their respective sport. Yet, each constantly worked with coaches to improve their performance. Even within the medical field, the highly successful surgeon and author Atul Gawande describes working with a coach to improve his surgical performance. So why can’t working with a tutor be seen as working with a coach to improve your medical abilities? Shouldn’t it be considered noble and humble to be willing to work with a tutor in order to improve the quality of care you can provide your patients?

    Furthermore, having worked with hundreds of students, I can attest to the diversity in backgrounds and abilities of the individuals that pursue tutoring. I have worked with students near the top of their class and wanting to ensure that great board score that will unlock a career in orthopedics just as often as I have worked with an IMG hoping to secure a spot in the match. At the end of the day, the only thing my students have in common is the desire to become the best physician they are capable of being. Seeking help to unlock your maximal potential is far from unintelligent.

    Misconception #2:  Why work with a tutor when you could just read on your own?

    A common viewpoint is that a tutor will simply read the material back to you, just like the videos you can find online or your professors. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While my tutoring sessions may often involve a component of didactic lecturing, I strive to tailor my lecture style to the individual student and to present the information in a way that will help them become a better physician while also preparing them to master the USMLE or Shelf Exam they’re studying for. Having seen thousands of questions myself and talked to hundreds of people who have taken these tests, I am able to help students hone in on appropriate details and demonstrate how a topic might appear on a test.

    Additionally, the best tutoring sessions are the ones that branch out from didactics and address other issues. Many students come in to tutoring with great foundations of knowledge, yet see their exam scores plagued by poor test taking strategy. For these students, sessions often focus on working through USMLE questions together so that students can develop better test taking skills and develop the abilities to break a question down efficiently and correctly. Just like there is no one size fits all approach to learning medicine, there is no one size fits all approach to working with a tutor.

    Misconception #3:  Why not just work with a classmate or someone at your school?

    Many medical schools do provide peer tutoring services to their students and in most cases, these tutors can be very helpful. However, having been a peer tutor while I was a medical student, I can now confidently say that there is a vast difference between these peer tutors and the professional tutors working at Med School Tutors. Prior to working with students, each of our tutors undergoes extensive training designed to maximize their abilities as an educator. Additionally, they receive ongoing coaching and feedback that is designed to diversify their skillset and to ensure maximal success for their students.

    Returning to the sports analogy, imagine that you’re a high school freshman trying out to be the point guard for the varsity basketball team. Prior to tryouts, three different people offer to coach you:  your friend who is also trying out for the team, an outgoing senior from the previous season, and Michael Jordan.  Who would you pick?

    Fellow classmates and 3rd or 4th year medical students can offer invaluable insight, especially when it comes to the content of preclinical exams or ways to succeed on clerkships at your specific medical school. However, their anecdotal experience and advice may be unintentionally misleading or incorrect when extrapolated to the USMLE or Shelf Exams. When you work with a professional tutor, you’re drawing on their experience, the feedback they’ve received from each of their students, and the collective experience of the organization.

    Misconception #4:  A tutor can only help you during tutoring sessions.

    Personally, I believe that some of the most beneficial aspects of working with a tutor come in the form of non tutoring activities. When working with students, I create for each one, a unique and highly detailed calendar designed to maximize their efficiency when studying and to ensure that they complete the work necessary for success. Additionally, I am often available to answer questions through email — whether it’s telling someone what is or isn’t important to learn, or helping them understand a difficult UWorld question so they can move on. Finally, just like a coach, I am there to push you when you’re falling behind, encourage you when you’re feeling down, and to motivate you to achieve each of your goals.

    Misconception #5: Tutoring is a magic ticket to a great score.

    At the end of the day, working with a tutor in and of itself is not enough; it has to be combined with hard work. Regardless of their baseline ability, I only ask for two things from my students: motivation and dedication. As a tutor, I will give each of my students 100% of my abilities and effort, but for them to succeed, they need to give 100% of theirs as well. Trying to replace hard work with tutoring won’t get you anywhere. The students who benefit from tutoring are the ones who show up prepared, work hard, and maximize the time we get to spend together.

    In conclusion, I hope this addresses some of the common misconceptions that are out there about tutoring and provides each of you with more insight in to the role of a tutor in medical education.  After all, each of us could use a little help sometimes.