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Quiz: Do You Need a Tutor in Med School?

Medical school is difficult, and it’s helpful to lean on friends and a support system during the tough rotations. Remind yourself how smart and capable you are—after all, not everyone is admitted into medical school! Even if you breezed through your college classes without breaking a sweat, it is unrealistic to think that you won’t struggle with your medical school coursework, especially when you’re starting out. In a way, it’s a different ball game entirely. The volume of material increases significantly in medical school, and the time frame in which you’re expected to learn everything seems to shrink. It can easily overwhelm even the best of students.

With this in mind, how do you know at which point to seek additional help? Maybe you performed poorly on a few tests here or there. Maybe you already feel completely stressed out or burned out by studying in your first year. But isn’t that normal? Maybe if you try something different next time, or just study a little harder, things will sort themselves out, right? Perhaps you can just get through one more lecture, one more set of flashcards, one more test.

While that is certainly possible, these initial issues can be part of a larger problem and signify that you would benefit from some outside help, potentially from a personal tutor. If so, it would be paramount to identify this need sooner rather than later, so that you have a chance to prevent any academic issues from building up and setting you back. Trust me, you do not want to be put on academic probation or have negative academic marks on your dean’s letter. An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure.

While there are many forms of outside help including peer tutoring, or online study programs, one-on-one professional tutoring is a resource that could be a good option for you. The following are a few signs that you might benefit from one-on-one tutoring in med school.

Top 5 Signs to Consider a Tutor in Med School

Sign #1: Your core issue is test anxiety/test-taking.

Maybe you’re the type to rattle off information easily when you’re studying with your friends. But when test day comes around, your confidence wanes and your anxiety gets the best of you, leading to lower scores that don’t actually reflect your extensive knowledge. Did you choose the best answer? Are you sure, or maybe you should go with your initial choice? Maybe you misread the question? It is so frustrating to know that the act of taking a test is what’s holding you back, and not your capacity to learn. This is absolutely not an uncommon occurrence, and hiring a tutor can actually help you overcome or address some of these nerves. For one, your tutor can help validate your feelings and offer moral support from a place of experience, especially as tutors have lots of experience working with students with test-taking anxiety. 

More importantly, a tutor can help personalize a study program to address any testing deficiencies. Once you discuss your testing difficulties with your tutor, a good tutor should be able to figure out a study plan with you. Preferably this study plan focuses on the act of test-taking. A tutor should teach you how to utilize test-taking techniques to help you feel more confident and less frazzled. They may challenge you to use these test-taking strategies in frequent testing condition simulations (a sort of immersion therapy) in order to make you feel more comfortable in similar situations. Your tutor can teach you skills to “triage” questions on your test, such as saving difficult questions for later and approaching questions in an efficient and methodical manner.

A tutor can also provide feedback on what particular test-taking skills you are weak in and should work on. They may also walk you through techniques to reduce your anxiety prior to or during the test, such as repeating positive affirmations, or mindful breathing while going through test questions. This may be particularly helpful if you have a history of poor performance solely on exams but do well in understanding the remainder of the classwork. 

Sign #2: The volume of information feels like too much to handle.

Maybe test-taking isn’t your problem, but the sheer volume of information that you’re presented with in medical school just seems too much to handle. There are dozens of lectures per week. Each lecture has hundreds of terms, questions, and cases to accompany it. On top of all of that, there is an ocean of study resources to use, from books to flashcards to question banks. You don’t have an effective way to parse and organize the information, and it just feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day for you to obtain a mastery of the material. This can easily lead to burnout and disillusionment, which almost creates a positive feedback cycle of poor performance and motivation.

This is also a common occurrence because medical school throws massive amounts of information at students. A tutor can recommend tried and true study methods and high-yield resources to help you better process information, and help you come up with a game plan to tackle whatever medical school throws at you.

Tutors can teach you how to perfect study methods that might help you learn these massive amounts of material: utilizing spaced repetition, building a “memory palace,” creating frameworks for contextualizing seemingly unrelated bits of material, and even overcoming negative behavioral patterns that keep you from learning effectively.

Sign #3: Your scores aren’t good despite trying various methods.

Sometimes, the problem is not so easily diagnosable. You’ve tried all the study resources your peers recommend but still haven’t found one that works well for you. You don’t feel particularly nervous come test day, but your scores aren’t coming up. You’re doing everything you can within your power to improve. But for some reason, your test scores keep coming back low.

If you don’t know why your test scores are poor, hiring a tutor may be the best way to figure out what your next steps are, what you’re not doing right, and which methods may work better for you. Enlisting outside help can bring a new perspective and is sometimes necessary to set you on the right path.

Sign #4: You need an objective assessment of your weaknesses and strengths.

In a similar vein, hiring a tutor can help provide a service that other resources can’t provide. A tutor has expertise in your field, as well as expertise in studying and succeeding in a testing environment. They are able to draw upon their extensive experience and knowledge to assist you in success. A good tutor is able to contextualize and provide insight into weaknesses that may seem huge or insurmountable to you. A good tutor should also be able to help you capitalize on your strengths in order to be a more effective learner or test-taker.

Unlike a classmate or a friend, a tutor should not have any blind spots or biases toward your situation. They are directly invested in helping you succeed, as is their job. They are not in any perceived or direct competition with you, and they’re not also torn between helping you study and having to study the same material on their own.

Sign #5: You don’t feel comfortable going to your peers.

Opening a dialogue and discussing medical information with others is often an effective way to learn and obtain a new perspective on the material. Reading, passive learning, or only memorizing “high-yield” words may still result in a lack of true understanding of how something works. For example, you can memorize all of the high-yield keywords regarding how a nephron functions, and which sections filter which ions, but truly learning how all the portions work together and why will provide the best foundation for understanding the material. Sometimes you can read a block of text over and over without seeing the big picture. But hearing it from someone else, how they understand the concept, and participating in that active back-and-forth can create an environment of better understanding for all parties involved. 

Study groups are a great way to achieve this. However, I can also empathize with “feeling behind” compared to your peers, or shame from not being able to understand certain concepts that seem to come so easily to them. Especially if you’re already struggling with the material, this activity could lead you into a further place of shame and avoidance rather than help you. It should go without saying that everybody learns at their own pace, and you should not feel shame or inadequacy because you don’t know everything your classmates know. In a perfect world, we should all be lifting each other up and helping each other succeed. Unfortunately, it does not always pan out as such. 

The advantage of one-on-one tutoring is that a tutor can provide this service for you, engage in dialogue and interactive learning, and talk you through medical school material without the concern of judgment or stigma as a barrier. A tutor can provide a safe space while boosting confidence, which sometimes can be the extra support that you need to do your best.

Results: Do you need a tutor in med school?

If you resonated with more than a few of these statements, you are highly likely to benefit from tutoring services to boost your exam scores (and confidence!) during medical school. 

To reiterate, medical school is difficult. You may feel like you’re the only person struggling, but you are certainly not alone. It’s important to recognize when you need to ask for help in med school. In fact, this demonstrates maturity and is the first step toward making a positive change in your medical career.

Hopefully, this post shows you that hiring a tutor is a personal decision to seek individualized help, not a sign that you’re “not smart enough.” Oftentimes, there are other external barriers that are keeping you from success, whether it be anxiety or outdated study methods. When you’re in school, you don’t always have the luxury of time to figure it all out yourself. Even if you hire a personal tutor, you’ll still be working hard to learn, but hopefully, they’ll provide that extra guidance that allows your efforts to translate to desired results.

Further Reading

About the Author

Mike is a driven tutor and supportive advisor. He received his MD from Baylor College of Medicine and then stayed for residency. He has recently taken a faculty position at Baylor because of his love for teaching. Mike’s philosophy is to elevate his students to their full potential with excellent exam scores, and successful interviews at top-tier programs. He holds the belief that you learn best from those close to you in training. Dr. Ren is passionate about his role as a mentor and has taught for much of his life – as an SAT tutor in high school, then as an MCAT instructor for the Princeton Review. At Baylor, he has held review courses for the FM shelf and board exams as Chief Resident.   For years, Dr. Ren has worked closely with the office of student affairs and has experience as an admissions advisor. He has mentored numerous students entering medical and residency and keeps in touch with many of them today as they embark on their road to aspiring physicians. His supportiveness and approachability put his students at ease and provide a safe learning environment where questions and conversation flow. For exam prep, Mike will help you develop critical reasoning skills and as an advisor he will hone your interview skills with insider knowledge to commonly asked admissions questions.