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Parallel Studying for the USMLE: Part One

“No, that’s megaloBLASTIC anemia.”

“They’re the same thing!”
“I think that the problem with the blood cells is–“

“No, you’re wrong. It’s on page 362.”
“That’s macrocytic anemia!”

I can still remember this conversation 5 years later. And to call it a conversation is an overstatement – it was much more of competition in who could yell louder and be more arrogant. When we are impressionable and eager to do great things early on in our medical school careers, it can take some fine tuning to discover the best way to accomplish our goals. This diatribe took place during the first month of medical school, as everyone was testing the waters on how best to study. We all wanted success and wondered about the fastest way to get there. Work alone in the library? Alone at home? Study with a group of new friends?

We opted for 6 people in a room who knew nothing about the concepts but had egos to defend. After this hellish experience and waste of an afternoon, people hated each other a little more, and we left the group study session with little, if any, new knowledge. It was a failure, and only cemented my assertion that the only way to study is alone, with a book, pen, and paper (+/- headphones). That is, until I started parallel studying, which enabled me to make great strides in furthering my own knowledge as well as my colleagues’. It allowed me to not only make more efficient use of my time, but help foster deeper friendships along the way.

What is parallel studying?

Parallel studying was born out of the same idea as parallel play which, if you remember from your childhood development coursework, is the hallmark of social interaction between children around 2 years old. While they will not actively interact with one another, they are happy to play with similar toys alongside one another, observing what each other is doing. Parallel studying is very similar. In all likelihood, you and your classmates will be covering the same subject. You will work independently on similar concepts and chapters while appreciating each other’s company. This is a key tenet, as one of the primary purposes of parallel studying is to avoid the rut of spending all day in sweatpants, unshowered, and not speaking to another human until nightfall.

Now that we’ve got a little bit of framework, let’s explain how it relates to medical school.

Interaction is allowed and encouraged. The place for interaction in parallel studying is not so much for chit-chat or witty puns (although these will get you through when/if you start losing your mind), but to bounce ideas off of one another, and clarify uncertain topics.

Let’s say the pulmonary physiology exam is coming up, and you can’t figure out how the V/Q ratio can decrease in lower lung fields if ventilation is increasing. Ask your partner! Now here is where the tricky part comes. If you are asked a question and don’t know the answer, be honest and say “I don’t know.” If and only if it won’t derail the studying you are doing, you can go over the concept together and both learn something you didn’t know before. If you do know the answer, you have an even more difficult job. Again, as long as your own work won’t become totally jackknifed, you should teach the basics of the concept to your study partner without being a jerk. For whatever reason, medical school is full of people who look to promote themselves and make others feel bad about gaps in their knowledge. It’s an ugly thing but undeniably exists. Hopefully you are not studying with someone like this. Hopefully you are not someone like this. In your explanations, strive to get the point across without putting your partner down or making them feel stupid for asking a question.

You will have to use your judgement as to whether the time is right to field a question and how deep of an explanation you can provide. In a perfect world, you will also be studying (or will have recently covered) the concept you are asked about. Parallel studying will force you to firm up your own knowledge by either teaching the subject directly, or investigating it further. If time and mental bandwidth permit, get in there and decide you are going to take the next 5-10 minutes to work together, and get V/Q ratios figured out.


One last thing before we conclude: always remember your primary goal in parallel studying. You need to master and internalize a large amount of information and so does your partner. Never forget that you are in this together! You will be a teacher, a student and a friend. Take the steps to advance both of your knowledge bases and use the extra brain power of a capable ally when necessary. Get out of the house, shower, dress, stay social and get smarter.

In my next post, we will delve a little deeper into getting the most out of this method of studying and field some questions from readers. Until then, happy studying!