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The Do’s and Don’ts of Studying During the Holidays

  • by Emily Ostrander
  • Dec 14, 2023
  • Reviewed by: Amy Rontal

As the semester comes to a close, you may be faced with the conundrum of how to use your time off. Maybe you’ll choose to take a well-deserved break after three straight months of classes. Or, you may want to get a headstart on studying for your exams and keep up the momentum from last semester.

If you do choose to study during the holidays, it’s good to find a balance between staying consistent and factoring in time to recharge so you don’t return to classes burned out. Here are a few “do’s and don’ts” of studying during the holidays.

Do: Create a realistic study plan

You talk to your classmates and say, “Oh, I can read a chapter of First Aid and do 120 questions a day over the break.” While we all believe we can realistically study 12+ hours a day, as many of us know (or will figure out soon), studying is exhausting!

Every long break that I get, I attempt to shove as many practice tests as possible, only to become disappointed when I don’t meet my lofty goals. You should be realistic and make a schedule that allows you to learn content while still getting a much-needed brain break. 

Use this break time to solidify content you have already learned and practice applying that knowledge to cases or question stems. Will reading a chapter of First Aid every day help you learn new content? Maybe! But will you remember that concept on a board exam or in front of a patient? Probably not. Instead of passively reading your textbook, try applying concepts in a patient scenario to really digest the knowledge and make better use of your study time.

Don’t: Neglect your family and downtime

After medical school, you’ll likely be working holidays and 80+ hour workweeks as a resident. So, take advantage of your holiday breaks while you still have them and spend this valuable time with friends and family. Your mental health is important! Spending all semester studying just to come home to study is not a healthy work-life balance.

I know that studying is a major stressor for nearly every medical student out there, so my recommendation is to add fun events to your schedule during your holiday break. Maybe you’ll wake up early in the morning to do some practice questions, then schedule a family outing at the movies in the middle of the day. If you still feel like you want more practice after your break, you can always watch content videos in the evening when most of the family is winding down for bed.

Scheduling fun events will not only give your brain the much-needed break it needs, but will also make your study time more efficient when you have designated time blocks for reviewing content.

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Do: Set up a “study only” space

Many students make the mistake of studying wherever is convenient rather than designating a “study only” space. Even though you may spend time in your bedroom during the holidays, studying in your bed is not a good idea! Your bed is a place of relaxation and if you study there, without knowing it, you will have bad sleep hygiene.

Designate a study location for yourself, even if you are staying at a family member’s home. If you have a loud family, try to find a place that is quieter and set up a comfortable spot designated just for studying. Sometimes, I’ll even study in my car or drive to the local library or coffee shop to study.

I know this is hard with many students, but setting a place where you are only in the study mindset will help with productivity. When you leave that space, you also leave behind all the stress of school (or at least try to) so that the rest of your home is free for family time and relaxation.

Don’t: Focus on an upcoming class

Many colleagues I know have tried to use the semester break to learn information that is upcoming in the next semester. However, I can tell you from experience that studying ahead is a waste of time! Your next term will probably have new professors and a new style of teaching. If you have made it this far in school without spending weeks before the semester begins pre-learning, why start now?

I recommend that you instead use this time to solidify the material you have done so far and start planning your board prep. Identify how your previous classes presented information differently than will be tested on the board exams, and figure out how you want to organize yourself for dedicated board prep time. You may even want to start researching which resources you’d like to use for your board prep, so you can hit the ground running when the semester starts again.

Do: Keep that motivation going

As a medical student, when you are in the weeds of basic science, you tend to lose the drive for what drew you to medicine as a field. My best advice is to remember why you wanted to become a doctor in the first place and use that to continue your momentum into the next semester.

This practice could be as simple as leaving a sticky note on your bathroom mirror reminding yourself why you started your medical journey. You could watch a video of a patient with cystic fibrosis or ask a family member with diabetes to talk about their experience. Remember, you are becoming a doctor to help others, not just to pass an exam. Keeping that in mind makes all the hard work worth it in the end.

Further Reading

About the Author

Emily Ostrander is a current MS4 from the American University of the Caribbean. She went to Western Carolina University for undergrad where she was in the biggest marching band in the country at that time. During medical school, she spent her free time with her corgi and scuba diving after exams. Right now she is applying to Family Medicine residency programs with the goal of full-spectrum care to underserved populations.