24 May 2007

Study Skills Part I

As many folks are heading for summer school, medical school or just taking a much-needed break, I thought it would be a good time for me to review some study skills that helped me excel in undergraduate, graduate and medical school. I am planning to present my "Study Skills" in more than one part and as an ongoing series. One of the first things that needs to be done is an assessment of the skills that every student needs in today's world. Along those lines are :
  • Excellent reading and reading comprehension skills
  • Computer skills
  • Excellent writing skills
  • Good math skills

The above components are the essence of doing well in your coursework and laying a strong foundation that will enable you to do well on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). If you find that you are weak in one of these areas, use the summer to work on your weakness and convert it into a strength. All of the above skills can be mastered with practice.

Reading and Reading Comprehension

One of the best ways to increase your reading skills is to just read. Start with materials that you enjoy and move into your course materials. If you have the time, read some short fictions authors like Hemingway, Baldwin and Oates. As you are reading their stories, note carefully how their works are organized, how they set the tone of the work and how they use language to convey their thoughts to you, the reader.

Other short materials that you can look into are the editorials in your newspaper. These editorials are generally about the length of the writing sample that you will create on the MCAT. They usually follow the outline of Introduction and thesis, evidence, evidence and conclusion. Look at the paragraph structure; underline the thesis statement and circle their evidence. Are their conclusions logical? Did they have a strong argument? Did they include a counter-argument? If you do not subscribe to a local newspaper, most large-city newspapers now publish on-line. Some of the best writing and editorials can be found in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Another benefit of becoming a good reader is that good readers are almost inevitably good writers. As you read and become adept at critical analysis of your readings, you will likely become more skilled as a writer. Try reading an editorial and writing your version of a counter-argument to the editorial. It doesn't matter if you agree or disagree with the editorial, just learn how to formulate a counter-argument. This task will also helps with getting used to using good grammar, sentence construction and word usage. By taking some time during the summer months (or a hour on the weekend) and practicing your reading and writing skills, you can greatly help yourself when it comes to writing your personal statement for you medical school education.

Another useful reading comprehension skill is learning to read and utilize your textbooks. Many courses such as General Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry and General Physics have excellent texts that are good adjuncts to your class lectures if you utilize them properly. At the beginning of every semester, you should be handed a course syllabus that contains your assigned readings, a lecture schedule and how you will be evaluated. Making sure that all assigned text readings are done BEFORE lecture can greatly increase your understanding of concepts.

The first task in evaluating a text book is to look at the overall organization of the book. Who is the author(s)? Where are they located? There is usually an "About the author" essay at the beginning (or end) of the book. Look at the table of contents and see how the material will be presented. Finally, look at each chapter and see if there are chapter summaries, key word summaries, concept summaries, questions and problems. Is there a glossary? Look at any appendices (often problem answers can be found here). Compare the table of contents with your course syllabus. This usually gives an excellent indication of how closely your professor will follow the assigned text. Finally, if there is a "study guide" for your textbook, purchase it. Study guides can help keep your mastery of the material on track. Also be aware that many textbooks have on-line study materials and extras. Be sure to take advantage of these materials whether they are assigned or not.

Computer Skills

In 2007, no college student can afford to say, "I don't know anything about computers!" because the computer is as necessary to your college career as pen and notebook. If your computer skills are rusty, rudimentary or weak, go to your schools computer lab and take any free courses or just ask one of the assistants to get you started. Learn to use word processing software and presentation software. Add the use of data entry software after you have mastered word processing and presentation. Most colleges have courses and companies like Microsoft have free on-line tutorials.

If you don't own a personal computer, head for the public library or your school's computer lab. Purchase a portable "thumb" or "jump" drive to keep your documents handy. These drives can be purchased for less than $10 (512 MB) and can be worn around your neck or attached to your school ID card. You can use your jump drive to work on documents at home and at school. Just be sure to save your work on both drives.

Excellent Writing Skills

You should be sure that you have taken both English Composition and a literature course. You need to be very facile with both composition and critical reading. I have outlined some practice skills but your English coursework has to be in place in addition to practice. If your college English department offers a Critical Reading course, take it and do well. Often History and Philosophy Departments will have excellent critical thinking courses. These courses generally have research and writing assignments which should be taken into consideration as you are preparing your course schedules. Beware of taking a semester of heavy lab sciences coupled with heavy writing coursework.

Excellent Math Skills

If you didn't study math in secondary school, most colleges will have remedial math courses for entering students. Take these courses and master mathematics. If you test beyond the remedial courses, the start with the math course that you testing indicates. Be sure to master mathematics as it is your main tool for mastery of General Chemistry and General Physics. Don't "talk" yourself out of doing well in these courses by saying, "I am no good at math" because pre-medical studies will not allow you the luxury of being "no good" at anything. Just as I have to master the skills necessary to do surgery, you have to master the skills necessary to learn math and use it as a tool. Just because you are not working calculus problems in medical school, does not mean that you can afford not to learn calculus. It's a great discipline and tool that enables you to master General Physics.

This is the end of the first edition of Study Skills. No matter where you are in your college or medical school career, you can utilize some of the things that I have outlined. You can decide today, that you are going to acquire the skills that you need to excel in your coursework.

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