Hey MedHopeful, how do you cram for exams?

I am still exhausted after my 3 hour med school exam yesterday morning which covered topics ranging from cancer to pregnancy.

I’m exhausted not so much by the exam (it was only 3 hours after all), but mostly because of all the work leading up to the exam. For this exam, we covered 6 weeks worth of lecture material – Shelly calculated this to be ~3200 slides. I learned 80% of this material for the first time over the last three days. Yes, you read that right.

My cramming session culminated with me waking up at 5:30am in the morning on less than 5 hours of sleep, where I proceeded to do more cramming right until the exam started at 9am.

I admit this isn’t the first time, and it is unlikely to be the last.

Now, I’m not here to preach cramming to you. I wish I didn’t do it, because it is so damn stressful. 12 hour+ studying days? It’s crazy and exhausting. And there’s no worse feeling than not wanting to fall asleep because you know waking up will only lead to another 15 hour study session.

That being said, cramming is efficient. The less time I spend studying, the more time I can spend doing other things I like. Like writing blog posts! πŸ˜‰

In any case, whatever your reasons are for wanting to learn how I cram (curiosity, out of time and need tips, lazy by nature), I’m going to tell you straight up what I do. It isn’t pretty and I wouldn’t wish 3200 slide procrastination on anyone. But hey, if you have to do it, then this might help.

Wait Long Enough to Start

It’s not cramming unless you start studying late enough!

In my opinion, real cramming means learning a vast majority of the information for the first time in the last 3 days leading up to the exam. This means literally never having read your notes or a textbook, or done anything at all really, outside of showing up to lecture (if you go to lecture at all. If you don’t, then you’re even worse than me).

Now that we have the key definition figured out, where do I begin?

Pace yourself – around the room, that is

Cramming is intense and dynamic. For me, that means it can’t be done slumming in a chair and leaning over a desk. No, that is too boring and will put me to sleep faster than learning about names of fungi (yes, we had to learn the names of fungi in our latest exam!).

I literally pick up my notes and walk back and forth, in circles, tracing the shape of the room with my feet – any pattern imaginable from my bedroom to the living room to the kitchen, and then back of course. Back and forth.

Pacing around gets my blood flowing and my energy up, and it’s really hard to fall asleep if you’re in constant motion.

The downside? Pacing around will get tiring. Imagine doing this quite a few times throughout a 12 hour studying day. At least you get a nice workout while you study.

Scan the Slide and then Decide (a poet and I didn’t even know it)

As I am walking around, the first thing I do with each slide I need to study is quickly scan it for relevance.

If I can tell right away that the slide is useless (that is, could never be tested), I immediately skip to the next slide. Slides that are “useless” include complex diagrams, dense tables of numbers, random quotes, etc. You just know if the professor can only make 1 or 2 questions for the exam, they are not going to test those things.

Once I come to information that I believe is testable, I read the information to make sure I understand it.

Those are the easy parts. Really, it’s not much work to skip useless slides and read to understand. The hard part is memorizing.

So what do I do if I come across a list or facts that I know I need to commit to memory?

I memorize… by talking to myself

Yes, I talk to myself while I study. I also walk around. This is why I can’t cram in the library – I would tick way too many people off!

If there is something I want to memorize, I first read it. I then look away from the sheet and repeat it to myself. More than once, until I’m sure I know it. When I do this, I’m just proving to myself that the fact or phrase or name is sticking enough in my head that I can reproduce it for now.

If I am memorizing a list, I will repeat item 1 until I know it. Then I will memorize item 2, and then repeat items 1 and 2 to myself. I will do this again, until I can repeat items 1, 2, and 3 to myself. I keep doing this until I can repeat the entire list to myself by memory. If the order matters, I make sure I can repeat it to myself in the right sequence.

I know this sounds like a lot of work, but I’m so experienced with my method now that I am often memorizing to myself at an extremely fast speed, sometimes speaking as quickly as if I were rapping. It takes time, but not as much as it sounds.

I do the Scan, Read, and Memorize method for all of my notes until I have completed a one-pass. When I say one-pass, I mean that I have covered all of the material at least once in this manner. I usually complete my one-pass by the end of the night before the exam. Most of the time my second pass occurs the morning of the exam. If I’m lucky, I am able to start the second pass the night before, but I almost always end up doing some, if not all, of my second pass the few hours before the exam.

The necessary second pass

The problem with cramming is that you’re stuffing so much information into your head in such a short period of time that the information you crammed in the beginning starts to feel like it’s drifting away. For me, doing a second quick pass of the information right before the exam is paramount to remembering that I learned just a few days before.

For me, the second pass is basically quickly reading the material once over again. If there is something that I seemingly forgot, I will quickly memorize it again. But most of the time, this quick review is just to make the details fresh in my head – by fresh I mean “recognizable”. I know the information I studied is stored in my brain, but for the sake of the exam, I need to make sure it’s easily retrievable. This is especially useful for things like name, hard to remember details, etc.

I usually do this second pass the morning of my exam so that the details are most fresh. It’s usually okay if I don’t do a second pass of the material I learned just the day before, because that material is relatively fresh. So when you do a second pass, make sure you review starting at the material you learned first.

Cramming isn’t for everyone

Cramming works for me, but it isn’t for everyone. It is very stressful, and requires a lot of intense work in a short period of time. My most stressful days of the year are those three days leading up to any exam.

Information also doesn’t stay in long term memory all that well. Cramming is meant for when you really need to pass that exam, not for the sake of remembering something in the future.

That being said, I have been trying to spread my studying out a bit more. But with a ton of projects going on the side, it is difficult to find normal, regular time to study without giving up.

With that said, I hope you have found this article enjoyable, if not helpful. But if you try this, please don’t blame me if you fail πŸ™‚

  • Meshayu Rena

    med student really need to bear the tiredness of cramming.. do you have the article of avoiding excessive tiredness of cramming? i tried to study early, but no matter how much i studied, i still need to cram..

  • Philly Town63

    Hi Josh,
    Where did you get 3200 slides? And can I buy a copy or buy yours?