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Winter Break as a Pre-Med Student

by Zunera N.

Ideally, the holidays would mean lots of time off to relax and destress from the past semester, deal with burn-out, and enjoy being surrounded by your friends and family. It’s a whole month until the spring semester starts. You’d think you could use it to wake up at 12 PM and just binge-watch Netflix.

However, I, personally, will be taking a winter class while starting content review for the MCAT.

It’s going to be a grueling month, preceding another grueling semester, and that’s true for a lot of us pre-med students, who have a lot more studying to do in between semesters than many other students would. Studying for a test that comprises the content of at least 3 years of classes takes hard work, dedication, and really good time management skills. As an experienced pro at scrambling last minute to study for exams and get homework assignments in, I’d like to call myself qualified to give tips on how to not do that, since I’ve learned through the very practical and painful method of trial and error. And of course, not everything that works for me will work for you, but I have some general ideas for where to start in balancing studying and taking breaks, specifically in the middle of a pandemic.

First of all: timers and website blockers! You’ve probably seen it everywhere, but the Pomodoro timer is a great way to give your studying some structure, and website blockers can help keep you on track. I’ve tried breaking my work up into blocks of focused studying (usually 45 minutes to an hour) and then a bit of a break (10 to 15 minutes), usually for stretching or getting a snack, or sometimes for annoying my sister if she’s around. While your journey is tough and it can feel very easy and natural to isolate, you have to remember that doing so isn’t healthy or smart. You need support, whether that’s from walking into your siblings’ rooms without knocking to irritate them, or calling up a family member you haven’t talked to in a while to just receive some unfiltered adoration, or texting a friend to commiserate over the very unique experience of being a college student right now.

Which brings me to my next suggestion: friends. It doesn’t work for everyone, but sometimes studying with friends can improve my productivity tenfold. I go through phases where I need to have some sort of background noise while studying. Since going out to a coffee shop or a library isn’t exactly a feasible option right now, I call up a friend or two and we have a group study session with each of us doing our own thing, but still “hanging out” together. There’s merits to studying with other pre-med majors, of course, since you might be able to sync up what you’re reviewing or learning, but it’s also really helpful for me to study with non pre-med majors as well. For example, one of my friends is studying interior design and another psychology, and oftentimes they’ll share their screens as they work and I get to see what their coursework looks like as well. And of course there is the added bonus of having someone right there during your allotted break time to lift your spirits from the doom-and-gloom you may be experiencing from extended periods of Physics review.

All of this is to say, of course, that you need to be taking care of your mental health and making it a primary concern throughout this entire journey. Your health is paramount, both mental and physical. This means not overdoing it. The MCAT is a stressful exam, and there can be a lot of anxiety clouding the time you spend on studying for it. So, as important as timers are for getting work done, it’s equally important to set aside time for self care. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that my most productive time is early in the morning. I tend to wake up early naturally, so I try to get started on studying soon after I do. This leaves my evenings free to engage in whatever shenanigans I’m in the mood for. Some people work better in the evenings after having a late start to the day, to which I say that if it works for you, then you should go for it. It’s important to figure out what time you feel most refreshed and ready to work, and then utilize that time efficiently, leaving the rest of the day for relaxation and your own hobbies.

A lot of us (me) may also be experiencing burn-out from last semester. Going fully online was really difficult for me, and I spent most of the semester hiding in my room, cut off from sunlight and human contact. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t productive. I’m determined not to repeat my mistakes and, hopefully, to help you to not make the mistakes I made. I spent long stretches of time not studying at all, and then a few sleepless days and nights attempting to catch up in a feverish haze. I didn’t retain as much information as I should have, which I’m sure I’ll regret once I start content review for Organic Chemistry.

The best thing, in my experience, is to take a few full days off to really relax and put time into your non-academic hobbies and interests. My personal recommendations include:

  • Watching TV

  • Reading a good book

  • Writing/Journaling

  • Cooking a meal from scratch to share with whomever you live with

  • Bake something and fill the house with those festive scents

  • Go outside and spend some time in nature, crunching around in the snow if that’s possible in your region

  • Anything else you can think of to get the biggest boost of serotonin possible! Self care is incredibly personal and based entirely on your individual needs, so do what feels best for you based on your circumstances.

The holidays are a great time to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, since the pressure is off for a bit and there are no assignments or exams to worry about. Take the time to slow down and lean into the blessings in your life, enjoying every pocket of sunshine you possibly can, before and during the time you spend studying. Good luck, and happy holidays!

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