Sean McCormick Shares Study Tips for Medical Students
Note: This interview has been edited for length.
What made you interested in participating in the tutoring program here at AUC?
When I started medical school, I felt pretty overwhelmed, so I started going to tutoring as soon as possible. It was incredibly helpful—not only in creating a narrative of the information to guide my studying, but also in helping me understand the process of studying for each course and how to be successful. Later on, I was eager to pay that favor forward.
What strategies helped you excel throughout your semesters in medical sciences?
I try to keep an open mind (and open ears) as far as study strategies go. I consistently tinker with my process and what works for a specific course/type of information. That said, the constant for me is my schedule.
Studying in medical school is a lot like running a marathon: you don’t just wake up one morning and run 26.2 miles. I worked on extending my focus little by little, and the quality hours I could put in little by little. That focus on process—rather than just results—puts me in a position where I can be rigid in the way I schedule my time. I’m done studying everyday between 7:00-8:00 pm, then I put the books aside entirely, and I try to be asleep by 10:30 pm.
What is your tutoring style and what approaches worked well for you to optimize students’ learning outcome?
As a former teacher and a current student, I try to look at where the disconnect may be happening in a course. A lot of times, that disconnect is just in the sheer amount of information we’re seeing as students. When we don’t understand something immediately, we have a tendency to panic and cast a wide net in hopes that something will stick, which can lead to more confusion.
When I’m prepping for a session, I try to revisit a professor’s notes, and then find that information in the primary text of the course to make sure I understand not only what they’re saying, but why they’re saying it, and relating it to the big picture. I take that and cross-reference it with commonly utilized resources that students use for help in each course, and boil that information down into about 10 slides per lecture.
Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and we each learn in our own ways. The narrative that helps me understand information may not be helpful to someone else, but my hope is that in curating notes for my sessions in this way, I’ve given folks an opportunity to use them as breadcrumbs on a path to establish their own narrative.
How do you manage your time and balance it well?
While many people feel constrained by a rigid schedule, it’s incredibly helpful to me. I found out very quickly that if I don’t focus and block off a specific amount of time in my day just for work, I end up trying to straddle the line between things I have to do and things I want to do, which leads to not learning anything particularly well, and not enjoying the things I like to do as much. When I’m hanging out with my wife, for example, I want to be fully present for that. I don’t want to have one eye in a textbook, or be trying to remember the pentose-phosphate pathway when she’s telling me about her day.
Keeping a rigid study schedule during the day allows me to put it aside entirely in the evenings and be present for those things. There are plenty of mornings I don’t feel very motivated to start studying, but in sticking to a routine, I’ve realized that motivation doesn’t come first for me. I have to take that step on my own first, and motivation will catch up later.
Do you have any tips on test taking skills?
I was a coach before I came to AUC, so I approach preparing for exams the same way I approached games. In sports, nothing beats game-style reps as far as practice goes. In the same vein, for me, nothing beats seeing practice questions. I can read about information all I want, but until I start applying that information, I don’t get any better at managing it. So it’s always been important for me to make sure I’m getting those “game reps” before an exam.
The other part of the battle is the exam itself. This may sound silly, but I have to remind myself to breathe about 300 times during the course of an exam. I have a tendency to get pretty worked up about exams, so when I’m sitting down to take the exam, my sympathetic nervous system is in full swing. Essentially, I put myself in survival mode, where my brain doesn’t recognize the difference between taking an exam and running away from a bear. Our bodies don’t prioritize memory connections when we’re in survival mode, and we have a tendency to miss questions we know because of that. So, I measure how much I’m panicking and learn to breathe through those moments. This helps my brain gets the message that I’m not actually in a life-or-death situation, and helps me manage my anxiety and recall during an exam.
How are your sleep habits?
Everything is easier with 6-8 hours of sleep. However, there’s this really interesting culture in academics that the more sleep we sacrifice in order to study, the more dedicated we must be. I think as students, we’re all guilty of it. You’ll hear, “You slept five hours? Well I only slept three hours!” as if that is a concrete way to measure how committed we are, and how worthy we are of success. It’s self-defeating: study after study has shown that the less we sleep, the less information we retain, and the longer it takes us to learn. I can fall into the up-late-up-early trap at times, but I think that good sleep hygiene is an integral part of success.
Do you have any advice for COMP and Step 1 preparation?
Thinking about COMP and Step 1 can be overwhelming because we get so caught up trying to make it through the next set of block exams that we forget think about the bigger picture, but it’s important to revisit it regularly.
Every professor we have at AUC wants us to succeed on the COMP and Step 1. Figure out why they’re teaching you something, not just what they’re teaching you. Look back at your physiology notes when you’re studying pharmacology. Look back at your immunology notes when you’re learning about lymphomas, and so on. You’ll start to see that the professors were trying to build that picture for you. Or just ask them about it—they all see that picture already, and they’re more than happy to try to help you put the pieces together.
If that’s not your speed, use a resource like First Aid to help you contextualize the things you’re learning. It’s all about learning how to build that larger, comprehensive picture in a way that makes sense to you.
What are your hobbies?
I’m always tinkering in a new creative process. I also made my living as a musician for a few years, and play around 12 instruments, so carving out a little time to do that helps me to stay sane in this process. Beyond that, I love both books and learning, so I try to make sure I’m visiting both *just because* rather than in relation to medical school. It helps me remember why I enjoy the process of school. This keeps me from looking at it as a means to an end, but rather a (particularly challenging) part of the journey that has its own distinct beauty.
What would be your top suggestions and advice to your peers here at AUC?
Take care of yourselves. It’s really easy to put that on the back burner, but you’re a person before you’re a medical student. If you don’t feel OK as a human being, no amount of studying is going to put a band-aid on that. Your worth isn’t contingent upon your performance or what you’ve learned or done in a day. You matter, full stop. So take care of yourselves, tend the garden of your lives and your mental health, and understand that school is only a part of that. And don’t ever talk yourself out of a room you’ve earned the right to be in.