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Whether entering Medical, Dental, or other Health Professions Schools, the biggest mistake most students make is assuming that the approach to study that got them there will be adequate to carry them through to a terminal degree. It will not. And the sooner you let that idea go, the better off you’ll be … resistance is futile.

You’ve been accepted for advanced study based on information about your past performance suggesting that you have the capacity to take your depth, breadth, and rate of learning to a higher level. There are no guarantees. Only one thing is certain—no matter how hardworking or brilliant you are, you will not succeed without a strategy. There’s too much information on too many topics being covered in too short a time for anyone to manage without a plan.

Many college students have developed the habit of staying with a difficult concept until they’ve mastered it and only then proceeding to the next. In college, they always managed to master everything assigned in time for the exam. In professional school, this approach will leave an unacceptable amount of material unexplored by exam day.

I encourage my students to avoid spending more than 15 minutes on any individual issue before moving on. If you haven’t mastered it in that time, make a note of it, in the form of a question, as something to be addressed later. In some cases, your problem will be resolved as you cover additional material. In other cases, you may need help from another student or your professor; help you can get later; help that will save you a lot of time over the course of a semester. Listing these issues in the form of a question to be answered is also the first step in committing the answers to long-term memory as soon as you find them. This approach will also add to your sense of accomplishment and progress as you check each off your list. Keep these questions in a separate notebook that you can look back on to see how much progress you’ve made.

Struggling over a concept for an hour or so without understanding it can leave you with just the opposite feeling about your work—the feeling that no matter how hard you try, you’re not really getting anywhere. You’ll find yourself increasingly frustrated and less enthusiastic about sitting down to study the next time. Managing how you feel about studying is something you’ll have to do to succeed. You will have an immense course load to work through. The last thing you’ll want to do is to decrease your own motivation to do the work you need to do. Checking questions off a list will help keep your frustration from crushing your motivation to study.

Finally, perhaps the best reason to limit the time spent on any single issue is that the problem you’re struggling with may represent only a single question on an exam; or it may not be covered at all. Spending all your time on one difficult issue will prevent you from covering a multitude of others and therefore may cause you to miss many easier questions on the exam simply because you never got to that material.

I’m not suggesting here that you just give up on difficult material. I’m simply suggesting that you learn to exercise judgment regarding when you need assistance; that you note the problem and move on to ensure that you cover all of the assigned material. I cannot think of a more important skill or habit for a professional to develop than knowing when help is needed, where to find it, and how to seek it out.

When you do seek help, I suggest you go first to your professor (an email can be a very fast way to get your question answered). The more specific your question, the more likely you’ll get a quick and satisfying response. There’s another key reason both for limiting the time spent struggling with any particular issue and going straight to your professor for help. It is the possibility that the professor’s response will be that the issue giving you so much trouble is either unknowable or unimportant and therefore will not be covered in the exam. Think of how much time you’ve saved!

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