How to succeed at exams for medics

Relax - because you are worth it

when you've finished this page you will be able to...

Everyone needs a break, so take relaxation seriously. Rest and relaxation are essential if you're going to maintain your physical and mental well being - as well as your interest and motivation. Making time for social activities that have nothing to do with medicine is not a luxury, it's a necessity. If you do nothing but work in the same room day after day, you will go mad, and be deeply unproductive. Aim to work smarter, not harder!


When you begin to revise, too often panic sets in, and you attempt to cram an ever increasing amount of information into an already exhausted brain. You lose any sense of perspective, try to cram yet more in, and a vicious circle starts. Always remember that one hour of effective revision is always better than a whole night spent frantically cramming. And don't think that because cramming worked for you at A level, it'll work at medical school - it won't. Medical training is professional training: you can't cram information for the exam and then forget it - you'll need to know this stuff for the whole of your career as a doctor. How much of what you learned at A level can you still recall?

When you are reading or revising, do you ever suddenly realise that you have been staring at the page for a few minutes without actually reading anything? This is probably because you are trying to take in too much information at once.

You've probably heard this before, but when you are revising, your brain works better if you do small chunks of revision instead of big chunks. It is recommended that you study for between 15 and 45 minutes and have 5 to 10 minute breaks between study sessions. Scientists have been proving, conclusively, for over 30 years that taking breaks improves memory function - it's even been proven to work for rats. The theory is that when we spend time learning, we remember more information from the beginning and the end of the session.

So if you are 'learning' for two hours, your memory works like this:


However, if you break this 2 hours up into 25 minute slots, with 5 minute breaks, your memory works like this:


Working in shorter more manageable chunks is an important habit to get into. The key is to spend your 5 minute breaks distracting yourself, but only for five minutes! Remember - have lots of short breaks, at least one per hour and you will recall more information in your exam.

And another thing: we learn better when we focus on one thing (revision). So turn off the radio and TV, tell your parents/house mates/dog that you are revising and need them to be quiet, or go to the library. You will soon find a space that works really well for you, where you can focus on shorter chunks of revision, and then take a well-earned break.

Activity: revising in manageable chunks - 30 minutes

1. Next time you're revising, set yourself a time limit. For example, 25 minutes revision, five minute break.

2. Place a watch or clock where you can see it. When you have finished your revision period, take your planned break - don't be tempted to carry on until you have finished that particular section or topic. Take a break - NOW!

3. When you're having a break, leave the space where you have been revising. For example, if you are in the library go outside for some fresh air, or if you are at home, make yourself a cup of tea. You can do anything during this break - as long as it's not revising.

Keep practising, you will soon get into the habit of giving yourself a break, and allowing your brain to digest everything you have revised.

Activity: planning to relax - 30 minutes

It might seem a little strange to have an activity on how to relax, but we're trying to persuade you to take relaxing seriously!

1. Think of an activity that you find relaxing, there are some examples in the box below but feel free to choose different activities.

Suggestions for revision break activities:

  • breathing exercises - 5 minutes
  • short walks - 15 minutes
  • yoga - 30 minutes
  • lunch with friends - 1 hour
  • watching a film - 2 hours
  • playing sport - 3 hours
  • playing Grand Theft Auto - 3 hours

2. Decide how long you are going to spend on this activity. You should be having short breaks throughout the day to break up your revision, but you should also be taking longer breaks, in the evenings or as designated time-off to unwind.

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