Study Skills for Med Students: The Benefits of Annotating Your Textbook

annotating text book

By now, you’ve probably heard enough about study skills to make your head spin but depending on where you are in your medical school career, you may still be searching for the best techniques for you. One such technique – and one that surprisingly few medical students utilize – involves annotating your textbook. Here’s what you need to know about incorporating annotation into your next study session.

What is Annotation?

Annotation is the act of highlighting important terms and sentences and taking notes as you read through your textbook. Some students highlight and write directly in the physical textbook, but others, hoping to resell the textbook later, choose to use a piece of paper or sticky notes inside the book, instead. Annotation is a great way for you to combine information from lectures and other sources with the information in your textbook to provide a well-rounded and thorough study guide.

How Should You Annotate?

It’s easy to get carried away when you annotate because everything in a medical textbook seems incredibly important. Fortunately, there are a few simple tips you can follow to help you start annotating like a pro:

  • Skim the reading assignment in its entirety first. Don’t touch the pen, pencil, or highlighter yet. Just skim the text, paying special attention to subheadings, diagrams, and summaries.
  • Pick up a highlighter and find the main point of the first paragraph. You don’t have to read it word-for-word; a quick skim will do. Highlight the paragraph’s main topic (or, if you don’t want to write in your book, use a sticky flag with a number on it, then on a separate piece of paper, write the corresponding number and the passage that constitutes the paragraph’s main topic.
  • Look for important supporting details. Now that you have the main topic, look for any supporting details. For instance, if you’re learning about diabetes, and that is the main topic of the paragraph, you may need to know that insulin is a common treatment. Using the same highlighter, underline only important information that supports the main topic of the paragraph.
  • Highlight key words in a separate color. If you come across important terms or vocabulary words that are unfamiliar to you, highlight these in another color. Then, to help you remember them, write the terms and their definitions on a separate sheet of paper – or, better still, put each one on an index card with the term on the front and its definition on the back.

How to Use Your Annotated Textbook

By the time you’ve annotated all your reading assignments, you should be able to open your textbook to a specific chapter and point out every single main topic, which is ultimately the perfect study guide for that chapter. To study it, if your textbook has review questions at the end of each topic or chapter, try your best to answer them and refer to your highlights as needed to help. Make a note of the topics you struggle with, then pull those topics up in your question bank to continue to actively challenge yourself. This mix of active and passive learning is ideal for most students.

Annotating your textbook is a quick way to get the most out of your reading assignments without having to read and re-read every word of every chapter. Not only can it help you commit things to memory when it is done correctly, but it can also serve as a very good study guide for quizzes and exams.


What Every Medical Student Should Know about the USMLE


The USMLE, or United States Medical Licensing Examination, is by far one of the toughest examinations you will ever have to take. Learning as much about it as you can is important to helping you prepare, and with the right tools, you can truly succeed not only on test day, but all throughout your medical career. Here’s what every medical student should know about the USMLE.

There are Three Parts to the USMLE

The first thing you should know is that you will take the USMLE examination in four separate parts over the course of five days. There are three “Steps”, and the USMLE Step 2 is divided into two parts – clinical knowledge (CK) and clinical skills (CS).

  • Step 1: This is the multiple choice examination, and it takes place over the course of one day. You will answer questions on a computer about everything from nutrition and genetics to diseases and pathology.
  • Step 2: Step 2 is divided into two parts:
    • USMLE Step 2 CK – The CK part of Step 2 involves multiple-choice questions all about your knowledge of medicine in the clinical setting.
    • USMLE Step 2 CS – In this part of the exam, you will examine and diagnose a variety of actors based on their “symptoms” and histories.
  • Step 3: Finally, the USMLE Step 3 is a bit different in that you will take this after your first year of residency. Once again, you will be asked to diagnose and treat patients, make assessments based on virtual cases, and answer multiple choice questions.

You Need to Prepare Early On

The USMLE isn’t like any other test you have ever taken, and that means the earlier you start preparing for it, the better. Many students wait until the last six months prior to the exam, but those who start preparing earlier – even on the very first day of medical school – tend to fare better. One of the best ways to prepare for the USMLE is by utilizing a question bank filled with customizable features. By going over questions during your studies in a variety of different modes, you will not only reinforce the material you learn in class, but you will also familiarize yourself with the question formatting, which will help you feel more confident when test day comes.

Not Everyone Passes the First Time

Finally, it’s time to address the elephant in the room – what happens if you don’t pass. Each and every year, somewhere between 75% and 80% of those who take the USMLE pass it on the first try. That means 20% to 25% do not pass immediately and must take the exam again. Though this can be disheartening and certainly frustrating, you should never give up. Schedule the examination again as soon as possible, find a study group, and utilize your question banks as often as possible.

The USMLE is a difficult exam that puts tends of thousands of students on edge every single year. Understanding how it works, what you should do to prepare, and what to do if you don’t pass the first time will help to ease your anxiety, and that alone is often enough to enhance your chances of success. You absolutely can succeed as long as you are willing to put in the effort and study.