Bianca is a medical intern at the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health in the Philippines. She is a BS Psychology graduate, currently working on her double degrees in MD and MBA.
Just the words “Summer” and “Break” together make me feel excited. The mere concept of hours not being spent studying or working in a hospital feels like a dream. Don’t get me wrong. I love medicine, but it’s good to stop and unwind for longer than my 5-minute nap between classes. Can medical students really take a break?
Well, if there’s one thing I know about medical students, it’s that we work hard and play hard. The wildest parties I’ve ever been to happened while in medical school. With the mounds of work and sleepless nights, it only makes sense that we unwind just as much. So, we want to use this time to rest while at the same time prepare for the coming months. Let’s look into how we can make the most of our breaks in medical school.
Medical School and Breaks
I’ll be real here: there isn’t a lot of free time in medical school. Even our weekends are spent studying. Then, once you start working in the hospitals, you might even have to work on weekends and holidays. So, as you can see, medical students are starved of break times.
As a medical student yourself, you must be itching to know if breaks truly exist for us. Well, the answer is: it depends. The answer feels like a cop out, but it’s true. Depending on what you enjoy and the curriculum of your own medical program, your breaks can vary. In addition, what you choose to do with your free time is up to you as an individual. Some students like to rest by sleeping, others like to binge watch their favorite shows, others like to study, and others enjoy a mix of all of these and more.
My summer breaks were always short. This is because some of my breaks would be when I took my classes for my MBA degree, which is one thing you can do with your breaks. By the end of the classes, I’d only have a month or a month and a half left for a real break. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t make the most of it. By studying for another degree and spending the rest of the summer resting, I was able to fulfill my academic and personal needs. That means you can too!
What to Do During Summer Break
In both the Philippines and the U.S., summer break is usually around 8–10 weeks long. At this time, students like to spend their time doing various things. It depends on what you enjoy as a person, because times like this come only once a year. Here are a few things students do with their precious time:
- Travel. This is one of the first things people say when you ask them what they want to do during the break. Afterall, traveling takes time, and you won’t have as much time to go anywhere else when classes start. Some of my classmates even traveled to provinces in need of medical volunteers. Others traveled to other countries to join short programs abroad.
- Visit friends and family. Many students study far from their hometown. This is the best time to spend undivided time together with your loved ones. Catch up on the things you’ve missed while you were studying. Do things that will help you bond. This is also a great time to get to know your medical school friends outside of the classroom.
- Build good habits. Particularly in the summer before the first year of medical school, find the things that help you unwind. Try to get into a sleeping schedule that works for you. Exercise and build endurance because you’ll need it to stay up until those late hours both for class and hospital work. I spent this break ordering new notebooks, colored pens, and a new laptop. Preparing your things for studying can help you feel more ready as the new school year approaches.
- Do medicine-related activities. Many students choose to spend their time shadowing a doctor or volunteering for medical missions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I had a lot of free time as an online medical student (a “google doc”, as we call it). I spent it volunteering for vaccination drives, working from home as a scribe for a nearby hospital, and helping with donation drives for people who need it the most. Another is to try getting into a research program, which might be a great investment in the future as it could help you get into a residency you like.
- Studying. Especially in your 2nd year and last year, you will want to balance your break time and studying for boards. Also, you’ll want to prepare for your clinical rotations in the hospital. I made sure to prepare for the hardest subjects of the next semester. I would read books and primers front to back because I like having a head start in what I need to know.
- Do the things you love to do. I’m sure there are a lot of hobbies that you had to drop to make time for studying. Maybe there are even activities you planned to do or skills you wanted to learn that simply fell through. It can be refreshing to do something that isn’t medicine-related. Now that it’s summer, you have the time to invest in these activities. Who knows? You might even find a hobby you’ll love doing in your downtime when classes start again.
- Reflect. Sometimes it’s important to look at where you’ve been and where you want to be. If you’re one of those people who are on the fence about staying in medical school or on what you want in the future, it’s during the break when you have the time to get into the right mindset. If you don’t know where you see yourself in 10 years, this is a good time to think about it.
- Nothing. It’s okay to use your break time to rest and recuperate. Maybe even meditate. Some of my classmates spend a lot of their time sleeping during the summer, and that’s okay too! You’ve worked hard to get where you are and it’s alright to take a breather. Look back at how far you’ve come and ready yourself, because you’ve got a long way to go.
What to Do During Winter Break
Winter break usually lasts 1-2 weeks, which for many people, doesn’t feel like a lot of time. In my school, the last year is all hospital work so we can only choose between working on Christmas or New Years. That is, if your hospital or rotation lets you have a break at all.
If you do have a break and no huge upcoming exams, you will want to spend it like any other break. You may not get the chance to have a winter break for a long while. So feel free to spend it with your friends and family, or take this chance to have some you time. Even if you do plan to study during this break, at least spend a day or two resting. You’ve earned it.
For those planning to take the USMLE® (or your country’s equivalent licensing examination) in the upcoming months, this might be the prime opportunity to really hit the books. Since the break is limited to only 1-2 weeks, having a game plan can help you manage your time and better the quality of your studies.
Balancing Your Pleasure and the Pressure
Many people have told me to rest during my breaks. They’re not wrong, but many students feel anxious not studying. It can be hard to taper off the habit, even for just a short while, especially when you have exam season coming up right after the break. It gets even more difficult because breaks are a bit of a change from your daily routine. So, how do we balance enjoying your break and studying?
- Get your lecture notes and other study resources ready. It helps to prepare yourself for battle before entering it. I recommend buying study supplies and gathering the notes, sample quizzes, and books you have on hand. Afterwards, you can think about which ones you think will be the most useful in the coming days. Research the best ways to retain information or to take notes. Remember that you want to optimize your studying, not increase your study hours.
- Realign your goals. Think about your goals this break. Many of us in medical school take everything one day at a time. Now’s the chance to think a bit further than that. What do you want to achieve in the next 3 months? Or in the next year? Or in the next 10 years? Is there a subject that you want to master? Is there a specialty you want to be in? Who do you want to be as a person and as a doctor? Ask yourself what you want the most out of this break and let that drive you.
- Make a game plan. Medical schools have differing break schedules, so you need to tailor your plan to your own schedule. Allot a number of hours per day or per week to study. You need to stick to the game plan you made as best you can. It can get tempting to rest, distract yourself, or procrastinate because there’s no pressure to take an upcoming exam. Instead, reward yourself with long breaks or doing things that you like.
- If you feel burnt out, don’t be afraid to take one or two days off. During breaks, you have the time to slack off a bit. Don’t feel pressured to finish your study plan because we all have those “bad” days. What I do sometimes is I study a bit more on days I feel energized. This way, I get to be ahead of schedule and I can spend more time taking breaks in the future.
- Build on what you already know. There will be time for you to study new topics, but it is not now. Make new associations for memorizing, like mnemonics. Go over your notes, flashcards, and reviews again and again. Do practice tests. Unless there’s a topic you need to read in advance for class, you’ll remember more by enhancing your existing knowledge.
- Find time to rest. I’m not talking about taking short breaks in between studying. I mean, set aside a week or two to enjoy your break. There’s more to life than medicine and this is the best time to find that part of you that isn’t all books and treating patients.
- Study with friends. If you have trouble making time for your friends and studying, why not combine the two? Sometimes simply being together and doing your own thing is still bonding. I found myself going out with friends to cafes and studying there while they read a book or worked.
As someone who places strict boundaries between work and break, making a plan is an integral part in making the most out of my time. You may be asking yourself which one you should prioritize: study or break? Since things may not always work out the way I plan it, I make sure to stay flexible between the two.
Don’t beat yourself up for not studying enough or being productive enough. Everyone grows in different ways. Everyone gets through medical school in different ways. It’s not that you’re sacrificing your break to study or your study time to take a break. Sacrifice means that you don’t benefit from what you’re doing. Instead, you’re finding a compromise between your two needs.
So, Take it Easy.
Whenever an opportunity to go out with friends or to make time for myself came up, I took it as often as I could. Whenever I went out, I made sure I carried a flashcard or self-testing app that I could use when I was alone or in transit. That was my compromise.
Of course, the priorities aren’t always clear cut, and what worked for me may not work for everyone. It really depends on how comfortable you are with deviating from your study plan. However, I’ve found that the memories I made with my friends, family, and even by myself during the break were irreplaceable. Taking breaks always reminds me that there’s more to my dream of the future than studying medicine.