How To Be A Successful Medical Student By Dr Morawo

One of the goals of every sane medical student is to be successful and this can’t be achieved by mere talk but by putting to use all the tools needed to succeed.

It is one thing to desire success; it is another thing to follow strictly proven rules for academic excellence. One of the rules is to stand on the shoulders of elders i.e. those that have gone ahead of you in your chosen profession.

And to give you good leverage, I interviewed Dr. Adeolu Morawo – one of the young and successful medical doctors who is currently wrapping up his Neurology residency at Milton S. Hershey Medical Centre in the US where he served as chief resident. He shared his strategies to success when he was in medical school at OAU.

The interview was interesting and informative. During the interview, he shared tips on how to be a successful medical student in Nigeria.

I put to him some interesting questions that some of you might be looking forward to asking and get eye-opening answers.

Below are the excerpts of the interview.

Question 1: What goal did you set for yourself in medical school?

Response: Starting in medical school, my goal was to be the best in my class. Since graduating medical school in 2009, I have learned a lot more about myself and about how medical education should work and it is based on this that I will provide you with a better perspective on goal setting at the beginning of medical school. While it is a good aspiration for every medical student to aim to be the best or be in the top 10 percentile of their class, it is not a realistic goal for every medical student: Everyone cannot be the best in the class in comparative terms i.e. compared to others. However, everyone can be the best they can be i.e. compared to themselves. In quantitative terms, you can set an excellent goal score for each course you do. More important however in the first year or two of medical school is to set a quantifiable goal for yourself to gain a fundamental and durable understanding of the basic sciences which form the foundation for understanding the clinical sciences. 

Question 2: What were the habits and practices you put on to achieve your goals?

Response: The habits and practices to achieve one’s goals will defer for each person, but there are general rules. This is not an exhaustive list of what I did or what you can do, but I will highlight some important ones here. 

  1. I quickly figured out the set of conditions that optimized my assimilation when studying. Through an iterative process, you need to decipher which timing, places, and types of materials that give you the greatest yield for studying. For me, I assimilated most when studying very early in the morning (which meant I went very early to bed and woke up when most people were still sleeping). I utilized white noise while studying (e.g. the sound of a fan or a very soft instrumental music). I also chose textbooks that were analytic in their approach because I love logic. 
  2. I found near-peer mentors (seniors in medical school) who guided me on choosing the best materials for study and the best methods for studying. Your mentors have to be knowledgeable, but also be able to pass across their knowledge to you with clarity. 
  3. I found friends that challenged me without knocking me out. Biola Ayodele (Nee Ibrahim) is one of such friends that challenged me back then. Biola is one of the most brilliant souls I know. We had a friendly “collaborative competition” running through medical school even as we studied together. It paid out big for both of us. We both graduated in the “best 10”.
  4. I made a habit of preparing ahead of class.
  5. I practiced wellness: Medical school is intense, so you need something outside of your medical courses to relieve you of stress. In my case, I played tennis and I was an active member of my fellowship.

Question 3: In your opinion, how were you able to tackle difficult medical courses in school?

Response: In my experience, most difficult courses appear so because people approach them wrongly: Sometimes it is not just the students, but the lecturers that approach them wrongly. 

For example, one of the difficult courses for me then was biochemistry. I mostly memorized but had little understanding of how the various pathways were connected. The approach to teaching this course in my medical school was going through each pathway and promoting rote memorization of each substrate and enzyme without emphasizing the connections or relevance of each. When I started preparing for the United States Medical Licensing Examination years after completing medical school, I came across a teaching video on biochemistry that entirely changed my perspective of the course. The tutor started by describing the landscape of the human biochemical machinery and how the pathways were connected. Most importantly, he described the goal of each pathway and how they fitted into the prevailing physiologic agenda of the body. It was after laying this solid foundation that he started describing the detail of each pathway and this scheme helped me to make sense of what was otherwise a tangle of substrates and enzymes. 

When you are having difficulty with a course, spending more time re-reading over and over again turns out to be an ineffective method to learn. Speed is counter-productive when moving in the wrong direction. Certain approaches have been proven in medical education literature to enhance learning and I will highlight a few.  

  1. Find the right material that explains the course content logically to help you gain deep understanding.
  2. Retrieval practice: Don’t just re-read material when you need to recall them. After reading once, practice recalling the facts back from your memory. A good way to do this is by using quizzes and past questions.
  3. Elaboration: To test your understanding, practice explaining concepts in your own words
  4. Spacing: If there is a particular concept you find difficult to tackle, space out your practice of that concept. This means for example, that rather than spending 5 days of a week studying the topic, you could study it one day per week for 5 weeks. Spacing gives time for your brain to consolidate memory. 
  5. Interleaving: This is a related concept to Spacing. It means you should mix up your studying rather than “massing” them together. For example, if you have 12 reading sessions in 1 week to study ABCD, it is preferable to study them as ABCACBCABABC rather than AAABBBCCCDDD. This gives you the chance to periodically revisit concepts you have learned and consolidate your knowledge. 

Question 4: How were you able to avoid things that don’t align with your goals as a medical student?

Response: Stephen Covey is one of the authors I love reading and he said (paraphrased) “you learn to say NO when you have a bigger YES burning inside of you”. In other words, it is easier to say NO when you know your YES very well and you are consciously committed to your YES. Setting quantifiable goals lets you recognize distractions for what they are. I kept my goals and objectives before me, quantified what I needed to put in to achieve them, and allocated my resources appropriately. The greatest resource of a medical student is time. 

Question 5: How were you able to avoid bad influences as a medical student?Response: If you don’t have a strong attachment towards good, evil will catch up with you because nature abhors a vacuum. Don’t create a vacuum. Have friends that pull you to your goals and be deliberate about choosing your friends.

Read: Life of a medical student

Question 6: How did you overcome the challenges you faced back then?

Response: My perspective on types of challenges in medical school is that of a spectrum. On one end we have challenges for survival and on the other end, we have challenges for excellence and for distinguishing one’s self. You cannot compare the needs and mindset of a drowning person to that of an athlete swimming hard to win a competition. My challenges in medical school were more about getting to and staying on top of the class. This turned out to be a two-edged sword as I was not very prepared for the battles for survival after medical school. I had my fair share of survival challenges during a phase of my post-graduate training and I had to learn on the fly. Because of that postgraduate experience, I have more empathy for those who struggled in medical school and I can say a thing or two. If you are (or you find yourself) struggling to survive in medical school, hang in there, and always remember why you always wanted to be a doctor. Identify and lean on your strong social support systems if you have one and have faith in your ability to overcome. Seek help as soon as you can and don’t isolate yourself. Medical students may find themselves in the vicious cycle of fear, reduced assimilation, and poor performance as shown below. 

Vicious cycle of fear by Dr. Adeolu Morawo

To break off this vicious cycle, you need to replace fear with faith: faith in your potential and a higher being if you believe in one. For me, my faith in God has always been the cornerstone of my success and victories.

Question 7: What are your motivations as a medical student?

Response: My primary motivation was and remains the privilege to provide quality patient care and help people at the low points in their lives. Secondarily, I am passionate about training future generations of medical doctors. 

Question 8: What informed your decision to further your studies abroad?

Response: Pragmatically, I was driven by the desire to obtain the best available training and practice medicine with the appropriate resources.

Question 9: What is the best part of the next thing you are doing as a medical doctor?

Response: I am very excited about the next phase of training as a vascular neurologist. I am also excited about the opportunities coming my way to train medical students and residents. 

Question 10: How are you able to balance your profession and personal life?

Response: My mentor, Prof Greg Erhabor says life should be balanced sequentially not simultaneously. It’s difficult to pay equal attention to every important aspect of one’s life every day. I, therefore, set priorities for each day, week, and each phase of life. Based on my priorities at any point in time, I delegate to time and people. In all I do, I deliberately create protected time for my family. 

Question 11: Any advice for a medical student who wants to thread the part of success?


  • Keep learning about yourself, your world, and the medical field. 
  • You need to remain adaptable and flexible. The world and the practice of medicine are changing fast. What you know to be true today might not be so tomorrow.
  • Expect challenges and don’t waste them: Don’t let challenges make you worse or leave you the same, let them make you better 

About Dr Morawo

Dr. Adeolu Morawo (MBChB, MS. Neurology Resident, Neurology Department, Penn State Hershey Medical Centre. Pennsylvania. USA)

He obtained his MBChB at Obafemi Awolowo University in 2009. He then obtained a Master of Science degree in Neuroscience at Yale University in the US where he also completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Neurocritical Care. Dr. Morawo is currently wrapping up his Neurology residency at Milton S. Hershey Medical Centre in the US where he served as chief resident.

Bolarinwa Olajire

A tutor with a demonstrated history of working in the education industry. Skilled in analytical skills. Strong education professional with a M. SC focused in condensed matter. You can follow me on Twitter by clicking on the icon below to ask questions.

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