How To Study Pharmacology In Medical School (Ultimate Guide) [2021]

Pharmacology is one of the more terrifying prospects on a med school curriculum. Vast in scope and super heavy on the tables, it’s another crazy memorization game for the most part.

Knowing how and where best to get started, given that info, can help make things a ton easier and less stressful.

Luckily, this guide aims to do exactly that. We’ll cover:

  • Top recommendations on how to approach studying for pharm
  • What the top students suggest
  • My personal favorite strategy
  • Great pharmacology study resources
  • Links to supplementary learning materials 

Having just taken (and successfully passed) my pharm final in med school last month, I’m in a pretty good position to share advice.

Ready to find out more? Let’s go!

First things first…

What Is The Best Way To Study Pharmacology?

The best to way to study pharmacology is to start early, stick with one high yield resource and get a solid flashcard deck.

The earlier you start, the more practice questions you can do too.

We’ll go into all of this right here in this guide.

As for more general advice, the same types of things (for doing well in all subjects) applies:

  • Study with evidence-based methods in mind: active recall, spaced repetition, interleaving, flashcards etc.
  • Identify the high yield concepts: put 80 percent of your efforts there (more on how to do this later).
  • Recognize patterns early: drug suffixes or pre-fixes can guide you, concentrate on those first.
  • Avoid resource fever: limit your references to a couple or few reputable sources.
  • Concept map: spend at least one part of your study session mapping out drug connections on paper/whiteboard/tablet (it’ll help you make faster associative connections).
  • Be confident in your ability to self study: you can learn pharm independently of your lectures or seminars (if they’re not mandatory).
  • Ask students in the years above you for tips/best practices: they’ll know your examiners best.

And now for some other burning questions…

Is Pharmacology Hard in Medical School?

Yes, pharmacology is one of the toughest classes. But not because it’s difficult (it’s not). It just requires hundreds of hours of study and memorization.

To get some idea of how “hard” it is, remember that each organ system (cardiovascular etc.) has its own related pharmacology. While every bacteria, virus, fungi and oncological disease does too. So you’re effectively doing double the work; covering microbiology, oncology and pathology at the same also.

Something else pharm does a lot of is revisiting physiology. Especially in terms of drug mechanisms and interactions. So if you struggled with A&P first time around (no shame in that), you could find pharmacology even more challenging.

Interestingly, many students who’ve passed through both pharmacy and medical school, usually agree the subject is tougher during MBBS.

What Percentage of Step 1 is Pharmacology?

Despite its difficulty, there is some good news when it comes to pharmacology in med school. Its representation on USMLE Step 1, according to the official guidelines, is just 15-22% (compared to pathology’s 44-52%).

Perhaps that takes the pressure off a bit. Especially as biochem and nutrition has about the same percentage make-up (14-24%)…

So Should I Take Pharmacology Before Med School?

Personally, I don’t see the need. You’ll cover the entire course again (probably more in-depth) during your pre-clinical years. Save that time for something else fun (or easier to score a higher GPA in).

What Will I Study In Pharmacology During Med School?

Just to quickly break things down (so you get an idea of where you’ll be going), you’ll study pharmacology across the following areas:

  • General pharmacology: here you’ll learn about routes of drug administration, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, drug trials etc.
  • Autonomic, peripheral and central nervous system drugs: things like muscle relaxants, anesthetics and anti-inflammatories
  • Cardiovascular drugs: for heart failure, angina and blood pressure etc.
  • Endocrine drugs: thyroid issues, diabetes and sex disorders etc.
  • GI drugs: ulcers, osmotics etc
  • Blood: anticoagulants, thrombolytics etc.
  • Antimicrobials, antiviral and antineoplastics drugs

Obviously this a very broad overview designed to give you a quick idea.

I absolutely recommend you check your syllabus right away.

Scope the subject and make a list of every possible topic your final exams could cover.

Keep this safe and refer to it often. Make sure any independent resource you choose (outside of lecture/class notes etc.) matches up.

All the ones recommended in this guide will.

Pharmacology Study Tips: Student Recommendations

The following are a collection of tips from students from around the web who’ve successfully passed pharm. Feel free to implement or use some of these ideas. I’ll go into my personal method later.

  • Read until you understand the mechanism of action for the various classes of drugs you’re learning. Don’t memorize them without a basic background on how they work. Read through the different classes of drugs again and see if they have adverse effects that make sense (i.e. you don’t need to memorize – E.G. insulin analogs causing hypergylcemia) ~ r/MadDogWest
  • Go through the chapter summaries in Katzung. The tables are very useful ~ r/flyodpink
  • Learn the drugs by classes. Learn the body and its interventions functionally and as systems early on, this means you won’t have to memorize every little thing later ~ r/Quorum_Sensing
  • Quizlet and flashcards. LOTS of flashcards (more on this later). Make flashcards with the drug name, indication/use, major possible side effects etc ~ r/gengarina
  • Make up stories about each drug (mnemonics). E.g. niacin is a “nice inn.” It has itchy sheets that cause flushing because of the prostaglandins and baby aspirins on the pillow to stop the itching…~r/fantachello
  • For each drug, learn one thing that makes it unique from others in its class (if there is one). E.g. why is codeine unique from morphine? Because it causes constipation and is common as cough medicine etc ~ r/sipsredpepper

How To Ace Pharmacology: My Personal Method

OK, now for my personal strategy. Please note I’m not suggesting this is the best way, only a way that worked well for me.

All my study is based on preparing as if I was doing the USMLE (in reality I’m a European med student).

That’s because they have the most succint, clear and high yield study materials. With pharmacology it’s no exception.

So here’s what I did:

  • Bought the Sketchy Pharm series and watched most* of the videos
  • Did all the corresponding cards in the Zanki (Anking) Anki deck
  • Kept up with my reviews every day (for 1.5 years – that’s how long pharm ran for at my school)
  • Practiced a ton of multiple choice (MCQ) questions from various sources (more on these later)

In my opinion this was more than enough. It left me in a perfect place to sit the finals and I came out with an good overall grade (5/6).

The only thing it left me possibly short-sighted on was the very minutiae-based questions that were confusing during the final exam.

But I didn’t break my back at all studying. Nor did I cram. The week running up to the final was a very relaxing one.

I had faith in that strategy and ultimately I was right to.

Note: In the final few months I skipped Sketchy’s videos and studied directly from Zanki itself. As the cards referenced the images, I learned the mnemonics that way (without watching the full video).

How Do You Use Anki in Pharmacology?

Anki is an amazing tool to use for pharmacology. As are any decent set of flashcards.

Running through a high quality premade deck is one of my biggest recommendations. The best ones have useful mnemonics for remembering all the key lists and classifications, sources referencing the most high yield facts and are tagged in a system that makes them easy to use.

I recommend the best Anki decks for pharmacology here.

They’re all free to use and comprehensive enough for any medical pharmacology course. Especially Zanki (Anking) or Lightyear.

Just make sure you absolutely keep up with your reviews. The spaced repetition algorithm of Anki is supremely powerful. Thanks to it, I’m confident of retaining most of what I learned in pharma for years to come.

I wouldn’t advise making your own cards. It takes too much time and the premade decks are just too good – having everything you need.

Can I Use Quizlet/Brainscape to Learn Pharmacology?

Sure, use whatever you feel comfortable with. There’s a ton of premade decks on each of these flashcard platforms that can help.

I would definitely recommend to looking into Anki (and spending some time to learn it) first though. It’s more customizable and its spaced repetition algorithm works better (in my opinion).

What Is The Best Medical School Pharmacology Textbook?

Personally speaking, I don’t think a pharmacology textbook is all that necessary. With your lecture/class notes – or the high yield review-style resources in this article – I don’t think you’ll need much of anything else.

That said, many of my colleagues and other med students I spoke to online told me that Lippincott’s Illustrated Reviews: Pharmacology book was great.

Unlike other Lippincott versions (biochem more specifically), they said it was much easier to read and digest. The fact it was packed with neat drug charts, tables and diagrams of mechanisms was another big bonus they talked about.

Other textbooks that get strong recommendations include:

It can be handy to have a textbook of course but only get one if you know you’ll use it.

The question banks in all these books are massively beneficial. Do as many as possible and you’ll have no trouble crushing the exam.

Some other awesome pharmacology question bank books:

The Best Pharmacology Resources For Medical Students

Sketchy Pharm

Sketchy Pharm, for me, is a 5/5 indispensible resource for doing well in pharmacology. This, combined with the Zanki (Anking) flashcard deck, is like doing pharm on “easy mode” in my opinion.

Why is it so good?

Mnemonics and storytelling. Sketchy is essentially a cartoon series with repeating characters that tells stories about drugs, diseases and their interactions and helps you form strong associations.

Here’s an example of what they’re all about…

What you don’t get from this is that many of these symbols (and characters) are repeated in subsequent videos. That ties everything together in your brain, helping reinforce the concepts.

Doing flashcards alongside this, unlocking them after you watch a new video, is supremely powerful for long term recall.

The mnemonics serve as memory hooks while repeated tested ensures you never forget.

Is Sketchy Pharm Enough for Step 1?

Sketchy Pharm is good for Step 1 but you’ll need to use it with flashcards and question banks to really do well.

The Zanki (Anking) Anki deck pairs excellently with Sketchy Pharm.

And question banks like UWorld, USMLE Rx and Kaplan are strongly recommended.

So highly recommended is Sketchy though; that’s it’s one of the main resources recommended in the acronym UFAPS (the “gold standard” resources considered for the USMLE Step 1).

How Many Hours of Sketchy Pharm Are There?

There are 27 hours of video in Sketchy Pharm. It’s significantly longer than Sketchy Micro (another of my favorite resources).

Picmonic Pharmacology

Picmonic is another mnemonic-based learning resource that’s similar to Sketchy but broader in scope. It’s only recently that it’s become so popular. I didn’t know about it when I first started out studying for pharm!

The cool thing about Picmonic is that it has flashcards, spaced repetition and active recall built into the platform. You’re quizzed on each video as you go along (as well as long afterward). While you’ll also see your study progress measured against other users – a nice way of gamifying your studies and giving you extra motivation.

Many nursing and medical students online are saying great things about it.

Check out my Picmonic review to learn more.

Other Resources

Some other solid resources for learning medical school pharmacology (in descending order of my personal preference) are:

  • First Aid For USMLE (4.2/5)
  • Osmosis (3.8/5) (Review)
  • Lecturio (3.5/5) (Review)
  • Pharmacology lectures by Dr Najeeb (2/5) (Review)

I think in terms of speed, the Sketchy or Picmonic resources beat all of these hands down. They really distil pharma down to its most high yield points and forget the fluff.

Best Flashcards for Pharmacology

If you don’t like Anki or digital flashcard apps, there’s a couple of good old-school card decks for learning pharma too.

Here are the best choices:

Is First Aid Pharmacology Enough for Step 1?

The excellent USMLE high yield guide First Aid isn’t enough on it’s own for Step 1.

As per my recommendation with Sketchy, you really do need to use it alongside quality question banks and a more in-depth pharmacology resource (the recommended textbooks etc).

Another neat thing about using Anki for pharmacology (especially Zanki/Anking) is that it includes the First Aid references on the cards too.

Some of the images and diagrams in this book, especially for the antimicrobial and antiviral mechanisms, are superb.

Best Pharmacology Videos for Medical Students

The free content on the following platforms can be very useful for learning pharmacology. I’d recommend searching for specific concepts though (going through the entire video catalog is going to eat away at time):

  • Osmosis
  • Lecturio
  • Picmonic
  • OnlineMedEd
  • Paul Bollin, M.D.

Best YouTube Channel For Learning Pharmacology

A massive shoutout here goes to Speed Pharmacology, a superb resource for clarifying concepts that’s free and super comprehensive.

Here’s the channel’s (400K subs) most popular video. It’s on adrenergic agonists – one of the first topics you’ll learn about after general pharm….

Run through the playlists here whenever you run into trouble and need help visualizing/understanding something.

Other Great Pharmacology YouTube Channels

  • Cathy Parkes (Level Up RN) has an awesome pharmacology playlist designed for nursing students (also great for med students). Well worth going throgh the 19 videos as a neat introduction (av. video time 6 minutes).
  • Ninja Nerd: quality 15 video pharmacology playlist that’s mainly based on cardiovascular pharm and some antibiotics. The videos are much more in-depth here (average around 40 minutes).
  • Professorfink: 48 video pharm playlist that are mostly recordings of his in-person lectures. Pretty useful!

Best Website to Learn Pharmacology

My absolute favorite website for learning pharmacology is Pharmacology2000.com.

Source: pharmacology2000.com

Use the search feature here to find questions relevant to your study sessions.

This website is completely free and has a ton of MCQ quizzes across every possible topic of pharmacology. It’s divided into 50 chapters with each chapter having separate practice question and flashcard style question sets.

I ran through about a hundred of these during mid-terms and the final. Practicing here really helped solidify much of what I was learning through flashcards, classes and the resources mentioned above.

Related Questions

How Do I Study for Step 1 Pharmacology?

Aside from the recommendations given in this guide (using USMLE-specific resources etc), I’d advise hanging out at r/medicalschool and searching around past threads looking for common tips and tricks.

How Can I Memorize Pharmacology Drugs?

Flashcards are the best and fastest way. Look into the premade decks on Anki, Quizlet or Brainscape. Or the papercard analog recommendations given above.

What Is An Easy Way to Learn Pharmacology Mnemonics?

The best resource for this I’ve found is First Aid For USMLE. They have a ton of smart and memorable mnemonics for remembering drug classifications, mechanisms of action etc.

Otherwise Sketchy, Picmonic and Osmosis are excellent resources too.

Summary: How To Learn Pharmacology

Starting out with pharmacology can seem scary indeed. Surviving it is ultimately about choosing your resources well and putting the time in.

Hopefully this article has helped show you some great ways you can do that.


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Image Credit: @Myriam Zilles at Unsplash