How To Pass Pharmacology (Part 1)

This post is in honour of good news received this past Friday: remember those exams I wrote shortly after arriving back in South Africa, and that I surely doubted I would pass? Well, I passed them. I was most nervous about Clinical Pharmacology – reasons being that a) I suck at it and b) I was admitted to hospital the day before the exam. I was ready to accept my fate and write the rewrite.

Pharmacology is a thorn in the side of many medical students. A lot of it is rote-memorising, unless you have the time to delve into the history and mechanisms of each drug (which, frankly, few of us have). So today I share the thing that undoubtedly got me through the exam. Attending class is a good beginning, but since I was sailing around the world, that was lost to me.


Rumour has it that Paul Farmer, humanist, anthropologist and medical doctor extraordinaire, gave Ophelia Dahl (daughter of Roald Dahl and Farmer’s girlfriend at the time) one piece of advice when she declared her intention to study medicine: “Use flashcards.”

The magic of flashcards is that you have to go through the work, while highlighting the important bits, first before you know what to put on your flashcards. Then you go through it a second time to find the tidbits worthy of flashcard-ing, and write them down. So, by the time you actually start studying from them, your brain has already processed the information thrice.

The other nice thing is that if you tie them together with an elastic, you have a pretty compact deck of cards that can go anywhere. I took them with me all over Myanmar and India while I was studying for our semester test (which was conveniently smack-bam in the middle of our stay in India), and so whenever there was a long bus ride or a long wait for a ferry to arrive, out came the flashcards. I can think of no other reason I passed. (You obviously have to use them for it to work.)

But wait, there’s more! Index cards aren’t that expensive, but they do cost money. If you have a tablet, there is another option for you…


Flashcardlet is an app by Quizlet, which is available for iOS and Android devices, and also works perfectly on a computer connected to the internet (here). My little sister is using it for her first ever university exams too. My biggest problem with this app is that where studying is concerned, I prefer writing to typing.

The other great thing is that Quizlet has a massive database. If you look at the left-most screenshot, only one (Pharmacology MB.ChB.V) is my self-made deck. The others are created by other users. Everyone shares. Isn’t that a lovely study-environment? Of course, the other problem is that pharmacological management differs between South African and American medical schools, and drug names differ too. But studying from other people’s notes remains a useful way to gain a different perspective.

I will share two other methods for pharms-studying soon – one which I used a little and one not at all, and both methods I wish I had done more of. But, like Paul Farmer, my top tip is: USE FLASHCARDS.


  1. TrishaDM says:

    Love the flashcards… That is how I learned pharmacology too (although, I think I have forgotten almost all of it). Thanks for the reminder… I have a physics exam this week… Flash cards, here I come!
    Congrats on surviving the exams!

    1. tight shoes says:

      What an awesome resource, thanks for sharing. I wrote my final exam last Monday, Biology and used good ol’ fashioned flash cards all the way.

      1. Yay! They really work for Bio as well. Especially embryology and anatomy. Good luck with the results!

    2. Thanks Trisha! I forget most of my pharmacology shortly after the exam too… that’s what medicines formularies are there for, right?!
      Good luck with physics!

  2. Congrats on passing your exams!

  3. Renate says:

    Any chance you could link to your profile on Quizlet please? I’m also a South African med student, and would love to use SA specific flash cards! Thank you!

    1. Ah I’m sorry, I haven’t synced my iPad wit the internet account yet. I’ll do that over the weekend and link it then. I also have a friend who does awesome flash cards. I’ve been doing physical cards more than Quizlet cards, but I’ll do them more often soon. Great to hear from you!

    2. Hey, so I’m actually using Brainscape, with the Quizlet app. I’ve been trying to find a link to my profile but I’ve been unsuccessful with that, so I can share my actual URLs to the actual decks I create.
      So far I have
      PHARMACOLOGY (this is a very small deck because most of my flashcards for this are hardcopy):
      I’ll create a page where I can periodically add new decks.
      Hope this helps, feel free to share your decks if you want 🙂

  4. reivageen says:

    Hello, Ms. Barefoot. I came across your blog while googling on study methods for certain med school subjects. I am a med student from the Philippines. I’m glad to be reading some of your posts. Gotta try flashcards for pharma. Thank you! 🙂

    1. I’m so glad you enjoy it! Thanks for saying hi – and I hope the flashcards work for you!

  5. Ashley says:

    Wow, this was so helpful! Thank you so much for sharing these tips for pharm, I’m really struggling through class and greatly appreciate it. I’ve started using Picmonic too – have you used it for studying? This is what I’ve been using: – but am curious to hear your thoughts!

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