What I Wish I Knew Before Starting Medical School8 min read

Published by Zach on

This week, at my school, the new medical students start. I have spoken to a few of the incoming first years, and the questions seem to be the same, is it hard? is it fun? How should I study?

Here are seven things I wish I knew before starting medical school.

1. It’s not that hard

Most people make it. Most people don’t drop out.

The four-year graduation rate has stayed fairly constant, around 84%. The six-year graduation rate was 96%, so, really, only 4% of students drop out. Also, many students drop out for non-academic reasons, such as personal issues or realizing medical school isn’t for them.

It’s in the medical school’s best interest to keep you at the school and make you a doctor. They aren’t trying to “weed you out.” That was done in organic chemistry class. Advisers, support systems, the option to retake failed exams, retake a year, and the medical school you are at want you to graduate. Getting in really is the hardest part.

The application process is a rigorous evaluation of your academic prowess. You do belong.

A”C” is still an “MD.”

Some quick study tips for those just starting:

  • Relax your first month or two of medical school, make new friends, try out study techniques, this is a big moment in your life.
  • Cramming will not work in medical school. Plus, you don’t want to cram, this information will be used on real people sooner than you think.
  • Understanding >>>> Memorization
  • Here’s a post on my 8 favorite study techniques

2. Enjoy the Journey

This was said to me by many older doctors. Two even recommended I keep a journal to remember all the events and feelings over these four years. That’s one reason I make YouTube videos talking about my experiences because I want to remember the cool events and feelings during these life-defining four years.

The perpetual education journey is when you are always looking forward, looking to the next thing, you lose track of the amazing things going on around you right now. When you are in college, you are thinking about being in medical school. When you are in medical school, you think about being a real doctor (a resident). When you are a resident, you think about being an attending physician, and it can keep going after that…

How about, instead, in medical school, you realize this is a great, fun time! You will never get this chance again to devote so much time to simply learning the science behind the human body.

Years one and two, you are making new, often life-long, friends. Years three and four, you are actually in the hospital, interacting and treating patients. Isn’t that amazing? You don’t have any real responsibilities, so this is your time to get to know patients really well and learn about the diverse possibilities of a medical career. At residency, you are finding out who you are as not only a doctor but as a team member, a caretaker, and a leader. All of these things are important things. All of these experiences have fantastic qualities.

Think about the number of people that want to be where you are right now. You fought and grinded, and now you are here, take a second and realize you did a good job. You are intelligent, driven, and powerful. Now you get to reap the rewards. Enjoy these four years.

Tips to stay present:

  • Keep a journal
  • Pay attention to what makes you happy
  • Meditate

3. The content isn’t hard, the amount of content is hard

Really it’s mostly straightforward, logical information. The problem is a semester’s worth of information in college is given to you in two or three weeks.

You will hear the expression, “you are drinking out of a firehose,” it’s true.

The best strategy for fighting off this overflow of information, I have found, is planning. Space out your studying, know exactly what and when you will study, know what study techniques work and don’t work for you.

More Study tips:

  • Try different study strategies in the first couple of months until figuring out what works, you don’t have as much time to review the information as you did in college. You won’t be able to review everything.
  • Anki
  • How I take 0 notes

4. Find an upper year mentor (or two)

We are cool! I think?

But really, we just went through it, talk to us! At some schools, you will be assigned an upper-year mentor, use them. They just went through what you went through and know about the intricacies of your school. Often, they will give you much better advice than the internet can or your professional advisors at school can because their first years of medical school just happened.

The only caveat is to keep in mind every student is different, which means every upper year is different from having different advice. Try and talk to a couple of upper years and see which advice makes the most sense to you.

How to find an upper-year:

  • Ask friends of friends for a connection to an upper year
  • Ask the school to match you with an upper year
  • Join a medical school club and latch onto an upper year

5. Most medical school are collaborative, not competetive

Turn to your left, now turn to your right. Both the people you just looked at will be great friends and still be here in 6 months. My school has a collaborative student-made chat group, students freely give out their study guides and custom flashcards, and everyone will share their notes with you.

Your class is part of your team. You guys will be colleagues from now on, working together on learning about science stuff and treating and helping the living, breathing humans. Medical schools know this, which is why many mostly pass/fail for the first two years. If it’s pass/fail, there is no comparison between students and therefore no competition.

My school, for example, only puts students into thirds so that you can be bottom third, middle third, or top third. Beyond that, no one will ever know how you stand among everyone else.

How to take advantage of collaboration

  • Study together with your new friends once a week
  • Use fellow students flash cards, study guides, and notes
  • Contribute back with your own tips and tricks for your classmates

6. Keep your wellness habits

“Wellness,” the phrase almost seems comical to me at this point. Unfortunately, many medical school’s foci on wellness come off more like an appeal to the public and medical students’ parents than as help to actual medical students. This trend continues to residency and even as an attending physician. That’s why you must prioritize wellness.

Do you exercise a couple of times a week? Good. Don’t stop that.

Do you eat healthy food? Good. Don’t stop that.

Do you take time at least once a week to chill out and do nothing, to do something fun? Good. Don’t stop that.

Hopefully, you have some healthy habits already. Keep those habits. If you don’t have healthy habits, try and establish healthy habits before medical school because it will be increasingly hard to start new healthy habits as medical school progresses.

Also, these healthy habits aren’t just for you to stay sane, although that is the main reason. Healthy habits will help you retain information longer and perform better on exams.

Stay Well:

7. Patients are the best teachers

Patients are your ultimate destination, test, and teacher. This is why you are going to medical school. This is what it means to be a doctor, taking good care of people, of your patients. Unique experiences you have with your patients will shape you as a doctor and person. Listen to them.

Experiences with patients solidify the classroom learning in your mind.

Yes, I know asthma is narrowing the airways, involves some annoying interleukins and cytokines, and is usually treated by albuterol. Still, a lot of that information blends in my mind. It wasn’t until I could relate that information to an actual patient I had on my pediatric pulmonary service that it stuck. I remember, during my exam, I was wondering what drugs were administered to severe asthmatics. My mind didn’t go to flashcards. It went to the patient, the person I met and talked to, about their asthma and how annoying it is to take all their medications. I remembered them talking to me about what this medication makes them feel like and how this medication helps them take different medications when they start to feel sicker.

The patient helped me get that question on my exam right.

Luckily, most schools are shifting education to give you more patient experience early. Patients are better teachers than textbooks, but they are much more fun and meaningful to learn from.

How to get patient interaction early:

  • Shadow
  • Volunteer at free clinics
  • Get involved with people in a non-clinical setting

That’s it. Thanks for reading, and congratulations on starting medical school. I’m in my third year and can’t believe how fast it’s going. Get ready for an amazing four years.

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