Walking into the lecture hall, I didn’t really know what to expect. Sitting among 100 other new first-year medical students, I began to take notes on the histology lecture but found I wasn’t sure what to write down. The professor moved through the PowerPoint slides too quickly for me to write down anything meaningful — in fact, everything he said seemed significant and likely testable.
In the first few weeks of medical school, the adage of “medical school is like drinking from a fire hose” came true. After abandoning note-taking, I tried printing the lectures but found even that task not entirely feasible because I was printing 30 or 40 pages for a single one-hour lecture!
Starting med school is a major adjustment. I found I wasn’t alone having difficulty drinking from the fire hose as my classmates shared the same sentiments. However, in time and with plenty of diligence and support from my peers, the first year of med school and the subsequent years became some of the best years of my life.
Challenges in the First Year of Medical School
The process of starting medical school can be exhilarating and intimidating. In addition to the demanding course load, most students will have to move to a new city or state and adjust to a new area.
Unlike college, where students arrange classes and fit in additional activities, medical school is a set schedule designated by the school. Though this can seem like a relief, the schedule itself is very demanding.
Every school is different, but a typical day of a first-year med student usually consists of hours of coursework. Most often, the first year is concentrated on learning basic human physiology, histology, anatomy and biochemistry. Some schools still require students to participate in a full day of lectures while others have online learning or education based on small groups.
The first year also usually consists of the anatomy lab, where med students spend months dissecting cadavers and mastering the anatomy of the human body. Anatomy is a course many med students truly enjoy, but it is exceptionally challenging. Students spend long hours in the lab, including late evenings and weekends.
Consistent with all medical education, the curriculum is faster paced and more demanding than college. However, med schools tend to ease students into this environment, which may involve escalating the coursework and material as the year goes on.
Regardless, first-year med students are busy. In addition to didactic coursework, most often they have clinical skills lessons and frequently also start early clinical activities in emergency rooms or outpatient clinics.
But balance is something that students must begin to learn starting day one of medical school and modify throughout their career.
Medicine is a dynamic field with ever-changing, demanding environments. Each year of medical school has different demands, and so do residency and life as a practicing physician. Students and practicing physicians learn to find balance throughout their careers in order to have a personal life, excel as a physician and still have time to maintain mental and physical health.
One of the most essential aspects of successfully adjusting to med school is establishing a reliable peer support group. Peers in med school can empathetically commiserate with each other and help one another master difficult material. Study groups can be a great way to cover material, but also have fun and interact with others.
In addition, med students should make time for self-care, which includes getting ample sleep, eating healthy, exercising and making time for activities that they enjoy. Though balancing all of these aspects may seem impossible, it is not. Concessions will have to be made — such as less gym time or cutting back on reading nonmedical textbooks — in order to make it through the marathon that is medical training, so students should establish a routine that prioritizes their studies and personal health.
With so many demands and changes occurring at once, here are some ways to maximize the time before starting med school, tips for the first day and advice on how to avoid common medical student pitfalls.
What to Do Before Starting Medical School
Find a place to live. This is easier said than done. Most often, starting med school requires a student to move to a new location. Look into the housing options in the area. Do you want to live on campus? Can you afford a place by yourself? Do you want to commute or be closer to campus?
Familiarize yourself with the area and get a sense of where other students live. Medical schools will often provide housing resources and sometimes share contact information of current students so that you can glean information from them.
Get your finances in order. Many medical students receive significant financial aid during med school and most students do not hold jobs while in school. The first place to start is to talk to the financial aid office at your school. Understand your costs and your options for paying, and learn how to supplement the costs. It is also essential to understand the costs of living in the area and adjust your lifestyle to fit your budget. You may have to give up your daily latte habit in order to afford tuition and other costs, but it is important to understand those dynamics before getting started.
Get your gear in order. Attending medical school, like any academic courses, requires that you have certain things. You’ll need a laptop, a tablet or both. You may need a car or you may be able to walk or bike to school. Are you moving to a furnished place or not? Where will you do laundry? Do you have internet access? Although these things may seem obvious, ironing out all of the details before starting med school will save you stress down the line.
Tips for the First Day of Medical School
Once you have prepared to start medical school, here are some important tips for your first day.
Take a deep breath. The first day of anything can be nerve-wracking, but try to stay calm and go into the classroom with eagerness and an open mind. Before you walk into the lecture hall, take a deep breath and calm yourself. It will be OK.
Make some friends. It might sound obvious, but the people around you are going to be with you through the next four years on this difficult journey. They will be the ones who can commiserate with you but also support you tremendously. Chances are you may have already met some of them through a second-look day or during orientation, so take some time to get to know them. Having a support system in med school will be crucial, so begin cultivating these relationships early on.
Focus and prioritize in class. Most students get overwhelmed with the volume of information presented even on the very first day of class, but this is normal. Medical school is an overload of information, but as you go through your classes, you will understand how to prioritize the material and focus on the appropriate details. For the first day, try to keep up with the lecturer and review the materials in depth after the class.
Get to know your professors. Though this doesn’t have to be done your very first day, getting to know your professors can be a great way to make it through difficult courses. Your professors care about your success, and if you are struggling they can be one of your greatest assets. If you have questions, go to their office hours, ask them after class or send them an email.
Understand that it will seem impossible. The first day of med school, we were told that we would have an exam every Monday. That seemed impossible — to be able to keep up with the material and then be able to master it on a weekly exam. The classes, like the material, initially seem insurmountable, but know that thousands of people have gone through it before you. You are in med school because you have gone through the rigors of a premed track and are specifically qualified to handle med school. It may seem impossible at first, but it is doable.
7 Mistakes to Avoid in the First Year of Medical School
With the stress of demanding courses and establishing yourself in a new environment, you can make some common mistakes during your early years of training. Here are seven common mistakes and how to avoid them in order to maximize time in med school.
Skipping class. Medical schools often record lectures or electronically post the information, and you can be tempted to skip the lectures and just study the material from home. Though this approach works for some, you should at least attend lectures at the start of med school. The first few weeks are a crucial adjustment period, and going to class helps you to get oriented, meet peers and better understand coursework demands.
Cramming. In college, students often are able to pull “all-nighters” — studying only overnight the day before the exam — and still do well. Not in med school. With the vast amount of information, it is not possible to cram it all into just a day or so of studying. The most successful students study the material right after it is presented and consistently review it until test day.
Neglecting self-care. With the ever-pressing demands of med school, students often forget to take care of themselves. This can involve going to the doctor or dentist, taking necessary down time when ill or stressed, or not exercising or eating well. Med school is a marathon, and the only way to make it through is to take care of yourself throughout the process.
Taking on too much. Remember the fire hose analogy? There are many clubs, activities and groups to be a part of in med school, and although it can be tempting to join each one, overcommitting is common. Pick one or two activities that are most meaningful and concentrate on those, and on adjusting to the new environment of med school. In addition, although you may have held a job in college, the extra time commitment and stress of being employed is not ideal during med school. Instead, focus on academics and the extracurricular activities you truly value.
Focusing too heavily on one area of medicine. It’s OK to have an interest in particular medical fields, but students who overcommit themselves to one specialty or area of medicine can miss out on opportunities to learn from and explore other fields. Take time to discover the multitude of medical specialties and the opportunities to experience them all.
Not having enough support. Establishing a new core group of friends, staying in touch with old friends and having family support are essential. The stress of med school should not be an individual load to bear. You should have the support of others to help you through the difficult journey.
Not enjoying yourself. Med school is stressful, but it is also a very great part of any doctor’s life. Medical students are incredibly privileged to learn anatomy on human cadavers, meet and care for patients and get exposed to various areas of medicine. The process should be fun and you should take it all in. It’s OK to be fascinated by the course work, spend extra time in the lab, take a special interest in a disease process or area of medicine, and cherish the time spent with lifelong friends in the making.
Medical school can be fun, and it’s up to you to make it that way. Some of my fondest moments were in med school, and I cherish the time there, the incredible learning and the friends I made along the way.
More from U.S. News
What a First-Year Medical School Student Can Expect originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 03/09/21: This article has been updated with new information.