What a First-Year Medical School Student Can Expect
Walking into the lecture hall, I didn’t really know what to expect. Sitting among a hundred 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 old 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 an adjustment, and a major one at that. 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 medical 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 both 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 that is 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 medical 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 or 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 students truly enjoy, but it is exceptionally challenging and 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, most medical schools tend to ease students into this environment, which may involve escalating the course work and material as the year goes on.
Regardless, first-year medical students are busy. In addition to didactic coursework, most often they have clinical skills lessons and frequently also start early clinical activities in the emergency room or outpatient clinics.
Between full course days, clinical learning and frequent exams, medical students are extraordinarily busy. 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 medical school can empathetically commiserate with each other and use one another to help master difficult material. Study groups can be a great way to cover material but also have fun and interact with others.
In addition, medical 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.
7 Mistakes to Avoid in the First Year of Medical School
With the stress of demanding courses and establishing themselves in a new environment, medical students can make some common mistakes during their 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 students can be tempted to skip the lectures and just study the material from home. Though this approach works for some, students should at least attend lectures at the start of medical school. The first few weeks are a crucial adjustment period, and going to class helps to get the student oriented, meet peers and better understand coursework demands.
Cramming. In college, students often are able to pull “all-nighters” – studying only 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 to them and consistently review it until test day.
Neglecting self-care. With the ever-pressing demands of medical 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. As emphasized earlier, 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 yourself is common. Pick one or two activities that are most meaningful and concentrate on those and adjusting to the new environment of medical 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 chance 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 medical school should not be an individual load to bear, but instead students should have support and resources of others to help them through the difficult journey.
Not enjoying yourself. Medical 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 students should take it all in. It’s OK to be fascinated by the course work, spend extra time in the lab because the anatomy is all-consuming, take a special interest in a disease process or area of medicine, and cherish the time spent with lifelong friends in the making. Med school can be fun, and it’s up to the student to make it that way.
Some of my most fond moments were in medical school, and I cherish the time there, the incredible learning and the friends I made along the way.