Help! I’m Drowning in My First Semester of Med School!

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • In the months preceding medical school, I was excited — but more than anything else — I was scared. We all have been told horror stories about the difficulty of medical school.  And, while we can all agree it is rigorous and challenging, most will argue it is worth it and you can make it through.  The first few months are often the most challenging because students are unsure of what to expect and adjusting to a higher volume of course work and heightened expectations.  Below are some tips to successfully navigate the first semester of medical school:

    Don’t isolate yourself and be willing to ask for help.

    In the preclinical years of medical school, it can be easy to withdraw from your friends and family. At schools where lectures are not mandatory, some students may rarely leave their apartments and find themselves studying at home, alone, all the time. While some may feel this environment helps them focus, over time the separation can lead to loneliness. The stresses of medical school are hard to bear alone. If you find yourself feeling isolated, consider attending more classes in person so that you are at least surrounded by other people. Venting to a peer who can relate to your struggles is often cathartic. If you are feeling stressed, depressed, or even suicidal, please ask for help. Share your feelings with your family or peers. They all love you and want you to succeed. Consider seeing a counselor or school therapist if you need someone else to talk to. Most schools have programs available for medical students to seek mental health care for free and with complete anonymity.

    Don’t be afraid to speak to your professors.

    They say there are no such things as stupid questions, and that couldn’t be truer in medical school. One of the surest ways to do well is to in fact ask questions any time you are confused or seek just a little bit more clarity. When I was in medical school, I would keep a blank email open as I was studying a lecture for the first time, and if there was anything I was confused about or questioning, I would write it down in the email.  Then, at the end of reviewing the lecture, I would organize my thoughts and send an email to the lecturer.  Sometimes, I did not have any questions. Other times I just wanted to clarify that my thought process was correct. But more often I would have two or three, or sometimes even dozens of questions. The overwhelming majority of time the professors were very appreciative of my interest in their lecture and would be very helpful in answering my questions. On more than one occasion their answers helped me get questions right that I otherwise would have missed on exams. This is especially important if your lecturers each write their own exam questions make sure you actually understand everything they say and clarify with them if you don’t. Sometimes, they will even be kind enough to suggest you don’t worry about certain topics or steer you more towards what you should focus on.  Alternatively, seek out an experienced student or tutor who can help answer your questions or work through any confusing topics with you.

    Get exercise, eat healthy, and sleep!

    Sticking to a normal routine can be very helpful in alleviating stress.  Try to incorporate at least 30 minutes of exercise into your normal routine. Read more about how to do that here or hereTry to maintain a regular diet and avoid binge eating. I often snacked repeatedly while studying simply because I was bored or tired, but over time this can lead to weight gain and more stress. Instead, consider chewing gum instead, or allowing yourself a 5 minute walk break for every 45 minutes of studying.  Lastly, try to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. While the amount of sleep each person truly needs varies, most people cannot fully function on 5 to 6 hours of sleep or less a night. Consider setting a cut-off time on your studying and push yourself to go to bed at a similar time each night.

    The preclinical years of medical school aren’t easy, but they are doable, and some may even say enjoyable if you keep a good perspective. Remember to stay connected with your family and friends. Call your mom or dad. Go to lectures in person at least occasionally. Take some time for yourself. Ask for help. And practice good exercising, eating, and sleeping habits.