How To Get in the Ring with Your First Test in Med School

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • The first test of med school seems to loom so large in the minds of med students and premeds alike.

    Many see it as a rite of passage, the signpost of truly being a med student. It’s also a reality check, both for the level of difficulty in med school and where students stand amongst their classmates.

    But is this how we should approach the test? Should it really even matter and, if so, how?

    What your first med school test should mean to you as a premed:

    If you’ve been accepted to a med school and haven’t yet started, congrats! Now go enjoy yourself! Explore the world! Learn a new language! Read some novels! And fine, if you want to be productive as a premed, maybe develop some time management skills.

    If you’re not yet accepted to med school, and are still working on getting a solid MCAT score, know what I’ve long told my students:

    My first med school exam was harder than the MCAT.

    Likening med school to drinking out of a fire house is crude, but pretty accurate. Sure, the MCAT covers a lot, but I’d been learning, reviewing, and applying that information for years. On the other hand, I had four weeks to hear, digest, organize, and master the information in my first Anatomy exam. I had a binder’s worth of printed slides and notes and entire chapters of “Big Moore” for which I was responsible: the amount of material that I covered in entire semesters of undergrad courses. Two weekends before the test, I was studying 12 hours on Saturday, going to sleep, then waking up early Sunday morning to do it all over again, and I still felt like I was cramming and should have started studying earlier.

    I don’t say this to scare you. You’ll get there, survive, adjust, and look back on it as no big deal. You’ll be fine. Just have no illusions about what lies ahead. If you treat the MCAT as another priority in your day, if you’re happy to study a few hours every couple days, if you think your super-organized peers who map out their MCAT studying with calendars and color-coding are crazy, know that that attitude will not fly when you’re a med student. You will need to be serious about your studying one day if you will survive in this field. Why not make that day today?

    What it should mean to you as a med student:

    If you’re in med school and haven’t yet taken the test, let’s talk about what the test will and won’t mean. If you’re thinking your two paths are to either ace the test or fail miserably, leading to you eventually watch as your colleagues graduate from top residencies and build wildly successful practices, making business deals at country clubs, etc. etc., take it down a notch. It’s just one test.

    It’s hard. Some people will fail. Even if you don’t, you’ll surely have missteps here and there in med school. You’ll survive them all. If the worst case scenario is that you fail this test, know that you can still be Surgeon General one day all the same, or whatever else you want to be.

    What you want to achieve in this test is not to ace it (though that’d be nice), but rather to learn about yourself.

    I’d recommend studying about as hard as most of your other classmates, or however hard you can manage, and no more. Then see how you score. As you do this, be mindful and take what your classmates say with a grain of salt. We’ll likely expand on this topic elsewhere, but for now, let me say that if you were to ask your classmates, “Hey, how’s it going? Are you prepared for this test?” the responses you’d receive would have a bimodal distribution. Many will say, “I’m totally failing. I’m the biggest idiot. I’ve hardly studied for this at all.” Many others will say, “I’m going to destroy this test. I’ve been studying since day one [haven’t you?!] and used a bunch of books [that you haven’t even heard of].” The truth is likely to lie somewhere in between these extremes, as should you.

    If you’ve taken the test, forget about where you stack up against your classmates.

    Remember the old adage: “What do they call the person who graduates last in his/her med school class? Doctor.” If you’re “only average”, or even below average amongst your classmates after that first test, that doesn’t make you dumb. You’re still amongst the smartest students in the country.

    Treat your studying experience and your score like the inputs and outputs of an experiment.

    How did you study? What books did you use? How many hours? What time of day? Did you study alone or with others? Did you go to class? Use scribe notes? Watch videos of lectures? Read texts or test prep books? Do practice problems? What was easy for you to do, and what felt like a chore? That should give you an idea of how, and of how hard, you should study the next time around. Remember that as I’ve said elsewhere, the best study resource is the one you actually use. Figure out how you like to learn and how you need to score, and do what’s right for you while ignoring what everyone else feels is right for him or her.

    Compare your scores to what’s expected for someone in your projected career.

    How did you do in the end? Did you feel confident about the subject material? In my experience, if I knew what I’d expect any self-respecting student in my class to know, I’d score at least in the 80s on my tests. To get an extra 10 points, I felt I had to do a disproportionate amount of extra work, even memorizing information that likely didn’t have any real clinical significance and was placed in the test just to create separation amongst the students. I intended to go into primary care, and just couldn’t be bothered to do that extra work. If, however, I wanted to be an ophthalmologist or a dermatologist, I’d have had to accept that that’s just what it would take—that I’d always have to be on top of my class. It wouldn’t necessarily reflect on my worth as a person or a doctor, just that I would have to work harder and smarter going forward.

    The experience and results of your first test are only data. What matters isn’t what you think they say about you, but instead what you do with them.

    I hope this helps! Let us know below how your first test was, and what you learned from it.