Return to Blog Homepage

How to Succeed in Med School: Tips for New Med Students

First, congratulations on your achievement! Being accepted to medical school is a challenge, and becoming the physician you’d like to be is an even bigger, lifelong one. Below are some tips to help guide you through the beginning of this exciting time.

How to Succeed in Med School

1. Take care of yourself and determine your non-negotiable self-care activities. 

The prevalence of burnout among physicians (not just residents!) is estimated to be up to 80%. You cannot take care of others until you take care of yourself.

The age-old adage holds true in medical training where long nights of studying, limited sleep, missed meals, work on holidays, and physically and emotionally exhausting work can lead to compromises in prioritizing how you take care of your basic as well as higher order needs.

While medicine as a field is moving towards recognizing the importance of these factors, whether medical students (or even residents) can truly make space for these important pieces often remains subject to the longstanding culture of your institution and other factors out of your control. If that is the case, consider advocating with other medical students for changes within your school or curriculum that makes such prioritization easier.

Make a schedule or list of the activities that are non-negotiable for you to feel nourished and energized every day. Whether that is exercise, cooking, spending time with friends, playing video games, or something else, hold yourself accountable to making time to engage in these activities. If you get in the practice of doing the things outside of work that matter to you early, it will be much easier to maintain it as you move through your training, which will get more demanding.

2. Recognize your physician privilege and learn to be an anti-racist physician.

Regardless of the path you took to becoming a physician, once you are on the path to becoming one, you are endowed with a new set of privileges.

People listen to you, assume you have a trove of knowledge that they don’t, and often feel that they either cannot disagree with you or that if they are going to, they must defend their position with vigorous passion to compensate for the presumed differential in knowledge.

These dynamics become even more complex and harmful when we consider the impact they have on marginalized groups as well. It should also be noted that forms of privilege experienced as a physician are also more nuanced, with physicians who come from marginalized groups having very different experiences than many other physicians when it comes to interactions with their peers as well as patients.

Regardless, if you are not aware of the privileges you gain as a physician, and which play out both on the micro-level through patient interactions and the macro-level on how healthcare is provided to different populations in this country, you will be doing your patients a disservice.

Being a physician is about much more than the scientific knowledge you will gain the next four years. Seminars on patient interaction and standardized patients in your first few years will introduce you to some of these broader concepts, but they often do not go far enough.

It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge the degree of privilege you have access to as a physician, but it is vitally important in order to consider why patients may respond to you in a certain way (e.g. negatively or with perceived hostility) and why health outcomes you see in the hospital or the clinic appear a certain way for certain groups.

Medicine is infused with a long history of paternalism, as well as legacies of racism and oppression in the way care has been provided. You should learn about these as much as you can and inquire daily in your lectures and with your attendings about how these legacies impact how care is currently provided, researched, and funded for the groups with the worst outcomes.

Make deliberate efforts to self-reflect the complex nature of what it means to be a physician in light of this history. It is incumbent on medical students to recognize that these dynamics, and this history, is as important as the presumed “objective” scientific knowledge that underlies what we learn in our textbooks, many elements of which are deeply informed and rooted in white supremacy itself.

And as you reflect, take note that there are many institutions out there working towards making change, both within the United States and abroad, that you can model your own learning off of or point towards as you advocate for your medical school to make similar types of changes.

3. Focus on patients, always.

It can be easy, especially early in medical school, to postpone expectations of more patient-centric material in the curriculum, which is often dominated by basic science or seemingly less clinically relevant topics. Do not fall for it!

Everything we learn has implications for patients, and while it might be more work to unearth the clinical applications early in medical school if they aren’t provided by your professors, I encourage you to seek it out.

The wealth of resources in medical education, and the resources at your fingertips online, mean that you can access in seconds accounts of patients who have the metabolic diseases you learn about that come from perturbations in gluconeogenesis and glycolysis or the immunodeficiencies that come from mutations in development of the immune system.

These may be rare diseases that you think are not relevant to the area of medicine you are interested in, but they are also often terrible diseases that have life-altering effects on individuals and families. And no matter which specialty you go into, learning how patients and families deal with these illnesses and what it is like for patients to have them will give you tremendous knowledge.

As you progress in your medical training, it will be much easier to orient your knowledge around patients, but if you start early, it will be even easier.

4. Explore (but do not over-explore!) the wide world of medical education.

Resources for medical students have increased dramatically in the last several years. This is both a blessing and curse. Your school and your classmates may tell you about resources that did wonders for them in a certain course, for their board exam, or in another context.

The problem is, not everyone learns the same way. It is important to consider the type of learner you are in medical school and pursue resources that are geared towards that form of learning whenever possible.

Even then, there may be more resources than you have time to explore. That is okay. You may not get to look in-depth at every resource, but as long as you find something that works well for you and you remain open to new resources as they come along and as you have time to explore them, you will be much more satisfied (and sane!) navigating this crowded landscape.

This resource overload is a challenge to navigate even as you get further in your medical career, so learning how to prioritize resources, let other resources go, and remain comfortable in the resources you are learning from is an invaluable skill.

5. Talk to people in healthcare outside of medicine.

Multiple studies have shown that poor diet is the largest contributor to death worldwide, including in the United States. And yet it has been pointed out by many that interventions in this space within healthcare and education of medical students are lacking. Further, over 30% of adults over 18 utilized some form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) in 2012.

Despite what you may go into medical school thinking, the universe of professionals that exists to help patients is enormous. Nutritionists, physical and occupational therapists, and psychologists are only a few of the professionals that make tremendous contributions to the health of patients and their ability to live full and productive lives.

While many medical schools—and medical institution more broadly—are providing increasing attention to the importance of interdisciplinary teams, direct exposure and opportunities for trainees to actively work with other healthcare professionals, and formal education on the scope of practice and nature of work that other professionals do, is lacking. Not understanding this landscape is another disservice to patients.

When patients come to us as physicians, it is not realistic to expect that we alone will solve their problems. The breadth and depth of our knowledge, however, should give us an understanding of the many domains in which they require assistance, and we can begin to work on several of them directly.

It is important, however, to consider how we can help patients in the other domains. Most likely, knowing who to refer them to and making those referrals proactively is critical. The only way to do that is to know what else is out there.

A key challenge here is the fact that the body of knowledge that underlies some, but not all, of the other fields within healthcare, especially the field known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), can be sparse. At other times, it may be nonexistent or anecdotal.

Even more challenging, sometimes the treatment or supplement that patients tell us works for them is relatively or even absolutely contraindicated with the treatment we are providing. We should not shy away from these difficult conversations with patient or within the field of medicine in general.

Traditional Western medicine does not work for everyone, and as medical students in the United States we must acknowledge the limitations of what we can offer patients and become knowledgeable in the alternatives we can refer them.

Importantly, being aware of these alternative does not diminish our field or the importance of what an individual physician can offer. Instead, it makes us willing participants in a universe of resources all dedicated towards the goal of improving the lives of patients.

6. Study. (But you knew that.)

The majority of this list focuses on priorities outside of studying, primarily because this is probably the first item on many other lists of tips for medical students and something you have already thought about or heard about extensively from others. The importance of studying goes without saying, but as you progress through your medical education, you will see patterns of practice that frighten and frustrate you.

Not all physicians are good people, nor did they all study, retain, or continue to study what was necessary to provide their patients the best care. Don’t be one of them.

You chose a field where lifelong learning is more than just a buzzword: it can be the difference between life and death. Take it seriously and do what you need to do to learn the material.

Take advantage of resources at your medical school to help support you if you need it, talk to students ahead of you about how to make a study schedule, and hold yourself accountable to learning the materials in a way that is holistic and patient-centered, as noted above.

Finally, don’t just memorize lists without thinking critically and learning more about the patient-centered applications of the material, even if the former is what your exam focuses on. When you start taking care of patients, you will draw on those applications just as much, if not more so, than lists.

7 Tips to Set Yourself Up for Success During Med School Coursework

Photo by Razvan Chisu on Unsplash