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Survival Tips for Your First Year of Med School

It can happen to the best and brightest first-year students.

Here you are, two months into the year, and you just aren’t feeling very doctorish. Maybe you volunteered at the student clinic and took some vitals, but certainly couldn’t give an astute differential diagnosis or even perform a neuro exam. You’ve seen a patient or two, but honestly didn’t have much to offer. And instead of learning about diseases and how to treat them, you are bogged down with studying the minutiae of ever-so-rare inborn errors of metabolism and memorizing Krebs cycle intermediates!

Despite the distance from all things clinical, you’re still attending lectures for 3 hours per day and studying for another 5. And the question on loop in your mind is:

“What did I sign up for?

Relax. Medical school is no walk in the park. And it shouldn’t be. You may have laughed in the face of academic rigor before, but medical school is not college. There are no easy classes to pad your schedule, and there’s a lot less time to watch the entire Family Guy DVD collection. How can you cope with this newfound stress and rise above the frustration of ignorance?

Some helpful tips for surviving your first year of med school:


1. It’s okay and expected that you know close to nothing in your first year of medical school.

By the time you start medical school, you have already proven to the world that you are “really smart.” But throughout school, especially in the beginning, you will repeatedly be clueless about lots of things. To make matters worse, you will find people in your class who will make you feel bad about your ignorance.

At this point in life, you probably are not used to not knowing the answer. For the last 16 years of formal education, you knew all the answers, even the ones to questions that weren’t being asked. This transition can be difficult, but realize it is okay to have no clue, to offer up an answer that is way off, and most importantly, to ask questions about things you don’t understand. This doesn’t make you dumb, and in fact, demonstrates your insight and desire to learn.

2. Don’t worry that the medical education process might not all make sense now.

I constantly asked myself why we would talk about sickle cell disease 4 days per week during biochem and genetics when less than 1% of people are afflicted. Shouldn’t we be learning about the common cold and lower back pain and IV fluids? But instead, there we were debating the finer points of maple syrup urine disease.

As a first-year student, I was audacious to think that I knew how medical education should work, and that the administration was going about this all wrong. As a product of the system, believe me when I say that there is a method to the madness. It won’t all be clear now, but one day down the line, you will realize that everything was taught to you in its own peculiar manner for a reason. Just go with it, and allow the gaps in your knowledge to get filled in.

3. Begin and maintain the healthy habits to carry you through hours of studying and exams.

During this transition, you are a neuroplastic ball of wax, and you have the ability to mold yourself into whomever you would like to be. In this important formative period, you should establish the time to take care of yourself and your life outside the classroom. These include eating well, exercising, and staying in contact with family and friends. It might not be easy at first, but the longer you put these things off, the more difficult they will be to begin.

This is also the time to form good study habits. Don’t give 70% of your effort to the textbook, 25% to the TV you are not watching, and the last 5% to Instagram. Give 100% of your effort to studying while you are studying, and 100% to fun when you are having fun. Let there be no in-betweens.

It’s important to remember that the process is young, and you will continue to adapt. Don’t be afraid to try things you’re not used to (e.g., group studying, buying lecture notes, using outside resources), and find out what really clicks.

4. If things do get difficult for you in med school, realize that you are not alone.

It can be difficult to approach our new friends and classmates. Nobody wants to be one who “couldn’t hack it” when we are all establishing reputations in this new peer group. That said, there will be no one who can better relate to the difficulties of medical school than fellow students. If things do get very hard, turn to family, friends at other schools, and non-medical friends for support. The more people you can depend on emotionally, the more security you’ve got. Lastly, don’t be afraid to utilize your school’s mental health services. They are experts in helping struggling students cope, they will understand your situation, and they’ll keep it completely confidential.

Some last words of wisdom: Overcoming this feeling of shock and awe will make you stronger and more resilient when facing the challenges ahead. These feelings of uncertainty will pop up again when you start third-year clinical rotations, and when you find your first true responsibility during intern year. You made it this far, and you will make it through. Be strong, admit and allow weakness when you feel it, and do what it takes to hold on, persevere and keep those metaphorical boulders at bay. It will get better.