What Do You Learn in Medical School? A Guide for Incoming Med Students

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • After successfully completing college and all the classes and extracurricular activities it entails, now it’s time to prepare yourself for the next step: medical school. But what, exactly, will that be like? And what do you learn in medical school? 

    Medical school curricula can vary widely, but there’s a rough template they’re all based on. In this post we’ll examine the standard course of a medical school education, so you can have a good idea of what to expect as you embark on your journey to becoming a physician. 

    Let’s get started by taking a look at what you’ll learn during the first two years of medical school, known as the “preclinical years.”

    Year 1 & 2: Preclinical Years 

    Luckily, the first two years of medical school (the preclinical years) tend to be much like the college education you’re used to. Lectures, presentations, and more all make their return. 

    The first part of the preclinical years tends to be focused on getting a foundational knowledge on how the human body works. Courses on anatomy, biochemistry, pharmacology, pathology/histology, and more start to build what will become an immense fund of medical knowledge. 

    The second part of the preclinical years focuses on organ systems and learning their specific anatomy, pathology, and their treatments. You’ll also take courses that highlight patient-physician interaction, how to develop physical exam skills, interprofessional interaction, racism in medicine, international medicine, and other topics about the medical field. 

    These courses are integral to becoming a well-rounded physician with a full understanding of the healthcare system and the patient you’re caring for!

    Transition from undergrad

    The transition from the college classroom to medical school can be challenging because the volume of material you’re expected to learn is so much greater. 

    Luckily, many schools have small group study sessions to help you add clinical context to the material you’re learning. These are also excellent opportunities to learn from your peers and practice your public speaking skills through presentations and group discussion. 

    While at home, you should plan on spending a significant amount of time studying third-party material, as well as course-specific content to ensure you understand everything and succeed on final exams. 

    Step 1 

    At the conclusion of your preclinical years, you’ll take the first of three board exams, Step 1. This covers all your classroom material from the first two years of medical school. 

    For the past several years, this test has been pass/fail, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. Study hard for it. The knowledge you gain from Step 1 studying will be valuable in subsequent phases of your medical career. 

    How should you prepare for Step 1? 

    There are many strategies when it comes to studying for Step 1. The most important thing is to pick the right study resources. I’m a proponent of using a small number of high-yield study tools. Questions banks are excellent resources for practicing the types of questions you’ll encounter. Be sure to pay attention to the answer explanations, as they contain a lot of valuable information. 

    A good flashcard deck will help you remember lots of facts, and using “spaced repetition” when studying them will ensure you have access to the information they contain come test day. 

    One or two supplemental resources that cover high-yield topics will help round out a great study regimen. Finally, practice tests are a must when it comes to exam preparation. Check out this blog post I wrote about how to use practice tests for Step 1!

    After passing Step 1, you’re ready to move on to the clinical years and get into the hospital! Let’s take a look at this second phase of your medical training, so you’ll know what to expect. 

    Years 3 & 4: Clinical Years

    The clinical years are a significant change from the classroom learning you’re used to. Now you’ll be learning from patients, residents, attendings, nurses, pharmacists, and many more while you’re “on the job.” 

    This is when you’ll learn how to work in a hospital. You’ll be learning just as much about patient interaction, coworker communication, and the “art” of medicine as you will about disease, differential diagnoses, and treatments. You’ll need to learn what makes you most efficient and effective in the operating room or on the wards. 

    This time in your medical school career may come with some growing pains as you make mistakes, get subjective evaluations, and work many hours. Going in with the mindset of trying to learn something from any patient, formulating good questions, and being willing to accept and implement feedback can take you a long way. 

    Shelf Exams & Step 2

    Despite spending most of your time seeing patients, formulating plans, and getting questioned about all sorts of minutiae, you’ll still need to study specific material during each rotation for its “shelf” exam. 

    Luckily, you’ll be learning and implementing much of your knowledge in the hospital, but it’ll still be important to have a study regimen to ensure nothing is missed in your learning and to practice the types of questions you’ll be asked. I suggest using a quality question bank with good explanations and a flashcard deck you can review in your spare minutes at the hospital, like the combined Step 2 / Shelf Qbank from Blueprint Prep.

    It’s difficult to study for shelf exams when you’re so busy, but it’s something that’s to your benefit in the end. The knowledge you’ll acquire is important for Step 2, the second board exam of your medical career, which is a summation of what you’ve learned during your clinical years (building on top of your Step 1 knowledge, too!). So think of shelf studying as investing in your future!

    Final Thoughts 

    What do you learn in medical school? A lot. But you can do it! 

    Overall, medical school is a rewarding, challenging, material dense, and fast-paced environment. It requires you to use the same skills you developed in college and to refine them even further. 

    Remember, have a structured study schedule with spaced repetition to avoid cramming information at the last moment. Go with the flow and take it all in as you enter the world of medicine, and you’ll do well!

    About the Author

    I am a graduate of the Ohio State University with a degree in Neuroscience as well as a minor in clinical Psychology. I am currently a research coordinator at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center prior to beginning residency. I am attending the University of Pittsburgh Medical School for my MD. I am interested in the field of Orthopaedics as well as medical education, healthcare reform, and various advocacy groups. I focus on questions/testing strategy as well as taking what you learn from a book and applying it to test questions. Twitter: @LCluts