What to Expect at the Beginning of Medical School

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • So you are finally a first year medical student (MS1). Congratulations! You have been selected amongst many excellent applicants to have the rare privilege of learning to care for patients as a physician. With this in mind, the first year of medical school can be overwhelming and there are a few things you might expect but others may come as a surprise. What follows is a list of some of the things that I believe medical students should be prepared to encounter during the first year.

    12 Things to Expect When Starting Medical School

    1. You will be surrounded every day by 150+ incredibly talented people! This can be overwhelming at times. You may feel out of place and question whether you should be part of such an extraordinary group of individuals. You are there for a reason!! Your voice and skills are valued. You individually bring something to the program that is valued, and that is why YOU were selected! You wouldn’t be there otherwise. Remember this!

    2. The first year of med school is pretty darn fun (more than you would expect). From new friends to all the new experiences, you will smile often because of the amazing “firsts” you finally get to be part of. From the first time you scrub in or the first time a patient tells you they appreciate what you do! Enjoy these “firsts”!

    3. You now have a “golden ticket” to endless opportunities. You can email faculty that you are interested in shadowing or starting a research project with and they likely will welcome it with open arms. It will finally feel like you are getting one step closer to achieving your goal of becoming a physician.

    4. The “stress” of medical school. There are exams, extracurriculars (an ever-growing number), and many other things to worry about! This doesn’t take into account your personal life! There is no doubt that medical school will be stressful at time. This is expected. However, the best way to combat this is work on balancing your time early.

    5. You will have to be pickier about your time outside school! Setting up expectations will help others understand when you are not available. Having these conversions during the first year is very valuable and something many students wish they had done earlier. Along with this, when not studying or in class, your time outside can be even MORE meaningful and fun because others know your time is valuable too! It’s okay to be picky about this time.

    6. The pace of first-year changes quickly (sometimes day to day)! One minute you will have multiple exams to prepare for and the other you may find yourself with a bit more free time. It can be unpredictable in that sense. However, the one constant is you will never feel like there is enough time in the day because there is ALWAYS something to be working on in medical school.

    7. There is no such thing as the “perfect” study guide or outline. You will likely change your style of note taking (probably over 10 times) over the course of medical school. As important as it is to try to stay organized, it can be impossible to keep your notes perfect when you are constantly asked to download study guides, new resources, notes, etc. There is too much information presented in every lecture to try to write it all down or make your OneNote folders happy. My advice: try something new note-taking-wise during the first few months! If you don’t like it, change it! You will be surprised how you ultimately learn best.

    8. There is strength in numbers! There is never going to be a perfect way to take notes or study in medical school but there are certainly ways that are not helpful.

    One strategy I see successful medical students using is asking other students to form study groups.

    Studying in isolation can be helpful initially for pure memorization however nothing can replace group thought on a topic and someone bringing up a concept/question you didn’t remember from the lecture or forgot to study the night before the exam. Form these bonds and connections with other students early if possible! Don’t be afraid to change groups as well if one is not working out for whatever reason.

    9. You will want to get involved (with everything!). It’s hard to find a bad choice in medical school as far as involvement goes. Add in research opportunities with incredible faculty at your university and you feel like your bucket is full! However, be careful here!

    Make sure the activities you get involved in are things you can see yourself sticking to for at least two years. If not,  wait for the second year to decide on whether to join and get feedback from other students to see if it is a worthwhile investment time wise. Leadership roles on student council will likely become available very early in the year and if you are sure you want to be involved in this don’t be shy about letting others know so that when voting becomes active they saw your enthusiasm!

    10. Academics during MS1 may be the biggest change for most students. The volume of information can be extremely overwhelming. The best advice I received to deal with this was to try to learn the information in depth rather than in breadth the first time! Keep up with weekly quizzes, these will help you be prepared for final exams.

    11. Be careful when trying to buy lots of resources for boards (First aid, sketchy, etc). Many students are starting to discuss the Step 1 exam earlier and earlier in the curriculum. Do not fall prey to the trap of only studying First Aid for your exams. I am a fan of First Aid for board review; however, use your home program’s curriculum as a guide for the foundation and First Aid as a review source.

    Use other resources like Pathoma to help you learn material in a more concrete and memorable way. I personally enjoyed listening to it on my commute to and from school. If you are learning well with one resource, take note of this! If not, ask around to see if other students are finding that method helpful.

    12. People will start talk about Step 1 very early (this doesn’t mean it should be your only focus!). Along with this, the best thing you can do to prepare to do well on Step 1 is to be prepared for weekly quizzes and end of block exams. You will save yourself a lot of time in the long run. If your curriculum is pass/fail the first two years, still work for the best grades you can. It will help you be more prepared for STEP 1 when it comes around.

    Additional reading for first-year med students!

    Learn Your Learning Style to Maximize Your Study Power

    Top 5 Ways to Get Your Workout in While in Med School

    7 Tips to Set Yourself Up for Success in Med School

    Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash