Adjusting to Medical School 101

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    Congratulations on getting into medical school! Based on the low rate of matriculation into medical school, one could argue that the hardest part is behind you. After all, fewer than 40% of applicants successfully get accepted to medical school in the U.S. However, I would argue the toughest part is yet to come. I remember thinking I was a beast after finishing undergrad and having a highly successful medical school application season. But the beginning of medical school was a rude awakening. I incorrectly thought that since I had figured out how to be an effective student in undergrad, I would find it equally easy to be an effective student in medical school. While medical school and college share several similarities, they require distinctly different approaches. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my College vs. Medical School Comparison post.    

1 | Question Your Current Methods

Everything in this post will hinge on this fundamental principal. One of my favorite quotes is “don’t believe everything you think.” Growth, improvement, and progress require constantly challenging your current mode of operation. This couldn’t be more true for the transition to medical school. Here are some personal examples that I experienced in college which affirmed this lesson:
  • I took notes in PowerPoint and then clicked through them to study for exams. I achieved great results in college using this terribly inefficient method. But this became insufficient in medical school with the large increase in volume of material. There are many study strategies I wish I knew sooner, and I cover the key ones in my Pre-Med Study Strategies post.
  • I would wake up at different times each day, depending on my class schedule for that day. Some days I woke up at 6AM, some days at 10AM. In medical school I quickly learned that the lack of a regular routine not only resulted in poorer sleep, but also killed my productivity and momentum throughout the day.
  • I went to the gym at different times each day without a clear plan. This worked because I had much more free time in college. I had multiple free blocks of time during which I could leisurely go to the gym. However in medical school, this method resulted in me skipping workouts more often than actually going to the gym. I needed to schedule my gym time and make it routine, otherwise it wouldn’t consistently happen.
The lesson to learn is to not grow attached to things that used to work for you. Rather than having fixed habits and ways of being, practice being committed to improvement and results. This shift will empower you to be flexible and replace habits that don’t work with those that do.    

2 | Prepare for the Marathon. Medical School is Not a Sprint

Do you remember the joys of finals week in college? Most of the quarter or semester was pretty relaxed, but things would get intense during midterms and then again during finals week. While that worked in college, it won’t cut it in medical school. When I say approach medical school as a marathon, I’m referring to two main areas: self-care and studying.  

Self-Care and Balance

It is imperative to take care of yourself from the start. Skipping meals, opting for convenient but unhealthy foods, skipping the gym, not sleeping enough – these are all habits that may make life easier in the short term, but will severely limit your potential in the long run. Rather, create systems and habits that allow you to live healthfully around your busy schedule. For example, ensure healthy eating with meal prep. Schedule time for exercise daily – make it a routine. In my pre-clinical medical school years, I would work out every day during my lunch break, which did wonders for my quality of life. Create and enforce guidelines for yourself regarding your sleep habits and bed time. On week days I would start winding down at 11PM and rarely violated this rule. Remember that the quality of time spent studying is more important than the quantity of time spent studying. Although it may seem counterintuitive, taking time away from the books for a workout, meditation session, or a good night’s rest will actually make you more productive in the long run.  

Study Habits Have Compounding Effects

In medical school, cramming will not work. First, there is far too much information to get through in the few days before the exam. I had particularly talented friends who would cram and ultimately they passed most exams; but as the year went on, it got harder and harder for them to keep up. When it was time for Step 1, those of us who studied consistently every day during the year fared far better than those who had crammed. Which brings us to the second point. Content in medical school builds off itself. We know that daily studying is much more effective for long term retention compared to short bursts of cramming. In college this isn’t as big a deal. But in medical school, everything you learn is far more interconnected and will ultimately be tested on Step 1 and Step 2. Studying a bit each day is like compounding interest financially. The initial benefits may not be as pronounced, but over time you will reap huge rewards.    

3 | Reassess Your Priorities

Want to pick up a new sport or two? How about a dance club and a public speaking course, all while still going out with your friends every weekend? In college this isn’t too far fetched. But in medical school, you’ll have to learn to prioritize. Time is of the essence. When I started medical school, I was excited to try new things with my new friends. I went surfing several times, rock climbing, and even tried regularly running on the beach. Ultimately it became more and more apparent that I was spreading myself too thin. While studying should be a top priority, so should your physical exercise and mental health. I personally prioritized cycling and lifting weights at the gym. To get my creative fix, I was a designer and editor at the medical school’s literary magazine. Later on in medical school, I began racing my car as well at autocross race days. Rather than spending your time on several activities, try to focus on just a few. Be sure that at least one or more of your activities incorporates exercise and a social or community aspect. By focusing on depth rather than breadth in your activities, you’ll get far more out of them without detracting from your medical school coursework.    

4 | Embrace Your Classmates and Community

The final tip refers to the cultural shift you’ll experience in medical school. In college, you likely had friends in several different majors and with different priorities. When you get to medical school, everyone in your class is in the same boat. You’re all taking the same tests. You’re all working toward the same degree. You’re all studying hard and grinding it out. And most importantly, you’re all in it together. Support each other and offer a helping hand when you notice someone struggling. Don’t expect someone else to; step up when you have the opportunity. I knew a struggling classmate, and while I initially thought that one of their closer friends would help them, I ultimately took it upon myself to offer a helping hand. I’m really glad I did, as I later learned that student didn’t have a strong support system. On the flip side, don’t be afraid to reach out to others, to be vulnerable, to let your guard down. Medical school is a trying time and it’s only human to have difficulties at some point. There is no shame in asking for help.    

Final Thoughts

Again, congratulations on getting into medical school! I wish you the best in your medical school career. Medicine is one of the most challenging and rigorous types of higher education, but likely the most rewarding. Some of my closest friendships were established and grew from my time as a medical student. Medical school is a grind, but by following these practices and finding your comfort zone, you’ll be well-equipped to excel.
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