Medical school is often described as “a marathon at a sprint’s pace”. Between the volume and speed at which material is presented, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially at the beginning of your medical school journey. With that being said, it is important to reflect on your personal and academic habits in order to successfully conquer medical school. Here are 5 essential tips that will maximize your medical school experience.
1. Adopt a Growth Mindset
A great way to succeed in medical school, and in life, is to adopt a growth mindset. This is not a default mindset for the majority of people, but I can assure that you will find yourself improving in all facets of life by practicing this perspective. Aim to learn how to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.
- “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” (Dweck, 2015)
- “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Dweck, 2015)
As a medical student, you will come to realize that the medical field is characterized by constant learning. Protocols change, science changes, and discoveries are made. It is up to us as medical professionals to stay on top of the latest research and ultimately, become professional learners. With that, it is essential to recognize that dedication and hard work allow us to continue to develop and that attitude will help us to enjoy the learning that our field brings. If you are caught in a fixed mindset as a medical student, you will find that you feel like you cannot adapt to the difficulty of the material, and it will cause an incredible amount of stress and a sense of failure. Becoming somebody with a growth mindset will allow you to break through barriers and recognize that your shortcomings are simply moments to grow and develop.
Those with growth mindsets do not get caught up in failures. It’s important to understand that medical school is a safe place to make mistakes, and it is designed for you to learn from your mistakes to prepare you for the clinical world. So use your failures to grow and learn. Additionally, do not let grades motivate or define you. Medical school is about learning the material and learning how to think like a physician – it is not about mastering the strategy of taking medical school tests. Ultimately, you can find so much happiness and purpose by appreciating the fact that medical school allows you to grow in so many ways; as a person, as a doctor, and as a professional.
2. Have a Schedule
Another essential tip for medical school is adapting the art of scheduling. Proper scheduling allows you to learn how to manage your time and opens up time for you to engage in activities outside of medical school. The importance of scheduling in medical school can easily be emphasized by Parkinson’s Law.
Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This is an important concept to understand before even starting medical school. If you sit down each night and brainstorm what you need to accomplish the following day and then divide those tasks into the hours of the day, you will realize that you can schedule in time for necessities such as mental health and self-care. Do not underestimate the importance of scheduling self-care as it is the key to avoiding burnout. If you do not plan out your schedule, you’ll likely spend unnecessary amounts of time on a small task such as reviewing one lecture, thereby proving Parkinson’s law. Additionally, scheduling also allows you to avoid cramming material close to test time. In undergrad, you may have been able to cram and pass your exams, but in medical school, knowledge is not disposable. You need to learn the material in a way that allows you to keep it long term, and you cannot attain that by cramming.
Another beautiful benefit of scheduling is that you can schedule your bedtime! You will feel rewarded by having completed your tasks for the day and you can go to bed knowing the amount that you accomplished. Having the ability to schedule in your sleep allows you to ensure that you are sleeping 7-8 hours a night. Sleeping is essential to learning, memory encoding, and optimal body functioning. Unfortunately, it is also often the first thing to go in the medical student schedule.
Mastering the art of scheduling takes practice, but once you get into the habit of scheduling, you will find that you have time to master medical school and take care of yourself.
3. Be Flexible
This seems to contradict the previous point about scheduling, but they work in tandem! Medical school presents challenges that have never faced before, whether that may be the volume of material, difficulty of material, adapting to a new city, making new friends, managing stress, or even handling emotions. With so many changes and new experiences, it’s important to stay flexible so you can adapt, go with the flow, and get the most out of your med school experience.
Be flexible in your learning style. Often times, your college experience was not as challenging as your medical school experience will be, and you actually have to learn how to learn medicine! To do this, you have to be willing to try new study methods. In college, I had never heard of learning tools such as Anki, Sketchy Micro, or memory palace. Now, I couldn’t learn medicine without them! If a study method or tool is not working for you, be willing to try something new. If you used to read your lecture slides in college to succeed, you may find that to succeed in medical school you need flashcards and study groups. Keep an open mind and adapt!
Step out of your comfort zone. Medical school will present you with many unique opportunities, and you shouldn’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Whether it be a research opportunity, a new study spot, or even asking for letters of recommendation, you have to be prepared to jump in and out of opportunities that spark your interest.
Socialize with your classmates. Your class is bound to have students from all over the country who were raised in different environments, earned different degrees in college, are various ages, and are at different life stages. It is important to not count people out and realize that they just may become a close friend! In medical school, I expected to find clones of the same type of person, but I can easily say that I have never met such a diverse group of people. By having an open mind, I have had the opportunity to befriend so many interesting people from varying walks of life!
Even though you need discipline and structure in medical school, it is also essential to have a flexible personality and be willing to step out of your comfort zone.
4. Ask for Help and Get Support
Medical school often feels like an individual journey as you study independently, maybe live alone, travel to away rotations on your own, and pursue your specific specialty, but you are not alone. You have your medical school peers walking the same journey, and you should have a group of friends who support one another. It is easy to feel competitive, but you can choose to cooperate instead of competing. These will be your colleagues one day! So choose to do your best and raise each other up along the way. It is helpful to have support from people who understand what you are going through. Medical school is such a unique experience that it is very hard to understand as somebody on the outside. Being close to your classmates allows you to have people to get advice from, to encourage you, to tread through the hard times, and to celebrate the great times.
Not only are medical school friends important for your mental health and success in medical school, but friends and family from college – or back home – are also essential. Do not cut out your family and friends from your medical school experience. They may not understand your struggles or even the magnitude of your successes, but they care about you and they are rooting for you. They want to know how you are doing and what your experience is like. Be patient with their questions and let them into your world. It is easy to get sucked into this feeling that medical school and medicine are the only things that exist, but your family and friends will remind you that there is an entire world aside from medicine. Do not lose yourself to the field. Allow yourself to find balance as you focus on school and continue to invest in your friends and your family. Whether it be a call to your grandparents, lunch with your mom and dad, or a video chat with your childhood best friend, let them into your life because they are supporting you.
Most importantly, ask for help. Find a counselor or therapist if you need emotional or mental health support, or if you simply want to chat with a third party. Mental health is essential, especially on the long and unpredictable journey to becoming a doctor. There are professionals who can help you when you are struggling emotionally or simply help prevent you from enduring any emotional or mental health struggles.
Even when you feel that you are alone on your medical journey, keep in mind that you are not! In fact, you are supported by your peers, your medical school faculty, your friends, and your family, so don’t cut these people out! Instead, invite them into your journey and ask for help when you need it!
5. Trust Yourself
Last but not least, trust yourself! Believe in yourself! You got accepted into medical school for a reason and you deserve to be there. Keep that in mind when you doubt your ability to succeed. The admissions committee saw your potential and deemed you fit to learn how to be a doctor. That is a huge success in itself. So learn how to be your own biggest fan, and trust that you can and will become a doctor.
Do not compare yourself to others. If you can avoid comparison, you will find that you enjoy the journey much more. Every student in your class has had a different experience leading up to medical school. Some students have earned their masters degree, already earned a nursing degree, or even graduated college in 3 years with a major in fine arts! You cannot compare yourself to others in your class because you will be comparing apples and oranges…and we learn at a really young age that we cannot do that! Everyone will have different strengths and weaknesses. Just focus on doing your best, working as hard as you can, and learning as much as you can.
In a similar vein, take advice with a grain of salt. A third-year might tell you that neurology was the most difficult class in medical school, but maybe you have a degree in neurology! A student retaking cardiology may deem the course to be horribly hard, but you come to love the cardiology field and enjoy the course. You may have taken anatomy in undergrad, but find medical school anatomy to be a struggle. When people give you advice, listen to it, but understand that it is their opinion and not a concrete truth. Every student will have different learning styles, different strengths, and different personal qualities, so each will have a different experience.
Trust in your dream. Do not forget your “why.” Medical school at times becomes monotonous and tedious. At times, you may find yourself wondering how you can keep working so hard for so many years. You may wonder if you will even be able to graduate and earn your degree. In those moments (I promise, they will come), pause and remind yourself why you started in the first place. Remember why you wanted to become a doctor and how exciting it was to be accepted to medical school! When you are losing motivation or sensing the effects of burnout, remind yourself of the dream that you had before starting medical school. This will help you to realize how worth it it is to work hard to achieve this goal. Hold onto your “why” and remind yourself of why you started any time you feel like you are facing a medical school low.
Medical school is difficult and the journey that we are on to becoming a doctor is filled with highs and lows, but we can be successful by recognizing the privilege that is learning medicine and be equipped to help people in such a unique way. Keep in mind the importance of having a growth mindset, so that you can become the best version of yourself. Remember the benefit of scheduling so that you can maximize your time and make time for recreation and self-care. Be flexible and step out of your comfort zone because medical school only happens once. Have a support system, you have so many people rooting for you, so let them in on your experience! And always remember to trust yourself because you deserve to be a doctor. So work hard and never give up.