What I Wish I Knew Before Starting Medical School


Every premed who applies to medical school has preconceptions, and possibly misconceptions, about what being a medical student is like. For instance, I came into medical school with several concerns and stereotypes. Would I be completely inept at interacting with patients? Would I be able to handle the legendarily difficult course load and exams, especially after taking two years off from school and studying in general? Would I get along with my classmates who were gunners (i.e., people who are rabidly devoted to their future success and will throw other people under the bus to climb the career ladder)? In this post, I discuss five things I wish I knew before starting medical school at UC San Diego School of Medicine. This post will focus on the first two years of medical school (i.e., the preclinical years).


1 | Patients are Your Greatest and Most Valuable Teachers

The best way to cement knowledge in your brain during medical school is to meet, question, examine and treat patients with the issues you learn about in the classroom. Thus, whenever you are presented with a constellation of symptoms and lab findings, you can think back to those patients you have seen that presented similarly. Classroom lectures and books are a helpful starting point, but information can start to blur together when you are slogging through 500 PowerPoint slides.

Seek out opportunities to participate in patient care from day one of medical school. As a medical student, many more doors are open to you and you are entrusted with much more responsibility than you were as a premed. Many curriculums, UCSD’s included, have shifted towards exposing medical students to real patient encounters within the first few weeks of their first year. Take advantage of these and other opportunities to interact with patients. Interacting with patients is not only more engaging than sitting through lectures and reading books but also will make you a better doctor.


2 | You Must Adapt Your Learning Styles and Strategies

The pace of medical school is likely to be faster than any previous stage of your education. A huge amount of material is covered daily and many medical students can struggle to stay abreast of the coursework. Furthermore, you will probably have multiple different lecturers every day and each subject block (e.g., cardiology, neurology, anatomy) is structured differently based on the course director’s teaching philosophy. Ultimately, the pre-clinical years of medical school are like riding a rollercoaster while drinking from a firehose.

Consequently, you must update your learning styles and strategies to meet the increased pace and variety of medical school. Everyone has different learning styles and needs; thus, the first few weeks of first year are critical for you to adapt to the demands of medical school and establish which study strategies work best for you. If you find yourself struggling, reach out early to your classmates, help centers, and professors.

In terms of utilizing paid resources to bolster your studying, I recommend thinking critically before spending money on new apps and technologies. Just because your classmates swear by some new app and everyone is using it does not necessarily mean that the app is right for you. I personally paid for quite a few study apps, note-taking platforms, and question banks that I barely used.


3 | Your Classmates are Colleagues, Not Competitors

As mentioned above, I entered medical school a bit apprehensive that I might run afoul of some gunners. I was thus pleasantly surprised by how collaborative my class at UCSD was. My classmates were generally very open about their study strategies, especially in the first few months of first year when everyone was trying to figure out the best ways to stay abreast of the flood of information. Furthermore, many classmates freely shared beautiful study guides that must have taken hours to create on our class Facebook page. This collaborative phenomenon is likely school-dependent, as most pass/fail programs like UCSD tend to be less cutthroat than their graded counterparts. Thus, I highly recommend attending a medical school with a pass/fail pre-clinical curriculum.


4 | Upperclassmen are Indispensable Sources of Advice

I highly recommend befriending an upperclassman, especially if your medical school does not assign you an upperclassman mentor. Upperclassmen are a valuable source of school-specific tips about important milestones like studying for Step 1, studying for shelf exams, and applying to residency. They can demystify these stress-inducing processes for you and answer all your “stupid” questions much more adeptly than school administrators that are further removed from your perspective.


5 | You Will Have Free Time

I came into medical school concerned that I would have zero free time and would have to sacrifice my personal health (i.e., eating, sleeping, and exercising adequately), hobbies and social life to make it through. While it is true that most medical student’s available free time decreases in medical school relative to college, there is still ample time for them to do things outside of studying for medical school exams. However, you do have to be choosy about what you spend your limited free time on. But, more importantly, you need to work more efficiently and decrease procrastination, both of which will open more free time for you.

Curating your extracurricular activities in medical school is an especially vital task for many medical students to consider when budgeting their free time. Like college, pursuing extracurricular activities relevant to your career goals will help you get to the next step of your career (i.e., residency). I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had enough free time to conduct paid biomedical research on the side as a medical student and help manage a specialty clinic in UCSD’s student-run free clinic. I was also able to keep up with working out, cooking healthy meals, and hanging out with friends. Medical school is tough, but you will have free time if you manage your time well.


Final Remarks

Medical school is a challenging period for many aspiring physicians, and it can be informative to learn insider experiences and tips from more advanced students who have gone through the process before you. Every medical student at different medical schools can have different experiences; thus, it is important to take everything written in this post with a grain of salt. However, I chose to focus on broad observations about my medical school experience that can likely be applied to other students at other medical schools. If I could go back in time and talk to myself in the summer before I started medical school, these are the five observations I would have related to myself.


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