What I Wish I Knew Before Medical School Rotations


Medical school rotations can occur from anytime halfway through your second year to the end of your fourth year. They are some of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences in medical school. While exciting, the idea of going into the clinical environment full-time can be overwhelming, especially while keeping up with studies, extracurriculars, building relationships, and maintaining personal health and wellbeing.

Wasiq Nadeem, a soon-to-be resident and member of the Med School Insiders team, recently completed his rotations and is currently a fourth year medical student in the US. Wasiq is an aspiring Otolaryngologist (ENT) who has continued to excel in medical school and his rotations. He is incredibly passionate about medical education and would love to share his experiences with students who may be following in similar footsteps, as he has learned a great amount from his peers and seniors. As he transitions to the next step of the doctor journey, we asked him to look back on all that he learned during his clinical rotations.

In this post, you’ll get direct advice from a student who was just where you are now, including the tips, strategies, and wisdom he wishes he’d known before starting rotations.

We’ll also end this post with helpful links for working through your clerkships, including comprehensive guides for core rotations, how to succeed in your final years, and how to choose the ideal specialty for you.


1 | Keep Up and Continue to Refine Your Study Habits While on Rotations

While you are about to enter a clinical environment, it is just as important, if not more so, to keep up good, consistent study habits. Most of your core rotations will have a Shelf exam at the end of the rotation that tests material regarding that specific rotation.

It’s critical to keep up with your studying, not only to perform well on these Shelf exams but also USMLE Step 2, which covers a significant portion of the clinical knowledge acquired during core rotations.

You’ll need to continue to refine your study strategies, as you will have less and less time available. It’s important to realize studying effectively doesn’t entail spending hours upon hours a day going through notes or flashcards. During rotations, a little bit every day goes a very long way.

Having one or two go-to resources, such as UWorld or flashcards, that you use consistently is the best way to make sure every day is useful. Setting aside an hour a day to do questions or cards related to the rotation you’re in is more than sufficient. We’ll share detailed guides that include study strategies for core rotations at the end of this article.

Understand that every day won’t be perfect! There will be longer, more exhausting days, and you might not be able to study every single day—and that’s okay. Taking a day off here and there can do wonders for keeping your morale up.

The most important part is to stay as consistent as possible. If you can’t get to the hour of studying you hoped for, go over a few questions or cards instead. That little something is better than nothing, and it will add up over time.


2 | Be Present and Attentive

So, you’ve received your rotation schedule and laid out a basic study schedule—now what? There are a lot of expectations students have of themselves when starting on rotations. The absolute best thing you can do when starting out is to be present!

Show up a few minutes early, especially toward the beginning of your rotation. This will decrease unnecessary stress should you have trouble finding the space or team.

Make a conscious effort to be attentive—you don’t want to be caught daydreaming. Remember, this is something you’ve been working towards for years, and you now have the chance to put what you learned over the last couple of years into practice.

Your team will notice your attitude and present demeanor. Coming across as eager to learn and open to opportunities is not only a great look, but it will ensure you get the most out of your rotations. In doing so, not only will you learn pertinent information for your exams, but you’ll also be entrusted with more responsibilities as the team sees you are capable and interested.


3 | Interact With Patients and Members of the Healthcare Team

One of the most enjoyable aspects of rotations is interacting with patients as well as members of the healthcare team. Although it is a source of anxiety, and there’s much to learn to navigate both circumstances, these are situations where we, as students, learn the most about what being a doctor entails.

The amount of interaction you can find depends on the specialty, but given that most specialties contain some level of patient interaction, it’s important and useful to expose yourself to patient interactions and learn all that you can. Similarly, all specialties and healthcare settings have multiple members on the healthcare team, each with different roles and responsibilities. Learning to navigate these roles is not only beneficial for the team as a whole, as it helps them build comfort with you as a new member, but it can also help make your life easier in more ways than one.

Walking into your first patient encounter can be a daunting experience, but remember: you’ve prepared and practiced for this already. Although aspects of patient interactions are much different from standardized patient experiences, keep in mind that all the history taking questions and techniques you’ve practiced don’t change.

Having those same standardized questions with room to adapt based on how the patient interview goes is key, not only because it makes your job easier in helping you remember what to ask but also to prevent you from missing certain key questions.

The more you see and explore throughout rotations, the better you’ll get at asking more specific and nuanced questions. However, when you’re starting out, it’s best to focus on the standardized set of questions (i.e., OLDCARTS) followed by pertinent physical exams.

Doing things the same way every time builds your confidence and allows you to learn how to tailor your questions to specific pathologies or concerns in a systematic fashion.

Learning to navigate the different dynamics of a healthcare team is one of the most important aspects of rotations. Your primary points of contact will likely be residents—don’t be afraid to ask questions and get to know them!

As you do, make sure to pay attention and learn to integrate yourself into the team as best as you can. The best way to learn is to proactively find ways to be helpful and useful. This will help you retain what you learn, and you’ll also impress your residents and attendings along the way. Sometimes you’ll be working additionally with PA’s, NP’s, MA’s, nurses, and more. Make sure to introduce yourself, be polite, and remember there’s something to learn from everyone!

Pro tip: your patient’s nurses can be some of the most helpful people on your rotations! Be sure to check in with them as you pre-round.


4 | Enjoy Your Rotations

Enjoyment is an often overlooked factor of clinical rotations.

As you go through and learn how to balance out the kinks from rotation to rotation, remember to enjoy it. After all, this is one of the most enriching times of medical school. You worked hard to be here!

This is what the medical school journey is all about and what you’ve been working so hard to achieve. During this time, take a moment to soak it all in and congratulate yourself on all you’ve accomplished so far.

Of course, there will be ups and downs, and there will be days when you feel exhausted, perhaps even wondering why you’re doing this at all. It’s normal to have some of these days, and you’re not alone in feeling this way. A bad day doesn’t mean you won’t be a good doctor.

That said, this is when you’ll get a real life feel for what being a doctor is like. You may have dreamed of becoming a certain type of doctor, but in practicing the specialty, you find out you absolutely hate the day-to-day of that career path. Soak it all in and get involved as much as you can during this time to help you get a better idea of what specialties will be a good fit for you.

The unfortunate truth is that not everyone who sets out to be or wants to be a doctor actually becomes one or should become one. Med School Insiders founder Dr. Kevin Jubbal broke down four signs you should not become a doctor in a previous video/article. Not liking the actual job of being a doctor is one of those red flags that suggest this career path may not be for you. If you are unable to find any enjoyment from your rotations, it may be time to reevaluate your path and next steps, or you may be headed for a long, challenging, and unfulfilling life.

In addition to proving this is really what you want to do, enjoying your rotations will actually help you succeed in them. Approaching them with a positive mindset will show through all of your actions. It’s infectious being around people who enjoy what they do, and the people you are working with, as well as the patients you interact with, will see how passionate you are about your work.


Final Thoughts

The common theme across doing well and, more importantly, enjoying rotations has to do with being structured in your schedule and being present during the rotations themselves.

There’s a lot of stress surrounding expectations and succeeding on rotations, but know that you worked hard to be here! You’ve built up the skills to study effectively, and now you’re entering into the phase where you’ll be learning what being a doctor is all about in the clinical setting—remember to enjoy it!

You’ll be interacting with actual patients who’ve entrusted you with an aspect of their care; make sure to do your best and take care of yourself as you do.


Resources for Rotations and Choosing a Specialty

We have a wealth of medical school and residency resources on the Med School Insiders blog. We add content every week and continue to update our guides to reflect the most up-to-date information. Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get our latest advice, guides, and videos sent straight to your email.

If you are approaching or currently in your rotations, check out our Clerkship Guide series, which covers everything you need to know for your core clerkship. The comprehensive resources include when to place each rotation, how to make the most of your rotations, advice for the Shelf exam, and the pros and cons of pursuing the specialty.

For additional rotation strategies, read: 5 Tips to Honor Medical School Clerkships.

For those of you struggling to decide on a specialty, we have a series dedicated to dissecting different specialties and subspecialties called “So You Want to Be…” The series takes a comprehensive look at the pros and cons of each specialty, how to pursue it, and how to determine if the specialty will be a good fit for you.

Some recent specialties we’ve covered include:

Leave a comment below or contact our team to request an analysis if you don’t see a specialty you’re interested in.

For more information on making your final choice and determining what’s the right fit for you, we have guides on How to Choose a Medical Specialty in 6 Steps and Overlooked Considerations for Choosing a Doctor Specialty.


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