Preparing for life at medical school: advice for freshers
Student BMJ readers give their advice . . .
Congratulations, you’ve made it. After a gruelling process of writing personal statements, taking entrance exams, and getting through interviews, you’re finally at medical school. In preparation for your application you might have carried out voluntary work, shadowed several doctors, or spent hours watching a medical drama boxset to gain an impression of what being a doctor is like. But how well prepared are you for your life as a medical student? Student BMJ readers offer their advice on how to survive your first year at medical school.
Adjust your expectations
Jonathan Mok, third year medical student, King’s College London
Arriving at medical school can be a shock. You are a small fish in a big pond. The pace and style of teaching will be different from your sixth form or college, and the size of your year group will be large—up to 400 in some schools. It will be like starting secondary school again, but don’t worry; everyone’s in the same boat. The main thing is to take your time and find your feet at your own pace.
Another fear many medical students experience is of not being good enough. Everyone else on your course will be as bright as you are, and that is the new norm. This might bring out the competitive streak in you, and it could mean that your standards will go up too. However, just because your marks at med school are not as high as you would normally expect, it does not mean that you’re failing. Medical school is meant to be hard and challenging. But if you feel that things are getting too overwhelming, don’t suffer in silence—talk to someone about your worries.
Maintain a professional image
Ellen Collingwood, second year medical student, Sheffield University
When you start medical school, you are not simply a medical student—you are also a student doctor, and this means that you are expected to behave in a certain way. Do watch what you put on social media because future patients will not be filled with confidence if they see pictures of you passed out on the street in fancy dress. I would recommend making sure your Facebook privacy is set to “friends only.” If you use Twitter, you should be careful of what you say and consider the “protect” option for your tweets. It goes without saying that you cannot partake in any illegal activities because these can negatively affect your fitness to practise.
Although you are expected to behave differently from other students, don’t let this go to your head—you are not a doctor yet. You still have a long way to go.
Gabrielle Deehan, third year medical student, St Andrews University
If you are lucky enough to meet patients, be sure to be polite and smile. You won’t always have the time to ask them about their lives but when you do, take the opportunity. You will soon realise what a privilege it is to be a member of the medical profession. You will be privy to all kinds of personal information about different people and, if you take the time, you will hear some fantastic stories and meet some remarkable people. But don’t get carried away in your desire to share these stories. Remember to keep patient confidentiality in mind.
If you are lucky enough to have teaching by dissection, please be mindful that your non-medical companions and the general, overhearing public might not want to know about that fascinating time you dissected a foot. Another thing to consider is that universities and university towns can be small communities—you could be overheard by an acquaintance of somebody who donated their body to teaching.
How much do I need to know?
Ellen Collingwood, second year medical student, Sheffield University
Studying medicine is different from studying for A levels. The main difference is the volume of information—there will be so much that you will not be able to know it all. At first I found walking into an exam without feeling fully prepared unnerving, but this is something that you will have to get used to.
A large part of being successful at medical school is prioritising what you need to know. For example, it is likely that learning the conduction system of the heart will be of more use to you than learning the normal histology of a fingernail. Learning to prioritise is important because it will help with your clinical judgement in later years.
Working consistently throughout the year will make your life easier in the run up to exams. Try and enjoy yourself in first year because it’s often the least intensive year of medical school. However, spending an hour to make sure you understand what you’ve covered that day will be an enormous help when it comes to revising. Last minute revision will not help. You will probably not remember much in the long run, plus, it causes unnecessary stress. Planning ahead and being realistic is a better way of maintaining a sustained pace of work throughout the year.
Don’t pay too much attention to how much work everyone else is doing. Some people might say they do little work when in fact they are doing loads, while others might publicly complain about the 12 hour library session they did, even though they may have spent that time messing around online. You will know how much work you need to do, so don’t let other people stress you out.
Older students are a great resource, and they are usually happy to help when it comes to studying. At my medical school older students put on revision sessions, gave us mocks to show us the format of exams, and made PowerPoint presentations to summarise each module. We also have a “medic family,” which consists of two students in the year above and three in the same year, and they can be helpful when it comes to study tips.
What type of learner are you?
Eva Dumann, third year medical student, Cambridge University
Working consistently throughout the year and being strategic about how you distribute your time is fine, but what to do when you sit down to memorise those muscles or drugs, or think through those concepts of renal function? You have to find a learning style that suits you. It might be useful to try out different styles when to figure out which techniques work best for you. Despite the differences in content, I found that the learning styles I used at medical school were surprisingly similar to those that I used for A levels. Think back to those exams and figure out which techniques did, or did not, work for you.
I am a frantic note taker and visual learner. For me, having organised and intelligible notes is half the battle won. Perhaps you are an auditory learner who learns through listening? You can record your lectures (if this is allowed) and play them back, record yourself talking something through or listen to medical education podcasts. Or perhaps you are a tactile learner who takes in information best when it involves hands on activities like dissections, demonstrations, or labs? In this case, producing flashcards or puzzles might help you get to grips with more theoretical concepts. And if you are a notorious procrastinator who needs extra motivation to get started, organise a study group or find a study buddy for group work and practise explaining things to one another.
For the dull but unavoidable memorisation aspect of medicine, flashcards are still unbeatable. You can buy ready-made sets, for example the Grey’s Anatomy one. However, making your own can save you money, result in cards tailored to your specific course, and allow you to already engage with the material as you create the cards. There are even computer programs that can help you to do this. Phase6, for example, lets you create a set of flashcards including pictures, audio recordings, and even video clips from the internet—allowing you to tailor the flash cards to your individual learning style—and then automatically presents you with cards due for revision at regular intervals, ensuring the pile of flashcards isn’t simply forgotten in a corner of your desk.
A wealth of medical information, images, videos, and podcasts is available online. These tools can be valuable resources; however, the sheer quantity can be a mixed blessing. Always check that what you read or listen to is not only factually sound, but also relevant to your course. Reading patient self-help group diaries or listening to a cranial nerve rap might help you to reinforce the information, but it could also be wasting your time.
Taking care of your health
Eva Dumann, third year medical student, Cambridge University
It is easy to fall into the trap of working as much as you can—or can’t—because unlike school, there is virtually no limit to how much you can study in medical school. For this reason, medical school can be stressful. Make sure you study strategically. There is no need to know everything. You should also plan a schedule with gaps of “me time” for sports, hanging out with friends, cooking a nice meal, or a similar activity that will allow you to recharge your batteries. Most of all, if everything becomes too overwhelming, don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone, be it a friend or student support officer, and ask for help.
Katie Hodgkinson, third year medical student, University College London
Medicine comes with many hours attached to it, and I struggled with balancing medical school and any sort of personal life for the first couple of months. In the end, I decided that after a certain hour no more work could be done—I had to go for a run or read a book. You have to make sure you have time to be a person—schedule time to see your friends, go to the gym, or join a few clubs. You need something to form a routine around, and have protected time where you’re not thinking about medicine.
Social life: making friends is easy
Antony Zacharias, second year medical student, University College London
Other than work, your social life can be one of the most daunting aspects of university; you’ve moved away from your “safe zone” of friends, and know almost no one. Be yourself and be proactive in making the first move. Soon enough, you’ll find likeminded friends.
At first, most of the people you will meet will be medics. They share the same schedule, so you won’t have to be that friend who always has to turn down a night out because you have too much work to do. Don’t just stick to your year though. Older medics are just as friendly, and are also helpful with tips and past papers come exam season. Most universities run a buddy programme, which makes meeting people in older years easier. Don’t feel like you’re stuck with medics though. Joining societies is a key way to branch out, and it gives you a break from the constant medicine related jokes—there will be a lot.
For many medical students going out and getting drunk seems like a big part of the social life. Weekly sports nights are a great place to have fun and relax. Some people sign up for sports clubs just to attend the socials. Remember: you have control.
If you don’t like the clubbing/drinking scene, don’t fear. I was worried about this because I’m not a big party animal. My advice is to be yourself or you may find the wrong group of friends and your social life could be pretty uncomfortable for the next few years.
The best piece of advice I can give is not to get carried away. Don’t fall into the trap of not getting your work-social life balance right. You are expected to hit the ground running at medical school, and if your friends don’t understand that you need to work then you have probably got the wrong friends.
Being a postgraduate student
Christopher Tattersall, second year medical student, Warwick Graduate Entry Medicine, Warwick
Twelve months ago, I left the office, bringing my five year career in corporate finance to an end. The transition from the office to lecture theatre is not always a smooth one. There are a lot of feelings similar to those in any first job or course—for example, “Will I fit in?,” “Will my skills be relevant?,” along with new concerns such as “How will I cope with going back to square one?” or “Will I cope with the loss of day-to-day autonomy?”. Although there is a lot to work through—personally and academically—the good news is that everyone is in pretty much the same position.
From my experience, flexibility is important—in the way you work, when you work, and where your priorities lie. One difference between starting university now compared with when I was a student at 18 is the many calls on my time—partner, kids, gym/sport, study. The key is to get that work-life balance sorted. It is a juggling act, and you will drop the occasional ball, but it won’t matter so long as you are doing what is right for you. Don’t chase your tail for too long though—seek support straight away, be it from peers, tutors, family, or friends.
“Non-medic” friendships will be tough to maintain, but it is possible. Forewarn people that things will change, but continue to make the effort with friends because their support will be invaluable when the going gets tough. Naturally, “medic” friendships are important too. Invest the time in getting to know your cohort, or at least your study group, and let them get to know you. Make sure you attend freshers’ events where you can. Your peers will understand that everyone has different priorities, but friendships formed early tend to stick.
From day one, I found graduate entry medicine to be as intense as my job in corporate finance. It is good to be able to hit the ground running. If you can, take a couple of weeks to unwind before you start medical school. I think this is more important than picking up your A level biology books. Graduate courses fit everything in to four years so that time may be the last chance you have to relax for a while.
What to pack on your first day
Paula Busuulwa, third year medical student, King’s College London
Before you rush to buy a stethoscope with a personal inscription, or a private library of medical textbooks, think about what you really need during your first few weeks. Here are a few tips on what to bring for your first day at medical school.
- Highlighters—they make important diagrams and information stand out
- Textbooks—wait until you have tried out books before purchasing them. Your library will probably have the recommended textbooks, although you might have to get there early to secure a copy. Thereafter, you can purchase second hand books from older students, or order copies from Amazon. I would recommend the At a Glance series (Wiley Blackwell Publishing), which covers a range of preclinical topics in a clear and concise manner, as well as the Oxford Handbook of Medical Sciences, which contains all the core material relating to preclinical medicine in a small portable handbook.
- Tablet device/laptop—this is especially useful if your medical school does not print notes for you. Several apps also allow you to annotate notes as well as read e-journals and books. Having the internet at your fingertips will make searching for information on the go much easier. This is important when searching for guidelines and treatment options on the wards or during OSCE preparation.
- Dictaphone—sometimes things can just go over your head and having a recording of lectures can make things clearer.
- Map of your campus and the local area—if your medical school is in London then a student oyster card (a third off travel) is also useful.
1University of Aberdeen
Correspondence to: email@example.com
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2014;22:g4695