Preparing for life at medical school
Student BMJ readers give their advice
- By: Chloe Knox, Sebastian Chong
Congratulations, you’ve made it. Although the stresses of writing a personal statement, preparing for interviews, and getting through your exams are over, you’re about to take on a whole new challenge: medical school. It is an exciting time, but it can seem daunting. Here, Student BMJ readers offer their top tips on how to survive your first year.
Don’t worry about doing too much preparation
Will Sloper, third year medical student, Guy’s, King’s College, and St Thomas’ School of Medicine
I received a copy of Gray’s Anatomy before I started medical school. Over the summer, I heaved it open to try to learn something before term started. By line 12 on page one I gave up. It was a different language of immense complexity, and I had no idea where to start. I felt a wave of disappointment at my own ineptitude, ran downstairs, and watched Scrubs.
Medicine is huge. It’s a science, a language, an art, and a way of life. And it’s something you couldn’t possibly hope to get to grips with over a single summer with a few textbooks. Medicine is a long course because it takes a long time to learn.
Learn as you go
Zak Tait, second year medical student, University of Oxford
You should aim to learn and memorise facts as you go—it’s not possible to cram everything you need just before exams. It might sound obvious, but with everything that goes on in your first year it can be easy to let learning slip.
It might be drug names, bones, or metabolic pathways, but something you’ll have to do a lot in preclinical medicine is memorising. I didn’t realise this until far too late, and it made my anatomy and pharmacology teaching way harder than it needed to be. It’s so much easier if you do your learning in little chunks throughout the year. Explore different ways of learning early on—I’ve found using online resources like Quizlet great for rote learning, but friends make flashcards or just sit and quiz each other. Working together helps because you’ll all have different strengths.
How medical school differs from A levels
Patrick Murphy, third year medical student, University of Bristol
Medical school is a step up from A levels. But don’t worry; the hardest part is getting in. The volume of material to learn is bigger, making it harder to cram. If you can, try to look over your lecture slides before and after the lecture.
Lectures are much longer than school lessons, so find a method to maintain focus. I sat near the front to stop my mind from wandering. In medicine, the best guide for what will come up in the exam is always the lecture slides.
You will take on lots of new responsibilities, so look after your wellbeing. Social networks, hobbies, “me time,” diet, sleep, and exercise are all important things to factor in.
Finally, reflection on experiences and feedback from tutors are important in improving clinical skills on placements and deciding on which career path you wish to pursue, so try to keep a portfolio to document it all in.
Find out what kind of learning works best for you
Twishaa Sheth, third year medical student, University of Nottingham
One thing that I wish I’d known before starting medical school was what type of learner I was. I didn’t have one set learning style before medical school, and I have now come to realise I am a visual learner so need to see concepts as a picture or diagram to get to grips with the material. If you’re an auditory learner, perhaps you could take your dictaphone to record lectures (with permission) and listen back to them. If you like to cut up your revision into bite size pieces, you can start making sets of flashcards for each topic.
It is impossible to know everything about everything. So be efficient and smart with setting your limits to how much you are going to learn and don’t be disheartened if you have to leave less important things out. You will soon get into the habit of prioritising.
Don’t rush to buy textbooks
Vanisha Amin, second year medical student, Guy’s, King’s College, and St Thomas’ School of Medicine
Medical textbooks are expensive and they all present information differently. It’s more useful to buy one that matches the way you learn—diagrams or text, paragraphs or bullet points, and so on. Furthermore, your lecturers may recommend specific books which help learning alongside their lectures.
Once you start lectures, you can use your university’s library to decide which ones you prefer. Don’t forget though, that the library is there for you to loan books from. If you need a book for one topic that you’re unlikely to be doing again, then there is definitely no need to buy it. If you think there’s a textbook that you will be using a lot, then it may be worth purchasing.
Another thing you can do is speak to people in the years above because they may be able to advise you and sell you their second hand copies of important textbooks.
Get to know medical students in the years above
Surina Taneja, second year medical student, University College London
One of the most useful sources of information when it came to revising for my preclinical exams was other medical students in the years above who I had met through various societies. Their experience was an invaluable source of information and guidance as they could offer me resources such as notes of past students, practice questions, and useful websites for revision.
As university exams are so different from A levels, and there is so much material to cover, it is hard to know where to start when your first exams come around. Students who have been through the exam process already can give practical advice on revision techniques and which topics to focus on. I would recommend making links with older students in the medical school because you will be grateful for their help when the daunting task of revising for medical exams arrives.
Explore medical research
Jonathan Wan, fourth year medical student, University of Cambridge
Embrace medical research. You might love it. Through carrying out medical research, you could have a huge impact on patients not just locally, but globally. As a future clinician with research experience, you would be ideally placed to bridge the gap from the bench to the bedside.
As a medical student, you can get involved in research through an intercalated BSc, student selected components/modules, summer research placements, your elective, or through your clinical firm. You will need to show that you are hard working and motivated, so take your first year exams seriously. Make your research interest known to your tutor, and get in touch with researchers or clinicians whose work you find interesting to ask about opportunities. If you are invited to meet them, read their work first to make a good first impression.
Get a part time job
Gemma Wells, third year medical student, University College London
You will find that there is lots of stuff to cover in the first few years of medicine, but it’s possible to earn some money as well.
A few common part time jobs tend to attract medical students. The student union is a good place to look if you want a regular job—for example, in one of the union bars or cafés.
If you prefer a more flexible approach where you can set your own hours, there are several catering companies that have part time work in events staffing available all year round, and this can be a good way to move into working more in the summer after exams finish.
Finally, a popular option among my medic friends is tutoring, although it entails some forward planning and you might have to do a bit of revision. It tends to pay well, and you can make a decent amount of money from only a few hours’ work a week.
Join societies to reduce stress
Monisha Prasher, second year medical student, University of Manchester
During your induction week, there will be an opportunity to sign up to a wide range of societies, ranging from sports teams to drama groups. It is important that throughout your medical career you are able to maintain a good work-life balance, to ensure that the stresses of the course and eventually the profession don’t get too much. Societies offer a chance to forget about work and relax among friends, which becomes even more vital during exam time. Joining societies allowed me to meet others with similar interests and establish a wide circle of friends early on, not only in my year but also in the years above. Widening my support network through joining societies meant that there was always someone there if I needed advice on clinical skills or exam revision techniques. This will be extremely helpful as you progress through your medical studies.
Don’t compare yourself with others
Sammy Sundar, second year medical student, Imperial College London
The hardest part about starting medical school for me was that I suddenly plummeted into an environment where everyone seemed to know much more than I did. You need to get used to the idea that you may no longer be among the top students, and the sooner you embrace that, the more fun university will be for you.
The best advice I was given is never to compare yourself with other people. Everyone has different learning styles and everyone has different ambitions. Some people will feel compelled to tell you about the 4000 lectures they’ve revised, while others will tell you they’ve just got out of bed at 7 pm (they’re lying). Your learning is your own. Find a way that works for you and stick to it. Never think of your peers as your competitors; you’re going to be with them for at least five years, so help them and let them help you.
1Brighton and Sussex Medical School
Correspondence to: C.Knox1@uni.bsms.ac.uk
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2015;23:h3819
- Published: 09 September 2015
- DOI: 10.1136/sbmj.h3819