Surviving the First Year of Medical School

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It may seem forever ago when you were applying to medical school. Back then you were excited to just have a chance to interview. You needed just one school to believe in you to realize your dream to become a doctor. 

But now that first year has begun, all that excitement has turned into anxiety. Gone are the days of getting your feet wet. Instead, you’re forced to learn how to swim on the spot and it can be terrifying. How do you make it through and survive in medical school?

It’s Okay to Feel Overwhelmed:

The path of medicine is unique because you continue to find yourself in a new environment. Going through the hierarchy of medicine will cause everyone at some point to feel overwhelmed. Understand that this is normal.

Everyone faces obstacles in medical school. Some struggle to study. Others can’t figure out time management. Many will become stressed as they get closer to important events, such as board exams, clerkships, and residency applications.

So tell that little voice in your head that the freak out meter is ubiquitous in everyone – some just do a better job of disguising it.

Define your Goals Through Reflection:

What do you want out of medical school? Remember that too often asked the question, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years”? It was okay to not have a clear vision back then, but these four years are important to mold that vision.

Don’t go through the daily life of medical school hoping you’ll figure out your future one day. Take some time to reflect on where you want to be. Some questions to ask yourself include:

How well do you want to do in your classes?

What specialties are you interested in?

How much free time do you want to have (now and the future)?

What kind of physician do you want to be?

There are many more questions, but these are good ones to begin with. With each question, it’s important to understand what they will require out of you. For example, if you aim for high grades or a competitive specialty, then expect more work ahead. If your goals are focused elsewhere, then allow yourself some flexibility to accommodate them.

As the answers to these questions change over time, you will have a clearer image of what you want out of these 4 years. You then will be able to build your days to achieve these goals with a purpose in mind.

In your first year, focus on forming and understanding your goals. You’ll be better prepared when the time comes to accomplish them.

Try out Different Study Methods:

There are many ways to crack an egg and, similarly, there are many ways to study. There is no right way or best way. What’s important is for you to test what forms of learning do and do not work for you.

If you’re an auditory learner, then structure the bulk of your studying around lectures and videos.

If you’re like me, however, you understand that listening to someone teach doesn’t result in long-term retention. Thus I would turn to other techniques such as visual aids and practice questions. If you care to learn how I study, I discussed it previously here.

Let’s say, however, that you managed to start medical school with a learning style that is working. Should you still try other methods? Yes! There may be classes where your method doesn’t work. If you know what styles are proper for you, then you can turn to style B or C when style A is not getting it done.

It may be beneficial to play around with different study methods when you have low-stakes quizzes for a class. If your curriculum is Pass/Fail then should use that time to explore how you learn best.

Have 1 Supplemental Resource for Each Class:

The ideal situation is to have a class where all the material is clear. It’s presented so well that you need no further explanation. This, however, is not how medical school will go.

A few lectures will be amazing, most will be okay, and a handful will make you want to pull your hair out!

This is why I recommend having one resource for each of your classes. Here are some common ones:

Anatomy: Netters Atlas for reference

Atlas of Human Anatomy: Including Student Consult Interactive Ancillaries and Guides (Netter Basic Science)

See Reviews On Amazon

Pathology: Pathoma (This is Golden for School and Board Prep)

Fundamentals of Pathology

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Physiology: BRS Physiology

Physiology (Board Review)

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Cardiology: Rapid Interpretation of EKG- Dubin

Rapid Interpretation of EKG's, Sixth Edition

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Everything: First Aid. It’s nice to have an old copy and refer to when you’re not sure what’s detail versus what’s important.

First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 2018, 28th Edition

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I also use Firecracker alongside my classes to practice questions for material I’m currently covering.

Image result for firecracker md

Don’t turn to too many resources. Find one solid resource that is recommended and works for you.

In a future post, I’ll discuss additional helpful resources for particular classes.

Space Out Your Learning:

This is a no-brainer, but it rarely happens how it should. Often students will find themselves getting behind. Don’t let this happen if you can help it!

For instance, by the time a quiz or exam is near, many students will be catching up on the material. This leaves them only a few days to actually review. Believe me, it’s not fun to review for a 4-5 week course in only 1-3 days.

To overcome this, try to have a day of the week that is meant for reviewing. For me this day is Saturday. Every Saturday my only task is to review the material from the week prior. By the time the test comes around, I’ve managed to see all the material 4-5 times.

There are many ways you can space your learning. If you use flashcards, then the Anki software will help space out your material. If you use outlines, take 30 minutes in your morning to go over 2 lectures during the weekdays and 4-5 during the weekends. You’ll find yourself much more relaxed as the exam rolls around.

Ignore your Classmates:

No, I’m not saying to never talk to them! I’m referring to not antagonizing yourself over the success of your classmates. You will be surrounded by some amazing and smart individuals in medical school.

Some will do some amazing things, constantly make high marks, and/or seem to remember tiny details that you have since forgotten.

Use your classmates as motivation to continue to work hard, but don’t allow them to stress you out. Remember everyone has different goals. Stick to what works for you, and allow your classmates to be a source of encouragement!

Do Not Come in With a Pre-Set Mindset:

This is by far the best advice I can give on this blog. Do not come into medical school with a step-by-step plan on how your experience will go! This results in you isolating yourself from potential friends and opportunities.

It’s okay to have goals, but don’t have tunnel vision which causes you to sacrifice enjoying the experience. Medicine is not one of those professions where you can say you’ll work hard now so you don’t have to later. The hard work will always be present, regardless of what specialty you go into.

No one wants to remember medical school as a time where they just studied, so make sure your experience is well rounded.


I hope that you can take away something from this post. Remember that being overwhelmed is normal. Reach out to your support system if you find yourself struggling. If you need any extra help, feel free to contact me!

Best of luck with your first year.

If there is something specific you’d like me to address in a future blog post, comment below or email me at [email protected]

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Top Resources For Medical School

If you’re a first or second-year medical student wanting guidance on how to succeed in medical school, read my book, The Preclinical Guide. I provide all the tips I wish I knew day one of medical school. Check out the book here.

Top Tips for Medical School

Until next time…

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