Tips for the First Year of Medical School

September 2, 2016

My first year of medical school ended in June, but somehow this is the first real time I've had to sit down and reflect back on it.

My first year of medical school was wild. 

It was everything I expected it to be - a crazy adjustment, challenging, and a tad overwhelming. But last year also brought the unexpected loss of my grandpa and grandma. My year was full of grieving and studying. 

I became engaged, planned a wedding, and returned to Botswana the day I took my last exam. (I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana from 2012-2014). I came home, got married, went on a three week honeymoon to Thailand, and started my second year of medical school two days later. 


I can clearly remember starting medical school and looking at the second year students, wondering just how the hell they got to where they were. I remember looking up to them in AWE. How in the world are they smiling and telling me it will be ok? 

I wanted to be smiling, advising first years, and have a year of school behind me. Basically, I just wanted to survive.

And here I am, one year later. Smiling at the first years, telling them the same thing. Just the other day, a first year medical student looked at me and asked, "How did you get through the year!?". I responded as honestly as I could and said, "By showing up and taking things day by day." 

Medical school is no joke. It's hands down the most difficult thing I've ever handled. But I truly do love it (beneath all the whining and dark circles under my eyes). 

I'm happy to have a year of school in the books. I'm grateful for the knowledge I have obtained. I'm very optimistic about the idea of finally becoming a pediatrician and having my dream job. It's amazing what a year will do for perspective. I'm now just three years away from graduation! (groan...sigh... but! gasp! it's not four.) 

So, here I am, and I'd like to summarize some of the thoughts and advice I've gathered while reflecting on my challenging first year of medical school. 

Last year, M & I lived with two of our wonderful classmates. I get distracted SO easily, so I set up an office space in the basement of the house we were renting. While they teased me for studying in the dungeon, I was actually quite productive down there. Find a space that works for you to study and I think it pays off in the long run. (My new office space is now upstairs... totally different!) 

If you're one of those alien-humans who can function without sleep... I am jealous. I cannot function well with less than 7 hours of sleep, so I learned to prioritize sleep in medical school. Obviously, there were nights that I got less, but on average, I slept about 7.5 hours a night. That was the optimal amount for me to be productive the next day, so I fought to try to get those zzzz's. 

Some weeks I was better at this than others, but it truly makes a difference. Taking time to grocery shop, meal plan, make smoothies, and take vitamins/supplements is TOTALLY worth it. When I feel better, I work harder. 

Block off time to see the people you love and do the things you love. I made sure to take time to see my family and friends. I also made sure to make time to do yoga and go skiing! Whatever it is that YOU need to recharge, make time for it. 

I'm obsessed with office supplies. I love new pens, washi tape, and sticky notes. They make me excited about studying! And maybe chocolate motivates me too... :) I must admit I ate a LOT of chocolate during my first year of medical school. 

Your medical school class will be comprised of very intelligent, high functioning human beings. It can be really overwhelming. Not everyone can be the top of the class. It's so much easier said than done, but the sooner you can stop comparing yourself to your classmates, the happier you are going to be. Instead of comparing yourself, try to ask yourself what you have to offer (I promise it's more than you realize). Play off of your strengths and work on your weaknesses. Your classmates are great resources. These are your future colleagues!! 

Everyone will have different advice about how to study. You'll have your own ideas on how you want to study. Each professor/clinician will have different teaching styles. With all of those things combined, you're going to want to give yourself as much flexibility as you can. Play with ideas and study strategies. I changed my study methods quite a bit depending on the system, teacher, and personal interest. As long as you're learning the material, try not to worry about what everyone else is doing. 

I printed ALL of my notes. I hand wrote summaries. I used a lot of color. I made charts. I just did what worked for me. 

Medical school is a lot of work. It's overwhelming. It's especially tough when you're struggling with concepts or a particular system. Just try  to remember that you're never alone! Your classmates are going through all of it with you. Your faculty is there to help. Use their strengths and ask for help when you need it! 

The worst six words for a type A medical student to hear. But it's true. There is no "right" way to get through medical school. It's a process and you'll find a groove. 

This lesson was particularly tough for me to accept. I felt selfish every time I said "no" to something, but it's absolutely necessary sometimes. School has to be a priority and unfortunately, that requires some sacrifice. 

Regardless of how you might feel in the moment (or in that class), I promise you're going to look back and say, "WOW. I didn't know I had that in me." Big things happen one day at a time - and you're often going to miss how much you've grown. When I look back on my first year, I've truly surprised myself. There is still so much I don't know, but I certainly know a lot more than I did last summer. Becoming a doctor is no easy task... but you're stronger (and smarter!) than you think you are! 

The days will be sloooooooowwwww. But the year will fly by. 

I'm excited to see what another year of learning will bring... for YOU and for me! 

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