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Medical School 101: What Medical School Is Really Like

Created January 24, 2010 by Dr. Lisabetta Divita

Premedical students are, understandably, focused on getting into medical school. They shadow physicians and have an idea of what being a physician is like.  However, many don’t have an understanding of what life at medical school is like.

Medical school is a place in which you will grow as a person and as a professional. You will be challenged to study more than you thought possible and pick yourself up when you fall down.  The massive amounts of knowledge you need to learn in a short period of time makes medical school one of the most challenging professional schools out there.

I like to think of medical school as a roller coaster. Each medical student who enters is happy and even eager to study but as the months drag on, the studying gets old and you say to yourself, “I cannot wait until all this studying is over!“

As a new physician, I have experienced the sleeplessness, the long arduous hours of studying, the multiple stops at Starbucks and more.  Here’s my overview of the realities of attending medical school.

Types of Schools

Two types of medical schools exist: Allopathic Medical Schools and Osteopathic Medical Schools.  Allopathic medical schools confer an M.D. degree and Osteopathic medical schools confer a D.O. degree.  Both schools train its students to become fully licensed to practice medicine and prescribe medications. Both doctors see patients and become investigators of the body as they try to find out why their patients are sick.

What’s the difference? Osteopathic Physicians learn osteopathic manipulative treatment, using their hands to help diagnose and treat different diseases.

Class Structure

The typical medical school focuses on a combination of lectures and problem-based learning modules. Imagine sitting in class, listening to lectures, taking notes and then taking Scantron or even computerized tests. This is the standard way in which medical school builds and tests your knowledge. In fact, medical school literally feeds your brain with first, basic sciences and then, clinical knowledge.

The problem-based learning method consists of a group of med students working together to solve a patient case. For example, you are presented with a hypothetical 45 year old man with a history of heart disease and high cholesterol. He travels from New York to California on a business trip. Upon landing he experiences excruciating right leg pain. Problem-based learning focuses on exploring this case and diagnosing this patient. A physician-moderator typically sits in to guide and create the dynamic of the group.

Schools may have a traditional or system-based curriculum.  A systems-based curriculum means that all your classes are divided up by body system. For example: Month one may be about the cardiovascular system, month two may be about the gastrointestinal system and month three may be about the reproductive system and so on.


Your MS-1 (Medical Student 1) year will be your most difficult year of med school.  Year one of medical school consists of mostly basic sciences courses, which means LOTS of memorization. I detail the major classes below, but medical school also consists of medical ethics courses, OSCEs in which you learn the physical exam and more. OSCEs refer to Objective Structured Clinical Exams in which you are presented with various hypothetical patient scenarios. An actor portrays a patient with a certain clinical disease and you are expected to obtain a thorough medical history and physical examination in the allotted time period.

In year one, you are presented with one of the most challenging medical school classes known to humankind: gross anatomy. For many of you, gross anatomy conjures up images of cadavers and the smell of formaldehyde. Gross anatomy has two components: lecture and lab. Lecture is typically lasts for an hour while lab is typically about four to five hours long.

Different medical schools structure their gross anatomy courses differently: Some medical schools have gross anatomy every day while other medical schools opt to hold the course three times a week. The course itself can last three months to one year.

Here, you will learn the wonders of the human body from the cranial nerves, brachial plexus and mediastinum to the femur, humerus and orbicularis oculi muscle in your eye. I’m not gonna lie, gross anatomy is a tough class. You have to keep up with the reading or else you will be behind. Study in groups if you like learning with a group of people.

Histology is the study of cells in the human body. This, too, consists of a lecture and lab component. Oftentimes, you will take histology and gross anatomy together, especially if your medical school is systems-based.  Lab consists of looking at slides in the microscope. I loved histology but didn’t appreciate gross anatomy until I was done with it!

Ever watch Dr. G Medical Examiner? Pathology class in medical school is similar to pathology seen on Dr. G Medical Examiner. You look at histology slides of, for example, an infarcted heart (heart attack) and know by inspection that it is a damaged heart. This, like histology and gross anatomy, consists of lecture and lab.

Biochemistry is similar to organic chemistry but better. Don’t panic, you don’t have to distill any liquids in lab or draw any funny structures as this class is primarily lecture-based. You may have to memorize the Kreb’s cycle and glycolysis cycle.

Year two of medical school is typically clinical-based. Here you will learn a handful of the diseases you will encounter in the hospital, such as:

  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs)
  • DVT (deep vein thrombosis )–blood clot in the leg
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Congestive heart failure

and the list goes on (and on and on…).

This is when medical school turns to real medicine.

Year three consists of clinical rotations. Here you will become part of the medical team. A medical team typically consists of an attending (senior doctor), residents (doctors-in-training) and interns (first year residents). As a medical student, you are at the bottom of the totem pole. Some doctors will make that well-known while others are very nice.

You will rotate through the many clinical specialties of medicine, such as Internal Medicine (adult medicine), pediatrics, ob/gyn, psychiatry, etc. Here, you will get a taste of what kind of doctor you will become.

Your team will grade you on your performance during your rotation. As with any work environment, this can be a bit biased. However, national tests are administered at the end of your rotations. Some medical schools require you to pass this exam to receive a grade at the end of your clinical rotations. Sometimes, the percentage grade is even factored into your final rotation grades.

Year four of medical school is much like year three but a bit more specialized. You can delve into the specialties of medicine even more. For example, if you liked internal medicine, you can elect to do a gastroenterology, cardiology or rheumatology rotation. Grading is the same as in year three.

So this piece hopefully gave you a good overview of the nuts and bolts of medical school. Congratulations on your recent admission – or good luck with your applications – and best wishes for your future plans!

Dr. Lisabetta Divita is a physician, medical writer/editor and premedical student mentor.  Her company blog, MedicalInk911, can be found at

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