Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner
Congratulations! You’ve made it through O Chem, survived your MCAT, traipsed around the country to every interview you could fit in your budget, and received that elusive acceptance email. Once you take a moment to celebrate, you will realize that the real challenge lies ahead. Medical school serves as the launch pad to your career and excelling there can open the door to opportunities. Whether you want a career in academics or private practice, psychiatry or radiology or orthopedic surgery, doing well in medical school is critical to getting into the residency that will get you there. But how do you “do well”? “Study hard and do well in your clinical years” was advice I heard a lot, but hardly pointed the way to success. Now, as a fourth year medical student, I realize there are certain key habits of the successful medical student. I wish I could claim all the habits for myself – rather, they are an amalgam of what I’ve learned and what I’ve observed in others. They can help lay the foundation to your successful future.
Habit 1: Learn how you learn. Then just do it.
Medical school can be a bit of a shock. We all know it will be hard, requiring long hours, but the sheer enormity of knowledge we need to master (or at least make a passing acquaintance with) can be overwhelming. You will need to figure out how you learn best, and most efficiently. Is it taking copious notes in class? Drawing pictures of dissections? Re-listening to lectures on your iPhone while out for a run? I was a solitary studier all through college, poring over all the required reading and taking notes. I tried to continue this pattern in medical school. This worked fine during the first term, which was largely a review of basic science principles I knew well already. However, after getting my results back on the first anatomy exam at the start of our second term, I realized something had to change. My response was to join a study group. While I might have avoided my areas of weakness when studying alone, in a group, we’d be sure to go over all those annoying branches of the brachial plexus. This is a habit that will help you beyond medical school. The field of medicine is one of life-long learning. We will constantly need to update our knowledge of our field by reading journals, attending conferences, and discussing interesting cases with our colleagues.
Habit 2: Look beyond your books.
You may feel like you need to study 24/7, but if you never leave the library, you will miss out on a lot your medical school has to offer. Join clubs, get involved with student government, sign up for a committee. Not only will you contribute to the culture of your medical school and help make it a more enriching place for other medical students, you never know what connections you might make. One of my peers who joined the student government found herself rubbing shoulders with many faculty, including department chairs. When she decided she was interested in radiology, she was able to set up a time to have an informal chat with the department chairman, as she already knew him. By being involved, you will be learning how to network and establish connections that will serve you throughout your career.
Habit 3: Give back.
We all spent time in our pre-med years scurrying amongst volunteer experiences in an attempt to become a better applicant, er, and to give back to the community, of course. Don’t stop with that acceptance letter. Medical school provides lots of opportunities; you have a chance to contribute to the community, make connections, develop new skills and, yes, they can go on your residency application. I served as a co-director of our student-run free clinic. It not only gave me a chance to work on my leadership skills, but also helped me discover that I enjoy the administrative aspect of medicine as well, something that impacted my career decisions.
Habit 4: Be adventurous, both professionally and personally – you never know where it may lead you.
What you may not realize at the beginning of medical school is how quickly the time goes by and how soon you will need to be making decisions about your specialty. Early exploration can be invaluable in helping you make your decision. The summer between first and second year, another of my colleagues had the opportunity to do a research project with the ophthalmology department. Although it wasn’t a specialty she was particularly familiar with, she liked the people she was working with and threw herself into the project. She found her passion and is now starting her ophthalmology residency. Many medical schools offer opportunities to go abroad. Even (especially!) if you’re not an international traveler, these can be great experiences, exposing you to other medical cultures.
Habit 5: Recognize your own strengths (and weaknesses).
To get into medical school, you’ve likely been at the top of your class most of your life. The thing about medical school is that all of your classmates have as well. And, when grades come out, not everyone can be at the top of the class. For me, this moment was rather sobering – and demoralizing. Allow yourself not to be really good at everything. Work on your weaknesses so they don’t become your Achilles’ heel, but don’t dwell on them. Instead, feed your strengths. Nowhere in my Dean’s letter does it say, “And she is not so great at anatomy.”
Habit 6: Establish a circle of mentors.
Some schools have formal mentoring programs, connecting students with faculty or senior medical students with junior medical students. Take advantage of these. If your school doesn’t have one (and even if it does), be on the lookout for others who may serve this role – you’ll meet many if you follow Habit 2. For me, my mentors come from various backgrounds and fields – a radiologist, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a bench scientist and a number of more senior medical students, to name a few. Other medical students can provide invaluable advice on issues they recently dealt with, ranging from how to study for boards (“Make a schedule!”) or how to survive surgery (“Always eat breakfast!”). Faculty mentors help to provide perspective; they’ve seen many students go through the ups and downs of medical school and can give a broader view, or at least assure you that how you’re feeling is not unique. That time back in first year when I did poorly on my first anatomy exam? It was one of my faculty mentors who encouraged me to join a study group. Now, sorting through residency programs, my mentors have helped me weigh my options and look at my priorities.
Habit 7: Take time for you.
You are more than medical school – you were before and you will be after. Take time to nurture your relationships, with friends, family and significant others. You may feel all that you are up for after a week of courses is studying in your pajamas interspersed with watching cat videos online, but take a real break and go grab coffee with friends. Take care of yourself. Go to the gym, cook a real meal on occasion, take a walk. Your life should not go completely on hold while you are in medical school. Finding that balance is critical for your career. A friend who graduated last year was weighing his options for residency, including going to his “dream” institution. In the end, though, he realized he would be happier going to another institution that would keep him close to his family and friends. Now, as he slogs through intern year, he is buoyed by his support system. Give yourself the chance to flourish and your career will as well.
Megan Riddle, MS MD Ph.D., is board certified in both adult psychiatry and consult liaison psychiatry. She attended Western Washington University and received a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish with minors in Latin and English before deciding she wanted to pursue a career in medicine and research. She received a Master’s in Biology at Western Washington University with an emphasis in genetics and then went to Weill Cornell Medical College where she earned a medical degree as well as a PhD in neuroscience. She completed her residency training in psychiatry at the University of Washington, where she was chief resident, before completing a fellowship in consult liaison psychiatry, also at the University of Washington. She is currently a Courtesy Clinical Instructor with the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and enjoys teaching and supervising residents.