Three Tips to be an All Star First Year Medical Student

Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner

1. You need to view the process of learning differently. One of the biggest challenges to starting medical school is the paradigm shift that must occur from your studies as an undergraduate student. Though many of you may not go directly to medical school from undergrad – the average age of matriculating medical students is around 24 – you may still be holding onto your study habits from your college days.
Whereas you once could get away with studying a little bit here and there and then cramming on weekends, this really isn’t possible (or advisable!) as a medical student. I like to think of the first two years of medical school as a job, and your job is to learn as much as possible.
Much like you would wake up, eat breakfast (the most important meal of the day!) and head off to work for the day, think of your first two years of school in the same way. Develop the same routines that would make you a great employee. Show up at the same time every day, be prepared, and be responsible! I would treat school and studying like a job, get to class in the morning, take a break for lunch, and then study in the afternoon. Every day. And whatever you do for “you”, make sure to make time for that too! Gym, yoga, dance, cooking, running – whatever it is, keep it a part of your routine. Medical school is a marathon, not a sprint and you’ll need to keep a healthy mind and body to succeed.
2. Your most important task as a first year medical student is to learn how you learn. Read that sentence again. Not just learn the information, but really figure out how you’ll learn best. Over the course of your first year of medical school, you will be presented with a lot of information, asked to retain it, and probably to regurgitate it. Will all of this information be useful to you as a future physician? Maybe some of it will be. But I’m asking you to see the silver lining here. The greatest lesson you can take from first year (other than all of the histology of course) is to figure out how you’ll learn best over the next few years. Some people love group study, others prefer quiet studying alone. Maybe you learn best in a classroom. Or do you prefer to listen to recorded lectures? Flash cards or power point? iPad or textbook? Medical education is evolving and with it so are the resources. Figure out which ones you like, how you’ll learn best, and hone that method to make you an even better second year medical student.
3. Bridge the gap between retention and application of knowledge. This is somewhat of an extension of point #2, but I think it is one that really bears mentioning. When we were undergrads, we used to get away with learning something, retaining it, and producing that knowledge for the test. Or at least that is how most college students operate. Read, retain, reproduce for exam. But deep down, we all knew that knowledge would quickly dissipate once the semester was over. So what’s the problem here? There is actually a formidable difference between retaining something with the intention to reproduce it and retaining a bit of information and being able to apply it to solve a problem. Take the following example: Let’s say I ask you what cranial nerve is responsible for innervation of the muscles of the tongue. You correctly answer: cranial nerve XII, the hypoglossal nerve. I also ask you what functions those muscles are responsible for. You’re able to correctly tell me all the functions of the intrinsic and extrinsic tongue muscles. That is reproduction of retained knowledge. Now let’s say that instead I ask you to describe the findings in a patient with a lesion to affecting the left 12th cranial nerve. If you’re able to apply your knowledge of what that nerve controls and how those muscles function, then you’ll be able to correctly describe the physical exam findings in a patient with a left 12th nerve palsy. The key to learning and retaining information is going from just being able to describe or recite facts, to really understanding the concepts and being able to apply them to solve a problem. You’ll find that if you are able to apply the concepts you learn in medical school as a first and second year, you will have a much easier time reviewing them for your USMLE Step 1 exam and ultimately retain this information for longer.
Sean Alemi, MD is a resident at University of California, San Francisco in the department of Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery. Sean attended the University of California, Berkeley where he studied molecular and cell biology. He then attended and graduated from UC Irvine School of Medicine, and is currently completing his general surgery internship. Sean is also co-founder of, an online mentorship service for high school, undergraduate and graduate level students interested in pursuing the health care fields. Learn more about Sean at
Have questions, comments or feedback about what you’ve read? Email Sean at [email protected].