What I Learned During My First Semester of Medical School

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

Students will feel a variety of emotions during the weeks and days leading up to the start of medical school, ranging from excitement to anxiety. Below are five key things I learned during my first semester in medical school, some of which I wish I had known before I began:
1. Every student is unique, so do what works best for you
Many people equate the preclinical years of medical school to standing before a water hose and attempting to drink all of the water that pours from it. The vast amount of information that you will be exposed to may seem overwhelming at times, but it is important to remember that generations of physicians have successfully completed their medical training. There is a way to manage this wealth of information.
One thing that quickly became apparent during my own medical school experience was that every student had his or her own approach to studying the material. Though my classmates and I were taking the same courses, listening to the same lectures, and completing the same out-of-classroom reading, almost every person mastered the subject matter differently. I quickly learned that group studying was not for me. It was inefficient given my learning style, and I would emerge from group study sessions that lasted several hours, but covered little material. I instead took the approach of re-reading class material on my own after lecture, drafting my own sets of notes related to that content, re-reading my notes, and then briefly reviewing the material with my friends. This worked for me, but I also had classmates who started with group study to identify the concepts they struggled with most, and then moved on to focused individual study. There is no right or wrong way to study the vast amounts of information that you will face, but it is crucial to quickly identify a study system that works for you. Once you do, adhere to that system, regardless of what your peers are doing.
2. Your classmates may ultimately be your strongest teachers
Though many medical schools will have approachable professors with office hours and teaching assistants for most courses, it is important to keep in mind that your classmates are learning alongside you, and they will likely know exactly how you feel. In fact, I found that my classmates were often some of my best teachers. Whether I was brainstorming simple mnemonics or tricks to memorize facts, examining the pathophysiology of diseases, or visualizing the anatomical organization of a group of nerves, it was very helpful to reach out to my colleagues first when I had trouble understanding or memorizing class material.
3. Though medicine is generally rooted in critical thinking, there will still be a large amount of material to memorize
Most medical schools will advertise a preclinical curriculum that is rooted in understanding foundational principles, applying knowledge, and thinking critically. Though it is certainly true that these skills are emphasized for medical students now more than ever, students should still expect to memorize a significant amount of information, especially during the preclinical years. Simply put, medical school involves learning an entirely new vocabulary that describes the inner workings of the body. Without learning the language of medicine, students will not be able to move on to applying it.
4. Everyone has weaknesses
Many students who start medical school have been academically successful for most or all of their lives. However, the rigors of medical school may be unlike any past experience. As such, even those students who easily adapt to their new curriculum will go through a period of time where they struggle. Students should especially expect this to happen early in the year as they adjust to the high volume of information presented each day. The key to your success will be to seek out the appropriate resources – teaching assistants, tutoring sessions, peer study groups, etc. – to help you tackle the material.
5. You simply cannot procrastinate
Perhaps the most obvious, but also one of the most important, things that I learned during my first semester of medical school was that the study strategies I used in college simply did not suffice. The amount of material I had to learn did not lend itself to any form of procrastination. Instead, the only way I was able to keep all the material in my head was regular, daily review. One important piece of advice I received early on in my first semester of medical school was to treat medical school like my first full-time job. I had to clock in and clock out each day. While my friends were working 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at desk jobs, I would be in lecture or the anatomy lab from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. I would also have to continue my work in the evening. This was – and is – a simple fact of life in medical school.