Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
Updated November 4, 2021. The article was updated to correct minor grammatical errors.
Settling into the academic expectations of medical school can be difficult, and the analogy that medical school is like trying to drink from a fire hose is apt. Though your classmates may not indicate as much, everyone stumbles as they learn to manage not only the academic aspects of medical school but also the social and emotional ones. As I near the end of my first trimester of medical school, I am acutely aware of the mistakes I have made and the adjustments that were necessary, in the wake of those errors. Though everyone will make their own unique mistakes in the first semester or trimester of medical school, I invite you to consider my mistakes—which are commonly found among first-year students—and to learn how you might avoid them in order to make your first semester a smooth one.
Mistake #1: Believing that you must do everything
Medical school has a plethora of fantastic volunteer opportunities and extracurricular activities. I personally wished to give flu shots, practice my motivational interviewing skills at the local clinic, pick produce for the homeless, and teach health education in high schools (among many other options). It took me several weeks to realize that there are more interesting and worthwhile extracurriculars available to me as a medical student than I am capable of managing given my course load. Add extracurriculars to the seemingly endless number of social gatherings organized by my classmates. It is obvious that while the urge to do everything is there, the ability simply is not. If you find yourself overcommitting in your first weeks of medical school, ask yourself which activities are most important to you, and step back from those that are less important. Be sure to ask yourself if you can handle all that you have signed up for as early in your year as possible. It is much easier to step back from a commitment early on than it is later when your peers might be depending on you.
Mistake #2: Falling behind on your coursework
On one of the first slides in one of my first lectures, my professor wrote, “It is very easy to get behind and very hard to catch up.” He is completely correct. Each day in medical school, you cover more than a week’s worth of undergraduate material, and falling behind can spell disaster as you move into exams. The best way to avoid this dilemma is to work on each of your subjects every day, but if you do find yourself rushing to catch up, you can do so by prioritizing your subjects and their respective topics. Did you spend more time on the heart than on the lungs in anatomy? Chances are it is more worthwhile to review the former. Ideally, you should make at least one pass through all of your course material, and then double back to harder or more emphasized concepts. If you are unable to make even that initial review, however, skip the doubling-back and focus on the most important topics—and keep up moving forward.
Mistake #3: Failing to make time for the things that define you
You likely have interests that lie outside medicine, and as you start medical school, you may find yourself strapped for time to pursue these interests. Though it is normal to relinquish several of these passions, setting aside all of your personal interests may make it hard for you to unwind and to find perspective while in medical school. As you determine how to best balance your classes, make sure that you purposefully set aside time to pursue other activities. If you cannot find any time to do something unrelated to medical school, you may be working toward burnout. Reevaluate how you spend your time. Even if you only earmark 20 minutes each day to read a book, practice yoga, or go for a brief run, hanging on to those activities that define you will help you return to your classwork refreshed.
Mistake #4: Overlooking academic resources
Most medical schools offer a host of academic resources—tutors, review sessions, meetings with professors, etc.—and failing to take advantage of these resources can be a very large mistake. Though it is all too easy to convince yourself that you study best alone, do not forget that medicine is a team sport. Many classes are taught in such a way that group discussion and active problem-solving are the keys to success. If you find yourself always skipping the review session before the test, or if you never ask upperclassmen how they take notes or budget their time, you are likely missing out on information that can help you streamline your medical education. Correct this mistake by choosing one or two supplemental learning activities to do every two weeks, and then assess whether your understanding of the class material benefits.
Cassie Kosarek, MD is a professional tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Bryn Mawr College and was a member of the Class of 2021 at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.