How Do College and Medical School Classes Differ?

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

As a premedical student, you are likely familiar with some of the subjects that are covered in the standard medical school curriculum. After all, how different could biochemistry in medical school be from undergraduate biochemistry?
While your premedical courses will certainly provide you with a strong background with which to approach medical school, it is imperative that you understand that undergraduate classes differ substantially from medical school courses in both difficulty and breadth of content. Think of your undergraduate science education as preparation for medical school—not as an opportunity to cover all of the material in one of your medical school classes prior to matriculation. Here are four key ways in which medical school courses differ from undergraduate classes, as well as some tips on how to deal with these differences:
1. Medical school classes move very quickly
Whether your medical school utilizes blocks, semesters, or trimesters, you will undoubtedly be expected to manage more information in shorter periods of time than you did during your undergraduate program. While you may have been able to catch up if you found yourself several lectures behind in college, in medical school, this is almost impossible. It also does not lend itself to the long-term retention you will need for the USMLE Step 1 exam in second year. You will be more likely to thrive in medical school if you avoid cramming at all costs. Study your lectures the day they are given, complete assignments with a day or two to spare, and ensure you have time to ask questions of your professors before you sit for exams.
2. Medical school courses typically cover more material in greater detail
Since most undergraduate students do not begin college with a strong background in any particular area of science, many undergraduate classes are surveys of a certain topic or set of topics. In contrast, medical school courses assume prior knowledge of many scientific subjects, and they thus spend more time delving into details that are typically neglected in undergraduate classes. Expect your medical school courses to rely heavily on prior knowledge, to explore more topics, and to spend time covering the smaller details of those topics. To keep yourself organized, consider taking brief notes in each of your lectures. Many medical students recommend distilling each lecture down to one page of notes in order to ensure you are addressing all the important concepts in a given topic.
3. Medical school classes are most concerned with the human body, and they do not often include information about other species
Undergraduate courses contain many types of students—not just premedical students—and they may thus focus on the cross-species implications of the material they present. For example, if you are in an undergraduate class that is discussing color vision, you might spend some time talking about human vision alongside the hyper-acute vision of an eagle. In medical school however, you can naturally expect that courses will focus primarily on scientific principles as they apply to humans.
4. Medical school classes focus on clinical correlations and implications in addition to basic science
One goal of medical school is to learn how to apply basic science principles to clinical scenarios in order to provide medical treatment. In your undergraduate science classes, basic science principles were likely presented in insolation. In medical school, these concepts will now be connected to their implications for clinical practice. As you learn each concept, it is helpful to examine how that specific idea relates to human function or dysfunction, as well as how you might be able to manipulate the concept to provide treatment.