5 Soft Skills Every Medical Student Needs

By Cassie Kosarek

As any practicing physician can attest, adequate medical care extends beyond pure medical knowledge to extensive interpersonal skills and well-calibrated self-awareness. While many medical and premedical students emphasize their fitness for medicine by highlighting their superior performances in academic realms, “softer” skills—like the ability to collaborate with colleagues and to recognize the limits of your own knowledge—are as essential to success as academic strengths. If you are a medical student, it is worth asking yourself how you might best cultivate the following traits in order to take better care of not only your patients, but also yourself as you navigate the complexities, frustrations, and rewards of a career in medicine.

1. The ability to effectively collaborate, particularly with colleagues of different experience levels or opinions
Medicine can be a haven for intelligent individuals with strong convictions. While these traits are certainly desired in a person who makes clinical decisions that affect the wellness of patients, they can also create friction between care team members. Becoming an effective physician means having the ability to incorporate different viewpoints into your clinical care, to defend your opinion respectfully, and to cede the idea that your training or experiences are comprehensive enough to discount input from other physicians or healthcare workers. In addition, effective doctors have the ability to put aside personal differences in the name of adequate clinical care. You will not always like every member of your team. For instance, the lack of knowledge of one of your colleagues about a subject may be irritating. But as a physician-in-training, you must understand the value of each member of your team and believe that collective knowledge is more effective than that of one provider.

2. Awareness of the limits of your own knowledge and the ability to admit that you do not know every answer
After a successful undergraduate career, many newly-minted medical students arrive with the notion that they will be able to master and memorize all of the material presented to them, and that they will be prepared for most—if not all—of the questions that will be posed to them by attendings and professors. In the first few weeks of medical school, the sheer volume of information and their inexperience with thinking through case studies may put a damper on their initial confidence. Instead of becoming dismayed at the realization that you will not be able to answer every question, nurture the ability to say, “I don’t have the answer to that, but I can find out for you.” Become comfortable with acknowledging where your knowledge or experience cannot guide you in your current situation, whether that situation is a question thrown your way on rounds or a specific exam skill that you are performing for the first time. Being honest with yourself and your colleagues about the limits of your knowledge cultivates the important clinical skill of knowing when to seek interprofessional consultation in order to direct patient care safely.

3. The ability to uncouple self-esteem from academic performance and career accomplishments
Medical training, as well as life as a practicing physician, is accompanied both by feelings of satisfaction and success—participating in a code in which the heart starts again, or seeing a clean PET scan after treatments for cancer—and feelings of failure, inadequacy, and being overwhelmed. If you hang your worth on how well you perform on tests, how many times you are right in clinic, or on how many procedures you have done correctly, then you risk losing self-esteem when things do not go the way you would like. One of the best convictions to foster as early as possible as a medical trainee is the belief that your worth as a person is not dependent upon consistent and uninterrupted success as you learn.

4. The ability to establish clear lines of communication characterized by concision and respect
The efficacy of medical treatment is often determined by communication both among members of a care team and between providers and patients. Knowing how to relay information reliably and in a way that the other party will be open to receiving is key to success as a doctor. In all interactions, you can ask yourself, “Am I explaining this concept in a way that I know can be understood by the other party? Do I know that my message has reached the other party? Would the other party be comfortable in asking me for clarity regarding what I have said?” Being able to establish effective lines of communication between all providers involved in a case can improve the outcome of that case.

5. The flexibility to accept and perform well in spite of inconveniences, unexpected roadblocks, and other professional and personal obstacles
Circumstances change, especially in medicine. You might be on call six hours longer than you expected because of a staffing shortage. You might fail an exam and have to repeat a class. A family crisis might arise right before you are scheduled to take Step 1 of the USMLE. The ability to recognize circumstantial changes not as impossible situations that will irreversibly affect some important aspect of your life, but rather as par for the unpredictable course of life will allow you to better adapt to the challenges of a medical career. Instead of dwelling on that low grade, or the Step 1 score that was several points below your goal, or that mistake you made that directly and negatively affected a patient, ask yourself, “Where do I go from here? What have I learned from this change, and how can I adjust my course to meet myself where I now am?”

About the Author

Cassie Kosarek 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 is a member of the Class of 2020 at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.