Starting Strong: Tips For Your First Year of Medical School

By Nicole Hawkins

The first year of medical school is an exhilarating milestone in the life of an aspiring physician. After working hard as a premed and being accepted from a pool of competitive medical school applicants, you finally get to embark on the journey of medical education that will shape your career. There’s no better time to prepare for success than from the onset of medical school. Here are five tips for starting M1 strong as you begin the process of becoming the doctor you’ve always wanted to be.

  1. Don’t slack on summer paperwork after getting an acceptance


    The first way to start strong in M1 year is by completing mandatory pre-matriculation paperwork diligently and expediently. While it is true that an acceptance to medical school means an end to filling out AMCAS applications, post-acceptance there will be additional forms required by your medical school that you need to complete by deadlines. You will be forced to complete these forms before the school allows you to matriculate, but some students still delay the inevitable and consequently risk inspiring the ire of school staff (or even missing loan deadlines!). You may be required to submit vaccination records, your and your parents’ tax records, FAFSA, and undergraduate transcripts, for example. Additionally, you will need to complete any pre-matriculation tasks such as completing loan counseling, signing a master promissory notice, completing online training (blood-borne pathogens, HIPAA, etc.), and even possibly working through pre-matriculation curriculum. It may be tempting to postpone paperwork while you bask in the last weeks of pre-med freedom, but do everyone a favor and just get your forms in before you go on that vacation or Netflix binge. If you get frustrated, just remember: better to have to fill out pre-matriculation paperwork than to have no acceptance!

  2. Don’t pressure yourself to find a friend group during orientation


    Orientation marks the official beginning of M1 and can be a different experience for each student; some students have a great couple of days whereas other students feel overwhelmed by the event. Medical school orientations often intentionally provide excessive amounts of free time in the schedule meant to encourage mingling, and this may lead you to feel pressured to find a group to identify with so you aren’t awkwardly standing alone. Some students are successful at forming lasting friendships this week. However do not be dismayed if orientation finishes and you still have not “fit” with a prospective friend group.

    Interaction during orientation is superficial by nature and you will have an opportunity to begin forming more meaningful relationships once you start schoolwork, especially if your curriculum provides small group settings. As you gradually become involved with school and community activities over the next few weeks to months, this will also provide a great forum for meeting like-minded people. In the meantime, never be afraid to lean on family or old friends for social support while you establish yourself in your new surroundings.

  3. Be patient in finding your best study methodology 


    Everyone begins the first year of medical school with great ambitions and motivation. During the first few weeks, however, it is easy to become confused about what strategy to use to master an overwhelming amount of new material. You want to succeed, but where do you start? Should you study the way you did in undergraduate courses? Should you stay at home and review Anki cards or should you go to lectures? What books and questions banks should you buy? You may find that ten people will tell you ten different ways to optimize your learning; this is because there are multitudes of approaches that will all result in a great medical education.

    So what techniques should you implement, and how do you know if your methods are maximizing your potential exam grades? The reality is that there is no simple answer, and finding your best practices may take a longer time than you expect. Some students find a study routine quickly. However, if you are still tweaking your study methods four months into M1, you are not alone. Do not be afraid to gradually experiment with your study methods until you find the ones that really work well for you. Do not fret if what works for you looks completely different than what your classmates are doing- each person learns medical school material differently. And always remember, your school’s academic affairs office is your friend!

  4. Don’t panic if you are not caught up on material every day


    As an M1, you will quickly learn that medical school is not so weak as to be like a human who gets tired. Monday, it spews forth a massive amount of lecture material. Tuesday, it spews forth a massive amount of lecture material. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday….it spews forth relentlessly. We, however, are humans who fatigue. Our energy ebbs and flows. Forcing yourself to keep pace with material you are given every single day on a rigid schedule can be a poor decision during medical school, because your energy and mental focus are not linear functions.

    Make no mistake, when exam time comes, you want to have completed your study goals. However, forcing yourself to adhere to an inflexible study schedule even when you are struggling can potentially do more harm than good. If you are having a bad spell, do not be afraid to leave work unfinished that day with the caveat that you are going to come back feeling strong and being extra productive tomorrow. Learn to trust your inner voice telling you when to rest and when to push through. After all, you are a human, not a robot.

  5. Master identifying “high yield” information


    Preparing for medical school exams is difficult; we know this. But why? Yes, sometimes the concepts are just inherently challenging. Yes, sometimes the length of test is fatiguing or the multiple-choice answers are vague. However, a subtler cause of difficulty is the broad scope of possible lecture topics that could be tested. The challenge is in being asked to learn multiple topics simultaneously to a certain level of detail for testing at random. The truth is that on exam day, many questions are simple enough to answer if you thoroughly learned the relevant information. The trick is that you must identify what information from the stack of lecture material is most likely to show up as relevant, a.k.a. “high yield” information, because you often won’t have time to learn everything from lecture.

    So how do you decide what is high yield? And what if you are wrong? When you first begin medical school, sometimes this process can feel impossible. Identifying high yield information takes a degree of finesse that is learned through experience. This is often what makes preparing for and taking medical school exams difficult. However, the good news is that you get exponentially better at focusing your studies as time goes by. By the end of M1, your brain will delineate important topics from low yield minutiae with less difficulty. Additionally, speaking with upperclassman and using popular review resources (we’re looking at you, First Aid) can help in identifying high yield information. Before you know it, you will be taking exams like a pro!

About the Author

Nicole Hawkins is a second-year medical student with a passion for international advocacy and long-distance running.

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