5 Tips for Surviving Medical School

Last Updated on June 23, 2022 by Laura Turner

As you transition from being a premedical student to a bonafide medical student, it quickly becomes obvious that medical school in no way mirrors undergraduate education. Sure, some things are familiar—like going to class and labs—but the sheer amount of information, the hours dedicated, and the constant expectation that you acquire new skills and apply them to fellow human beings set medical school apart from any other type of education. Though successfully completing your premedical curriculum and performing well on the MCAT demonstrate your academic readiness for medical school, thriving during your medical education requires a particular savviness unique to medical students. If you’re gearing up to start medical school, use these five tips to help you not only survive, but thrive:

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  1. Be willing to alter your study routine

    Individuals who have been accepted to medical school have generally demonstrated superior academic performance during their undergraduate years, and they may believe that their current study strategies will also work in medical school. However, as they begin their medical education, many students find their past academic approaches inadequate considering the deluge of information directed their way. If this happens to you, be ready to let go of your comfortable study strategies and begin experimenting with new approaches. Though this experimentation may seem terrifying in the high-pressure environment of medical school, identifying new approaches that work for you during your first year (when the stakes are lower) will prevent later scrambling around important milestones like Step and shelf exams.

  2. Determine your top priorities outside of school

    You will give up hobbies, interests, and relationships in medical school, and at times it may feel like you have no identity outside of medicine. Though you will change substantially on your way to becoming a doctor, staying connected to important elements of your pre-medical self can help ground you during those times when medicine is frustrating and overwhelming. As you start your first year of medical school, reflect on the people and activities that define you, and consider how you will incorporate them into your new life. Are you an avid runner? Resolve to keep running in medical school, but understand that you may not be able to put in the mileage or effort that you did before. Are you passionate about playing an instrument? Make it a priority to spend an hour a week playing. Worried about staying connected to friends? Prioritize a call or two per month to catch up. From the start, aim to hold onto what’s most important to cope with the ever-increasing demands that medicine will place upon you.

  3. Resist comparing yourself to your classmates

    Everyone is smart in medical school. Everyone is determined. And at times, it will seem like everyone is doing better than you. When the voice telling you that you’re not smart enough, focused enough—or whatever else—hits, take a step back and reflect on the unique characteristics that not only got you into medical school, but that will serve you and your patients moving forward. You may not have done well on one exam, but perhaps you knocked another out of the park. Or you may struggle to hear heart murmurs on physical exams, but maybe your history-taking skills are better than expected. Instead of holding yourself up to your classmates, compare yourself now to the you of a couple weeks, months, or years ago. Have you learned? Have you gotten better? In the grand scheme of things, your forward progress relative to where you started is more important than your progress relative to your peers.

  4. Seek help when you need it

    Medicine and stoicism often go together. We smile after 30-hour shifts, tack an additional patient onto an already-full schedule, and keep studying past exhaustion. Though grit is certainly necessary during your medical education, keeping a stiff upper lip at the expense of your learning or wellbeing won’t help you become a better physician. Instead of waiting until things get really bad—like failing a class or becoming unable to finish a rotation—seek assistance early. Many schools have academic support centers and peer tutoring available, both of which can help you adapt your study skills to the rigor of a medical curriculum. Further, student health centers and academic deans may be available to help you sort out any physical or mental health obstacles that stand between you and your education. Unfortunately, asking for help is stigmatized at times, but remember that asking for help when your problem first arises is less likely to have lasting consequences than waiting may have.

  5. Learn to accept critical feedback and failure

    Medical school notoriously attracts perfectionists and Type A personalities, and if you fall into either—or both—of these categories, you might find it difficult to cope with negative feedback or failure during your medical education. Further, you’ll find that some feedback may be given in a pointed or coarse way, making you feel as though you’ve made some terrible mistake that will cost you your future as a physician. Though failing an exam, botching a skill, or having your errors pointed out to you are not pleasant experiences, reframing these negative experiences as opportunities to learn from your mistakes is essential for survival in medical school. Instead of viewing setbacks as catastrophic, see them as part of your—and everyone else’s—learning process. Rest assured that all of your superiors experienced failure as medical students, and that your faults now will build you into a stronger physician later.

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