How Hard Is Medical School? Students Tell All
Every pre-med student knows it’s essential to work hard to get into medical school. The applicant pool is incredibly competitive, and it can take a lot to stand out to admissions committees.
As you get closer to the reality of beginning a Doctor of Medicine (MD) program, it’s normal to have questions. What are some of the common challenges? What will classes be like? How hard is medical school?
We reached out to some graduates from the St. George’s University (SGU) School of Medicine to hear their perspectives firsthand. Join us as we learn about their medical school experiences and see how they managed their rigorous MD curricula.
Is medical school hard? Students reveal 5 important truths
Incoming medical students are often nervous about the prospect of covering such a substantial amount of material in just a few years. Even the most resilient of students can encounter challenges throughout the journey of becoming a physician.
So, just how hard is medical school?
“It’s a stress you’ve never had before, so everyone’s going to struggle in their own way,” explains Dr. Lindsey Jones, SGU graduate. She adds that knowing you’re not alone in facing these difficulties can be helpful to keep in mind as you work to overcome any of the following obstacles.
1. Some classes won’t come easily to you
Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to academics. For Dr. Jones, memorization has always come easily. But she quickly recognized the need for a different approach to conceptual topics.
As a medical student, she found she did well when collaborating with a study partner and by utilizing student-led sessions through SGU’s Department of Educational Services (DES). “They were helpful because they were run by students who had done really well in the class,” Dr. Jones says. “I found they were able to explain it on a level that sometimes professors didn’t.
SGU grad Dr. Lauren Sussman found that when she needed to put forth extra effort for certain classes, studying in tandem with her peers was the most motivating study tactic—working closely with classmates in study groups helped keep her accountable. “I feel like sometimes you need to prepare for group study, so it gave me a goal to work toward in order to make sure I had something ready,” she explains.
2. There’s a lot to learn
Nearly every physician and medical student will tell you that the volume of material is one of the biggest hurdles you’ll face in pursuit of your MD. SGU grad Dr. Whitney Morgan certainly found this to be true. “There’s so much information coming at you at one time from so many different people,” she recalls.
Dr. Sussman agrees, pointing to the multitude of things you simply must know to become a physician. As an English major in college, she was accustomed to having a substantial say in what material she focused on—that’s not the case in medical school.
You need to know the ins and outs of every body part, Dr. Sussman explains. Even when just focusing on the head, for example, physicians need to know about the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, disease processes, and more. “And that’s just the head,” she says. “There are so many things we have going on head-to-toe, externally and internally.”
The good news is, it’s completely doable to learn all this material. And the best way to tackle it is to utilize the study methods you already know work for your learning style. It’s also important to mentally prepare yourself for the commitment, knowing you’ll need to devote more time to your studies than you have in the past.
3. You’ll need to spend more time studying than you did in college
It’s certainly possible to perform well in college simply by going to class and putting in a bit more time before each test, but that method won’t get you very far in medical school. “You have to put in hours,” Dr. Morgan notes. “You can’t just read a textbook and memorize stuff. You need to understand the actual mechanisms, pathways, and what’s happening.”
Dr. Jones followed a strategy recommended by some academic advisors when she first began her MD program at SGU. She would pre-read lectures before attending, take notes during the lecture, and then review the material once more in the evening. She’d then use weekends to review the material that was covered during the entire week, along with previous weeks in that term.
In effect, the bulk of her studying actually took place over the weekend. “On Saturdays and Sundays, I would get to the library around 8 am and leave at 4 or 5 pm,” Dr. Jones recalls. It’s a level of commitment to her studies that she wasn’t as familiar with as an undergraduate, but it proved to be the most effective way to get a handle on the rigorous course material in medical school.
4. You’ll likely feel overwhelmed at times
It’s natural to experience stress during medical school. Dr. Jones recalls it being difficult to feel energized to hit the books when you feel so wiped out. For her, building a solid support network was incredibly helpful. “You have to find a group of friends that you can talk to and relate to,” Dr. Jones offers. “It makes the experience so much better.”
Dr. Sussman points out that the rigors of medical school can make some students want to keep to themselves, but she encourages future physicians to find new ways to re-energize. She participated in the Jewish Student Association at SGU, and she’s glad she did.
“Go find your niche and get involved,” Dr. Sussman suggests. Not only can it help you find a networking opportunity, but it’s also a way to get out and socialize.” With more than 65 student organizations at SGU, there are opportunities for everyone.
In addition to participating in active student groups, Dr. Sussman also encourages medical students to regularly give themselves things to look forward to. Allowing yourself small indulgences to anticipate can help keep you motivated, whether it’s 30 minutes of quiet to enjoy your coffee each morning or, for SGU students, getting acquainted with the island of Grenada by hitting the beach or hiking trails.
5. Your personal life may present some challenges
Not every obstacle you’ll face as a medical student will be specific to the classroom. Your personal life can impact your experience as well. Dr. Jones notes, for example, that it was sometimes difficult to connect with her fiancé while working through her MD program.
In fact, she would actually encourage pre-med students to ask about considerations like this when speaking to graduates or current students about what to expect in medical school. “People don’t often inquire about personal stuff, because they think it’s unprofessional,” Dr. Jones says. “But it’s really important.”
Whatever the source, there can be a range of different distractions from your personal life that will make it difficult to focus on your medical school training. Dr. Sussman found herself dealing with the loss of a loved one partway through her education. While she ultimately managed, it was a difficult time for her.
“I had to learn something else that was totally different,” she explains. “I needed to overcome other challenges that had nothing to do with academics.” Dr. Sussman is grateful for the ways SGU was able to work with her to accommodate her needs during that time.
Find your path to medical school success
So, how hard is medical school? There’s no concrete scale to measure the difficulties you can expect as a med student, but it’s safe to say you can expect to be challenged during your MD program. You’ll cover everything from organ systems to navigating the doctor–patient relationship. While overwhelming at times, the education is rigorous for a reason—it prepares you to become a high-quality physician.
But just because medical school is difficult doesn’t mean you won’t be able to handle it. Every practicing physician was able to find a way to overcome the challenges and make their dream career a reality. There will be ups and downs, but it all boils down to building solid habits and remaining consistent.
For more firsthand advice from medical school graduates, check out our video “Recent Grads Share Words of Wisdom for Succeeding in Med School.”
*This article was originally published in 2019. It has since been updated.