Physicians often say every day is different, that you can never be sure what to expect. Their jobs simply involve a certain amount of unknown. Most of them will also tell you that was true while they were in the midst of their MD education journey.
No matter how much time you’ve spent preparing to become a medical student, you’re likely to encounter some things you never anticipated once classes begin. An MD program is very different than college. So, what is medical school like?
To give you a taste of what you could encounter, we asked a handful of physicians to share what they wish they’d known before becoming medical students. Take a look at what advice they have for aspiring doctors.
10 things every pre-med should know before becoming a medical student
While it’s common to think about how to prepare for medical school, it’s hard to fully grasp what being a med student will actually be like until you’re on campus. Thankfully, this physician insight can help paint a clearer picture for you.
1. Having a well-planned schedule is essential
During college, many students get away with cramming before an exam or simply skimming through a reading assignment. Cutting corners like this just won’t work in medical school. Being a med student involves absorbing a substantial amount of material, so diligent study habits are essential.
“You need to schedule in such a way that you’re going to get everything done, because there’s just so much to do.”
“You need to schedule in such a way that you’re going to get everything done, because there’s just so much to do,” explains Dr. Joseph Sujka, St. George’s University (SGU) graduate and General Surgery Resident Physician at Orlando Regional Medical Center.
2. You might not study the same way your peers do
Different students use different learning strategies—creating flashcards, highlighting text, drawing diagrams, and so on—to absorb the material. This remains true in medical school, so it isn’t always helpful to try something that works for one of your classmates. Dr. Sujka recalls that many of his fellow students suggested he’d do fine in pathology if he just read the book rather than attending lectures.
“I definitely needed to go to class. I couldn't just read the book and retain the information.”
“I realized very quickly that wasn't true,” he warns. “I definitely needed to go to class. I couldn't just read the book and retain the information.”
If you know that a particular study method has worked for you in the past, sticking with it can help in preparing for medical school. This certainly worked for Dr. Sujka.
“I actually doubled down on what had been successful for me during undergrad and did that in medical school, but in a bit more of a detail-oriented way,” he explains. For Dr. Sujka, flashcards were extremely effective.
3. Practicing medicine isn’t always clear-cut
You probably think of medicine as a purely scientific discipline. While this is mostly true, it’s also quite nuanced. It’s very rare that actual cases will align perfectly with what you study in your reading material.
“Going into medical school, I assumed that evaluating symptoms would be an easy part of the job,” says Dr. Sandra Morris, Minnesota Area Medical Director at MedExpress. “But sometimes looking at symptoms alone can be misleading.”
You need to take a look at the bigger picture to accurately identify a medical issue and devise an appropriate treatment plan. The sooner you get used to that idea, the better off you’ll be in medical school and beyond.
4. Prioritizing personal time is a must
A day in the life of a med student involves a lot of studying, but you can’t (and shouldn’t) spend every second hitting the books. Dr. Sujka says he made sure to pencil in time for playing basketball, watching TV, going out with friends, etc. And he isn’t the only one who thinks it’s important to prioritize personal time.
“I would make sure to have at least one day per week that I would dedicate to my personal needs, whether that was social outings with friends or spending time with family,” says Dr. Alain Michon, Medical Director at the Ottawa Skin Clinic.
Making sure to reserve time for things you enjoy remains important long after medical school as well. Dr. Morris says maintaining work-life balance is an important part of avoiding burnout later on. Instilling these habits in medical school can help set you up for success throughout your entire medical career.
"Carve out time for things you’re passionate about.”
“If you can, find a job that offers flexible hours and scheduling,” she offers. “This can help you maintain a well-rounded lifestyle that allows you to carve out time for things you’re passionate about.”
5. It’s critical to start preparing for licensing exams from the beginning
In college, you probably started studying for a major test a week or so in advance. You should know this isn’t a good strategy for medical students preparing for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) series. You have to start early to make sure you fully grasp all the necessary material. Dr. Sujka says SGU particularly emphasized USMLE preparation, and for good reason.
“They stress doing well on the USMLE Step 1, because that's what's going to get you a residency,” he offers. This is definitely true when you consider that residency program directors cite Step 1 scores as one of the most important criteria they evaluate when comparing candidates.
6. You don’t have to be certain of your medical career path
Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of being an orthopaedic surgeon. Or maybe you’ve had your sights set on cardiology for years. Even if you feel certain of pursuing a particular field, try to keep an open mind. It’s incredibly common for medical students to have a change of heart, and that’s perfectly fine.
"Try to avoid having tunnel vision."
“I wanted to become a surgeon, but I ended up switching to emergency medicine, and then again to cosmetics,” Dr. Michon says. Once you begin digging deeper, you’ll find you may be better suited for certain specialties, so try to avoid having tunnel vision.
7. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness
Medical school is one of the most rigorous educational paths out there. Many students find themselves struggling academically for the first time in their lives. What if this happens to you?
“Ask for help,” Dr. Sujka says. “It’s very easy to think you can do it all on your own.” But he warns against this.
Seeking assistance isn’t the same as admitting defeat. Good medical schools fully anticipate that students will need some help. Quality programs should have plenty of support systems in place to help you find the resources you need.
8. The residency process can be stressful, but also rewarding
Securing a residency will likely be top of mind for much of your time in medical school. It’s a little intimidating when you realize you’ll spend part of your third year and most of your fourth year completing the application process. That involves composing your curriculum vitae (CV), gathering letters of recommendation, attending interviews, and submitting your ranked list of residency programs.
You find out where you’ll complete residency when the Main Residency Match, often just referred to as the Match, results come out in March. You find out whether you secured a position on a Monday. You won’t discover your specific placement until that Friday.
“It's a long process, but a very gratifying process when it works out,” Dr. Sujka offers.
9. You shouldn’t stress about cost too much
It can be daunting to think about tuition and how you’ll pay for medical school, but try not to ruminate on it too much. Your focus should be on your studies while working toward your MD. And it’s worth remembering you stand to earn a substantial salary once you’re practicing medicine.
“After graduation, you will eventually have no trouble paying off your debts.”
“After graduation, you will eventually have no trouble paying off your debts,” Dr. Michon says.
That said, you shouldn’t pursue medicine out of a desire to make money. Being a physician requires a true passion for medicine and a dedication to serving patients.
“If you go to medical school for the right reasons, the time commitment and cost will be well worth it,” Dr. Morris suggests.
10. Preparing for medical school should involve some relaxation
While it can be tempting to start hitting the books as you think about how to prepare for medical school, resist that urge. There really isn’t much you can do at this time that will give you an advantage. The next four years will be busy and sometimes difficult, so take advantage of the free time you have now.
“Spend time with your family,” Dr. Sujka says. “Make sure you see your friends and family before you go, because you're not going to see them for a while.”
Plan your path to medical school
What is medical school like? In truth, the road to obtaining an MD is filled with experiences that can be challenging, surprising, and also rewarding. It’s not an easy journey. To succeed as a medical student, you need to work hard and remain committed.
But if you know you’re ready for the challenge, it might be time to start gathering application materials. You need to complete course prerequisites, gather letters of recommendation, and more. Take a look at what applying entails by taking a look at our all-encompassing resource, “From Application to Enrollment: The Pre-Med Student’s Comprehensive Guide.”
*This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.
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