How I survived the first 2 years of medical school
I had a plan when I started medical school: Eat, pray, love medicine.
I would wake up before sunrise. I would practice yoga, and with each yoga pose, I would review my anatomy and physiology studies. I would buy every book, read every page and attend every lecture. I would join a small weekly study group. I would study between classes, during meals, after meals. I would hang out in the anatomy lab, looking scientific and studious. When I watched TV, I’d watch educational medical videos. My reading time would be spent perusing academic journals. I would start a blog about my medical school experiences. I would volunteer at local health clinics, shadow clinicians during school breaks. I dreamed that I would dream about medicine.
“The first two years of a person’s medical education may be the most difficult.”
Yes, I was delusional.
People told me that the hardest part about medical school was getting in. I soon realized that for me, the hardest part about medical school was doing well and being well.
Now, as a third-year medical student reflecting on my first years of school at the Midwestern University/Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine in Glendale, I remember some of the mistakes I made, and some of the survival tactics my classmates and I learned.
In keeping with my initial first-year strategy, I joined a study group right away. We discussed a histology lecture during our first meeting, and I left the session thinking that group studying was the best way to learn. Soon thereafter, however, we went our separate ways.
The group became more of a social gathering than an academic roundtable. At times, I felt our competitive streaks would eventually break down our growing friendships. I returned to independent learning and found it worked better for me. While I missed “getting pimped”—squirming under pressure, answering rapid-fire questions from my classmates—I found I was less anxious and more productive when I studied on my own.
For others, however, study groups were the only way they learned. Students would take turns attending class, and they would later discuss the lectures as a group. This way, they approached the material with multiple perspectives.
Some used both methods: They studied for some classes by themselves and worked with their peers for different classes. By the time winter quarter began, people had discovered and developed their own techniques.
“Remain willing to collaborate with colleagues and swap advice,” Verni Logendran, OMS III, says. “But remember to do whatever works best for you.”
A medical community
Whether I studied solo or with a group, I found comfort in knowing I could always go to the library, the cafeteria or a neighborhood cafe and learn in the presence of at least one of my 250 classmates. I wasn’t alone. We were all studying the same material, stressing about the same exams.
‘Remember: It’s only 2 years’
My classmates and I came up with these tips to help new medical students conquer their first two years.
- It’s never too early to start studying for the boards.
- Shadow physicians. The experience will help you determine what specialty you’d like to practice.
- Wisely use the summer between your first and second years. Look for opportunities to volunteer, conduct research and shadow. If you want to pursue a competitive specialty, research is recommended.
- Develop and hone your osteopathic manipulative medicine skills. I wish I had a better mastery of OMM to use during my third- and fourth-year rotations.
- No matter what, the first two years of medical school will be brutal. But remember: It’s only two years, it’s only two years.
- Give your brain an extended rest every week. Commit to extracurricular activities so you can’t back out of them. You’ll find that your time management gets better and you’re able to study more effectively afterward.
- Participate in medical interest groups, intramural sports or student government. Find time to give back to your community.
“When you are studying for days,” says Gregory M. Taylor, OMS III, “preparing for the soon-to-be-hardest exam of your life, and you don’t know anything, you realize that there are 250 other people in your class thinking the exact same thing. … It makes it seem better.”
And when group commiseration no longer keeps you motivated, remember the students in the classes ahead of you. These students have survived the first year and have valuable tips to impart. They know which professors reveal the most exam-relevant information during lectures or during office hours. They remember the organs and vessels tagged in certain anatomy practical exams. They know the best study resources. They know which books to buy.
“The biggest thing that got me through first year was knowing that other students before me did it,” Taylor adds.
My plan to be the lone-wolf uber-medical student didn’t include reaching out to those students who had survived the first year, but I wish it had. I just assumed my second-year peers were studying their brains out, as I was, and wouldn’t want to be bothered by questions from a clueless first-year.
Meanwhile, my incessant studying was burning me out as I lived the life of the predawn yogi and the 24/7 medical student. Instead of energizing me, medicine was snuffing the life out of me.
By the end of the fall quarter, I had lost my momentum and was struggling academically, socially, physically, mentally. But my friends, family and academic advisers helped me refocus my efforts.
“Medicine should not take over your life,” Logendran says. “Learn to maintain a balance between studying, hobbies and keeping in touch with friends and loved ones.”
I joined the school’s intramural softball team. I volunteered more often at community clinics instead of spending nights alone in the anatomy lab or my library carrel. I forgave myself more frequently for not meeting individual study goals. I remembered what it was to relax, to sleep more than four hours a night.
Eventually, with people behind me, I put myself back together.
My friends, family and advisers reminded me that I chose the medical field to help people and my community. I realized that if I am to care for others, I should be able to care for myself and be willing to engage and interact with others.
As my classmates and I progressed through our first and second years, we often needed to find ways to remember why we pursued medicine. Some classmates, I heard, donned their short white coats as they studied. Others volunteered at clinics to help them maintain perspective of their larger goals.
“Helping people at these events is a sort of preview of your future,” Vishwas Seshachellam, OMS III, says. “It lets you apply what you have learned so far.”
During weekends or school vacations, some students shadow local physicians to learn more about themselves and their possible career options.
But do not let classmates mislead you with their smug tales of volunteer commitments, extracurricular activities or time spent with family and friends. Do not believe medical students who say they do not study: Everyone studies.
“Dig deep, find your motivation, and push forward,” Taylor says. “It may take gallons of coffee over the year—or in my case 435 energy drinks—but you can do it.”
During one of my third-year rotations, a teary-eyed patient asked me, “Why is this happening to me?” She’d had a complicated past medical history and a perplexing hospital course since admission. I tried to calm her with medical jargon and my confidence in her medical team, all the while thinking that I should’ve studied more in my first and second years. If only I could explain in lay terms the possible pathophysiological processes occurring in her body, perhaps then I could ease her fears.
But what seemed to calm her down most was my pulling up a chair at her bedside, sitting down for 10 minutes and listening to her concerns.
I chose to become a doctor because I wanted to help people.
The first two years of a person’s medical education may be the most difficult because they center primarily on pathophysiology and anatomy—not the patients, not the clinical aspects of medicine that motivated many of us to become physicians.
First-year medical students must remember that what they’re learning in lecture halls, anatomy labs and textbooks has real-world applications. Learn all that you can in your first two years of school so that you are able to educate patients as soon as possible. However, do not forget that medicine is about helping people have full, rich, healthy lives. You’ll be able to do that best if you live a balanced, satisfying life yourself.