Medical Education

Tips on surviving—and thriving—during your first year of medical school

A student advisor and several med students who have completed their first year share their guidance.


The first year of medical school can be intimidating and overwhelming, with students facing new challenges every day. It’s not for the faint of heart, but as those who have made it through will tell you, it is doable. In this article, med students who have completed their first year and an advisor who has seen many go through the process give their advice on how to not only survive, but also thrive, as a new medical student.

Alex Sher, OMS II, who attends Lincoln Memorial University DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine, urges first-year students to be realistic about what they can and cannot do.

“They make you drink from a fire hose,” says Sher. “They give you so much information in so little time that you have to triage what to do.”

Getting involved in extracurriculars

Many students want to be involved in all available activities, Sher recognizes, but he recommends taking things slowly.

“Don’t overwhelm yourself at first,” says Sher.

Picking just one or two extracurricular activities in the beginning can be key; you can always join more later if you discover you have extra time. Previous first-years also recommended not committing to leadership roles right away and staying involved with groups on a looser basis instead.

Ulysses Fernandez-Miro, OMS IV, who attends Kansas City University College of Osteopathic Medicine, recommends signing up for an activity that gives you procedural skills, noting that you can choose which clubs to include on your CV as a part of your experience later.

“My opinion is to not pigeonhole,” suggests Fernandez-Miro. “Meet a lot of people, make friends, and learn from everyone.”

If you can manage it timewise, Fernandez-Miro says volunteering can be fruitful for both your CV and personal life, but it’s important to reconsider it if it starts to make you forgo grades, relationships, or self-care.

Brooke-Lynn Vij, academic and career advisor with Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, recommends exploring the student organizations at your COM and identifying which align with your values and goals.

“They could be specialty-specific or organizations focused on serving the community in a variety of ways,” says Vij.

Keeping up with coursework

Staying on top of coursework will go a long way in keeping you on track for the rest of medical school, says Vij.

She suggests plotting out how you’ll use your time each day, including hours spent sleeping, eating, relaxing, working out, etc. Medical school is a full-time job, and staying on track requires discipline, as well as time dedicated to self-care and recharging.

“I encourage students to reflect on their current study methods and identify what kind of learner you are,” says Vij. “Ensure that you are engaging in active study methods and that those study methods promote retention. You can also connect with classmates and those who have successfully completed the course to learn different approaches, but remember that what works for someone else may not work for you.”

If you fail or perform poorly on a test, Vanessa Garcia-Turner, OMS IV, who attends KCU-COM, suggests going back and reviewing the answers to get a better idea of why you struggled with the test.

“It might not feel like it, but there is a little bit of wiggle room to fail,” says Garcia-Turner. “Figure out why you failed and move on – medical school is a racetrack of learning about everything, including yourself.”

Oftentimes, getting outside your own head can be the biggest challenge in medical school, Sher notes.

“You can be your own worst enemy,” he says. “Don’t let one bad test ruin your semester; you can absolutely bounce back.”

Always remember that your COM chose you as a student for a reason, and you’re smart and capable enough to thrive in medical school, Sher notes.

Connecting with your peers, advisor, and mentors

No one has to go through medical school alone – for better or worse, you, your classmates, and the school’s faculty and staff are like a big family.

“First year kicked our butt, but we accomplished it together,” says Sher. “Only a few people get to experience the camaraderie of medical school.”

Embracing your medical school community is important because your peers are going through the same unique experience as yourself and thus are especially equipped to support you, and vice versa. Your school will provide ways to mingle; connecting with your peers has been more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is still possible via group chats, outdoor meetups, and other avenues. Be friendly and say hi to people you want to get to know, and get out of your comfort zone.

Garcia-Turner says she grew the most personally in the first year of medical school, developing friendships that will last the rest of her life, despite the many challenges she and her peers faced.

“The bonds I grew with people and the new network of people I joined was more than I could have expected,” she says. “Nothing can adequately prepare a student for their first year other than living through it.”

Students should also prioritize maintaining a consistent relationship with their advisors and mentors, which can help them better assess whether they’re ready to take on certain challenges, says Vij.

“As the saying goes, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup,’ and trying to balance too much at once to get ahead can be harmful to your wellness,” she says. “Maintain your relationships to assess how you are doing overall and if it is an appropriate time to engage in physician shadowing, get more involved in research, or if there are other options to engage in activities.”

Enjoying the journey

Getting through medical school, especially the first year, is a marathon. It’s highly difficult, but Fernandez-Miro urges newcomers to try to enjoy the journey.

“One day you’ll be a fourth-year, wondering how the last four years felt like a decade but at the same time passed in the blink of an eye,” says Fernandez-Miro. “Believe in yourself, help those around you, and don’t procrastinate – do these three things, and you will succeed.”

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