Medical education

Medical school: A balancing act

As you endure the rigors of medical school, it is necessary to do something you enjoy every day in order to keep yourself grounded.


Students work tremendously hard for many years in order to be admitted into medical school. It is no small feat to endure years of education while being involved with research, extracurriculars and volunteering. People may have told you, “The hardest part is getting in!” While it has become increasingly difficult to gain admission into medical school, I have found that statement itself to be untrue.

Instead, I find myself telling family and friends that medical school is like “drinking from a fire hose.” What I mean by this, is that the pace and volume of information medical students must keep up with is overwhelming, to say the least.

It’s even more challenging to balance the demands of med school with all other aspects of our lives, such as family, social engagements and finances. But knowing that the journey through medical school is exceedingly challenging is not enough to keep students from pursuing this incredibly rewarding occupation.

Highs and lows

As a fourth-year medical student, it is refreshing to ruminate back on the past years and recognize the highs and lows throughout my schooling, as well as self-reflect on how I coped throughout the more difficult periods.

At times, I certainly felt imposter syndrome as a medical student, when one feels inadequate in their current role, even if they are entirely competent. There were days I felt doubtful in my educational journey because I compared myself to those around me, particularly those that already had years of clinical experience.

I found that comparing myself to others was an unhealthy habit to have, so I instead worked on positive thinking and mindfulness to bring myself back to a better state of mind. For me, part of being mindful throughout my schooling included scheduling in activities that I enjoyed.

I wanted to maintain the same hobbies I’ve always had, such as reading and cooking. As a medical student, it is critical to remain balanced and stay true to the person you were before you began medical school in order to not get overwhelmed by all these new responsibilities. 

It is important to recognize that every student comes into medical school with different and distinctive backgrounds, experiences and levels of clinical knowledge. The student next to you may have already had a career as a physical therapist or a nurse, while you have never heard of the brachial plexus or taken a blood pressure reading before. This brings me back to my first point: Never compare yourself to anyone.

It is undoubtedly a distressing moment when you get that score back on an exam you studied hours for, only to find that you fell short of your goal. For some, that may mean scoring well below average for the first time ever. When this happened to me, I was crushed. Then, I reminded myself that I am surrounded by very intelligent and hardworking future physicians, and average is a relative term anyway.

Comparing yourself to others will only unnecessarily harm your self-esteem. Rather, you should take a deep breath, recount your accomplishments and remember that being a medical student is something you get to do, and that is already a substantial achievement in itself.

While being a professional student is truly an honor and a privilege, that does not discount how emotionally taxing it can be. It can be difficult to balance your own mental health with the growing obligations you now have.

Scheduling ‘me’ time

For this reason, it is necessary to do something you enjoy every day in order to keep yourself grounded. While this may sound obvious to some, I personally found that I often had to schedule time into my own workload for myself, even if it felt like I didn’t have much time to work with. My goal was to have at least an hour away from the books to exercise, talk on the phone, watch a show or go shopping. You do not want to lose who you are as a person or let your sole identity be a medical student.

Along those lines, mindfulness exercises can be very helpful to cope with stress and to stay true to yourself. I was grateful that my medical school offered a Koru fundamentals class that taught valuable meditation skills that I have continued to practice and build upon. There are also several phone apps and websites that offer lessons and audio recordings that can guide you through different meditations.

Healthy coping strategies

While meditation may not be for everyone, it is certainly worth taking the chance and stepping outside of your comfort zone to try out new coping mechanisms until you find one that works best for you. For me, it made a world of difference to begin meditating, and I fit it into my schedule quite easily as it was something that could take as little as five minutes each day.

Balancing all that comes with medical school is no easy feat. However, by remaining true to yourself and your passions, you can find your equilibrium and manage challenging and stressful moments as they happen. Developing healthy coping strategies, such as meditation, can help you increase your self-awareness and mindfulness. During the first few years of medical school, it is also beneficial to build a network of peers within your class to keep you from feeling isolated on your journey.

Outside of this network, build time into your schedule for family and friends, too. It may also be helpful to seek out a mentor in your program, especially if you are the first in your family to attend medical school or feel like you need some extra guidance. Having a support system is imperative while you maneuver this arduous journey. Above all else, know that you are where you are for a reason, and that you will continue to achieve great things.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Leave a comment Please see our comment policy