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 you begin your official training. A Doctor of Medicine (MD) program is very different than any other higher education.
To give you a clearer picture of what to expect when going to medical school, we asked a handful of physicians to share what they wish they’d known before becoming medical students. Take a look at the advice they have for aspiring doctors like you.
1. Having a well-planned schedule is essential
During college, many med students can get away with cramming before a big exam or simply skimming through a weekly reading assignment. Cutting corners like this just won’t work in medical school. Being a medical student requires you to absorb a substantial amount of material in a short span of time, so diligent study habits and prioritizing tasks 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,” 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
At the start of the medical school experience, every student is going to feel a little out of their element. As such, it can be second nature to look around and compare yourself to your peers—but that instinct can be detrimental to your success in med school.
It’s important to recognize that your fellow medical students aren’t your competition, and what works for one student may not work for another. The key is to find the learning strategies that are most effective for you.
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 the lectures. “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. “I actually doubled down on what had been successful for me during undergrad and did that in medical school, but in a more detail-oriented way,” Dr. Sujka says.
3. Practicing medicine isn’t always clear-cut
While medicine is a scientific discipline, it’s also quite nuanced. In that sense, classes will rarely 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,” points out Dr. Sandra Morris, Minnesota area medical director at MedExpress. “But sometimes looking at symptoms alone can be misleading.”
As a medical student, you’ll need to learn to 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 medical student inevitably involves a lot of studying, but you can’t (and shouldn’t) spend every second hitting the books. “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 a point to reserve time for things you enjoy remains important long after medical school as well. Dr. Morris notes that maintaining a work-life balance is an essential part of avoiding burnout down the road. Instilling these habits in medical school can help set you up for success throughout your entire medical career.
“If you can, find a job that offers flexible hours and scheduling,” she suggests. “This can help you maintain a well-rounded lifestyle that allows you to carve out time for things you’re passionate about.”
5. Start preparing for licensing exams from the beginning
As a pre-med student, it can seem like the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) series is way too far down the road to even be thinking about at the start of your medical school journey. But according to our seasoned physicians, that’s exactly when you should start thinking about it.
Preparing early can help ensure you fully grasp all the necessary material by the time your exam dates do roll around. Dr. Sujka notes that SGU placed particular emphasis on USMLE preparation early on, 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 says. This is definitely true when you consider that residency program directors cite Step 1 performance as the most important criterion they evaluate when comparing candidates.
6. 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. And if that happens to you, the worst thing you can do is isolate your struggles.
“Ask for help,” Dr. Sujka encourages. While it’s easy to think you can do it all on your own, he warns against this, noting that seeking assistance isn’t the same as admitting defeat. Good med schools fully anticipate that their students will need some help along the way. Quality programs should have plenty of support systems in place to help you find the resources you need.
Learning to ask for help in medical school will also set you up for success as a resident physician. Honing this skill will make it easier to ask for help on decisions related to patient care.
7. You don’t have to choose your specialty right away
Some doctors go into medical school certain they know the exact type of medicine they’ll end up practicing. And while this does work out in some cases, it’s not at all uncommon to discover a new passion in the midst of your medical training.
Even if you feel certain about pursuing a particular field, try to keep an open mind. “I wanted to become a surgeon, but I ended up switching to emergency medicine, and then again to cosmetics,” Dr. Michon explains. The more you learn about the field of medicine, you may find you’re better suited for certain specialties you wouldn’t have previously considered.
8. The residency application process is stressful but rewarding
Securing a residency will likely be at the top of your mind for much of medical school. It can be intimidating to realize you’ll spend part of your third year and most of your fourth year just completing the application process.
After an extensive residency interview process, you’ll 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, but 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 says.
9. Not all medical schools will yield the same outcomes
As you evaluate different medical programs, it’s important to remember that not all schools train their medical students in the same way. Curricula, faculty experience, research initiatives, and education methods can all vary, resulting in differing levels of graduate success at times.
The best ways to get a firm grasp on a medical school’s graduate experience are to speak with alumni and to evaluate the institution’s student outcomes. Connecting with former students will allow you to ask questions about the medical student experience specific to that school. And reviewing a school’s graduate outcomes can tell you exactly how that program measures up to the national average when it comes to residency placements, exam pass rates, and more.
10. You shouldn’t stress about the cost too much
One of the more daunting elements of this process is thinking about how to pay for medical school, but practicing physicians suggest not ruminating on it too much. Your focus should be on your studies while working toward your MD. And it’s worth remembering that you stand to earn a substantial salary once you have your medical career established.
“After graduation, you will eventually have no trouble paying off your debts,” Dr. Michon ensures.
Becoming a doctor takes a lot of dedication and grit. But if you’re driven by a real passion to help patients, the hard work will pay off. “If you go to medical school for the right reasons, the time commitment and cost will be well worth it,” Dr. Morris says.