Top 10 Things You Need in Medical School

It’s crazy to think that I finished my first year of medical school last year. As I’m well into my second year now, I’m taking a little time to reflect on what I’ve learned so far. I think that medical school really forces you to stretch new muscles and grow in more than just medical knowledge. The first year of medical school was hectic and fast-paced to say the least. I’ve grown so much — not just as a student, but as a person, partner (to my loving boyfriend!), and future doctor. Besides learning how to take a proper cardiology exam or figuring out how to use a stethoscope, I’ve learned things about myself both as a person and student.

If you are currently applying to medical school, thinking about medicine, starting your first year, or are curious what a year of frenzy looks like, keep reading. The following list encompasses things I learned while embarking on this journey of medicine, and subsequently, what I think any entering student needs to know.

1. An Established Study Habit

I wanted to start off by saying that it’s ok to not have a study plan at first. It took me three months until I finally got the hang of things when I started my first semester. Medical school is completely different from undergrad — prepare to learn new content every day rather than 2-3x per week. You’ll either learn topics by subject (i.e. pathology, microbiology) or systems (i.e. cardiology, renal). Gone are the days where you’re learning genetics and organic chemistry. Now, you’re knee deep in anatomy and pathology (to name a few), subjects which require a new set of study skills. The important thing is to try new things and scrap the plans that aren’t working out for you. And you’ll find out quickly whether or not it’s working for you (i.e. midterm season #yikes).

2. A Few Good Resources

By the end of the first week of medical school, you will be bombarded with textbooks, flashcards, apps, and resources that students “swear by”. Do not feel like you need to utilize every resource that has been mentioned or handed your way. You will be completely overwhelmed by the amount of resources that, at the end of the day, will all teach you the same thing.

I recommend spending the first week gathering all the resources you can find (my cohort had a circulating flashdrive of them) and skim it. Eventually you will find 1-2 (maximum) resources for each subject that work for you. I made the mistake of trying to use 4-5 resources per subject to only find myself stressed that I didn’t have enough time to review them all.

3. A Community

I moved to a new country to start medical school, but I made sure to establish a community. It makes all the difference to know you have support and friends to count on. I joined a local triathlon team, garden with a gardening group, and am part of a tutoring group here on campus that links us up with upperclassmen as mentors. Since I can’t have my family and friends with me wherever I go, I make sure to create my own little community so that I can feel like I am a part of something bigger than just school and studying.

4. Non-Negotiables

Your life doesn’t revolve around studying; studying revolves around your life. So you need to plan accordingly. What are your non-negotiable activities? Do you need a Sunday off to hang out with friends? Do you feel healthier if you meal prep 2 days out of the week instead of eating out? Do you have to get 1 hour of exercise every morning? Figure out what needs to happen every day and every week for you to function at your best, pencil it in, and block off those areas from your schedule. Seriously. It’s non-negotiable.

5. Headspace

I am in no way sponsored by this company, I just love what they do. Headspace is a meditation app that gave me access to over 1000 hours of guided meditation. I pay $90/year but it is completely worth it if you need to meditate in order to keep your anxiety in check. My favorite packs include CommutingAnxietyProductivityBalanceFocus, and End of Day.

6. YouTube as a Resource

So you’re telling me that my education will come mostly from a FREE video streaming website while paying $60k/year for school? Yes. Youtube is where I watch Osmosis videos, Dr. Najeeb lectures, and even lectures from other universities. My two favorite videos to date? A nursing student explaining the cheat method for figuring out ABGs (arterial blood gas problems such as respiratory/metabolic alkalosis/acidosis) and someone breaking down the Hooper’s trick for interpreting ECGs.

Lectures in medical school teach you everything and those are invaluable, however, I left many classes feeling frazzled. YouTube is a great resource for learning what really needs to be studied and also learning how to memorize things through mnemonics, tables, or even guides that people put out.

7. Know You Can Do It

When I first started medical school, I thought it would be the hardest endeavor I would ever undertake (then I joined a triathlon team – haha!). While on many levels, that was and still is true, I realized that that’s not the healthiest mindset to have. Even before starting school, I’d hear that medicine was the “time to get serious” and “there’s no room for error”. This was it. “This is what you waited your whole life to do”. Although it’s important to be realistic about things, I feel that this often hinders people before they’ve even embarked on the journey.

Once I realized that this thought was hindering me from even starting to study, I came to the conclusion that I had to change some things around. This was around the time I started believing in myself. It’s in this time I also realized that this was the key to getting things done. If you start believing that you can do whatever task it is you’ve set out for yourself, you’re almost halfway there to completing it.

I entered medical school with zero anatomy experience. I never handled a cadaver, nor did I ever take a class on anatomical structures (simply because UC San Diego, my alma mater, did not offer these classes). So imagine my discomfort when the first class of medical school was a dissecting lab. Weeks flew by and I hadn’t properly opened a textbook to start memorizing structures. I just couldn’t do it. Every class had a 40 page practical in front of it and it was to be memorized. I couldn’t bring myself to start reading the practical but I had to start somewhere because exams were approaching. I started with telling myself that I can do this. I HAVE to do this. The uncomfortable shift that needs to happen within my brain as I start memorizing structures will happen before finals because it needs to happen – otherwise I will fail out, and that is not an option. I believed that I could do it. So I started learning the forearm muscles and I found out that the muscle that pronates the arm is called a pronator quadratus. Then I learned that the muscle that extends the pinky finger is called the extensor digiti minimi. My mouth dropped when I found out how the material was so straightforward. Since then,  anatomy has not been a problem. You will also face a similar subject or challenge and not know where to begin. Always start with convincing yourself that you can do it.

8. Previous Clinical Experience

This is in no way necessary, but I do believe it’s important. Before you start medical school, you need to have some sort of idea of what you’re getting yourself into and clinical experience is a great way to get that exposure and see a day in the life of a doctor.

9. Develop Healthy Habits

Nutrition, physical activity, and a good sleep schedule are necessary in succeeding in something like med school. Everyone agrees that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Therefore you need to prepare for succeeding in the long run. Taking care of your body and mind will take you so far on this journey and it’s important that when school starts and everything is pulling you in different directions that you don’t start sacrificing your health. I’ve seen classmates run on all-nighters for awhile just to cram during the middle of the night. Others simply started ignoring their bodies and mental health because school was more important. I’ve seen classmates drop out, turn into zombies, or even fail. I, myself, stopped doing the necessary things for my chronic health condition, only to have a huge flare-up the week before finals. Guess who missed her finals and had to defer? You see, it’s detrimental to sacrifice your health and nothing is worth it. Not even grades.

10. Become a Scheduling Pro

Some smart schedule hacks:

  1. If you are trying to fit too many things in your day (which will happen all the time in medical school), don’t add more to your list. Simply delete things that weren’t as important in the first place in order to make space.
  2. As soon as a new task arises, schedule a time to handle it.
  3. The Pomodoro technique works – study for 50 minutes, then rest for 10 to avoid burnout.
  4. In your planner, write down the three most important tasks for that day that need to get done (to prevent falling behind, or to do the necessary preparation for tomorrow’s work, or to finally check something off your list that’s been sitting there for a month and driving you crazy, or to complete a time sensitive task, etc etc.).
  5. Set specific times for checking your email. It’s one of those things that we’ve conditioned ourselves into thinking is a productive task but you can easily check your email 30 times in an hour when you’re trying to procrastinate.
  6. Your first task of the day should always be the most important and most urgent (studying for tomorrow’s test), then followed by important and not urgent (working out), then not important and urgent (phone calls), and lastly, not important and not urgent (surfing the web).