How to Succeed in Medical School

After years of hard work, sacrifice, applications, interviews, rejection letters, and tears, you successfully earned that golden ticket offering you admission into medical school. I remember that feeling like it was yesterday, where the weight of the world is lifted off your shoulders, and you’re all smiles day in and day out. You’re now one step closer to achieving your dream of becoming a physician. Congratulations!

But what happens now? How do you manage a whole new set of challenges—workload, studying, career planning, and maintaining resiliency? Today, I’m sharing my top four lessons I’ve learned in medical school, in an effort to prepare you for what lies ahead. Please be aware that these are my opinions, and that other medical students will have different opinions.

Lesson 1: Don’t bite off more than you can chew!
It’s very tempting to join as many clubs as you can, start a part-time job, continue with all of your previous volunteer work, take on a couple of research projects, and pursue other extracurricular activities. The desire to continue to do all these activities often stems from the competitive nature of successfully matching to your desired field in CaRMS. However, the reality is that there is little free time.

Medical school presents a whole new set of challenges that are very different from undergraduate life. For starters, your schedule is created for you, and you have no control over it. Most days, your time is blocked from 8 AM-6 PM. While most lectures are recorded for you to podcast on your own time if you choose not to attend class, there are often several mandatory sessions within a week that you cannot miss, such as problem-based learning sessions, physical exam sessions, clinical obligations, etc. As such, it can be challenging to schedule other non-academic commitments. This challenge is made even more difficult when you add up the number of one-hour lectures in a week, which can average between 20-30 lectures depending on your school and the courses you are taking.

So, my suggestion is to spend the first 2-3 months of medical school adapting to the new curriculum and schedule; focus on ensuring you can pass your exams before you taking on additional responsibilities, whether it be to build your CV for CaRMS, or just because you want to do other things. The last thing you want is to fail your exams, or to burnout. Your physical and mental well-being should always be your number one priority!

Lesson 2: Study Effectively
The sheer volume of information medical students are expected to digest in a short amount of time will make your jaw drop. To quote classmates ahead of me, “it’s like drinking from a firehose.” As I mentioned, you may have roughly 20-30 one-hour lectures per week. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, each lecture is between 80-160 PowerPoint slides, filled with dense information. You have to quickly learn numerous clinical presentations in a short amount of time. Then, you have to reproduce that knowledge on exams and in clinical settings. So, how do you go about managing all of it?

The first step is acceptance. Accept that you will not be able to learn every detail before the exam. The key is to focus on big picture concepts. You can spend an endless amount of time studying every single line on every single slide and memorizing it so that you get 100% on the exam. But is it really worth it?

Most, if not all, medical schools in Canada operate on a pass/fail grading system, meaning that you only have to know enough to pass the exam, and that you are graded relative to how your peers perform. Further, topics you study in one course are often repeated in another course, and are reinforced again in clinical settings. So, don’t worry if you didn’t fully memorize every detail of metabolic acidosis for the exam; you will always have another opportunity to learn it!

I would also recommend attending most, if not all, lectures. There is nothing like learning the material in real-time, engaging with it, discussing it with your colleagues, and being able to ask the lecturer questions after class for topics you didn’t understand. If you leave all your learning for the podcasts, you may end up with 20-30 hours of podcasts weekly, which can build up if you don’t stay on top of it. You can quickly fall behind, and will become even more stressed.

Finally, don’t be afraid to use supplemental resources to further your learning. Medical students often use resources like DynaMed, UpToDate, and Toronto Notes to brush up on topics they need further help with.  Don’t forget, your real exam is the patient in front of you. The exams in medical school are more of a formality; you’re really studying to make sure you can save your patient’s life!

Lesson 3: Start Career Planning
During in your medical school journey, you will have to determine which specialty to pursue. There are many fields within medicine one can choose from. While you may already know which specialty you want, I would encourage you to keep your options open, and be willing to learn about other disciplines and explore them via shadowing, talking to clinicians, etc. Your medical school curriculum will expose you to various fields that will either excite you or put you to sleep, and your clinical exposure to these disciplines will help guide your career choice. If you are having trouble with career planning, a good starting point is to determine if you wish to be a surgeon or not. If you don’t want to be a surgeon, then think about whether you want to be a generalist or a specialist.

With regards to shadowing, it may be beneficial to have some background knowledge in the field prior to shadowing; otherwise you may not have as great of an experience. For example, if you are thinking about internal medicine, you could shadow a General Internist early in medical school to learn more about the career, lifestyle, etc. However, a lot of the knowledge in internal medicine requires you to have completed relevant courses like cardiology, respirology, nephrology, etc. Don’t be dissuaded from a specialty just because you don’t have the knowledge now–it will come with time!

Lesson 4: Maintain Resiliency
Medical school is tough. Our program in Calgary is a non-stop, three-year program; we only stop for Spring Break and Christmas holidays. Lack of motivation, not caring about school, and burnout are very common, and are all feelings I have experienced. So, how do you maintain resiliency during the tough times?

It’s all about balance. You have to recognize when you need a break, and not feel guilty about taking one. Personally, I decompress by drinking a hot cup of tea, going to yoga, watching movies, and spending time with friends. During exam weeks, when I’m super stressed and too tired to do anything, I reflect on what I had to go through to get into medical school. I struggled with acing the MCAT, received countless rejection letters, and in the end, only received one interview, and one acceptance letter. There were many times I wanted to quit, and I almost did. I often look back on my dark days and remember that if I could overcome so much adversity and successfully gain admission into medical school, then I can DEFINITELY overcome any obstacle coming my way, including exams. To remind myself of the happiest day of my life, I framed and hung my medical school acceptance letter in my bedroom. I read it on days I am feeling low, and use it to help me push through.

So, for those of you reading this, I recommend finding an activity you love to do, and do it on a daily/weekly basis. When times get tough, reflect on your hard work and whatever you overcame to get to where you are now. Medical school has been very challenging, but it’s also been the best experience of my life, and I can’t wait for what tomorrow has in store!

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