blank'/> A LITTLE BIT OF LACQUER: Starting Medical School (and Beyond): 5 Pieces of Advice I Wish I Had

August 28, 2018

Starting Medical School (and Beyond): 5 Pieces of Advice I Wish I Had

It’s that time of year again - my Instagram feed was recently full of photos of freshly minted medical students with their new white coats, sharing beautiful snaps of their ceremonies and pretty flat lays of their study set ups, giddy at the incredible achievement and honor that’s been bestowed upon them. And just last week the next anticipated wave of Instagram photos started popping up – the “wow this is harder than I thought” “how can I handle this firehose of information and still be a normal human” – the fear and feeling of overwhelm with the body of knowledge you have ahead. The first thing I’ll say is – you can totally do this. You got this. Really, truly. I don’t think there’s one physician who will tell you they didn’t feel overwhelmed at the beginning (and if they say they weren’t they’re probably lying)!!

So if you’re short on time and don’t want to read more, than just read this much: you can do this. Repeat that affirmation. If you’ve got a minute or two keep reading for some practical tips on starting medical school on the right foot.

1. Remember how you got here.
It’s easy to sit in anatomy class or physiology and feel like you need to reinvent your study habits to keep up with this new (mostly not new, but certainly new VOLUME of) information. But for the most part, you don’t. You likely got here because you figured out the whole studying thing – remember those study skills from college and use them. What’s more important than ever now is time management and consolidating vast quantities of information. For me personally I loved waking up early in the morning and reviewing what we were going over for lecture so it wasn’t foreign when it came up in lecture. After lecture I’d try consolidating to the important things and making sure I understood those concepts. For some people, consolidating means making flashcards (physical or virtual) that can easily be reviewed later, and for many others it meant finding the respective section in a Step 1 review source like First Aid and annotating there.

2. It’s ok to not know it all. 
Medical school has now collected the crème de la crème, and though it might not be that easy to swallow, you may not be the top student anymore. You might not even be top 10 or top 20. You might just be average. Or even below average. That doesn’t mean you don’t have value or don’t have anything to contribute. You’ve just gone to a bigger pond with bigger fish. The beauty is, there is room for everyone to succeed, and the happiest med students I knew/know are the ones who make a community in med school and share notes and help each other. Learn from these rockstars who are now your classmates and remember that you belong there too (imposter syndrome is all too real at the beginning of med school and beyond, read more on my post here). Also on a side note while we talk about community – try to stay away from the drama. Med school is a rare time when you’re basically in the same class all the time and things can get crazy with people dating etc etc. Obviously I have nothing against that (seeing as I married my med school classmate), but you have to make sure it doesn’t affect your studies or your career. While it may sometimes feel like you’re in middle school again, this is now your profession, and these people will be your professional colleagues for life. Don’t be stupid.

3. Let go of what you thought about medicine and embrace it all.
Most of us (except for maybe those of you with physician parents or close friends) had a preconceived notion of what we thought about medicine. It may have come from limited experiences shadowing or working in clinical research, or it may have come from Grey’s Anatomy. It was probably wrong. I rolled my eyes at dermatology initially thinking it wasn’t enough real medicine (all I saw was pimples and botox and that episode of Grey’s where they were getting hand massages) but MAN was I wrong. Every experience in med school is a chance to learn, so get out of your own way (even if you’re dead set on being a pediatric cardiologist) and embrace pathology. Embrace neurology. As one of my mentors said – become an anthropologist and really immerse yourself in the rotation you're on (this applies more for when you’re on clinical rotations, but the same can be said during the pre-clinical years when you’re learning different systems on different blocks).

4. Show commitment.
It’s hard at the beginning of medical school to also feel like you have to get involved in research and volunteering immediately. You don’t. Get your bearings, but by the middle of first year, you should certainly give it more thought and start testing the waters. It may feel like it’s hard to commit – but remember that showing commitment doesn’t mean your signing up for the specialty your research is in for life – it just means you’re passionate about and dedicated to that project. Find something that genuinely interests you and causes you generally care about, and stick with them. When residency applications come around you better believe we can smell extracurriculars done just for applications from a mile away. Real enthusiasm and dedication is palpable and it will take you far.

5. Keep a highlight reel. 
Medicine and medical training are HARD. Do not let anyone tell you differently. It can be fun if you let it be, but a lot of what we do is hard (residents like to forget that since things just keep getting harder and it’s easy to laugh off the stresses of a medical student, but I remember – it was hard). And because we are learning there are many times we might get the answer wrong, or say the wrong thing to a patient, or have to retake a test. And because most of us are type A and perfectionists, we hold on to those wrong things more dearly than we ever hold onto any of the good. And that sucks. But I’m going to challenge you to keep a highlight folder. The moments where you shined, the moments where a patient said thank you and truly meant it, the moments where you felt good about yourself, or just the moments you felt incredibly happy. Snap pictures if you can or just write as much as you can about that moment so that you’ll never forget it. I have a running note in Evernote with my highlights (aside but I have a similar thing for my husband and a similar one for my kids),  it’s critical that we remember these amazing moments since our minds so easily push them out of the way to remember the not-so-stellar times. It’s all too easy to forget about these little moments (especially when we’re really stressed), but these are in fact the little moments that make medicine worth it. These are in fact the big things.

And one extra for good luck:
Take a step back and remember to live.
It’s really easy to start drowning in the work of medical school and the never ending things to study for. One of the most important skills you can learn in medical school is how to deal with this constant pressure and still make time to live a life worth living. Because guess what? While now it may feel like you’ll have more time for (insert whatever thing you’re putting off here – your fitness, your spouse, your family, whatever) – the truth is you only get busier. In medicine (and particularly in training), there will always be something to study for or something to be stressed about. Realizing this is key to realizing you have to learn to live in spite of the chaos. This is your life now. Not after Step 1. Not after your medicine clerkship. Not after interviews. Not after intern year. NOW. If there’s one thing you should realize in the medical field it’s that nothing in this life (particularly our health) is ever promised. Live your life now. You are alive and breathing and well enough to feel stressed about your medical school classes. You got this.

On a more practical note, for me this meant writing out lots of my things to study and to-do, then fitting them all into a weekly calendar. On that to-do list I made sure to also include things like date-night or dinner with friends and fit them in with everything else. Write them in an hold yourself accountable for those things too. Make time for your life and you’ll be much happier – now and for the rest of your medical training!


  1. This was a really good read!!!! Although I’m done with Med school, I found the point on recording highlights very eye opening (and just downloaded Evernote now). On reflection I can see how my mind has a tendency to loop on the negative events. Thanks for this ��

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  3. I've been a RN for 12 years and next week I start a full time women's health nurse practitioner program... so some of these tips come at just the right time for me. Thank you! Great advice. p.s. I too have 3 young daughters. ��

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