Tips for Surviving Medical School

Farook W. Taha; Adeleke T. Adesina


February 04, 2011

Remember when you were a premedical student in college? It seems like a century ago for many of us who have just completed the first year of medical school. It feels that way because our lives have changed dramatically. Normal life seems to have vanished, and suddenly, 24 hours in a day are not enough to get through the enormous volumes of information that we are expected to learn for every exam. It seems virtually impossible. We barely have time to eat or sleep.

Medical school is not the end of the world. Take it from us, 2 students who have been there, when we say that medical school is what you make of it. Do not let medicine define you; instead, you should tailor medicine to your lifestyle. Otherwise, you might become overwhelmed by the demands of your new life and lose the sense of why you chose medicine in the first place.

How do you survive medical school? From the beginning, time management must be a major priority. If you can manage your time successfully, you can still enjoy your life to a certain extent. Studying in med school is not the same as it was in college; this is a new world where you have to explore different techniques and find what works best for you. In medical school, it is all about studying smart, not studying hard. If you don't know this at the beginning, you will learn it the hard way.

Studying medicine is a long process and demands a great amount of discipline and sacrifice. But the reward is priceless. We hope that you chose medicine for the amazing field it is: the rich opportunities it provides for helping humans and the avenues it opens for making a difference in the world. The following are some of the most common pieces of advice we have collected:

  1. Take care of yourself. You may face long-term negative consequences to your health if you adopt negative behaviors. Do not deprive yourself of healthy, fresh food. Do not ruin your health by eating fast food and avoiding exercise. Do not pull all-nighters and deprive your body and brain of sleep; the consequences are too severe for what may be only 15 minutes of productive studying. Your brain needs fresh food, water, fruits, and vegetables. Your body needs exercise and sleep.

  2. Do not compete with your classmates or compare your grades with others. We all had to be competitive to get into medical school. But once you are accepted, it becomes a level playing field. Although many students still compete with their classmates, it will not make them better physicians. Getting a 95% on your pathology exam does not mean you will be a great pathologist or clinician. As soon as you walk out of your first exam, look around, and you will see people obsessing about what the right answer was for Question 13. It is easy to spot them. They will come to you and ask you if you put "C" for Question 84. Seriously! Avoid everyone after the exam, and make friends with those who share your philosophy.

  3. Answer practice questions while you study. "Studying my notes 10 times is probably the best way to prepare for exams." Wrong! The only way to test your learning is to do practice questions. For example, after studying your Board Review Series physiology textbook, make sure you complete the questions at the end of each chapter. This will help solidify the concepts you just read. Studying the same thing repeatedly does not make you smarter, but getting a question wrong will teach you quite a bit. Professional educators will tell you that it is statistically proven that students who do more questions perform better on boards, and that the only time you should go back to the big books is when you consistently miss questions on a certain topic and the answer explanations are insufficient.

  4. Learn the big picture. You will likely start your first day in school delving into biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, or histology. From the start, instructors talk about columnar cells, impulse transmission, and glycolysis in fine detail. The next day, you are learning about brachial plexus and cardiac output. This is an enormous amount of information overload and students are often not prepared. As you memorize, learn the big picture

  5. Study with groups. "I am going to study on my own because I don't need anyone's help." Wrong! Medicine is all about teamwork and sharing information. You have to be able to cooperate with others. Even when you apply for residency, it is important to keep this concept in mind. The moment the residency directors feel you will not be a good team player or that you might have "issues" with your colleagues, your application goes in the shredder. Find a small group of people who share the same healthy habits as you, meaning they like to exercise, they do not like to discuss grades, and they have a positive attitude. Once you find the right group, arrange to meet weekly for several hours to ask each other questions about concepts you do not understand. Even better, ask each other questions on little details you think your friends might have understood. Arrange for a review session the night before the exam for last-minute tweaking of your knowledge.

  6. Take time to engage in stress-relieving activities. Everyone in your class is facing the same amount of stress, some people more than others. You might notice some students walk around with a frown, whereas others wear huge smiles. How is that possible if they are all facing the same pressure? Again, it is time management. If you have extra time, you are able to reduce stress. Spend time with friends, or do something on your own that makes you feel better. Activities like exercise, yoga, listening to calm music, talking to your parents or praying -- there is something out there that makes you feel better. Find it and do it. Do not let the stress affect your studies, relationships and, most importantly, health.

Finally, and we cannot emphasize this enough, remember that we are joining a great profession. Be passionate about what you are learning! Medicine is a treasure and an art. As Henri Amiel said, "To me, the ideal doctor would be a man endowed with profound knowledge of life and of the soul, intuitively divining any suffering or disorder of whatever kind, and restoring peace by his mere presence."

Editor's note: This was adapted from a book manuscript in the publication process, How to Prepare for the Medical Boards – Secrets for Success on USMLE Step 1 & COMLEX Level 1, by Adeleke T. Adesina and Farook W. Taha.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.