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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Medical School

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Medical School

Someone once told me that you should only go into medicine if there is absolutely NO other thing you can imagine yourself doing. Even if there is a hint of enjoying something else – do that instead. At the time I took this “advice” mostly serious. However the further into school I get, the more I find myself starting to agree wholeheartedly with it.

This is not to say that I regret doing medicine, because I don’t at all. I just know that the initial sparkle and excitement I felt when I was first starting out has dulled. I cannot wait to get back into the patient care setting where I know I will begin to feel that joy again. Maybe that sounds a little emo. I don’t know, but I have always wanted to try and keep this experience as honest as possible. There are a lot of tired mornings, a lot of 5-minute-cry-sessions, and even more energy drinks.

I wanted to take this week’s post to talk about what I wish I knew before starting medical school. Thankfully, I’ve had some good friends go through the same process. I am lucky to have had a heads up for a lot of the incoming feelings. But it’s still hard to fathom it all until you’re actually going through it.

I know I am only partially through med school, so this list is definitely non-exhaustive, but here it is.

TEN THINGS I WISH I KNEW BEFORE STARTING MEDICAL SCHOOL

1. Relationships (friendships or otherwise) are GOING to change.

Medical school is such a beast. It takes so much of your time. Even when there a free moment – more likely than not you’ll feel guilty even taking time for yourself. But please, please do. It is so important for your brain and mental health.

You may only have time for a quick coffee here and there during a study break. You may not have time for a weekend road trip. If you do, you may have to do some studying on the drive down. Some friends will understand this, and some unfortunately won’t, and you just have to be ready to accept that. While friendships may wane as school goes on, with the nomadic nature of being an IMG, it makes you appreciate the ones that stick around. Regardless of how much capacity you have to reciprocate at that given moment.

2. You are going to spend a LOT of time teaching yourself material.

A lot more than you think. No, even more than that. The slides and power points are great (sometimes) for quick facts. But thoroughly understanding the concepts requires a lot of extra time and effort. This usually ends up being outside of class time. Sure, you can probably pull off a good mark on block exams just by listening in class, but it takes some extra time to really aim for peak understanding and to ensure success on shelf exams and onwards. Videos, practice questions, TA sessions, study groups, having conversations with yourself in your office like a lunatic, etc. The time adds up and before you know it, you’ve run out of hours in the day.

If this is already sounding a little daunting, have no fear. There are so many resources available which utilize many learning styles to help solidify your knowledge. Main point here is: learning is not over when class is over.

3. Be honest with yourself and your effort.

Get an exam grade back that you aren’t 100% pleased with and just can’t figure out what went wrong? It’s fine, it happens to everyone, and if someone says otherwise, they are probably lying. People will vastly under OR oversell their studying efforts. Especially with the prevalence and virality of social media. Just because person A studied for 1 hour before the test doesn’t mean that will be effective for you. The same can be said about person B who brags about staying awake for 3 days straight.

I know for myself (again n=1 does not mean guaranteed success), I have switched up my study methods almost every semester. There’s no shame in that. What worked in first semester for anatomy may not work in semester four once you start getting into deeper concepts and more complicated cases.

Basically, all of medical school is trial and error. The biggest point here is that you need to be quick to recognize when something isn’t working. Then you can adapt, reach out for help if you need, and approach the concept from a different angle. You need to individualize your study outlook, and not go off a copy-pasted one size fits all Instagram “fool proof guide.”

Some other things to consider when looking at study efforts: Do you avoid the subjects that you struggle with? Are you putting enough effective study time in before exams? (Keyword being effective). Are you really understanding what is being asked, or are you solely memorizing buzzwords? Are you taking what you’ve learned in class/slides, and using that info to work through practice questions?

Bottom line: Put the amount of effort in that works for you. Be honest with where you may be lacking. And recognize that studying methods in medical school are so malleable and will change as time goes on.

4. Self doubt is going to unfortunately become a very, very familiar feeling in your emotional repertoire.

There’s no nice way to put it. It sucks, it creeps up at the most inconvenient times, and it can have almost mind-numbing debilitating effects. But it is TOTALLY NORMAL. How many of you have at SOME point or another said something like, “what am I even doing here, I’m not cut out for this.” This isn’t even specific to just medical school. I’m sure we have all felt that way at least once in our lives). I know I have planned out an entirely new life career of baking cupcakes and dog-walking MORE than once throughout this. So I’m right there with you.

Frank Herbert got it right when he said, “fear is the mind killer.” Self doubt and fear can overpower any feelings of confidence and security throughout medical school. It’s so crucial to recognize when you start to feel that way. Just remember that you deserve to be where you are JUST as much as the next person. You got to where you are for a reason. Next time you feel that imposter syndrome overpower your thoughts – tell it to kick rocks.

5. Having someone to study with is just as important as having someone you can vent to.

Medical school can be a very lonely experience. Especially for those of us starting out in the times of Covid and remote learning. It makes it hard to really get to know your classmates aside from, “Oh there goes that weird ginger girl again with her 3rd Monster energy drink of the day.”

Having a solid support system is SO important for success in school, especially when it’s as all-consuming as medicine. Not only do they understand exactly what you are going through (since, hey, they’re dealing with it too), but they understand how hard it is to be stressed to the brink while still needing to be productive. It seems like such a small thing, but it really is such a great feeling to have a group of people, no matter how small, that you can vent your frustrations and fears to and not worry about being judged, no matter how ludicrous those concerns may seem.

It’s also such a reassuring feeling to know that even if someone is having an off day, the group is there to motivate each other. They can check in on how studying is going. Or even bounce questions or ideas off of each other without worrying about being annoying. If someone gets a better grade than me, I am beyond STOKED for them. I will be their personal hype woman all day. While they are immediately there for me to review and go over areas I may need to improve on; and vice versa. Medicine is already too petty and competitive as it is to worry about constantly needing to one-up my friends.

Friends support friends

6. Having hobbies outside of medicine is so important.

I don’t know about you, but if I stare at a computer screen for 23 hours a day, I feel like I’m going insane. Not only that, but coming from a job where I very rarely ever sat down to now sitting at a desk for +++ hours a day has been HARD. I need to get up and mooove. Whether that be running, some form of workout, or even just a “silly little walk for my silly little mental health.”

It doesn’t even need to be fitness related. Maybe you like video games, guitar or piano. Or even binging true crime podcasts for hours on end while crushing an entire bag of chips (hypothetically of course). The point is, it’s important to have some way to clear your mind and dissociate from school. Even for just an hour a day.

This is what I have started calling the “small joys.” Medical school is so full of stress. Sometimes the big joys seem so far and few between, so why not get a little bit of happiness by doing something small for yourself. Perhaps that small joy is taking yourself on a movie date, or planning to order Skip the Dishes after your exam on Monday. Maybe it’s having a baking date during your Saturday study break. Or maybe it’s just planning for a bubble bath and a glass of wine on a Friday after a long day of class and review.

Big joys are what you call the family about and frame on your walls, but the small joys will get you through medical school.

7. Time management expectations and realistic goals.

Speaking about the importance of taking time for yourself and having hobbies outside of school, this seemed like an important follow-up. Time is the most precious resource in medical school, and quite frankly, there’s never enough of it. Being honest with your schedule is crucial to successfully completing your tasks. Is it realistic for you to read 80 chapters, workout for 3 hours, watch 5 class recordings and do 200 practice questions after class? Probably not. And if it is, pardon me, please teach me your skills. But for most of us, that type of checklist is most likely unsustainable.

While it looks good on paper to have a beautifully long and detailed To Do list, try to stick to what you KNOW you are able to get done that day. Maybe it’s reviewing that day’s power point lectures, doing 40 practice questions, and reading an extra chapter or two while walking on the treadmill or biking if it’s important to get that daily movement in. This will prevent the buildup of carried over tasks into the next day and so on, where before you know it, it’s the day before the exam and you still have to review 20 lectures.

We’ve all told ourselves “I’ll just finish it tomorrow” before (cough, getting gas BEFORE work anyone…never works out). More often than not it ends up being more of a headache than if we had just finished the task in the first place. Smaller, more attainable goals will always work out better than setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves. Otherwise this inevitably sets us up for failure and adds way more stress than necessary.

8. Take your breaks.

People will tell you to skip them to “save time” but oh my god please take your breaks. Your brain will thank you. The end.

9. Expect to feel tricked by the space-time continuum.

This sounds silly, but it’s so true. The days will seem to absolutely drag on and you’ll feel like this whole experience is never going to end, yet when you blink you are already a day out from writing your finals/shelf exam.

I remember wanting to start writing this blog and documenting my experience from the pre-med program, and now I am a few months away from finishing my preclinical years and preparing for my first board exam.

Respect the time and try to recognize not only how far you have come, but how much you have learned throughout this whole process. We spend so much time worrying about climbing to the next rung of the ladder, but when you stop and really look at the big picture, you have stored SO much information in your genius little brain in such a short amount of time. Go you! Before you know it you’re going to be having nightmares of pagers and getting lost in unfamiliar hospitals and cities.

10. Realizing “getting in is the hardest part” is a fallacy.

I’m not sure how many people still hold this to be true, but just in case it was still a blip of a thought in your mind – erase it. While getting into medical school is a feat in itself and deserves to be celebrated, unfortunately that is only the starting point of hard work. It feels like you need to constantly prove yourself by jumping through hoops, sometimes while hoops are being thrown at you as well…and the hoops are on fire…and shrinking in size…

You get the point.

I saw someone the other day say, “everyone says medical school is ‘like a marathon, not a sprint’ but it feels like a sprinting marathon 99% of the time” and to be honest…yes. Sometimes it can feel like you’re constantly reassuring yourself that as long as you make it through this week it’ll be ok. (Again, not specific to medicine, I’m sure we have all said this a time or two).

Another thing to always remember is that medicine does not owe you anything, and if you have the attitude that you are somehow more deserving of being there than someone else (spoiler alert, we all got into school, and we are all at a Caribbean school for some reason or another), or that just because you took the IMG route it will be easier, you will be sadly mistaken.

Celebrate your wins, and know that the hard work is far from over.

Well there you have it. Hopefully this helps your mindset if you are just starting out in school, and hopefully you can resonate with at least a few of these if you have already gone through/are going through it currently.

Thanks as always if you’ve made it this far. Let me know what you guys think of these posts and if there’s anything specifically you’d like a future post on in the Contact Me section.

I hope everyone has a fantastic rest of the week. 🙂

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