Gearing up to apply to start medical school but don’t have a clue about the challenges ahead? Like many perspective med students my initial understanding of the forthcoming experience was limited to and shaped by what I had read in medical school blogs, student forums, and med school recruiting “propaganda”. What I learned informally was confusing at best, often scary, and much of the time proved not to be the case in my own med school reality. As a result of my med school “baptism by fire” I decided to capture some of the lessons I had learned the hard way and share them with others who are considering taking on the difficult and seemingly overwhelming challenge of succeeding in medical school. Mine is not a perfect list but I can tell you it has worked for me! Use this as a starting point for developing your own study strategy.

Create a schedule and stick to it.

You shouldn’t have to think about what you’re doing next, it’s important to have a daily and weekly plan. Organization is the key to success. Then study, study and study some more!

Find how you study best for each subject and stick to it.

Some students study best alone and some do better studying with a group? Do you get more from reading a book, listening to a professor, or both?

Have everything you need before you begin:

Books, lectures, notes, a white board, colored pencils, highlighters, notebooks, scratch paper, etc.. You want to be able to find your things easily so you don’t waste your valuable time.

Don’t allow interruptions

from family, friends and fellow students when you know you need to focus your time on reading, studying, or reviewing a lecture. Make sure you schedule time to call family and friends when it is convenient for YOU.

Everyone is under pressure to perform.

This is medical school, the information is extremely difficult, the schedule is tough, and the hours are long. Each day more information is piled on and you’re expected to absorb all of it while retaining what you have already learned. Stress/Anxiety is a normal byproduct.

Taking a break periodically,

from the grind of studying, is essential to your mental health! Set aside personal “down time” to exercise, grocery shop, relax, and do things for yourself.

Learn to focus on what is within your control,

and don’t sweat the things that are out of your control or that you need to worry about in the future. Regain focus and a bit of your sanity by working on the activities you need to do now, like reviewing a lecture or cramming for a test.

You can’t always go it alone

so don’t hesitate to ask for help from professors, TA’s, fellow students, roommates, family and friends. From my experience people are willing to help if you let them know. I was overwhelmed when my laptop crashed during the first two weeks of school (in the middle of my first block of exams). I reached out to my friends and the med school administrators
and I was surprised at how quickly the problem was resolved. I’ll never forget that feeling of relief; it truly made a difference at a time when I was overwhelmed!

Be a friend to everyone.

You never know who is having a bad day, failed a test or misses home. Be the ray of sunshine in someone’s day, whether it’s a smile or a simple “Hi, how are you?” Be the genuine person you want your future patients to admire.

Review your test if possible

or meet with the teacher to discuss questions you missed. Go over all of the questions to cement the high yield concepts, it’s the best way to ensure you thoroughly know that topic.

Going to lectures is critical.

A lot of people think that going to class is optional especially when they think they know that particular subject. The professor always  emphasizes important points during a lecture; it is vital to take advantage of that knowledge. The points of emphasis are usually because they will show up on an exam.

Go to laboratory and doctor patient relationship courses.

I know a lot of students skip these classes to catch up on sleep, but this isn’t the right approach. These classes are essential for your success in the course and as a future doctor. You learn the basics in laboratory on how to orient yourself when looking at a body; you get to truly have an in depth approach to anatomy- literally!

The 30 second rule.

If a professor spends more than 30 seconds discussing a particular slide, clinical correlation or topic- it’s going to be on the test. Star, highlight, circle or bold that information, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see it later.

Unfortunately, your past educational success and study habits are no guarantee of future success in med school; the bar is much higher. In college you may have crammed for a test the night before and succeeded. Not to scare you but in Medical School you will “cram for tests” every day for a week before the test, and you’ll still walk into the testing room feeling stressed, unsure, and unprepared.

The good news is that if you get accepted into Med School you have already proven you have the intellectual capacity to succeed. At that point it’s all about applying yourself to the full-time job of studying. You will work harder than you have ever worked before, study until you are beyond exhausted, and at the end of the day you’ll feel guilty about stopping to sleep. If that’s not enough, by necessity you will sacrifice time with your family, have very limited time to spend with friends, and forget about any semblance of a normal life. Your life will revolve around med school. Not to be melodramatic, but it will take a 100% commitment from you and your absolute undying devotion to your studies if you want to become a doctor.

That’s what I have learned from my “baptism by fire” attending medical school. I hope it helps you avoid some of the obstacles I experienced. I’ve got more to say but to be honest I’m feeling guilty, I need to get back to my full-time job . . . studying!

About the Author: Heather Bergdah is a coffee connoisseur, automotive enthusiast, business woman, and world traveler. She received her MBA from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. She is currently a Caribbean medical student attending Saba University. She has relocated six times, traveled the world and seen places and things that many people only dream of. Becoming a doctor is another step on her career success ladder. She lives her life embracing the belief, “the best is yet to come!”

This article was published in the November/December 2014 issue of PreMedLife magazine.