Originally posted October 22, 2012

For the majority of my life, I have received a constant flow of unsolicited counsel from my family of doctors on how to succeed in medicine (see here for more on this). Now that I have gone through the arduous process of first getting into medical school and then successfully getting out of it, I now find myself in the position to be able to blither to anyone and everyone about my two bits of advice on surviving medical school in one piece. So here goes nothing.

Tip #1: Enjoy the first two years.

Medical students are by definition Type A, sub-clinically OCD, basally anxious and unconsciously/consciously competitive individuals. Thus, most med students begin their first day of medical school with the notion that every lecture missed, every test question unknown, and every day off school not used for studying will be promptly notified and flagged in some hidden student portfolio locked in the dean’s personal file cabinet.

In fact, much of the first two years of medical school are created to familiarize the student to the basic concepts of medicine and are mostly spent in the classroom as opposed to the hospital floors.

This is important to be aware of for two reasons:

1. Almost all of your measured performance occurs during the clinical rotations of your third and fourth year of medical school.

2. Any trials and tribulations you may experience during your first two years do not reflect how you will perform during real-time patient care.

What does this mean? This means that you have two years to absorb as much bookwork as you can/want in a relatively non-pressured environment. Pass your tests; don’t try to ace them. Try studying at a new quirky café or with a beer or glass of wine in your hand. Don’t worry about your board exams until its time to actively study for them. You will have plenty of time to readdress these concepts in medicine throughout your medical career.

Tip #2: Explore.

After that first lecture of the first day of medical school, you may be asking yourself, “How the hell am I going to get through four years of this?”

Trust me, those four years fly by faster than you can say pheochromocytoma (get used to these superfluous multi-syllable medical terms).

Often, medical school students are so busy trying to perform in the lecture rooms and clinical rotations that by the time they are nearing the end of their program, they have little insight into what next step in their career is right for them.

Not only are there an ever-increasing amount of specialties sprouting in hospital and outpatient medicine, but there are an infinite number of highly-regarded positions within research, business, law, and journalism that are waiting for creative and ambitious M.D.s like yourself.

There will be incredible opportunities for you after school, but it is up to you to make time out of your busy days to at least consider the next few steps of your career and explore beyond your immediate surroundings.

Tip #3: Be aware and oriented.

Now that we’ve covered the soft topics, let’s get down to what you medical school students are really after when reading articles such as this one. How does one succeed in medical school?
It all comes to being aware and oriented.

To do well in medical school, your third year is the most important year of your four-year degree. Truth be told, a lot of your performance is evaluated away from the patient room and mostly during medical rounds. Unfortunately, you have an extremely limited amount of time and knowledge base to impress the numerous medical teams that you will be participating in and who will be evaluating you. Furthermore, every group of physicians are different, comprised of various personalities and quirks.

Therefore, I can’t advise you to act a certain way during medical rounds or prepare some tried-and-true format for your patient presentations; these facets to your overall performance as a stellar medical student constantly change over the course of the year depending on the medical team you are on.

In this flux of vague and often contradictory expectations during your clinical rotations, it is important to be yourself, care about your patients, and be ready to adapt to the personalities and situations around you.

What not to do: There is no need to recite paragraphs from your textbook as if you generated this knowledge on your own or try to maliciously outwit other medical students on your service; everyone on your team has been a medical student at some point in their lives and can easily see through the malarkey.

What to do: Feel it out. When it’s a busy day on the medical service, make your presentations as short as possible and hold your quasi-fascinating anecdote or arbitrary medical question for when things settle down. There will be plenty of other times to make an impression to the medical team. On the other hand, when your residents and attending head to lunch or have a little down-time to act more casual, don’t be afraid to hang out, get to know them, and have them learn a little more about yourself.

But remember, the patient always comes first. To be aware and oriented of this fact, you are already way ahead of the game when it comes to performing on your clinical rotations.

You Got This

There are many tips and tricks to medical school that can be helpful to those starting out, many more than the petty three that I’ve attempted to describe above. But in the end, to survive medical school one must be genuinely interested to learn, be ready to jump through hoops when necessary, and be prepared to experience the ups and downs of caring for patients with serious illness. Once you’ve accepted this, there will be no stopping you from getting your medical degree.