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What I Wish I Had Known Before Starting Medical School

1. It’s hard

There’s no way to sugar-coat this – balancing the academic workload as well as living away from home for the first time (or for those living at home – even commuting itself) really takes a toll on you. Sometimes it can feel like everyone else has settled in already, but the truth is, finding a new routine and fitting everything in isn’t something a lot of students achieve until their second or third term. If you find medical school to be difficult, remember that it is completely normal, and that you are not the only one. You will learn and you will eventually get the hang of it. Prioritisation is key.

TIP: If you have been struggling to find the right balance for some time, make use of the support services your university offers. The help is there and sometimes asking for it really does make the difference.

2. People are sick

This seems obvious, but when first visiting patients and going on placements, it can be hard to accept that many patients have long term chronic conditions that they will never fully recover from. A lot of the time, medical students rush into university thinking that their degree will teach them to save everyone, but it’s an important realisation that in many cases, medicine is more about the management of symptoms rather than that elusive magical cure.

TIP: It can be really helpful to spend some time volunteering in wards or local care homes (perhaps in your first year when there isn’t much patient exposure yet) to really understand medicine from the patient’s perspective. This will also help with adjusting to working with ill patients. A few really good books that personally helped me with this have been Better by Atul Gawande, and Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. Both of these provide a unique insight into dealing with death and are definitely worth giving a read!

3. Everyone learns differently

Not everyone has the same learning style. For example, some people need to type up all their notes, while others find they’re better off writing them out. There is absolutely no single right way to learn, and there’s no need to, for example, invest in the latest, most compact laptop just because your friends find that to be the method that works best for them. The only way to find out how you work best is through trial and error!

Another really important point here is when people study. Some people work best at night and make full use of the university’s 24-hour libraries – you don’t have to do this if it doesn’t work for you! When are you most awake and motivated?

TIP: Use your first term/semester, or at least your first year, to find out what works best for you. Try typing up your notes and writing them; try using the university computers and working at home; try studying before your first lecture in the morning and before you sleep at night. Experiment whilst the workload is relatively light, and most importantly, come up with something quickly and stick to what works best for you!

4. You won’t be able to learn everything

For most students, this is the first time that the workload as well as the complexity is as high as it is. One of the simplest lessons that I’ve learnt is that you simply cannot cover it all. Medicine isn’t about knowing every single fact about every condition; it’s about being able to organise, prioritise and triage. This is good practice for life as a doctor, and in the short term, you learn to have a good understanding of core topics, instead of memorising incredibly detailed facts about a few conditions and then running out of memory space or motivation to cover others.

TIP: Learn to summarise lectures and key concepts. For example, instead of learning every single blood disorder on its own, organise them into groups with similar symptoms so it will be easier to learn them.

5. Self-care is important

When first adjusting to university life, there are many new experiences right from the excitement of Freshers’, to going out, or exploring your new city (or campus) – it’s a lot to get your head around, and sometimes, basic self-care ends up taking a backseat. Medical school itself can get very demanding with up to 30-hour weeks, and it can sometimes feel like there isn’t enough time in your day just for taking care of yourself.

TIP: Make sure that you’re getting enough sleep and that you’re having healthy meals. It’s worth investing in a recipe book and also packing snacks to get you through a long day's worth of lectures. Medicine is a degree with a lot of contact hours and so a little pre-planning can go a long way!

6. It’s not just all about the ‘med school bubble’

Being a medical student is exciting and it’s a privilege to be in this field, but whilst it’s fun, you need to take a break from it once in a while. It’s important for patients to be able to relate to doctors and being well rounded will help you to achieve this. It will also help you to make friends outside your course and really make the most of the university experience. Although it can feel like you have no choice but to be heavily involved with Medicine, life ultimately does not revolve around it.

TIP: Make sure to have hobbies outside your course and really get involved with university life. This is a really common regret that students have after their first year and so getting involved outside of Medicine is essential for branching out and achieving that coveted work-life balance.

By Anjana Lakshmi Narasimhan

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