Surviving Medical School: Tips for Incoming Students

Surviving Medical School: Tips for Incoming Students
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Paul S. Bodine July 13, 2015

Medical school will tax your body, mind, relationships, and social life. Take a few tips from these three insiders, and you may have a better shot of making it out successfully, on time, and healthy.

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Have you always wondered whether it would be cool to be a doctor?

Well, don’t even dream of undertaking the educational commitment without taking a serious deep-dive into the very real challenges of medical school — one of the most difficult educational experiences on the planet.

How Does Med School Affect Students?

While the <a href=”{: target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow” } that 97 percent of all U.S. medical students eventually graduate, 6 to 7 percent of students take a formal leave of absence for academic, health, or other reasons at some point during their [med school journey](” target=”_blank”>Association of American Medical Colleges reports. And the number of students who graduate in just four years has fallen from 90 percent in the 1970s to 81 percent in 2013 — the lowest it’s ever been.

Worse, as Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, professor of medicine at Mayo Medical School, pointed out in a recent article for AMA Wire, multiple studies have shown that almost half of students at U.S. medical schools experience some kind of burnout, depression, or fatigue. These types of duress can cause behaviors such as cutting ethical corners, self-prescribing antidepressants, or looking the other way when a student sees stress and burnout compromising fellow students.

What Makes Med School so Challenging?

Medical school is hard. You must learn not only to drink from a fire hose of complex and diverse academic subjects, but also to deal with the anxiety these challenges cause. Such struggles can, in turn, be exacerbated by insufficient sleep, neglected relationships, competition with classmates, and, for some, gnawing doubts about whether they’re really suited to such a demanding career path.

And the difficulties don’t end there: You may face mounting student debt; an overemphasis on grades, particularly in the first and second years of medical school; learning environments that are unsupportive, disorganized, or inadequately supervised or varied; or, if you are the Type A medical student, an unwillingness to admit weakness or seek help.

How Can You Survive the Challenges?

So, how do you ensure you’re not one of these medical school casualties? Listen to the advice of three former clients — whom I’ll call Vicky, Ramesh, and Andrew — each of whom has found a path to medical school success.

1. Strive for balance.

According to Vicky, who earned her MD at Loyola-Stritch, surviving medical school is “all about balance. Don’t put off things to do or things that keep you sane (e.g., cooking, exercise, hobbies).”

Duke medical student Ramesh concurs: “Any of the good life habits you want, you need to start off the bat your first year because … trying to start a new thing later on is damn near impossible. Start waking up early before you get here. Start working out in the mornings before you get to school. Start learning how to cook before you get here.”

2. Build relationships.

To help you survive, work hard to build rapport with classmates, faculty, friends, and family. “Find people you can confide in and trust in medical school,” Vicky advises. “The friends you make in medical school are the closest you will have in your life. Share with them your struggles and don’t hide away. It’s your friends who will get you through the harder moments in school.”

Ramesh adds: “I made a good group of friends [who] know absolutely nothing about medicine. You really have to get out of that hospital bubble or else you go crazy.”

3. Think honestly and carefully about your interests.

Andrew, an emergency medicine resident at University of Chicago, says, “The toughest part … is figuring out what specialty you want to pursue. People will tell you in the first and second years, and even third, ‘Oh, you have time to decide, don’t worry.’ That is a fat, fat lie!”

And Vicky concurs: “Think about the 5-year, 10-year plan. Be honest with yourself because this will be the choice you make for the rest of your career. Having said that, you can always change your mind after you start your residency, but it gets harder.”

Ramesh adds: “If you’re one of those people who has known since [she] [was] three years old that [she] want[s] to be a heart surgeon, I strongly recommend that … some time in the first year [you] start connecting with these people. Actually figure out if that is work you’d want to do. I walked in thinking gung-ho surgery, and now I have all these other things floating around my head that I think I could be just as happy doing.”

4. Keep your eyes on the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE).

“Always keep in your mind that you will need to take Step 1 and Step 2 during medical school,” Vicky advises. “While you are taking your basic science classes, look at the Step 1 review book and start taking notes in it. Even start taking sample questions. It is never too early to study for Step 1.”

Ramesh agrees: “Step 1 … is probably the most important test you will take in determining your options for the future. So having that in mind and even buying review materials early on and as you’re studying taking notes in the margins … to go back and look at when you go to review is actually extremely helpful.”

5. Be adaptable and inquisitive.

Andrew notes that in third year, “The toughest part is figuring out how you fit into the hospital scene, and each clerkship is different. So really use your adaptability skills. You may not know the name of the surgery or the details of post-op care, but if you can demonstrate willingness to learn without being annoying, willingness to help and show desire to be involved, you can succeed and get procedures and ultimately good reviews.”

During your clinical years, Vicky recommends that you try to “be helpful to the residents. Ask questions. This is a good time to build your fund of knowledge that will carry you through any residency you choose.”

6. People skills are key, but don’t forget to enjoy the process.

Andrew says, “Be yourself … but being pretentious, or over-zealous, or superficial are all easy to spot and [will] get weaned out fast.”

And Vicky counsels: “Don’t be intimidated by your classmates — there are those who are helpful and those who act like nothing bothers them and they do not need to study. This is not true. They are all working as hard as you. Don’t doubt yourself.”

Ramesh’s final piece of advice: “You can really pull a lot of enjoyment from the process of learning medicine, but you will never do it if your number one concern is getting a good grade. And as a result, the more fun you have, the more stuff you end up remembering anyway, the more people are comfortable talking to you, the better your evaluations are from your preceptors, and the better your grades are in the long run.”

Medical school is a grueling but survivable experience. Staying organized, balanced, and connected are the keys to making it through — and onto a rewarding career as a physician.

_Additional articles about how to survive paying for medical school and other medical school advice can be found on Noodle. Feel free to ask Paul Bodine and other Noodle Experts any questions you have about the process._


  • AMA Wire®: Student SOS: 6 ways to avoid. (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2015, from AMA Wire.

  • Graduation Rates and Attrition Factors for U.S. Medical School Students. (2014, May 1). Retrieved June 1, 2015, from AAMC.

  • What Makes Medical School Hard? The Work or the Study Anxiety? (2014, April 15). Retrieved June 1, 2015, from The Almost Doctor’s Channel.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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