It’s a common myth, not helped by countless memes, that medical students don’t have any free time. Yes, we’re busy and our course load is heavy. But to say we don’t have time outside of these commitments is definitely an exaggeration.
This question though? One that can put off a lot of potential students thinking about a career as a doctor. Especially those thinking that the next several years of their life will be like a prison sentence chained to a computer or books!
I can tell you that’s not the case. Not unless you want it to be.
But let’s take a deeper look into this discussion.
Will I Have Free Time in Medical School?
The quick answer to this is yes, you will have free time in med school. Without free time how are you supposed to sleep, eat and ‘do’ all the other things involved in being a fully functioning human being? Your classes, lectures and hospital commitments can’t keep you occupied for a full 24-hours of the day. That’s just not sustainable for anyone over the long term.
Doctors, patients and medical students included!
Of course the more precise answer here is; it depends. Whether you have free time or not? Comes down to a couple of factors:
- Your medical school and its expectations
- Your own expectations
Most medical schools will demand a lot of their students. With the amount of time, money and energy spent on your education how could there not be? But they’ll also factor in burn out and rest too.
Then there’s the issue of what medical school you go to. I imagine the environment at Harvard Med, for example, might be more intense than your average European International School, despite their challenges.
The irony here is this. Only you can know the true reality of time after already starting the course. Until then reaching out to other students at the school; and directly asking them about their time constraints etc, is a useful way to gain more information.
Finally it’s worth considering your own expectations too. Are you the type of person who’s competitive by nature and always looking to outgun others? If so, you’ll have to compromise on time.
I’d argue this is entirely futile though. Especially in the beginning when your grades in medical school don’t matter.
Which Year of Medical School Will I Have the Most Free Time?
At least in my own experience I’d say the first few years are the best in terms of allowing med students free time. After that, your commitments get a bit heavier. The pre-clinical switches to the clinical.
This is also entirely dependent on where you go to school too. US students, for example, have to pour in countless hours throughout the second year. All the hopes that they’ll pass the notorious USMLE Step 1 exam.
Elsewhere students might have it easier. Studying medicine in Bulgaria, for example, is less fast paced. We don’t really start full-time in the hospital until our fourth year. And even then there’s still a lot of classroom-based learning.
The truth is then that again there’s no definitive answer to which year yields the most free time.
Based on my own experiences though? I would say the first year, academically speaking, is the one that probably delivers the most free time. Especially as the exams are a bit easier and require less effort to pass.
One thing to consider here though is that you’re also dealing with a lot of the initial stresses of going to medical school in the first place. Finding a place to live, making friends, learning how everything works etc. Things, outside study, that also take up a lot of time.
So it’s all relative.
Do Med Students Get Breaks?
Med students get breaks at the end of every semester or term. This is when classroom or lecture-based teaching officially finishes. And you progress to new courses (or finish older ones).
What might not be obvious to an outsider here though is that med school continues long after these official end-dates. When the exam period starts and your real study begins.
Then there’s the re-take exam periods (scheduled in an even later period) too.
Depending on whether med students get a decent break then – between these periods and the start of new academic terms – comes down to their success passing exams. Those that pass at the first time of asking? Get a longer chill period obviously.
At big international schools like mine though you’ve also got to factor in the size of cohorts and the size of a department too. It takes time for the head of anatomy to thoroughly assess the competencies of 250-plus students. Even more so if they have to assess the same student more than once!
As for whether we get breaks during term-time? Obviously schools go by the national calendar, factoring in non-working (national celebratory) days etc. But all this, means most of the time, is that our attendance is not compulsory. It doesn’t stop us from studying independently in any way.
Which is a necessity if you hope to make it through medical school.
How Many Hours a Day Do Med Students Study?
This question is akin to “how long is a piece of string?” There’s no hard or fast answer.
Counting hours outside lectures (if you do choose to go – I don’t always recommend it) and class, it comes down to the individual. I probably average at least two hours a day. Fitted in and around my schedule.
An absolute priority for me is going through my flashcard stacks to bolster my long term memory and then apply that by testing my knowledge with questions. For most other students this is a far more effective way than re-writing, re-reading etc.
As is employing the 80-20 or pareto principle to everything you do inside med school.
On the weekends I’ll tend to study more. This is because the schedule is clear of classes, lectures and any other school commitments. Giving me a long runway of hours to get some serious work done.
Your average medical student definitely does a good amount of study outside of class. There’s simply no other option. You can’t survive or retain enough to pass only by attending things and not actively studying.
Schedule well though – and be disciplined – and you should have plenty of time free to do what you want. It might mean waking up earlier than usual or going to bed late, but it’s definitely not the time suck it needs to be.
Do Medical Students Have Fun?
Obviously there’s plenty of fun to be had in medical school. You’re a whole bunch of people from all over, embarking on an exciting journey to become something really special. How could there not be?
Most medical students have fun all the usual ways. Socialising (both with friends inside and outside of med school), playing sports, gaming, cooking etc. You’ll find there’s a lot of stuff going on organised by other students too – through University clubs and societies.
Other great ways to have fun in medical school might just be practising hobbies you’ve had for a long time or developing new skills. Starting a blog or vlog, for example, is one of my preferred outlets to blow off steam outside of hospital life!
Other people I know in Bulgaria have some interesting hobbies too. Board games seems to be a big one. I’m partial to bit of The Settlers of Catan with my pals. As well as the sweary fun-filled Cards Against Humanity. Amazing with a couple of beers.
A lot of students have pets too!
One final thing to remember here though; medical school can be a serious time. So don’t go into with the pretence that you’ll be having fun all hours of the day.
Remember too that it’s easy to get stressed and overwhelmed. So make sure your ring-fence your time appropriately. Don’t overindulge too much in the fun side of life at expense of your work and career.
It’s important to strike a balance.
How Can Medical Students Save Time?
Saving time in medical school will become one of your primary concerns. Sometimes the workload seems never-ending. And you’ll wonder how you’re meant to get anything, besides studying, done at all.
This is where it’s important to emphasise the necessity of quality over quantity. Finding the most effective ways to do things. And not worrying too much over trying to make everything – your grades, your attendance, your relationships with your colleagues etc – perfect.
As for hard and fast ways to shore up time here and there? Here are some suggestions that work for me:
- Wake up earlier than normal (a couple of hours before class)
- Prioritise critical tasks only (forget workbook chapters, reading chapters etc)
- Eat as cheaply and quickly as possible (while aiming for health)
- Employ effective learning techniques designed to save you time
- Keep your body healthy and alert (exercise and relaxation)
Perhaps the most important thing to consider here is that employing these techniques is a progression. You won’t be able to do all these at once. You’ll have to slowly get used to the new experience and find your way first.
And you’ll also probably find much more effective ways than these! I’m no productivity expert afterall.
Hopefully this article has convinced you that medical students aren’t the time-slaves we like to make ourselves out to be. Work hard but play hard? That’s the rule a lot of us like to employ.
Besides, we’ve got enough time to be burned out and overworked with all the years of doctoring ahead.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in digital marketing and journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.