first-year medical school tips (10 Important Ideas)

It’s a long road to becoming doctor. But every journey? Starts with a single step. Your first year in medical school is exactly that. Tips can help!

Here’s a brief rundown of how to start strong from the beginning…

  1. Prioritize social activities over study
  2. Share what you know and help others
  3. Begin habit building from day one
  4. Focus on your own journey
  5. Study efficiently (not constantly)
  6. Choose your study materials wisely
  7. Prioritize your needs (skip lectures if voluntary)
  8. Learn how to prepare for exams
  9. Keep one eye on the future
  10. Be kind to yourself

I appreciate there’s a lot there to breakdown. So that’s what this article aims to do.

Along the way, you’ll learn:

  • Why these rules are important
  • How you can implement them
  • What other resources can help

Having once been in your shoes (more on this in a minute), I remember what it’s like. But don’t worry. It gets easier.

Ready to get started? Let’s go.

Introduction: My Medical School Story

First things first; I started med school as a mature (31 year old) student.

Not knowing what to expect; or having many contacts in the years above to guide me, the first few months were pretty rough.

Arriving late, missing the orientation week and running around having to find an apartment etc., I had little time to figure out how I was going to approach the year academically. Or how best to survive!

So this is my attempt to put together a little primer on what I wish I’d have known back then. Hopefully? It can help you if you’re new to med (or thinking about it).

Note: I’ve also thrown in some links to other articles, books etc. that I also wish I’d read earlier to help me better prepare for the journey. I think you’ll find them useful!

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First Year Medical School Tips

Prioritize social activities over study

One of the most important pieces of advice I’d like to give first year medics (above anything academic) is try your best to be social.

Doing so makes everything so much easier as you move forward in your journey.

Luckily, no matter what University you go to, there are lots of opportunities to do this (and yes, you’ll have free time).

Here are a few ways to do it:

  • Participate in sports
  • Join meet-ups
  • Become part of a religious, cultural or political society

There are usually a ton of ways!

And if there’s not? Consider starting something new.

Even if it’s something you think won’t have broad appeal – like gaming, reading, watching movies or whatever, you’ll surprised how many people will share your interests.

And as for introverts? I know this can be extremely hard.

It’s really difficult to find the confidence – especially when you’re in a new place, new setting etc. – to first put yourself out there. That’s why I’d recommend starting small. Get to know one or two people well initially – perhaps those you find yourself in class with during the first weeks.

But also keep it mind that that everyone, despite appearances, is in the same boat.

Everybody has some level of anxiety and nervousness (not to mention overwhelm) during those first few months of med school.

It took me the best part of the entire year to start feeling comfortable and confident with what I was doing!

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Share what you know (and try to help others)

Nobody is more annoying in medical school than the student who keeps all the information to themselves. 

Forgetting that everyone is there to learn and go on a journey together; it’s the one thing that annoys me most about certain people’s approach to education… 

The weird thing is, most of what they know is only a Google search away anyway. Meaning, half the time, they’re sitting on a short-lived secret that’s someone else’s work before them. Nothing much to be proud about there!

Not sharing your knowledge only hurts yourself.

Here’s why its bad:

  • It makes you look like an untrustworthy person
  • It makes you seem uninterested in helping those around you
  • Sometimes it could only serve to add to your own isolation

Sharing what you know and learn on the other hand? That is a positive sum game.

It helps elevate those around you and helps establish you as a trusted and reliable source.

That attitude can go a long way in the real world when it comes to building trust in your working relationships!

I get that a lot of students are scared that other students will steal their “secrets” and outperform them. But this just strikes me as a superficial fear.

You never know when you, in turn, will need other’s help.

Helpful resources & Related Articles:

5 Ways to Share Your Professional Expertise & 4 Reasons You Should (because pretty soon you’ll be out of med school and have to survive in the “real world”)

Begin habit building from day one

Habit building is so important to get the best out of med school.

And I don’t just mean with studying, but with everything else that life outside of classes and lectures brings too.

Good habits help with the following:

  • They’ll give you focus and direction
  • They’ll give you a clear idea of what to do with your time and when
  • They’ll help motivate you by redefining your purpose

Bad habits, on the other hand, will only lead to procrastination and unnecessary stress.

“Waiting” on finding the motivation to study is totally misleading. No matter who you are (even if you don’t feel you’re particularly lazy). there’ll come a time when the last thing you want to do is hit the books. 

Ingraining the habit to study deep within yourself, rather than letting destiny be shaped for you, is the best way to do that.

That takes discipline. And a commitment to put your butt in the seat and do the work no matter how you feel. Every single day.

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Focus on your own journey

Understanding med school is a marathon and not a sprint? Super important if you’re to survive and thrive during your first year (and beyond).

If only somebody would have sat me down and explained this to me on day one. I’d have saved a lot of unnecessary energy pouring hour after hour into passing a meaningless midterm. ROI that now seems wasted.

The same can be said for measuring my grade with others around me. Utterly pointless in hindsight!

The old saying; “what do you call someone who finished last in their class in med school?…A doctor“, exists for a reason.

Everyone is on their way to the same place. As long as they continue to put in the work and keep passing what’s in front of them, that’s all that matters.

So forget who’s gunning for the top scores and how you measure up.

You’re most likely different in terms of your long-term goals (specializations, country of work etc.,) anyway.

Not to mention that they could have a small advantage, having studied a particular topic before (in a previous career, degree or wherever). 

So focus instead only on what you’re doing.

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Study efficiently (not constantly)

Not done much in the way of reading about effective learning techniques? Throw everything you think you know out the window. 

Reading, re-reading, highlighting, copying out your notes? All of that stuff is pretty much useless for long-term retention in med school.

That study strategy, while it may have worked for you earlier, probably won’t do anything for you here.

You’re a scientist now after all. And scientists like to use evidence to support their claims.

So, for the sake of keeping this part of this article brief (although I do expand on it here), I’ll share what I know works when it comes to effectively studying medicine.

It mostly boils down to this:

  • Testing (repeated self-quizzing on material and content)
  • Spaced repetition (challenging yourself to recall information following gradually increasing periods of time)
  • Interleaving (mixing different topics of study together)

All important parts of active recall.

All things that will save you a ton of time (while doubling down on your effectiveness) during each study session.

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Choose your study materials wisely

What text books to use? What apps to download? What products to subscribe to?

These are all common questions we face during the first year in med, coupled with the anxiety-provoking fact that we don’t have bottomless wells of cash to play around with.

Here’s what I’d recommend doing when it comes to study materials:

  • Start your course first, use free materials then wait to figure out if a particular resource is something you actually need
  • Check for reviews by other students so you know when and how best to use them (I have my own recommendations section here)
  • Leaf through a friends copy or sign up for trial access first (just to see how you like it)
  • Ask your professors what they’d recommend

Don’t be fooled by the pressure of scarcity or uncertainty. 

Other students will of course rush to snap things up, drop hundreds of dollars on things they have no idea whether they’ll end up using or not.

Here’s another important piece of advice:

Resource fatigue is real. Consistency trumps constant experimentation. Sometimes you just have to pick something and go with it.

Generally I’m not a huge fan of 700-page textbooks. And I certainly wouldn’t advocate reading most that are recommended on a med school curriculum. 

You’ve got to think 80/20 at med school. You simply haven’t got time to read everything.

Look into summary/review books or video courses. These distill subjects down to their most important (high yield) concepts and give you exactly what you need with way less effort or stress. 

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Prioritize your needs

Prioritizing is something you’ll want to get used to doing as early as possible during your first year in med school.

Knowing where and how best to expend your precious time is crucial to making it through without burning out.

Maybe that means…

  • Ditching lectures (if they’re not mandatory)
  • Skipping the homework on certain classes (employing ‘strategic’ copying techniques etc)
  • Going directly to a re-sit session (after the ‘official’ exam date)

Some of these suggestions might not seem ideal but can be necessary in helping to keep you sane.

Especially as a lot of what you do in first year medicine can be a massive time suck!

Another thing to keep in mind is classes. Some will seem inherently pointless to your later work as a doctor.

Try to identify these quickly, do the bare minimum to pass and focus all your time and effort on the classes actually worth your time (anatomy, physiology etc).

Don’t know what to prioritize? Study the course curriculum (or, often times, just look at the course title) and use common sense. Or ask students in senior years and see what they say.

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Learn how to prepare for exams

Every students worst nightmare right? The time when it suddenly all gets real.

Here’s what you need to do as a first year in med:

  • Know exactly when your exam/test dates are (well in advance)
  • Know what the format (essay, MCQ etc) is
  • Know what syllabus topics the exam will cover

And that’s it, for the most part.

But as to how to get better at exams? Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Practice subject-specific MCQ’s from reputable question banks/books
  2. Write your own MCQ-style questions based on your notes for class (practice them come exam time)

Hopefully, by following this and the aforementioned study tips, you shouldn’t have too many problems. 

As for oral or written examinations?

Here’s where I suggest using the Feynman technique – a process where you pretend like you’re teaching the concept/principle to someone.

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Keep one eye on the future

Here’s one that most other students won’t worry about (but your parents or family might)…

Start thinking about the future (and where you think you might want to take your career) now. Even if just a little.

That kind of thinking can help pay dividends later. Especially if you have your heart set on a certain specialism that could prove competitive to get into. Or a certain country you might have to learn a language/sit board exams for. 

So many first years neglect some basic thought in this regard. And while yes, you’ve only just started and are probably overwhelmed by a thousand other things, it can be useful.

But not to the point where it should overly-stress you!

Resources & Related Articles:

Med Students Gateway Career Development (Lots of great advice for career planning post med school)

Be kind to yourself

Mental health is everything in med school. And your first year will be a very challenging time.

Being kind to yourself is critical during this period. So go easy on yourself if you do make mistakes, screw relationships up or fail at exams. It’s nothing nobody else before you hasn’t gone through!

Help you, help yourself. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Eat as healthy as you can. Try and exercise. Join clubs and socialize.

Here’s what else can help:

  • Take breaks away from studying
  • Cultivate hobbies that have nothing to do with medicine
  • Give yourself space outside what’s going on in school to think, contemplate and breathe. 

Finding a way to detach now, before the course load ramps up and you have a ton more classes, is essential.

Having other ways to identify and think about yourself – outside of simply being a “medical student” is great too. As is having friends outside of medicine.

Resources & Related Articles:

4 Best Self-Help Books For Medical Students (Break Out From Imposter Syndrome)


Time moves fast in med school. One day you show up, awkward, anxious and knowing nothing. Then the years roll by and you’re suddenly shocked you’re almost at the end.

Every now and then I try to remember that scary beginning though. Inevitably thinking just how much better I might have felt knowing some of the above back then!

Hopefully some of what I’ve written here can help you too.

Good luck.

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