how to succeed in medical school

How to Succeed in Medical School: 10 Top Tips for Anxious First Years

It’s a long road to becoming doctor. But every journey? Starts with a single step. Or the hellish nightmare that some of us call “first year medical education”.

So while you’ve got yourself settled, found yourself a place to live (that’s hopefully better than a cardboard box in the street) and finally know your way back from that hot girl/guy that you want to date’s place, maybe it’s time to start thinking more about how to succeed in medical school.

How do you approach this whole first year becoming-a-doctor thing?

 Here’s some practical advice – accumulated from my last four years of study –  that I’d wished I had back in the day. Hopefully it might just help you crush it.

I’ve broken down this article (at 5000 words it’s a big one) into several parts. So skip around at your leisure and hopefully I’ll keep this updated as the years roll on and I think of more things to say.

My Medical School Story

First things first; who am I and why do I want to help you get to grips with medical school? Well, obviously (by the name of the website you’re reading this on) you’ll know my name’s Will. Like you – or, I assume, most of you reading this – I’m also a medical student (4th year at the time of writing). Unlike you (probably), I’m a fair bit older. In my 30’s to be exact. Meaning I’m doing this whole medicine thing having had (somewhat) of a life before. If you’re really interested you can find out more about this here.

Still, none of this really prepared me for medicine. Or, at least my first year, where I found myself in a new country (Bulgaria), surrounded by lots of energetic young people all eager (for the most part) to pursue their idea of becoming a doctor. 

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. 

So this is my attempt to put together a little primer on what I wish I’d have known back then. I’ve also thrown in some links to other articles, books etc. that I also wish I’d read earlier. Hopefully? It can help new students to medicine think about things ahead of time. 

Because, let’s face it, you’re probably already stressed enough – or too drunk by now – to want to run around asking a load of other people what they’d suggest doing. And if you’re not? I respect your chill good Sir/Madam. 

Resources & Related Articles:

5 Secrets for Surviving First Year of Med School – good info on textbooks etc.

11 Do’s and Don’ts for Your First Year in Med School – lots of great practical tips

What to Do Before Starting Med School – my own little primer on how best to prepare

The Social Vs The Solitary Medical Student: Guess Who Wins?

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. Giving you confidence too.

Luckily, no matter what University you go to, there are lots of opportunities to do this (and yes, you’ll have free time). From sports, to meet-ups, to religious groups, to Whatsapp and Facebook groups and more, generally there’s something for everyone. And if there’s not? Consider starting something; even if it’s something you think won’t have broad appeal – like gaming, reading, watching movies or whatever. 

Gauge interest first by just putting a message out there on your Uni’s social channels etc., You’ll be surprised how many people might write you privately to say they’re interested in meeting up to do X or Y.

Being an international student has enough challenges as it is. A lot of nationals will want to group together in their own cliques, keep their own channels to themselves in their own languages etc. You want to be one of the few people who tries to step out of that bubble. Making as wide a network of friends as possible. 

Why? Because the benefit of this is manifold. Not only will you get more exposure to other cultures and languages but you’ll become a better doctor too; more sympathetic to the needs and attitudes of a more diverse range of people. 

As for the 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. Before branching out

Also remember 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 at med school. It took me the best part of the entire year to start feeling more comfortable and confident with what I was doing. So don’t beat yourself up for struggling in the beginning.

Loneliness is the fastest way to derail yourself in med school though. So anything that can help you feel even that tiny bit less solitary? Whether it’s a coffee with classmates (even if you sit and don’t say much) or turning up at a night-club alone (I actually did this several times), it’s all going to help. Help your grades, help your level of enjoyment and especially help your mental health.

Resources & Related Articles:

The Med School Survival Kit (great book I ended up reading in the summer before 2nd year that helped a lot with adjusting my overall med school strategy)

An Introvert’s Survival Guide: How to function (and flourish) in medical school as an introvert (useful advice for the less outgoing)

Confessions of a Medical Student Dropping Out & Other Thoughts (interesting and honest read exploring anxieties, depression and isolation in first year medicine)

Sharing Vs Caring in Medical School (and Your Later Career)

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 both their education and careers. 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 was probably the result of someone else’s work before them. Nothing to be proud about there.

It’s not like anybody’s ever re-inventing the wheel. The same can be said for all resources in medicine or med school. They’re just iterations on what’s already out there. Just like this whole article for example; nothing new!

Not sharing your knowledge only hurts yourself. Makes you look like an untrustworthy person, uninterested in helping those around you. Which, in turn, can lead to your own isolation – making people not want to spend time with you or include you in all the other areas of med-school life. 

Distributing what you know however? That is a positive sum game. Not only helping elevate those around you but also helping to establish you as an authority (even if in a small way). That attitude can go far in the real world when it comes to building trust in your working relationships too.

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. One that is first predicated on the other student putting in the effort to learn and master the resource you’re holding back in the first place (which still requires effort). And secondly because even if that does happen (hey it’s life) it matters very little in the grand scheme of things.

Of course I’m not saying don’t be competitive (more on this later), I’m just saying don’t be a petty clown operating on the idea you’ve got an advantage when, in reality, you haven’t.

You never know when you, in turn, will need other’s help. That’s why caring really is sharing.

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 operating in the real world)

Build a Medical School Habit from Day One (and Enjoy it For Years to Come)

Habit building is so important to get the best out of med school. And I don’t just mean with studying but also with everything else that life outside of classes and lectures brings. 

Starting out forming good habits from day one will be a big help to you as the years roll on. Especially as the work gets harder and the commitments longer.

Good habits will give you focus, direction and a clear idea of what to do with your time and when; as well as redefining your purpose. Bad habits will only lead to procrastination; piling unnecessary stress on you as all the work and exam deadlines pile-up.It also avoids that dreaded concept most medical students think they’ll fall back on. Finding motivation.

Waiting on finding the motivation to study is total crap. No matter who you are – even if you don’t feel you’re particularly lazy – there will be a time when the last thing you want to do is hit the books or do any work.  That’s why having any kind of reliance on it, as a concept, is a foolproof plan for failure. 

Instead you want to ingrain the habit to study deep within yourself. Rather than letting destiny be shaped for you as you pull ineffective last minute cram sessions the night before tests.

That takes discipline. And a commitment to put your ass in the seat and do the work irregardless of how you feel. Every single day.

Your first year in medical school is prime practice time for this. These sessions don’t have be too big in the beginning. Especially as the course content hasn’t yet hit peak difficulty. 

String the sessions together now and pretty soon you’ll gain momentum. The streak you’ll have on your hands will take over any feeling of “motivation” you’ll have to study. Pretty soon it’ll just be something you do as regularly as eating, sleeping…and well, yeah, you get the point.

I get my daily study sessions in everyday – weekends included. I choose mornings over evenings. And I scale it down, of course, during the holidays.
I only wish I’d got in the swing of this during first year. I’d save so much time reviewing anatomy, histology, cytology etc now.

Resources & Related Articles

Atomic Habits by James Clear (amazing book on habit forming I wish I’d have read fifteen years ago let alone four!)

How to Win at College by Cal Newport (a book I keep coming back to that’s shaped a lot of my thinking towards both education and career.

Focus On Your Own Medical School Journey

This might seem pretty obvious but a lot of people seem to lose this point in the first months of med school. Especially as the first tests come up and everybody’s clambering about to try and measure where they are on the academic food chain. 

Understanding its a marathon not a sprint? If only somebody would have sat me down and told me this on day one at Uni. Otherwise I’d have saved a lot of unnecessary energy pouring hour after hour into passing an inconsequential osteology test. All of which I’ve promptly forgotten now (see my bit about habits above).

The same can be said for measuring my score in that test with those of students around me. Utterly pointless in hindsight – especially as it only made me panic thinking I could be in trouble with every subsequent exam moving forward! 

The old saying; “what do you call someone who finished last in their class in med school? Doctor“, exists for a reason. Everyone is getting to the same place. As long as they continue to put in the work and keep passing what’s in front of them.

So forget who’s gunning for the top scores and why. You’re most likely different in the sense you have an alternative long-term goal (specializations, country of work etc.,) anyway. Not to mention the fact they may have a small advantage from having studied the topic before; in a previous career, degree or wherever. 

Instead focus on what you’re doing. Incrementally try to improve on your scores as you go. Recognize your own strengths, weaknesses and everything in between. 

Know that getting a grade 6 (or even a fail) in whatever test you’ve done speaks very little about your chances of long term success in medicine. So many other factors play into that. Not least your attitude, mentality and resilience. 

You’ll see that as you advance to later years. Mindset is everything. Grades on a test very little.

Resources & Related Articles:

Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck (legendary book which has helped me take many failures in my stride and still keep on pushing)

Medical Students Must Have this Mindset (super quick but with some super essential lessons)

How to Study Effectively (Science-Based, No BS) in Medical School

OK, now we’re into the deep stuff. Also some of the most important.
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. So if you’re spending you’re time doing any of that do me a favour and just stop right now. I know your attached to it and it’s easy but it’s doing sweet nothing for you and your only wasting your time.

Let me put this in more simpler terms. Your study strategy, while it may have worked for you in school, 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. Which means all that BS your teachers told you before; about you being a kinesthetic or auditory learner bla-bla, is total garbage. 

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. Nothing I say here I’ve come up with myself of course. Rather I’ve learned it off people much smarter than me.

Basically it all boils down to this:

Active recall. 

Which, in layman’s terms, breaks down to the following:

  • 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 of this is greatly evidenced in the mountains of research completed in books like Make it Stick, A Mind For Numbers, Unlimited Memory and more. It’s also explained in further detail all over YouTube by people like Ali Abdaal, Thomas Frank and tons of other people who actually take the time to back up their claims with scientific evidence (and not the others who are urging you to study like a beast/like a boss etc).

Going into first year medicine you absolutely want to familiarise yourself with the active recall study method (and each of the individual methods contained therein). Out of all the information in this article; this is perhaps the most valuable. It’s also one, that, trust me given all the people in med school I’ve turned on to it, absolutely works.

So get to grips with it, understand it, study the science behind it and use it.
You’ll thank me later.

Resources & Related Articles:

How to Become a Straight A Student by Cal Newport (already mentioned this author but everything he writes is incredible – seriously can’t recommend him enough)

Ali Abdaal (most YouTube medical school study advice is absolutely horrendous – this guy’s stuff is absolute gold)

Choosing Medical School Resources: What Works and Why

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

These are all common questions we have when beginning our medical studies. Coupled with the anxiety-provoking fact that we don’t have bottomless wells of cash to play around buying one thing and then switching it for another.

Books? I’ve never actually a bought a single one during my whole time in med school. Only the course-specific handbooks that require the signatures or whatever for passing the class. Then even those I’ll try to buy second-hand off previous students – provided the professor/teacher is cool with that (which they are most of the time).

My recommendation is not to go out and buy them. Ignore all the listings selling them online. Wait to figure out if it’s something you actually need.
A good way to find that out? Leaf through your friends copy. Ask your professors what they’d recommend. Check out what students from the more prestigious schools are using (here’s my list – not that my school’s in that category!) and read/watch what they have to say about them.

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. Save your money and your stress. No resource is that urgent starting out.
Another important tip to remember when it comes to resources?

Consistency sometimes trumps experimentation. Especially as most courses/textbooks provide the same content. Meaning it’ll save you time going to one place for the information – as well as familiarity with the author’s tone and delivery – then it would searching around to find a better solution.

Generally I’m not a huge fan of textbooks in general. And I certainly wouldn’t advocate actually reading any of those recommended on the course curriculum. 

You’ve got to think 80/20 at med school. Meaning you’ll yield 80% of the results from 20% of the work (check out the Pareto principle). You haven’t got time to read everything, only to recognize core concepts (what most US-students call ‘high yield’). 

Because of that I’m a big fan of summary/review books or video courses like Sketchy (you’ll come to it later). These distill subjects down to their bare-level concepts giving you what you need to pass with way less of the effort or stress. 

Finally, here are a few key resources I’d personally recommend playing with early (to later maximize results):

  • Anki/SuperMemo (super powerful digital flashcard app with an in-built SRS (spaced-repetition – mentioned this earlier) algorithm designed for long-term retention (h/t Prof Zhelezov))
  • First Aid for USMLE (god-tier book with insane summaries and mnemonics for everything you’re going to need to know sooner or later)
  • Pathoma (a video course from the heavens; short and clear explanations of everything pathology)

Your use of these resources obviously depends on the curricula of course. Which is the absolute first piece of literature you want to familiarize yourself with. Way before you buy any text book or drop any dollar on an expensive course.

Resources & Related Articles:

The AnKing (YouTube channel of the greatest-of-all-time Anki-deck maker who breaks down and reviews only the absolute best med school resources)

The Best Step 1 Resources (one for the American readers who maybe don’t realise I’m mainly aiming this article at EU/international students)

Learning to Prioritise in Medical School: Controversially Kicking Lectures to the Curb

Along with habit forming, getting disciplined and knowing how best to prepare for studying you also want to get good at prioritizing.
Knowing where and how to expend your precious time during med school? Crucial to making it through first year without burning out due to confusion, exhaustion and everything else.

Maybe that means ditching lectures (if they’re not mandatory). Or skipping the homework on certain classes (employing ‘strategic’ copying techniques etc). Or maybe even going direct to a re-sit session (after the ‘official’ exam date) first.

Some of these suggestions might seem dirty but – granted you want to save yourself a massive headache – really can be quite helpful to keep in mind. Especially as a lot of what you do in first year medicine can be a massive time suck and deliver little return for your effort (or ‘RFYE’ as I’ve just decided to call it). 

Another thing to keep in mind, again in terms of RFYE, is some of the classes you take in the first year (at least at my University anyway) will be inherently pointless to your later work as a doctor (and yes I do understand I’m not there yet, but forgive me). Meaning you should identify the ones unlikely to deliver much ‘utility’, do the bare minimum to pass them and focus all your time and effort on the major ones (anatomy; hint, hint). 

And yeah sure the teacher/professor of said class will scold you and try to tell you it’s really important etc., but, as most 2nd years and beyond would testify, really that’s just them trying to justify their own existence in what you, me and everybody else knows is a simple box-ticking exercise that for some reason we all have to do to get that expensive piece of paper called a degree.

Don’t know what to prioritize? Study the course curriculum (or, often times, just look at the course title) and use common sense. 

Doesn’t sound like something you’d be using in the future? Attend the class if you have to, chill out and stick whatever’s trying to be said/taught on the back-burner. 

Or, better still, use that time to (quietly) do actual, proper work for courses that matter.

P.S. Older year students will often be able to tell you what courses to prioritise over others. Use their experience wisely.

Resources & Related Articles:

A Trusty Ole’ Moleskin (for taking notes on things that actually do matter)

Getting Things Done by David Allen (the prioritization and productivity Bible – thankfully read this way before med school)

How to Approach Medical School Exams & Tests: Hint; Don’t Copy

Every students worst nightmare right? The time when it all gets real and you can suddenly put into practice some of those lovely things I’ve been trying to teach you. 

Or probably not. Because I’m boring and cringey and we’re already 4000-words deep into something that made you most likely feel asleep a good ten minutes ago.

But exams. Horrible things. And things you’ll be doing a lot of as time goes on obviously.

So probably best to get a strategy together now. Which, contrary to popular student opinion, shouldn’t involve leaving it until the absolute last minute. Or sitting next to the suspected ‘genius’ in class in the hopes of swiping their answers.

Anyway, doing those things only develops bad habits (as we already discussed) and screws yourself out of ‘knowing things’ for future work and study. 

Which is why it pays to know your exam/test dates well in advance and know exactly what the format is come test-day.

Here’s also where you’ll want to get well-acquainted with MCQ’s (multiple choice questions). Because, like it or not, most med schools use this style of testing above anything else. 

But that doesn’t have to be depressing. Because, like most challenging things, MCQ’s are something you can practice. And they’re also good because you can deductively reason an answer – even if you have absolutely no idea – via the process of elimination.

How to get better at them? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Practice subject-specific MCQ’s from question banks/books
  • Do a question a day (hell, even set a Whatsapp group with friends as a little side-project)
  • Pick the option that’s “all three” for the really lengthy questions (Chris’ law) or “none of the above” for the short ones
  • 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? Something that requires a long and detailed explanation of something so obscure you’ll be destined to forget it as soon you walk away?

Hmm, well here’s where I suggest using the Feynman technique (explained excellently here) – a process where you pretend like you’re teaching the concept/principle to someone in as basic terms possible (like they’re five) all while speaking out loud, drawing or whatever else it is you need to do. That’ll drastically save you time (and better your retention) in the long run.
Do this for all the possible curriculum points that could come up and you’ll be more than excellently prepared.

Resources & Related Articles:

How to Answer Multiple Choice Questions Like a Pro (some really get technique tips you can use even if it’s designed for US-based SATS)

Feynman Technique (Thomas Frank’s (College Info Geek) excellent primer on how, why and when to use this killer exam preparation buster)

Rough Guide to European Medical School Exams (my own little guide on how exams work in med school and how best you can prepare for them.

Long Term Thinking in Medical School and Beyond

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 (what you’ll train in after med school) 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 even some thought in this regard. And, although I get that you’ve likely just started and are overwhelmed by a thousand other things, it kind of does matter. Not the point where it should overly-stress you though!

Case in point: my story. 

Starting out in the first year, any idea of the steps involved post-medical school I might have to take (in my case to come back to the UK and qualify) were the furthest thing from my mind. But now, with clinical placements, specialist applications and even a new board exam (that didn’t exist before) on the horizon, suddenly I’m being forced to think much more about it. 

Knowing about some of these things in my first year? Would have given me more time to line-up work experience, understand the process and work out a general plan for the long-term. Thus saving me a whole heap of stress now.

My advice to you then: spend some time now identifying where you think you might be at the end of your journey. It doesn’t have to be a lot. But even a little foresight can offer a fair bit of reassurance.

Resources & Related Articles:

Med Students Gateway Career Development (US-centric but still with some great pointers for career planning post med school)

Staying Sane in Medical School (While Everybody Else Loses It)

Mental health is everything in med school. And your first year will be a very challenging time. Possibly pushing you to uncomfortable places you’ve not yet experienced.

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 or move your body in some shape or form. Join clubs.

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 (giving you other things to talk about). 

And if you do see other people struggling (which they inevitably will)? Do your best to help them out. Even if it means just listening. 

Resources & Related Articles:

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (my all-time favourite book; I make it a thing to read this at least once a year)

Final Thoughts

Reading back, I’ve a surprisingly put a lot of my soul into this article. Not realizing I had so much to say first starting out, it’s weird how this progressed into something of a passion piece (and, some might say, an otherwise long-winded monster). 

I guess that serves as a reminder as to just how difficult that first year in med school was. As well as how far I’ve come along now (based on the fact I’d forgotten how much I had to say).

That’s how fast time moves in med school. One day you show up, awkward, anxious and knowing nothing. Then the years roll smoothly into one another and you’re suddenly shocked you’re more than half-way through.

Every now and then I try to remember that scary beginning though. And then my thoughts shift toward how much better I might have done knowing some of this back then.

So while I’m sure these tips are far from comprehensive, I do hope they can be of some help.

One last thing to remember? If you really do feel stuck, scared, overwhelmed or whatever else; there’s usually someone out there willing to help. 

All it takes is reaching out and asking.

Good luck!