How to Survive Medical School (Part 1)

My Experience of Medical School

I remember how exciting it was being accepted into medical school back in 2007. And I recall it was actually my biology teacher Dr McDonald (PhD) who delivered the good news, even before I found out from the university admissions service UCAS. At the time the 17-year-old me was overcome by a complex cocktail of emotions that included happiness, relief, pride, excitement, apprehension and fear.

It was probably mainly relief and validation-seeking from my parents to be honest.

Ten years later, with the ever useful hindsight, I think medical school can be an exceptionally tough experience for younger students and/or those without any advantages.

One of the first lectures I attended started off with “You’re the cream of the crop, each and every one of you” and I remember feeling that sense of false pride once again.

However that feeling was soon replaced by disappointment, embarrassment and dread as I quickly realised I was actually very average. I had come from a private school having achieved nothing but As in my 6 Highers and 3 Advanced Highers but my first piece of coursework or exam (I can’t quite remember which) was plastered with a fat B.

First world problems, I know. But it all went downhill from there.

Before long, the Bs turned into Cs and like a self-fulfilling prophecy Cs and Ds became a common occurrence. In fact, I don’t recall ever achieving an A in medical school. Serious.

It’s not like I deserved As anyway – there were other medical students who would head straight to the library after lectures and even during holiday season. But to put in a reasonable amount of effort and achieve a B at best was not worth it in my eyes. Soon I started skipping lectures and tutorials, not necessarily out of laziness but due to a combination of family problems and simple dread.

Then came poker, followed by more family drama but that’s a story for next time.

Why Medical School is So Unfair

Writing that title feels very strange now because my regular readers and I are all people who understand that life is very unfair. We all understand that life doesn’t hand you success on a plate and you have to fight for it.

However, to a teenager at least, medical school was very unfair.

For instance, there were people who came from all walks of life. People who were in their mid-20s with five or even ten more years of life experience studying alongside you. Compare yourself now and ten years ago, or even five years ago and I bet you’re a completely different person altogether. That advantage alone is unbelievable.

Then there were people who had studied prior degrees in pharmacology or anatomy, just to name a couple, and with those degrees come innumerable advantages. Not to mention the students who had one or both parents as doctors and therefore inevitably grew up in a household brimming with medical terminology on a daily basis.

It wasn’t easy.

The second problem was going from high school where teachers essentially spoon-fed pupils a curriculum. In high school we were told without a shadow of doubt, that this was what you needed to study and this was the textbook you needed to read for Higher English. If you read, memorised and copied the teacher’s analysis of a poem then you were guaranteed to get an A, the teacher basically said.

In medical school there was no such thing – how much or how little did we need to know? But that anatomy book is 1,300 pages long and there are twenty different physiology books in the library. No matter how much people complained, there was no way of knowing the scope of knowledge required to pass the final exams. Past papers were a myth and problem-based “learning” was the name of the game, with facilitators who weren’t even doctors. It felt like the blind leading the blind.

As a result, I suffered from a severe case of analysis paralysis and ended up doing the worst thing possible, which was nothing.

How to Survive Medical School

Regardless of whether you’ve just been accepted into medical school or you’re in your pre-clinical years I think it’s crucial you have a rough overall idea of what to expect. I really wish someone had handed me a guide back then.

Before this post becomes too long, I would start with two concepts in mind.

Cliche as it sounds, but nothing in life is fair and therefore we shouldn’t act surprised when we face other medical students with a more advantageous background than us. In his famous book, SC explains that we should only ever concern ourselves with situations and problems that are within our circle of influence. You won’t be able to change the fact that your fellow student’s dad is a consultant neurologist but you can change how you react to this news. You could give up and blame harsh life or it could make you work twice as hard.

The second point to bear in mind is that life doesn’t owe you anything. And if you want something e.g. you want to pass the end of year exam, then you have to exchange something in return for it. If you understand this concept, you’ll be well on your way to what JO describes as the slight edge in his excellent book. Taking the time after a plenary to ask the lecturer one question won’t instantly transform you into a good doctor overnight. The same goes with not asking – it won’t convert you into a failing student tomorrow. Both are easy to do, but by definition both are also easy not to do.

Imagine the graphs of two students, the first who asks one question per day compared to the second (me) who couldn’t leave the lecture hall fast enough if he turned up at all. After a a week or two not much has changed. But after a few months or one year the graphs convincingly diverge and by the end of the five years, you’re a entirely different human being and an entirely different doctor.

Both good reads and I cannot recommend them highly enough. 🙂