As an MS-1, I’m still new to this whole medical school thing. I don’t exactly have my life together yet … Just the other day, for example, I tripped on a crack in the floor while attempting to wave at one of the deans. Oops. 🙂
In fact, most of the time, medical school reminds me that I can relate far too much to a certain star of NBC’s hit show, “The Office.”
I have certainly stumbled quite a bit in my entry to medical school, but I have also been privileged to gain a few incredible lessons along the way. With some help from the boss of Dunder Mifflin, I would love to share what I have learned with those who are about to embark on the same journey:
1. Before the year begins, set academic and personal goals.
Think about the things that matter to you. If you’re an avid writer (like me!), aim to set aside time at least once a week to journal or blog. If exercise and physical fitness are a huge priority for you, try to develop a health routine that works well for you. Maybe you even want to join a certain club/organization, or maybe you want to learn how to cook/knit/draw. Don’t forget to think about the classroom, too! Write down some adjectives that describe the type of student you want to be. In the end, this list should be your set-point, as it will contain both goals and values to which you will aspire inside and outside of the classroom. It is easy to be distracted by the stressful, busy life of medical school… Come back to your list often and ask yourself how well you are doing with sticking to what matters to you!
2. Stay focused and organized!
I truly cannot over-emphasize the importance of organization in medical school. You will have so many demands on your time, and there is always something to study. Make sure you keep a detailed calendar somewhere. Set reminders if you are prone to forget meetings. Carve out time to study, time to socialize, and time to sleep. You’ll definitely need all of these, and finding harmony within the chaos is key! Students who make it to medical school have shown that they are intelligent and capable, but now management and routine can make an especially big difference. Being organized will allow you to reduce your stress levels and use the extra energy to find ways to shine!
3. Carve out time daily to review material.
Each day, you’ll tend to see about four or five hours of (very dense) new material. I’ve quickly learned that even though exams only happen every few weeks, it’s very important to stay on top of the material. For me, this tends to involve quickly going through the lecture recordings and PowerPoints again in the evening, then making condensed study guides of about one page in length. Later, I can primarily just study these charts. For others, the more preferred strategy might involve setting up flashcards on Quizlet or Anki and flipping through them the next day on the walk to class. This daily review can take up as much or as little of your time as you choose, but every encounter with the material gives you an opportunity to learn it better and save yourself from some future exam-preparation doom.
4. Build your support network early.
Most of the time, starting medical school means not only adjusting to the demands of an entirely new profession, but also moving to a new city where you don’t know anything or anyone. This is an extraordinary amount of change! It is hard to stay afloat without having others to keep an eye out for you and to encourage you when times get tough. Introduce yourself to any academic advisors who are assigned to you, and find friends with whom you can study productively and whom you trust. Celebrate together in the collective successes of your class. Have honest conversations about your fears and ask them to support you in ways that will work best for your personality/needs. Forming a close network of allies is truly one of the most important things you can do to set yourself up for early success. And remember – it is just as important to find support as it is to be support! Check back in on your friends if they are ill or if you haven’t seen them in a while. Make sure you know what they need when they’re stressed, too. It makes a difference.
5. Communicate well.
Again, medical school truly is a team endeavor. People will count on you, and you want to keep in contact with them and let them know of any issues that arise sooner rather than later. In general, there is a 24-hour rule to emails; it is best if you can respond by the end of the next business day. If you are unable to do so, set an “away” message so that others know you will not be around. Even if you need time to think about an email, shoot the sender a little message to know that you have received their email and will reply back to them within X days. If you don’t tell people something like this, there’s no way they can know it!
6. Be confident, but don’t be afraid to admit when you have no clue.
This has been particularly pertinent for me when interacting with patients. During my first patient encounter, I was sure to begin by clearly explaining (again, the value of communication!) that I was not his physician and that his participation in my training would provide absolutely no benefit to him (seriously, the fact that patients are willing to help future physicians learn is an incredible gift). Yet as we spoke, he shared a humbling amount of detail about his medical condition. He then asked me a very minor, basic physiology question. I was 100% sure of the answer since it was a topic I had studied in great detail, yet there was still a small voice in my head that was afraid to fully embrace my new role as a student doctor. I missed the opportunity to provide the patient with some advice that may have helped him.
For the rest of our encounter, I tried to do better. When and only when I absolutely knew the answer to the patient’s question, I challenged myself to speak with a voice of compassion and of leadership. I tried to be confident in my ability to help the patient even with very minor issues. Along the same lines, I realized that I needed to be just as confident in saying that I did not know something so that I did not at all misrepresent myself. I found that my honesty about my role and both the strengths and limitations of my knowledge really allowed the patient and I to understand each other better. In the end, the experience transformed into an incredible learning experience for both of us.
7. Ask for help when you need it.
This skill can take a lifetime to learn, but I promise it will make you a better person, doctor, and friend. Reaching out for help means both acknowledging your own limits and seeking to improve your situation – these are true signs of strength and intelligence! You’ll also realize that going through tough times with others can take so much weight off of your shoulders and make a lasting impact on the lives of everyone involved. It’s a win-win!
8. Avoid competition – stay positive and learn with your peers instead!
Remember why you chose to go to medical school. Getting wrapped up in grades can be tempting, but your patients must be your priority! You will learn more, work better as a team, and ultimately better serve your patients if you stop fixating on trying to get a perfect score. Instead, focus on doing your best and showing compassion to those around you at all times. In my experience, medical school will humble you into the incredible understanding that learning happens far beyond the classroom. You will be in an amazing position to learn from your diverse and awesome peers (rather than compete with them) and from your patients, who are so willing to share their stories with you even when you are only in your first year. Take each opportunity you are given as a chance to become a better doctor, not just a better student. Work your hardest in class, but don’t be afraid to put the test aside and learn from the real life situations you will be privileged to witness.
Ultimately, I’ll be honest. Sometimes no matter what you do, medical school will inevitably make you feel a little bit like Toby trying to skate in peace:
But I hope these tips help you make the most of each day and find reasons to keep on fighting!
Hang in there.
Emily Hayward, MS-1