A Week in the Life of an MS-1: How do classes work?

Before starting my journey at UAB this year, I was really curious about what a typical week looks like for a medical student. I knew there would be lots of studying ahead, but I wondered how much time students spent in class, what types of classes there were, and more.

Thus, to help future generations be much more knowledgeable than I was, I’d love to share a little bit about what my life has been like as an MS1 at UAB. Some of these experiences will be specific to UAB, but others can be broadened to medical school as a whole:


Lecture Schedule and Structure

Of course, as a medical student, lectures will take up most of your time. In your first year at UAB, you’ll typically see four lectures in one day. These will be your standard 50 minute classes, and they’ll almost always run from 8-noon with 10 minute breaks in between.

However, it is important to note that lectures at UAB are not mandatory. This means that rather than go to class, students can choose to watch the lectures online. Each lecture will be posted a few hours after it occurs, and they are somewhat like vodcasts. You’ll hear everything the lecturers said, and the screen will display their powerpoint slides as well as anything at which they pointed with the computer mouse. And, as a favorite feature of many students, you can speed up lectures (up to 2x!) or pause them as needed!

Additionally, I remember being confused about what exactly “classes” meant. In college, I had to sign up each semester for certain courses like “Biochemistry” or “Microbiology.” Medical school, however, doesn’t quite work the same way. At UAB, we have modules based upon organ systems. This means that for about 1 month at a time, we will cover an entire system of the body – cardiovascular, pulmonary, renal, etc. We’ll discuss how the system should work, as well as what goes wrong in various disease states.

Everyone in your class year will have the exact same lecture schedule, and each lecture will cover a different component of the organ system you are working on (so all of your basic science concepts are discussed as relevant for that organ system). At UAB, your schedule will be posted on our online system, MEDMap, typically 1-3 weeks in advance. Rather than taking specific classes that run on the same day/time throughout the semester, each week will look a little different in terms of lectures and the below activities.


Add-Ons to Classes

In addition to optional classes, there are also a few other mandatory activities for which you are responsible. These generally fall into a few categories:

  1. Clinical Skills Course

Alongside our typical lecture classes, we also take a course called Introduction to Clinical Medicine (ICM). This class runs once per week and occurs in very small groups of only six people. You’ll do pretty much everything with your ICM group: attend all of the same small group sessions (see #2), be in the same Learning Community, etc. You will meet each week with either two fourth-year medical student teachers, or with a physician who is your assigned preceptor. In these sessions, you will learn physical exam techniques to accompany the organ module you are studying in class, and you will practice the relevant histories and examinations on patients at the hospital.

  1. Small Groups

These are a pretty common occurrence. For each organ module as described above, we will typically have about two small group sessions. These range from case studies of real patient stories and our thoughts on tests/diagnoses to crash-courses on radiologic imaging. These occur in much smaller sized groups; our MS1 class is about 180 students, and these groups tend to be 12 students each (two ICM groups put together).

  1. Labs

There will be a few different labs for each organ module, which could include histology, microbiology, anatomy, and/or pathology. Each lab tends to run about 2 hours, and one lab will probably occur every 1-2 weeks. You’ll often be broken into somewhat smaller groups, ranging anywhere from about 15 to 25 students, with the exception of anatomy lab where everyone participates at once (but still with only one anatomical donor per ICM group, so you can work within your smaller group at your own pace).

  1. Interest Groups / Organizations (not mandatory, but free lunch)

Finally, throughout each week, you’ll tend to have a few other meetings and activities to attend. One of the more popular activities would be interest groups. These are student-run organizations that center around a certain specialty (oncology, OB/GYN, geriatrics, etc). They are completely open for anyone to attend, and they are typically lunch meetings… with free food involved (yay!). A physician will come and speak about his or her work or research and you can learn more about the field!


So what does it all look like?

For me, there’s some method to the madness. 🙂 Again, classes will run from about 8am-noon, but since they are not mandatory, I tend to study on my own instead. I’ll typically go to one of my favorite coffee shops in the afternoon and listen to the lectures from earlier that day. The next morning, I’ll review my notes at home before heading back to the coffee shop (yes, I pretty much live there, and yes, I have met the spouses of most of the baristas at this point) to listen to that day’s lectures once they’re posted.

Throughout the week, there will probably be 2-3 days when I have an additional activity in the afternoon for anywhere from 1-2 hours, so I’ll plan my studying around that. On the other days, my afternoons are totally free. I might choose to study all afternoon (yay), but I also do have a bit of a life! One of my favorite hobbies/activities outside of school is volunteering. I volunteer with Make-a-Wish Alabama and in our student-run free clinic (see my article about EAB here!), so I frequently clear out time to fulfill those commitments. The good news is that if I’m feeling tired, I can also just skip on a day’s lectures and catch up later without worrying too much. For me, it has generally been less stressful than undergrad since it is so self-paced!


Final Thoughts

Overall, I’ve found the medical school schedule a lot more manageable than I expected, and I think UAB’s structure has a lot to do with that. There is certainly a ton of material in medical school, but there’s also the privilege of scheduling things to your own beat at UAB (so long as it’s done by the deadline!). If I’m not feeling super well and need to take a day off, I can. If I want to sleep in or take a nap in the middle of the day (because 99% of the time, the answer to the question, “Where’s Emily?” is “she’s sleeping”), I can.

If you are currently in the process of applying to medical schools, I’ll add that the flexibility of having non-mandatory classes (or at least flexible attendance policies in some form) may be important to explore. My top schools ended up all having non-mandatory attendance anyway, but I have since found that self-studying is incredibly liberating for me and can barely imagine having to go to class all of the time. With non-mandatory systems, those who still want to go to class certainly still can since some find it easier to avoid staying behind this way, but it is not forced upon you. I think it’s a win-win for everyone!

Ultimately, your schedule will end up revolving around your personal learning style, but I hope this has helped demonstrate the general life of an elusive MS-1!


Happy studying,
Emily Hayward, MS-1

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