By Richard A. Giovane, MD
“Beep Beep Beep” went the alarm on my phone. It was 7 AM and the weather in Grenada looked like a perfect summer day, although it was January and my body had not adjusted from the Canadian winter just yet. My roommate and I woke up, grabbed a quick bite, and got ready for our first day of medical school. My feelings were mixed: anticipation and excitement coupled with homesickness and the constant feeling of “What did I get myself into?”
My stomach churned. The morning passed quickly with good conversation among our newly made friends. As 1 PM rolled around, it was time: Medical school was officially about to start.
I remember at 1 PM on January 17th, 2012…I took the next step of a long journey that I had been on since my days in elementary school. Our histology professor gave us the old talk: “look to the left and then to the right … one of these people will not be here when you graduate.” Of course, every student in the room was expecting such words of “encouragement” on the first day. We were expecting to be “broken in,” as we were all the new kids on the block. What followed was two hours of an intense histology lecture. Yes, even histology at the time felt insurmountable. I remember looking at my lecture booklet, all 25+ pages and thinking “surely they can’t get through all of this in one hour.” How wrong I was.
After a very long, information-packed lecture on dense reticular fibers, cell types, and other foreign histology concepts, the sheer terror of medical school finally started to sink in. The excitement and anticipation were long gone, and one simple thought lingered: “What did you get yourself into!?”
Following a 2-hour anatomy lecture on the musculature of the back, a thoroughly defeated band of medical students exited the lecture hall to go home to study or attempt to study. I remember walking back to my dorm in utter fear. I wasn’t hungry as my stomach was filled with vomiting butterflies. I remember tossing my bag down on the floor and just laying on my bed with a single thought: “Why? Why did I do this to myself?”
I won’t go into details about the struggles of my first year as a medical student. Everyone has their personal struggles during the first two years of medical school: feelings of inadequacy, wanting to quit, or believing they’re too stupid to be there. I will, however, leave you with some advice about the entire process, in no particular order.
- You will never be on top of everything in medical school. You might get through all of your lectures and feel good about 90% of the material yet you won’t feel great about all of them. This is normal. It is normal to play some catch up on weekends. Do not beat yourself up over this. During the first few months of first year, I was happy if my study partner and I would get through all four of our lectures that night. Remember, it gets harder, but you will also get better!
- Treat medical school like a job! Treat every week like you have a test next Monday on this week’s material. Doing so will keep you organized. On weekends, fill in whatever you missed and review that week’s material and, if you have time, review older stuff.
- Balance is key. Don’t overdo it with studying. Yes, you will study 8 hours a day some days but other days, relax for a few hours. You deserve it and you won’t get burnt out as easily. One of the biggest mistakes I made during first year was always studying and never taking time for myself. I found that playing some road hockey (a Canadian game, eh!) or playing a match of League of Legends, helped me focus more on my work because I was more relaxed and more efficient with my time!
- Being overwhelmed is normal! I can’t tell you how many times I felt overwhelmed with tests, concepts, or the dreaded fear of getting kicked out. It is completely normal to feel this, but use this as tool and as motivation, not something to hinder you. Remember, the medical school admission said “yes” to you. They said that you have what it takes to complete the program. There was something about YOU that made them say, “that person will be a doctor”!
- Making mistakes and saying the wrong things are a part of the process. It happens, and it will happen to you. Also, get used to it because it will even happen when you are a resident or attending. Don’t feel ashamed! There is a lot of information that you must master and keeping it all straight in your head is a feat. Changing a correct to incorrect answer on a test will happen too. Just remember, you are human, and we make mistakes and learn from them.
- Medical school is a lot like high school. You will find your group or clique of friends from early on. Make new friends whenever you can. Also, rumors and gossip will spread like wildfire, too!
- Going back to #4, being overwhelmed will make you want to buy every textbook and review book…don’t! Keep it simple. Stick with what works for YOU. If your friend swears by Rohan’s anatomy but you love your Netter’s, stick with it. Just do what works with you.
- Probably the most important piece of advice….DO NOT COMPARE YOURSELF TO OTHERS. Not everyone came from undergrad with a Bachelor of Science. Others went on to do a masters in physiology or were anatomy teachers for a year or two. Their background knowledge will trump yours, which is fine! Remember, they are good at something because they have more training at it, so do not compare yourself to them. Only work to improve on YOU!
- Avoid toxic people. Yes, we all know the gunners in our class and avoid them like the plague. They brag about how easy that pathology exam was or how little they study everyday. Chances are the opposite is true and they feel the need to preach otherwise so just ignore it. On the plus side, gunners usually hang out with other gunners, so just listening to them try to one up each other can be entertaining!
- .. you will hear tons of this from almost everyone. Take everything you hear with a grain of salt. The rumor mill in medical school is on full blast, 24/7, so usually just ignore it. Pro tip: if someone starts off a sentence with “I heard that…” it usually won’t be true.
- Find out how to study EARLY on. Reading and re-reading the text generally won’t cut it from here on out. Find out how to learn the material rather than memorize it. Think, how is it that you can recall quotes from your favorite movie? Chances are you made a memory out of it; you owned it and from that you remember it. Find what works: making concept maps, one-page summaries, or flash cards. Do what works and stick with it.
Overall, your first week might be the hardest week. Just remember you will get better at it. Think of your first day at a job, you won’t be the best at it…you might even be the worst. But you didn’t quit because you knew, “hey it is my first day.” The same rule applies to medical school. It is a new thing to you: you are learning the ropes, while learning how to study and digest the material. It takes time and eventually things will become routine to you. Also, the same concept applies to your first day on the medical wards. Everything now is different, you do not know the expectations of you. Just do your best and you will learn what you need to do!
As Rocky Balboa says: One step at a time. One punch at a time. One round at a time. That is how winning is done!
But for medical school my roommate Chris and myself would always say: One lecture at a time. One test at a time. One day at a time…That is how winning is done!
About the author: Richard Giovane is a current PGY-3 in Family Medicine at the University of Alabama, at Tuscaloosa [Roll Tide!]. He was born in Canada but has an Italian background, and yes, he does talk with his hands a lot and has difficulty grasping the concept of the volume of his voice! He enjoys reading, writing, playing video games, and has a strong passion for medical education. He is currently the Senior Editor for Step 1 Qmax and has served as an author for several First-Aid books.