Adjusting to the pace of medical school

Michelle Qiu

Bio: Michelle Qiu grew up in Fayetteville, AR and double majored at Columbia University in English and Neuroscience. Currently, she is a first-year medical student at Wake Forest School of Medicine where she runs a book club, is getting certified to be a Spanish interpreter and does research in orthopaedic surgery. As a child of immigrants, she had to figure out the college and medical school process on her own, which is her motivation for sharing her knowledge through writing. Follow her medical school journey and let her know what content you'd like to see at her website:

February 5, 2020 |

After the challenge of moving to New York by myself for college, I thought I was fully prepared for anything, including the transition to medical school. While I am ultimately fine, there were a few growing pains along the way. Adjusting to medical school is a different beast than college. Here are a few things I wish I knew before starting.

  • Take care of yourself. Think about what is working for you in your life right now that you look forward to every week. Keeping up with the course material is something that takes practice and time to get used to. You can make your life easier by doing the things you know will keep you sane. In the whirlwind of orientation and meeting new friends, I was not thinking about going to the gym, eating healthy foods, and calling my mom. I didn’t realize how those activities boosted my happiness until a few weeks into the semester when I could feel something was off.
  • Along with that, accept that you will be in your physical location for the next 4 years and set up your life there. Many medical schools do not provide the same level of amenities that a college might so it’s up to you to find a local gym, primary care physician, and affordable places to grocery shop. I wish I had done these things when I had ample time during orientation instead of scrambling to find a doctor when I got sick. Trying to tackle all these tasks at once can be overwhelming so I suggest keeping a list of not urgent things you have to do on a sticky note or on a chalkboard in your room. When you have a spare minute or (let’s be real) are trying to procrastinate studying, do one of these things.
  • Free up your mental energy. Whenever I have things to do, regardless of the level of importance, these tasks take up part of my mental energy. Take care of this by streamlining your life in whichever way you can. If you have the money, think about ordering mail delivery meals or getting your laundry done. Since these methods are expensive, some ways you can streamline eating is by meal-prepping meals. On Sundays, I pick two recipes and cook four servings of each which usually gets me through the school week. Cooking is relaxing in its own way and I like saving mental energy by knowing what I’m going to eat next. Laundry is another task I dread so I bought the items that need to be washed the most like socks and underwear. This allows me to do my laundry every 1-2 weeks in multiple loads at once. Again, this comes down to the idea that tracking the little things you need to do (and subsequent guilt for not doing them) takes up valuable mental energy that should be used towards studying.
  • Develop a routine. Medical school requires more discipline than most other life experiences. There is always more to study which makes it hard to even begin. Having a routine not only gets you to what you don’t want to do but also helps you create boundaries for studying a healthy amount. I wake up at 5:30 am, take a gym break at 10 am, take a lunch break at 1 pm and then stop at 7 pm. After a few weeks of adjusting, my body naturally feels tired around 9:30 pm and wakes up by itself (even when I don’t set an alarm) at 6 am. So even if I wanted to skip my morning study session by sleeping in, my body is used to getting up at 5:30 am. Then when I’m awake at 5:30 am, I might as well study. Since I’ve created a rule for myself to stop studying at 7 pm, I have two hours of leisure time every day, which helps me feel refreshed for the next day of studying.

“Medical school requires more discipline than most other life experiences. There is always more to study which makes it hard to even begin. Having a routine not only gets you to what you don’t want to do but also helps you create boundaries for studying a healthy amount”

  • Get better at organizing. There are so many different things required of you in medical school like balancing board studying with class, longitudinal classes, and extracurriculars that it’s easy for something to slip through the cracks. You don’t want to accidentally miss an event because you didn’t have a good enough organization system. I personally use a combination of Google calendar synced to my school’s scheduling system to keep track of mandatory events. To keep track of tasks, I use a Planner Pad. It’s based off the idea you schedule your priorities. You organize your tasks by column and then select out of those what you’re going to do each day. In addition, there’s an appointment section so you can be sure to stay on top of your schedule.
  • Figure out what your priorities are. If you know what specialty you want to match into, look up the match data on what the average step scores are for that specialty. Consider geography as well – if you are happy to match anywhere then you don’t need stress so much about USMLE Step 1. If you are trying to move back home to a competitive state like California, then you need to have a realistic conversation with yourself about the effort it’s going to take to get there. In addition, urban academic centers tend to be more competitive than rural areas so if your dream is to move to Manhattan for residency, plan accordingly. It’s easy in medical school to get caught up in what everybody else is doing, which may not be the best path for you. Everyone ultimately has different goals for themselves. Only you can know what is best for yourself and it takes an active effort to try to figure out what that is. If you don’t know what specialty you’re interested in, I would take the AAMC quiz on which specialty may be best for you and try to plan for the most competitive specialty you may be interested in.
  • Be wary of opportunities. There are many doors that open up after you get into medical school such as interest groups in schools, volunteering organizations, and research opportunities. Before you take on responsibilities, look at what you’re already committed to. List your obligations and how many hours they will take per week. Because there is only so much time in the world, everything comes at a cost. While a research position that requires 5 hours a week could be great for your resume, think about what you will have to give up in order to make that work without sacrificing your grades. Are you willing to give up your Saturday mornings in exchange for that? I personally fell into the trap of overcommitting to extracurriculars in college and my grades definitely suffered for it.
  • Learn from those that have come before you. Reddit’s medical school community is a really great resource from upperclassmen and even current residents giving advice about textbooks to use, clinical rotation tips, and even detailed posts about how to match into each specialty. In addition, talk to upperclassmen in your school because each school has its own nuances on how to succeed. I also recommend the book Read This Before Med School by Chase diMarco which summarizes medical education research behind optimizing learning and optimizing your medical school experience.
  • Find ways to keep your motivation up. I like to meditate as a break from studying midday and watch Ben Lionel Scott’s motivational videos on YouTube. I also like Jocko Willink’s podcast. You’ll hear this time and time again, medicine is a marathon, not a race. You want to operate at a pace that will push you to grow, but not to the point of exhaustion.

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