What first and second year medical students can be doing during COVID-19

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: medicallymich.com.

May 20, 2020 |

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on everyone’s plans right now, with many internships, volunteer opportunities and vacations cancelled. What makes this time feel particularly tumultuous for medical students is the confusion about what we can and should be doing. After an adjustment period, many of us now have more free time that can be used in a productive way towards our goals. Here are a few concrete, actionable items you do now from the comfort of your own home.


For all preclinical students:

  • Learn more about specialties you’re interested in and network. Some doctors (depending on their specialty) also have more free time because their clinic is now completed via telemedicine. Fourth years have matched so they’re only preparing for residency now. Now is the perfect time to email upperclassmen or physicians to ask for a time to chat about why they chose their specialty. If you already know what you’re interested in, these chats can serve as a networking opportunity to introduce who you are. You’d be surprised how far name recognition goes to benefit you. Just by demonstrating interest, you open the door to future shadowing and research opportunities.
  • Use this time to develop healthier habits. Habits take a long time to build so this is a great time to experiment before you commit. For example, I always wanted to meal prep once a week instead of cooking only when I felt like it. In my first year, I never found the time to create a set menu to do that and subsequently ended up spending a lot more money than intended. In quarantine, I’ve experimented with recipes that stay fresh even when prepped the week before, which is great info to know. Now is the perfect time to try that thing you’ve been meaning to do, like start exercising, meditation or cooking.
  • Work on a passion project or try a new hobby. The means we use to relieve stress like watching TV or scrolling social media aren’t as therapeutic as we think they may be. Having something to work towards that isn’t related to school can do wonders for your mental health. Ideally, your passion project isn’t something that induces stress, it relieves your stress. I have found bread baking to be very therapeutic at this time and I plan on continuing it during the school year. The hardest part of developing a hobby or a new project is starting. So, if you start now, the barrier to continue doing it throughout the school year will be lower and you’ll stay motivated to keep doing it. If you’re really pragmatic and think non-school related activities are a waste of time, keep in mind that you’ll need something to talk about when residency interviews ask about hobbies.


For incoming students:

  • Get to know the surrounding area. Being comfortable in your environment can do wonders to ease the transition. Figure out if your favorite grocery stores are in the town, which gyms are close to school, and what fun activities you can look forward to during the school year. Once you get to campus and start orientation, it will be a whirlwind of school and socializing. Doing the pragmatic things like setting up a bank account can easily be forgotten until you have a sudden emergency that requires cash. Take care of those things now while you can!
  • Think about what your goals will be. Most medical schools now are pass-fail, which creates a wide range of how much you want to study and how successful you want to be. There’s no reason to spend all your time studying at the sacrifice of making friends, volunteering or doing research. Think about your interest in more competitive specialties, which could change if you study more class materials or board materials. The subreddit r/medicalschool has lots of advice from previous students about all these topics.
  • Analyze what worked for you in college and what didn’t. Medical school is going to have information coming at you way faster than it did in college. Remember how much material you had to know for the MCAT? Well, Step 1 is going to have even more information than that. Your old methods of studying may not work well for medical school so this is a great time to analyze what methods you do use and if other people use those in medical school. In college, I used to religiously read the textbook for all my classes, which worked for me. In medical school, I’ve found that to be way too time-consuming and have had to ditch the method. After listening to Step 1 success stories podcast by Physeo and watching medschoolinsiders on YouTube, I’ve finally found a method that works for me.


For rising second-years:

  • Dabble in boards studying. Depending on your school, you could be anywhere from 6 months to a year out from taking USMLE® Step 1. This is a great time to read reviews about the different boards prep materials out there and experiment. People prefer a wide variety of preclinical materials from textbooks to video lectures. You won’t know what works for you until you try it. Video lecture series like Boards and Beyond have videos posted on their YouTube page to demonstrate the teaching style. Do your research now so you have a game plan for the school year.
  • Review material from last year. Medical schools usually teach material that comes up over and over again as the foundation to first year. We covered anatomy, biochemistry, and microbiology, all of which come up in every pathophysiology block we will cover in the next year. If you can retain this information, every block will become easier because the information will be a reiteration of what you already know.
  • Do something that will help you in the future. By now, you might have a better idea of what you’re interested in doing for residency. If you’re interested in a competitive specialty, research in that field would be a good idea. If you’re interested in helping out the community, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities that have arisen from the pandemic. It definitely looks better to be doing something, however small it may be, than to be doing nothing.

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