How to Deal with the Challenges of Medical School

My med school class is a crowd of 148 of some of the most brilliant and dedicated people I’ve ever met. Nonetheless, I’ve yet to hear any of my classmates (or myself) discount how tough med school can be. You’re expected to create a working knowledge of all 11 major organ systems, related pharmacology, and microbiology, as well as a cursory knowledge of statistics. And don’t forget clinical skills (motivational interviewing, physical exam, etc.)! Depending on your program you’ll be given 12 to 18 months to assimilate this knowledge and show up and show out for STEP 1, the first part of the United States Medical Licensing Exam. If you’re interested in research, you’re also finding a mentor and spending at least a few hours a month advancing your project, which always ends up taking longer than you think. Add to this workload a few life events–moving, getting married, break-ups, financial stress, a sick cat–and things can get a little overwhelming at times.
One of the biggest challenges of medical school that every med student faces is time management, and so much of your personal and professional success depends on it. STEP 1 is right around the corner for me. This a great time to remind myself of some of the practices that have helped me with balance and time management so far. I hope these tips will give you some ideas for success in your own med school journey.

1. Create a Reasonable Study Schedule.

Planning a 10 hour day in the library–4 hours of which is spent browsing Reddit, Instagram, and Pinterest–is pointless and you’ll leave the library feeling knowledge-poor and frustrated with yourself. Set a reasonable study goal and use what otherwise would have been wasted hours to hit the gym, cook food with friends, practice a hobby, or volunteer. Most med students I know, including myself, study effectively for 4-6 hours in one study session. Taking this into account, you may work best by splitting up your studying. For example, you can study for several hours in the morning or afternoon, depending on your class schedule, then take a break to work out and eat. Then in the evening, you can study for a few more hours before going to bed. You’ll find your study groove, just don’t waste your time with unreasonable expectations.

2. Find the Study Style that Works Best for You.

Learn how you study best and don’t let others distract you from what works. We all learn differently and during the first few months of med school you can explore what works for you, which might look a little different than what worked in undergrad. You’ll find that probably every one of your classmates will be using a different combination of study resources and techniques. Some may lean hard on flashcards, while others will write out long outlines to refer back to. You may find that using board prep resources alongside coursework will be really helpful as they succinctly summarize information. “Resource overload” can be a challenge. There are so many resources available to help you learn the material taught in the first 2 years of med school! It’s best to sample several at the beginning and then choose the best 3-4 resources that work for you to continue with.

3. Fight Imposter Syndrome.

Med school can feel unrewarding sometimes, and getting discouraged can really set you off course. Even if you are working hard, you may fall below average on exams along the way. This happens in med school. It’s normal. Stop yourself from slipping into a vortex of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Doing poorly on an exam in med school doesn’t mean you’ll be a bad physician and it’s not a reason to quit trying. It probably means that you are a very smart and dedicated student, now in a class full of other very smart and dedicated students, which makes it pretty tough to be a superstar in every course. If it is the case that you were underprepared, make changes to be more prepared for the next exam and maybe review material to make sure you’ve mastered the subject. Carry on.

4. Find Your People.

Really though! Having friends in med school will keep you on track and help distract you when you need it most. Med school is much, much more bearable if you have friends who’ll give you a hug on a bad day and share celebratory, post-exam margaritas with you. Try to find your support group early on.

5. Stay Inspired!

The med school grind can take a lot from you. Do things that keep you inspired. Study outdoors, explore your city, or plan trips when you have time off. Shadowing in fields that interest you can also be great way to stay fresh.

Bethany is a second year medical student at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s interested in pediatric infectious diseases or internal medicine and loves singing a capella with the PalPITTations in her free time.